Sir Carol Reed directs Anthony Quinn as another lusty earthy scene-devouring hero in an archetypal seriocomic 1970 cinematic obscura about Native American relations and revolution on a New Mexico reservation. With Claude Rains (as a character named Lobo!) and Tony Bill as Reel Hollywood Indians who drink a lot and a fantastic unavailable theme by Kenny Rogers and Marvin Hamlisch. This was Carol Reed’s last film, the follow-up to his Best Picture winning OLIVER! (1969) and turned out instead to be his SKIDOO minus Otto Preminger’s outrageous style, except for a quasi-hallucination in a whorehouse and a scene where Flap examines a pal’s gashed genitalia and pours firewater on the wound. Now on Warner Archive. So be grateful.
Archive for DVD
This 17 million dollar adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s fast-paced post-nuclear holocaust adventure novel was expected to be a big hit for 20th Century Fox in 1977 and cost almost twice the amount of the other more bizarre space opera that the studio had contemplated shutting down the previous year. When STAR WARS broke the bank, Fox put DAMNATION ALLEY (briefly re-titling it SURVIVAL RUN) on the shelf for a year to re-edit scenes and add an apocalyptic glow to the skies among other spfx band-aids. Upon release, the film’s publicity centered on two things: the massive “Landmaster” — a 12 wheel armageddon RV designed by Dean Jeffries; and the sonic sensation of SOUND 360, another version of the Sensurround system that rumbled through theaters during the disaster movie era. Still, in the wake of George Lucas’s opus, DAMNATION ALLEY received poor reviews and was later double-billed with Ralph Bakshi’s much cooler WIZARDS for a nifty dystopic double-bill. Zelazny was unhappy with the changes made to his perfectly realized SF pulp novel, altering the plot and notably removing the focus from the Snake Plisskenesque anti-hero, Hell Tanner, to a ragtag team who encounter a series of nuclear tainted threats from redneck mutants to giant scorpions.
Directed in standard 70’s big screen television style by Jack Smight (HARPER, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, and AIRPORT 75), DAMNATION ALLEY lacks a strong central POV or understanding of the genre. I don’t think there’s one memorable image. The film was heavily edited so it’s not fair to lay all the fault upon the director; the episodic script doesn’t drive the narrative as opposed to Zelazny’s race-against-time plot. The cast does what they’re asked without compensatory characterization. George Peppard plays the stoic military leader with a shaky Texas accent and Jan Michael Vincent is motorcyclist Hell Tanner, congenial and gorgeous (for a dude). Dominique Sanda plays the beautiful female survivor and Jackie Earle Haley is the ragamuffin orphan. Poor Paul Winfield gets eaten by cockroaches. Out of the actors, Haley registers the most, low key and likable. There’s little for the players to do but react to the myriad catastrophes minus the occasional respite for post-nuclear reflection; the only scenes with any emotional resonance are the opening where the military watches the nuclear war with clinical dispassion and when the characters play dusty slot machines in a deserted casino as the sounds of Vegas rise on the soundtrack. Speaking of, Jerry Goldsmith provides a grand score.
All could be forgiven if DAMNATION ALLEY at least delivered in the special effects department. It’s revealing that a 17 million dollar budget could not provide even a minute of visual awe compared to the 7 million dollars spent on the non-stop wonders of STAR WARS. And for a film of this expense to rely on stock footage of ICBM missiles in lieu of a creative solution within the first few minutes shows the difference between a vision and a committee. The giant scorpions that Tanner cycles through were originally motorized puppets (see lobby card) but were optically replaced by actual insects, a cheap effect that Bert I. Gordon did more convincingly the same year in EMPIRE OF THE ANTS and that Willis O’Brien did magnificently in THE BLACK SCORPION 20 years earlier. The major spfx added in post-production were the psychedelic skies (using lasers) that would look dandy if not so awkwardly placed behind the actors and landscape. Even a sudden flash tsunami in Detroit (?) that submerges the Landmaster can’t compare to Toho’s meticulous 1960’s miniatures.
The film’s chaotic editing is matched by the abrupt climax that feels as if the third act was simply tossed. The wonderful people over at Shout! Factory have announced an anamorphic DVD/Blu-Ray with extra features that should shed light on studio intention and excised footage (some of which turned up in the TV version). While ultimately unsatisfying as apocalyptic adventure, DAMNATION ALLEY belongs to that last gasp of dystopic studio fare before STAR WARS gave audiences a new hope.
