Friday, March 30, 2007

Ciao Edie

I've been reading and watching a lot about Warhol, Edie Sedgwick and The Factory lately, in preparation for my upcoming "Pop Goes the Sixties" film program, including Warhol's book POPism, the Jean Stein/George Plimpton oral history Edie: An American Biography and documentaries by Ric Burns (Andy Warhol for PBS' "American Masters" series) and Bruce Torbet (who made the ultra-rare 1967 short Superartist, Andy Warhol and whose seminal Factory footage circa 1965-1966 turns up in Ric Burns' doc as well).

But nothing captures the essence of Edie - who died of a drug overdose when she was 28 on November 15, 1971 - like the Ciao Manhattan Tapes, a 7-minute compilation of her thoughts and footage taken from John Palmer and David Weisman's Caio! Manhattan (1972). Made during the last two years of her life, it shows Edie ready to tell her story in a way Warhol was unable to in his experimental films. In 1970, Sedgwick was released from a psychiatric hospital under the live-in care of filmmaker John Palmer, who encourgaed her to record these audio tapes reflecting upon her life story and which enabled Palmer and Weisman to incorporate her actual reality into the film's dramatic arc. Anyway, here it is, so you don't have to plod through the entire loopy Ciao! Manhattan movie. As one YouTube viewer commented, "What a star -she does have a great voice- there's nothing like classy drug addict." Yes, indeed.

The Ciao Manhattan Tapes (6:47)

And here's a spoof of Warhol, The Factory, Nico and the Velvet Underground by Ab Fab-bers Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders in a pseudo-BBC documentary. Paul Morrissey has called this "the most accurate portrait ever made" of the Factory scene.

Andy Warhol Factory Spoof (10:16)

Oh, and here's the trailer for the Sienna Miller biopic Factory Girl, which I haven't seen.

Factory Girl Trailer (2:13)

Thursday, March 29, 2007

If At First You Don't Succeed...

Try 137 Times Again Like John Wayne

John Wayne appeared in 138 films before he won his first and only Oscar in 1970 for True Grit (1969). I know this because I was perusing the First Run Features website and saw that my co-worker Marc Sober correctly answered this trivia question and won a DVD for his encyclopedic film knowledge. Nice work Marc!

Duke's Oscar was what the Academy calls a make-up call for its past negligence. John Wayne was pretty ham-fisted actor who never really sought out challenging roles to strech his talents beyond his predictable play-by-rote roles as a two-fisted macho action man in cookie cutter Westerns and War movies, but he could act - make no mistake about it. If I was gonna give the man an Oscar, it would probably be for his outstanding performance as Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers (1956) or as homo-erotic cattle patriarch Thomas Dunson in Howard Hawks' Red River (1948). But his best ever performance may just have been as Capt. Dooley, the vulnerable, self-doubting pilot whose transport plane and crew get stranded in in frozen wilds of subartic Canada during WWII in William Wellman's neglected oscurity Island in the Sky (not to be confused with the 1960 Donald Duck cartoon of the same title!).

I recently saw the latter picture make its world premiere on Turner Classic Movies when it was a surprise pick by guest programmer David Mamet, the Oscar-winning playwrite and aviation movie fan (who knew?). Reading its description in my TCM "Now Playing" guide, I didn't give it another thought beyond, oh, just another John Wayne pilot movie. he's been in plenty of them, dating back to his Shadow of the Eagle serial days. But I found myself staying up, hooked by this existential tale that had John Wayne and a great supporting cast - including James Arness, Andy Devine, Lloyd Nolan and Hugh Carey, Jr. - battling Mother nature instead of Bad Guys.

Though long unavailable (having been withdrawn from circulation by Wayne's production company, Batjac), Island in the Sky recently surfaced on a Paramount DVD that's loaded with extras. So check it out; I highly recommend it.

Related Links:

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

UNGAWA! The Weismuller Tarzan Movies

Sean Connery fans are fond of saying "There is but one James Bond" when poo-pooing the many Bonds who came after him. Likewise, fans of the countless Tarzan movies often say, "There is but one Tarzan - Johnny Weismuller." (Actually, the Connery-Tarzan connection isn't so far off: according to ERBzine, Sean Connery played a villain in the 1959 film Tarzan's Greatest Adventure and was set to play Tarzan himself in 1961 but instead took the role of James Bond in Dr. No know how that worked out.)

Whatever the merits of all the Tarzan adaptations by all the various actors and studios, most critics agree that the 12 Johnny Weismuller films made at MGM and RKO between 1932 and 1948 represent the Golden Era of moviemaking for Edgar Rice Burroughs' King of the Jungle. (And of that dozen, most fans consider the 6 films made at MGM between 1932 and 1942 to be the real cream of the crop, particularly 1934's Tarzan and His Mate.) Thankfully, Warner Home Movies has released all the Weismuller films on two separate DVD box sets: The Tarzan Collection Starring Johnny Weismuller Volume 1 contains the 6 MGM films while The Tarzan Collection Starring Johnny Weismuller Volume 2 collects the final 6 films made under producer Sol Lewis at RKO.

Tarzan's Triumph of the Will

I'm only weighing in on the matter because I've been watching - nay, obsessing over - these escapist jungle dramas of late. Blame it on Henninger's Tavern impressario Kenny Vieth. On his advice, I checked out RKO's
1943 Johnny Weissmuller film, Tarzan Triumphs, a World War II propaganda masterpiece in which Tarzan the isolationist realizes no man is a jungle island (or Mutia Escarpment) when it comes to the evil machinations of Nazis and the Third Reich. Kenny sold me on it by telling me that even Cheeta the chimpanzee joined in the fight by grabbing a machine gun and mowing down the Jerries (how insane is that?) Actually, everyone in Tarzan's extended family gets in on the act after Boy is kidnapped, prompting Weismuller to declare, "Now Tarzan make war!": Tarzan kills Nazis, Boy kills Nazis, Cheeta kills Nazis and even one of Tarzan's elephants kills a Nazi by catapaulting a Master Racer over the edge of a cliff. (The message here is clear: Nazi's bad, Jungle good).

As Richard Schrieb commented in his excellent review of this film:
The novelty that Tarzan Triumphs offers is that at the time it was made the US was in the midst of World War II – and as a result it comes filled with some rather laughable anti-Nazi propaganda