We’re interrupting the usual rant to bring you a “Forgotten Films” Special Streaming Edition courtesy of your friends at Netflix and MGMHD. As of this moment you can “Watch Instantly” dozens of cult or curio films unavailable on VHS, Laser or DVD. Some of these can be had on generational bootlegs (thank Gawd) but through some movie miracle via a slew of MGM and Paramount owned titles, you can viddy such MIA rarities as HARRY IN YOUR POCKET (1973); THE FINAL OPTION (1983); BOBBI JO AND THE OUTLAW (1976); A CHILD IS WAITING (1964); FAST BREAK (1978); SHOUT AT THE DEVIL (1974); VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET (1960); LORD JIM (1965); THE EVICTORS (1976); FITZWILLY (1967); among more I’ll be listing here. The prints are generally terrific remasters, as in the case of PUSSYCAT, PUSSYCAT, I LOVE YOU (1970), while others aren’t even wide-screen, but they’re tight-clean. You should watch them while they’re available. It’s been a film treat to Ludovico myself to the ol’ Instant Queue since the selections are literally overwhelming. So Let’s Get DOWN:
CULT OF THE DAMNED (1969) – Originally released as the more apropos ANGEL, ANGEL, DOWN WE GO, the title was changed after the prescient plot reflected the horrific Manson murders. I’ve always wanted to see this American International Pictures rarity, the spiritual sequel to Robert Thom’s nihilistic anti-youth, WILD IN THE STREETS (1968), a big hit that allowed him the chance to write/direct his own film. And man, you ain’t seen nothing until you see what might be AIP’s most avant-garde feature after THE TRIP (1966). Starring folksinger Holly Near as Tara Steele, the tart, cherubic scion of a fucked-up wealthy family, under the thumb of her dominating mother, Astrid, outrageously played by Jennifer Jones. Then there’s Jordan Christopher in the proto-Christopher Jones role as the improbably named rock guru, Bogart Peter Stuyvesant; lacking smoldering charisma, he comes off more like Dick Shawn playing Jim Morrison. Roddy McDowall pops in to steal his scenes as the very gay groupie, Santoro, and gets to spit out Thomisms like “God..Is…American!” Lou Rawls is in there as well for some reason since he does no singing. Thom’s script and direction is something to behold, filled with pop psychology and Bergmanesque symbolism, capped by an astounding scene with Holly Near scarfing down food in an orgy of abasement. Any movie with Jennifer Jones saying, “I never faked an orgasm” and skydiving as death trip metaphor must not only be seen, but experienced.
LEO THE LAST (1970) – We all remember this award-winning United Artists’ John Boorman film starring Marcello Mastroianni…You know, about a privileged monarch resting at his family’s mansion and becoming shocked by the impoverished black neighbors whilst his advisors plot a counter-revolution…What do you mean you’ve never ever heard of LEO THE LAST? Well, you’re in for a fascinating adventure – this is Boorman’s strangest, most experimental movie (which is saying a lot) written by him and William Star, beautifully shot by Peter Suschitsky. Any film that contains long, lingering verite-style shots of Marcelo Mastroianni’s telescopic view of his deprived neighbors going about their surreal business is ripe for rescue from the vaults. This is 70’s major studio fringe cinema at its nadir, swathed in social commentary and maxiumum metaphor, featuring one of the great leading actors of the decade. And the fact that Boorman won Best Director at Cannes for LEO THE LAST shows how much the cinematic landscape has changed.
THE SWINGER (1965) – A rarely-screened, incredible, ridiculous effort from George Sidney, the director of BYE, BYE, BIRDIE (1963), whose camera eye practically qualifies for visual harassment against Ann Margaret. This is almost like a living trashy 50’s pulp novel ill-fit into the groovy 60’s with its risque tale of a writer who pretends to be a sexual adventurer to serialize her work in “Girl-lure” magazine. Sleazy editor Tony Franciosa falls in love of course and attempts to steer her straight while the sleazier publisher attempts to comically assault her. The sexual politics are neanderthal, and worse, the most risque scene is her writhing on a beatnik club floor in gallons of paint. This must be the most brain-dead film Ann Margaret ever made, but it’s also the height of her Tiger Grrl persona porn (next to KITTEN WITH A WHIP) and she changes wild outfits at practically every cut. In an attempt to cash in on the campy “Batman” series mania, a new opening and ending was added with Ann Margaret go-going at dutch angles replete with sound effects balloons — POW!
INSERTS (1974) – Another famous X-Rated film starring Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper in her stunning debut as stag movie makers in early 1930’s Hollywood. You mean you haven’t…Well, it was briefly available on VHS, and finally released uncut on a bare bones DVD last year. Written and directed by John Byrum (THE RAZOR’S EDGE (1984), shot on a low-budget, one set in London, INSERTS could probably work as a daring stage play; yet this is another prime example of the kind of movie Hollywood would never make nor distribute today, the X-Rated Studio Film. Dreyfuss stars as a burned-out boy wonder director reduced to shooting stag reels for a wannabe big shot producer, played by a thin, youthful Bob Hoskins. Veronica Cartwright plays the junkie actress who’s seen better days when she was a recognizable extra in silents, and Stephen Davies is the dumb stud with big dreams of breaking out. Hard to believe this was also Jessica Harper’s debut as Hoskin’s excitable gal pal. Harder to believe are the graphic sex scenes that would get the film an NC-17 today. Cartwright is a revelation in a sexy, brave, wounded performance that should have garnered her a Best Supporting Actress nom; Harper is no slouch herself in a less defined role. Of course it’s Richard Dreyfuss’s show all the way (one year before JAWS), and his descent into brash obscurity is an actor’s dream part, yet I’m less impressed with his literary reasons for withdrawing from the movie mugs of Holly and Wood Land – though Lord knows I understand. Nonetheless, INSERTS is required viewing for film students and scholars of the decade.
HURRY SUNDOWN (1966) – Otto Preminger does the Deep South. John Philip Law and Faye Dunaway in a love shack. Law told me that Preminger knocked their heads together when they kissed to force them into passion. Dunaway bought out her contract with Otto so she would not have to appear in SKIDOO. Meanwhile, racist judge Burgess Meredith rants against a “syphillitic nigger” and proud farmer Robert Hooks ain’t gonna take it from The Man. Jim Backus kills as a liberal lawyer versus corrupt slicker Robert Reed. For good measure, Jane Fonda suckles on Michael Caine’s saxophone and he paws her breast. Nuff said, y’all hear?
DIRTY O’ NEIL: THE LOVE LIFE OF A COP (1974) – The sub-title isn’t listed on the print but that’s how it’s advertised on the poster and exciting trailer that piqued my interest since I’d never even heard of this AIP release co-directed by Leon Capetanos and Lewis Teague (!). Starring the amiable Morgan Paul as a Vietnam vet turned local police officer, he narrates a variety of tonally uneven adventures, primarily sexual, with the only narrative thread being the three thugs who taunt him and end up assaulting a girlfriend among their other acts of random violence. Then he shows this sleepy corrupt town what a Dirty O’Neil can do with a pistol and a bulldozer. Even by AIP standards, this film is sloppy, albeit sleazy, and probably why it had such a limited shelf-life. I imagine Teague was learning his directorial chops that would serve him better in ALLIGATOR (1980) and the nature of the co-director bill remained elusive until I learned that he was replaced by Capetanos for unknown reasons. DIRTY O’NEIL would make a great streaming double-bill with the equally unavailable-on-DVD, LITTLE CIGARS (1973). For drive-in AIP completists like me, this is still worth a view along with a few beers and a pizza, followed by a shower.
GAILY, GAILY (1969) – I’ve wanted to see this off-the-radar film ever since I noted the Henry Mancini LP always tucked within the soundtrack section of record stores through the years. Directed by Norman Jewison hot off his success with THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (1966) and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), this big budget United Artists picture starring Beau Bridges and Brian Keith was based — oh so loosely — on the autobiography by Ben Hecht, famous cynical Chicago journalist and Hollywood screenwriter. Produced by Hal Ashby, this lavish production shot through the rough lens of the New Cinema is a strange egg, and it’s easy to see why the soundtrack is more available than the film. Which immediately loses its street credibility by turning Jewish Ben Hecht into WASP “Ben Harvey” — an overanxious youth with a penchant for lust, writing and innocence, who displays not an iota of Hecht’s world-weary wit. He escapes his confining small-town life for the big city newspaper world, ending up a mascot of a brothel favored by politicos, and confronts the forces of greed and venality with a Candide-like attitude that never fits the character. Bridges was being groomed for stardom and sadly, he was ill-served by the screenplay, which reduces him to an almost mental cretin in some scenes. Brian Keith fares better as the hard-drinking reporter who takes Bridges under his crooked wing, and Margot Kidder makes her debut as the prostitute with a heart of…you know. Jewison’s direction is uneven, bouncing from hand-held nuevelle vague cuts to glossy big-studio slapstick machinations. “He’s jammed up with his juices!” shouts the boy’s crusty grandmother in another attempt at risque controversy; as in many films of this era straddling the old and new cinema, the tone is always inconsistent, thus unlikely to satisfy a blue-haired Radio City Music Hall audience or the revolutionary cinephiles of Bleecker Street. While GAILY, GAILY is but a footnote to a fascinating period, I’m glad to finally view this forgotten epic made at a time when the whole world was jammed up with the juices of movie-love.
ZANDY’S BRIDE (1974) – The year’s biggest box-office phenomenon was this quiet, “dirty western” of which Gene Hackman might be the king. Okay, nobody saw this film and I only learned of its existence two days ago (!). From possibly the most disturbing western ever made, THE HUNTING PARTY (1971) (which Pauline Kael termed “loathsome”) to the frivolity of BITE THE BULLET (1975) to the revisionist UNFORGIVEN (1991), Hackman specialized in a cold, calculating, bully and he’s in fine form here as a quiet farmer who orders a spinster mail bride played by Liv Ullman. Treating her as child-bearin’ property, he wastes no time in raping her the first night and then the Taming Of The Brute begins in earnest. Ullman is very good as is the whole cast, especially Susan Tyrell as the one pining for Hackman, and it’s nice to see Harry Dean Stanton as a more enlightened cowboy here who advises Ullman, “Just cross your legs until you get what you want.” Directed with uber-70’s low-key style by Jan Troell, he captures the grime and conformity of the period as well as the cruel, casual sexism. I was grateful the film wasn’t out to depress me with western sadism, and though Ullman’s attempt to civilize Hackman are questionable under the circumstances, his own enlightenment is handled with subtlty and satisfaction. Sadly, this is not in its proper Panavision ratio though its intimate scope fits the Netflix screen.
THE KEEP (1983) – This unique Michael Mann supernatural horror epic was severely cut by Paramount, reducing the story’s coherency to nil and keeping audiences from entering the narrative. Basically the tale of Nazis versus a monstrous force in the Transylvania Alps, the book’s author, Paul Wilson, was confused that Mann refused to identify the vampiric origins of the creature, Molasar, among other things: “He did not build character. He did not tell a coherent story. When I read the script, I wrote to him and I pointed out all of this to him in a very gentle, non ego trampling way, I thought. But he ignored me, and when I did make a visit to the set, he was very cool. I don’t know if he felt threatened, or what, but he wanted no input at all from anyone. It was to be a Michael Mann picture.” And a Mann picture it is, whose style you either like or do not (I’m more in the latter camp) with lingering shots of steely atmospheres and the electronic throb of Tangerine Dream, which gives this period piece an odd sonic flavor the same way as their score for LEGEND. The story is indeed truncated to obliqueness, despite good performances by Jurgon Pronchow and Gabriel Byrne, strange ones by Scott Glenn, whose mystic character is not even named, and Ian McKellan, who sounds as if he’s from Brooklyn by way of the Thames. Still, there is stunning production design, old-school giant expressionist sets and nifty make-up in Molasar, the awesome red and blue creature that was not well-reviewed. His mist-cloaked introduction is like a modern Cocteau image in Technicolor, one of the most unique scenes in genre history. Wally Veevers did the effective effects, and sadly died in mid-production; the film is dedicated to him. It’s no surprise THE KEEP has attained cult status and hopefully there’ll be an official release of the three-hour version — for now, Netflix has an excellent widescreen print to exhume.
CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER (1978) – Joan Micklin Silver’s cult adaptation of Ann Beattie’s novel is a bittersweet, humorous look at the dissolution of a troubled love affair, starring John Heard and Mary-Beth Hurt in career highlight performances. This movie will sting you with its honesty and naturalism, and Silver’s ambitious script capture Beattie’s wry literary style. Produced with loving care by Mark Metcalf (“Neidermyer”)’ Griffin Dunne; and Amy Robinson, it’s a pleasure to hear terrific actors, including Metcalf, Dunne, Peter Reigert (in full Jamie Gillis fro-mode), Kenneth McMillan, and Gloria Grahame speaking witty, insightful dialogue. McMillan has a lovely scene dancing in a hospital that defines what the 70’s Cinema was all about. John Heard has never been seen as much as he should onscreen, and he’s excellent as the overtly-obsessed boyfriend who can’t give up on his love. The character is almost a stalker, but the story never confronts this issue, although he has enough insight to understand when he’s crossing lines. Mary Beth Hurt is funny, revealing and they make a watchable pair. The film was initially released with the lame title, HEAD OVER HEELS, then re-titled and re-edited with a less happy ending. It’s great to see this resonant piece that favors truth over exploitation. Silver’s other rare film, HESTER STREET is also available on streaming, but MIA is my favorite of her ouvre, BETWEEN THE LINES (1976), about a Boston underground newspaper.
GORP (1980) -AIP’s last theatrical release is a MEATBALLS/ANIMAL HOUSE clone, with the minor interesting cultural difference being that the action takes place in the Catskills between the young residents of a Jewish resort (“Gorp” is trail mix). The film is fascinatingly incompetent and manages to miscast Dennis Quaid, fresh off the lovely BREAKING AWAY (1979), as one of the worst “wacky military psychos” in comedy history. Michael Lembeck and Fran Drescher add to the stoic merriment while future Salkind SANTA CLAUS David Huddleston is the beleagured head of Camp Oskemo. The wacky hijinks are the usual cut-rate gags involving sex, food and toilets minus actual wit or humor. The requisite glassy nerd character is particularly appalling, as is the whole motley crew. Joseph Ruben shows no skill in setting up any kind of joke or scene, and the editing is so half-hazard as to be incomprehensible. The best thing (sic) about GORP outside its scarcity and unexplained title is the scene where the camp watches a screening of I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, bringing the awesome exploitation legacy of Samuel Arkoff and American International Pictures full circle…
THE HAPPY ENDING (1970) – I’ve been wanting to see this Richard Brooks rarity for a long time that nonetheless garnered Jean Simmons (his wife) a deserved Best Actress nomination and some critical brickbats. Brooks is an interesting writer/director, a tougher Stanley Kramer who navigated the censorious studio system with his own high-minded pursuit of Truth, from the explosive THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955) that unleashed the first rock n’ roll credits to the controversial ELMER GANTRY (1959) to the 1960’s literary bloat of LORD JIM (1965) to the verite stylings of IN COLD BLOOD (1967). Not surprisingly, his biggest hit was a Western and the most personally thematic of his films, THE PROFESSIONALS (1966). THE HAPPY ENDING fits perfectly with the period’s cultural malaise and self-loathing, a scathing attack on marriage that pounds most points with the subtlety of a jackhammer: it’s not enough to show a roomful of women sweating on exercise machines, “God Bless America” must be played over the scene for maximum obvious irony; an anniversary party is just a cover for suburban excess, addiction and debauchery, replete with Nanette Fabray holding a tray of pills and Dick Shawn ogling under a woman’s dress; Robert aka “Bobby” Darin shows up as a pathetic Bahamas hustler amid too many references to CASABLANCA. Of course, Simmons wants the classic storybook romance, yet she’s trapped by the conformity of her life with bland John Forsythe; while Brooks aims for a liberated filial manifesto, the women are so stupefied by men and marriage that they all seem like “zombies” as Tina Louise calls herself. Shirley Jones (very sexy here) plays a serial adulterer whose world-weary cynicism is supposed to pass for world-weary wisdom. Brooks presents the wife’s awakening with fragmented timeline and Michael Legrand montages, plus his patented cinematic histrionics, all gorgeously shot by Conrad Hall. THE HAPPY ENDING was certainly ahead of its time, the prologue to 70’s feminist films such as DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE (1970), AN UNMARRIED WOMAN (1977) and proto-feminist films like Brook’s own LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977). A worthy entry in cinema obscura with a startlingly apropos final scene.
“These are exciting times, aren’t they? Gas is over a dollar a gallon and it’s okay to be an asshole.”
So sayeth Martin Mull in the opening scene of SERIAL, one of those transitional films of the late 70’s/early 80’s that slipped into the repetitious cable maw of HBO, ensuring at least one generation was exposed to its mellow charms. Based on a comic 1977 novel by Cyra McFadden called “The Serial: A Year In The Life Of Marin County” that originated in a Marin alternative newspaper, the film version was penned by Rich Eustis and Michael Elias (who later created the Howard Hesseman show, “Head Of The Class”). The story is a broad macrocosmic (and macrobiotic) jab at the Bay Area hot-tub Esalen Montessori Me decade at its tail end, detailing the lives and lovers of an affluent fringe society who have little economic problems so channel their energies into hyper-self-examination, unlimited personal freedom and expansive neurosis. Along with time for swinging orgies.
Martin Mull received one of his rare lead roles, the result of his fame from MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN and his cult classic 1977-78 show, FERNWOOD 2NIGHT, which was a pith-perfect parody of late-night talk show banality, introducing many of us to Fred Willard’s clueless sidekick. Mull had an established career as a smug and ironic comedian replete with popular records, and in SERIAL his Harvey Holyroyd acts as the smart-ass audience surrogate, verbally challenging every facet of the Marin laid-back lifestyle. His wife Kate (the always awesome Tuesday Weld) is more open to new experiences as is their daughter who calls her dad by his first name. Harvey’s circle of friends is almost Altman-esque, including Sally Kellerman in a funny role as the most susceptible to pop psycho-proselytizing female of the group. Bill Macy plays his middle-age crazy friend who ends up a victim of the culture and Peter Bonerz is the “let it all hang out” coked-out psychoanalyst to Holyroyd’s no-bullshit son. Tommy Smothers pops up as a flaky new-age priest who has some hilarious non-committal wedding vows – “I now pronounce you pair-bonded for as long as your relationship continues.” My favorite bit of casting is Sir Christopher Lee as Mull’s tough guy boss (sporting a faux-Texas drawl) who turns out to be more than meets the eye in one of the film’s best scenes. Lee had been a hit on “Saturday Night Live” and that allowed him to truly break free of his horror typecasting with roles in AIRPORT ’77; 1941 and this. There are funny bits from all the supporting players. SERIAL also contains what I believe is the first STAR TREK cultural reference in a motion picture.
Director Bill Persky was a well-known TV producer/writer/actor and SERIAL remains his only theatrical credit. The film doesn’t have much a style and some of the ADR is fairly distracting (along with an awful TV-level theme song) but the film recalls the low-key satirical tone of Paul Mazursky, who actually wrote the final word on the 70’s Me Decade in 1969 with BOB, CAROL, TED & ALICE. The main difference is that Mazursky has more gentle empathy for his subjects while the script here slams home the shallow hypocrisy of the group with excess superiority. Frankly, Holroyd is kind of a condescending square, even after his first and only orgy (ah, the 70’s…). He does “let it all hang out” and hooks up with the sexy Stacey Nelkin as an archetypal free spirit of the era, i.e., Will Make It With You Without Hangups, Man. He later leads an impromptu rescue of his daughter from a group of Moonie-type cultists, a subplot that TV’s brilliant “Soap” handled with more wit and drama. But minus Sir Lee on chopper.
Probably the film’s biggest drawback is the Marin characters are primarily caricatures while Holroyd is presented as the only sane man in a world gone narcissistic, when in fact he’s bland and disengaged (even though Mull plays him just right). Tuesday Weld is more interesting and she gets one of the film’s best shock lines. Despite the wonky tone, Persky keeps the rhythm flowing with some wonderful scenes, such as Kellerman inviting her black maid into a liberated rap session; the class/racial sub-text is smartly addressed and parodied. Robert Altman certainly could have done wonders with a sprawling story like this.
In the end, I appreciate SERIAL as one of the last of its kind, a 70’s film aimed at adults in a transitional cultural period. It’s clearly a harbinger of the 80’s Just Do It decade, and the mocking of personal spiritual expression is symptomatic of the Reagan era. After Harvey Holyroyd and family flee the self-help cocoon of Marin, he would likely end up a Yuppie (or in Martin Mull’s “History Of White People” HBO specials). Contrary to some reports, SERIAL was a modest hit and remains a favorite for those with nostalgia for late night cable, valium, cocaine, unprotected sex and naked jacuzzi parties…
After decades of cult obscurity, Robert Altman’s 1970 film version of Doran William Cannon’s script, BREWSTER MCCLOUD, finally hits DVD in a proper anamorphic version, albeit under the blessed Warner Brother’s Archive banner. Cannon’s script was legendary in the late 60’s and it helped get him a lot of attention. Originally written for Austin Pendleton, Altman was angered that Pendleton turned down the role of Radar O’ Reilly to do CATCH-22 (1970) and instead cast Bud Cort. Bill Cannon told me he was unhappy with Altman’s version, especially after changing the locale from New York to Houston: “He turned it into a circus.” It’s certainly one of Altman’s strangest films and coming on the heels of MASH the same year, would reflect his disparate critical and commercial output over the next four decades. It’s good to finally see BREWSTER MCCLOUD hit the wide-screen proper (although it was released in letter-box laserdisc in the 90’s) and for Altman/cult film completists, it’s a must have. Or at least a must watch.
From the surreal to the stupid…After the record-breaking success of NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) kick-started the SNL-raunch comedy genre, the derivative rip-offs began to flood or trickle into drive-ins and theaters across the nation. From the cult ROCK N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979) to the amusing HOLLYWOOD KNIGHTS (1980) to the revolting KING FRAT (1979), audiences had to endure or guffaw through the archetypal story of some young misfits who defy academic authority and fight for their right to party. Lacking the National Lampoon/Second City genuine wit of ANIMAL HOUSE, most of these films were as ephemeral as a food fight, but as a sub-cultural entity they still hold some nostalgic interest. Of all the potential competitors, only MAD Magazine stood the chance of breaking the genre’s already established cliches. Since MAD was my satirical bible as a child, I was anxious to see how a movie could be strung together of the magazine’s disparate jabs at pop and consumer culture. How would they bring Sergio Aragone’s tiny margins or Al Jaffee’s wacky inventions to the silver screen? Well, they made it easy and didn’t bother (at least Jack Davis Rickard did the poster art). Instead, Warner Brothers demanded an ANIMAL HOUSE-style story and thus TV writers Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett who wrote many funny episodes of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (and created ALF) reluctantly wrote the script to studio specs with unsurprising results, perhaps more extreme than expected.
The most interesting thing outside the movie’s source material is that it was directed by New York filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., the first underground director to break aboveground in 1970 with the advertising satire hit, PUTNEY SWOPE. Downey never had another commercial success and it’s clear a Hollywood career wasn’t much of an interest to him. Which makes his stint at the helm of a raunchy teen comedy more fascinating and worthy of inspection, if albeit briefly. I saw UP THE ACADEMY at the Roseville Tower Theater on a double-bill with the no-shit superior THE BLUES BROTHERS (ironic given the ANIMAL HOUSE folks involved); I recall running up and down the aisles mixing with my friends as we were wont to do in those days of behind the theater flasks and pipes. Eventually I settled in to watch the movie, which turned out to be as mediocre as I kinda expected but with some moments that registered in my mind forever.
The credits are actually quite charming, a series of toy wooden soldiers domino-ing in slow motion to the somewhat catchy theme “Kicking Up A Fuss” by Blow-Up (the offbeat, excellent soundtrack also features Blondie, Lou Reed, The Kinks, Iggy Pop, Pat Benatar, Jonathan Richman and Cheap Trick). We get our first look at Alfred E. Neuman overseeing the action (mask designed by Rick Baker) and he’s always been kind of a creepy Booji Boy to me, even moreso on film. The character introductions are in rapid labored order, each revealing the origin of their fuck-up status and eventual banishment to Weinberg Military Academy. Ralph Macchio in his debut plays a Mafia scion; Wendell Brown is the good boy with a pregnant girlfriend whose anti-abortion dad insists she get an abortion; Hutch Parker plays the African-American stereotype who macks on his step-moms; and Tommy Citera as the common thief son of an Arabian Prince. They are later joined by Harry Teinowitz as “Rodney Ververgaert” in one of the most obnoxious character intros in film comedy history. And yes, Robert Downey Jr. makes a cameo as a young soccer player.
Our uncharismatic heroes soon bond in the rebellion against the tyranny of the cruel Major Vaughn Liceman, assayed by Ron Leibman, who brings along a cold wind — and an Iggy Pop theme — whenever he enters the room. Although Leibman did indeed famously remove his name from the film after an early screening (so what did the script look like?) he’s easily the best and funniest thing about UP THE ACADEMY. He’s a terrific, underrated actor and he takes the role seriously enough to manifest a real comedic creation here. Even Vincent Canby singled him out in his New York Times review: “Ron Leibman IS ”Up the Academy.” He’s the maniacally evil heart and scroungy soul of this wayward lampoon of a comedy…” His repeated command to “Say it again!” is the most memorable sound bite from the film next to his unexpected “Tickle yo’ ass with a featha?” seduction line to the female soldiers from Butch Academy at a dance ball. Perhaps Leibman wondered what he got himself involved in by the end when he has to wear a pink nightie and feign whipping sexy Stacey Nelkin. Still, he’s magnetic in the role and if there’s any reason for a cult around the film, it’s due to Ron Leibman. Say it again!
Since Robert Downey Sr. was known as a primarily satiric director, the comedy veers from the almost funny to the staggeringly dumb, particularly the jaw-dropping shot of the Arabian youth bowing to cans of oil — the image that my 12 year old brain found most offensive or brilliant. There are some amusing, if obvious bits from Tom Poston as a swishing dance instructor and Barbara Bach’s scene as a sexy weapons expert is one of the better gags. Despite the fact that ANIMAL HOUSE was pegged as a “gross out” comedy, its humor was not as visceral as its rip-offs; there were no fart jokes nor grotesque stereotypes. UP THE ACADEMY doesn’t have any of the nudity or sexual situations of the John Landis classic but it does have a literal turd in a punchbowl. My favorite comedy moment is The Land Mines, a 1950’s doo-wop sweater clad group, as they perform their anachronistic high-pitched song to a fleeing auditorium, with only Major Liceman as their sole appreciative audience. But even this bit is marred by the joke going on and on, replete with stock footage of buildings collapsing. The funniest thing about the scene might be this IMDB review:
“…then there is, I am 100% serious, a two-frame stop-motion sequence of A WOMAN’S SHOES COMING OFF. You read that correctly — the music was so bad, in one frame, the woman’s feet have shoes on. In the very next, the shoes are off!!! Get it, because the music was so bad, her shoes came off! What the F????”
The film ends with the proper humiliation of Major Liceman and the return home of our military heroes. The final scene has to be seen to be believed, with the replaying of the last shot as Leibman yells “Show it again!” over and over. Then we get our scary Alfred E. Neuman shrugging under a cartoon word balloon. Suffice to say, the film was a box-office under-performer and the resultant embarrassment signified the end of a series of MAD Magazine spin-offs, for which we can only be grateful. Naturally, the most critical barbs would come from fans of the periodical that trained a generation how to mistrust mass culture. Legend has it that William Gaines paid Warner $30,000 to remove ALL references to MAD and Alfred E. Neuman from the film for video/cable release (reinstated for DVD). The magazine also had the rare chance to parody themselves:
And that’s about all I have to say about UP THE ACADEMY except that it was fun to revisit it years later and still feel that memory tingle of wild youth as we ran from the alley through the lobby and up the stairs, the suburban chant of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” echoing through the cavernous Tower Theater, transmitting and reflecting the sense of abandon and rebellion that were the primary functions of these teensploitation epics. What, me worry?
Between AIP’s THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN AND THEIR VOYAGE TO THE WATERS OF THE GREAT SEA SERPENT (1957); DR. STRANGELOVE OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1963); OH DAD, POOR DAD, MOMMA’S HUNG YOU IN THE CLOSET AND I’M FEELING SO SAD (1966) and THE EFFECTS OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS (1972), the film that holds its own in the longest title ever sweepstakes might be WHO IS HARRY KELLERMAN AND WHY IS HE SAYING THOSE TERRIBLE THINGS ABOUT ME? from 1971. In William Froug’s essential book of interviews, “The Screenwriter Looks At The Screenwriter” Nunnally Johnson (THE THREE FACES OF EVE; THE DIRTY DOZEN) says, “I don’t care how good a movie is, if it has a title like WIHKAWIHSTTTAM? I know that fellow is not a secure man who wrote that.”
Well, he has one point but playwright Herb Gardner (A THOUSAND CLOWNS) probably did not consider his jangled script “secure” when he wrote and co-produced this rarely-seen or screened 1971 Cinema Center Films release, a late lamented production company from CBS in the heyday of New Cinema. Stylishly helmed by the unique stage director, Ulu Grosbard, the very theatrical writing of Gardner combined with Grosbard’s obvious love for actors makes this a very New York Off-Broadway movie. I’m enamored of its crisp early 70’s look, featuring sleek penthouse production design by Harry Horner and well-shot by the one of the best City Grit chroniclers, Victor J. Kemper (THE HOSPITAL; DOG DAY AFTERNOON). Along with the cool credits, there are vivid, memorable character moments among an elliptical, distant, languid film that received scant praise upon release and another fallen through the reels of time. Until now.
The story is classic 8 1/2 cinematic metaphoric, dealing with the suicidal breakdown of songwriting superstar George Soloway and his hunt for one “Harry Kellerman,” an invisible foe causing havoc in his personal life, sending Soloway on a fantasia through his past and future with his psychiatrist Dr. Moses (Jack Warden) as guide. We watch George go from cynical hit-maker louging in a Manhattan skyscraper and back to idealistic troubador strumming on the “E” train. Ulu Grosbard is an intelligent director who lets scenes breathe, possibly to the detriment of a certain rhythm here, but that could also be due to the stagey dialogue (“I was 18 and knew how to live forever”) that favors repetition for effect and pop quips for depth. I find the ending too easy and oblique, but hey, it was the 70’s, man.
WIHKAWIHSTTTAM? is more sedate than you might imagine given the subject matter and my main critique is that Soloway doesn’t represent an actual cultural persona or attitude. He writes army marches, protest songs and ad jingles yet is somehow seen as a “man of the people.” Gardner has deliberately or unintentionally fudged any real pop or rock sensibility with a broad theatricality that probably worked against the film’s success. The songs by Shel Silverstein aren’t all that memorable and the scene where Soloway comes up to jam with Dr. Hook in concert (prior to an actual Grateful Dead show) doesn’t have any emotional verisimilitude. We never bond with Soloway since he’s such an abstract construct. As Nunnally Johnson said, “I would have found some reason for the audience to be concerned…to have some feeling about this man.”
Actually, WIHKAWIHSTTTAM? resembles and plays like ANNIE HALL minus Woody Allen’s witty satirical observations. Still, it’s a minor tour-de-force for the versatile Dustin Hoffman, one of my favorite actors, and while I never quite believe the character of Georgie Soloway, I believe in Hoffman’s whimsical portrayal. He’s always a pleasure to watch, particularly in a role that most people don’t even know exists. Fortunately, his next film with Grosbard, the superior STRAIGHT TIME (1978), might be Hoffman’s best onscreen performance.
Even better, Grosbard and Hoffman are generous with the supporting cast, allowing the pixie powerhouse Barbara Harris to fully steal the movie as an anxious actress auditioning for a Soloway show on her 34th birthday. Dismissed as old fashioned, she ponders aloud her stagebound life and Where Did The Time Go? It’s a poignant paen to actors who willingly sacrifice to the machineries of time; Hoffman gives great silent support and Grosbard frames the shots around Harris’s heartbreaking face and performance — that ironically gave her a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
Among the others, Jack Warden is terrific as Dr. Moses and his Ray Charles lip-sync is the funniest moment of the film. Dom DeLuise plays Soloway’s sleepy accountant, who must answer if he thinks of George as a friend or just a business. It’s nice to see DeLuise and Hoffman work together and you’re reminded how subtle an actor can be given the right role and direction. Also memorable is Soloway’s 5 am visit to his dying father’s restaurant. David Burns is excellent as the pragmatic business owner who feels cheated out of time. Since the paperback script edition is dedicated “To Pop,” there’s no doubt this is indeed a gentle tribute. These empathetic key-hole speeches are Herb Gardner at his best and quiet, thoughtful scenes like this are what make WIHKAWIHSATTTAM? worthy of a visit along with a proper DVD release. UPDATE: Speaking of the “machineries of time” the film has finally arrived on DVD in a bare-bones but proper widescreen transfer.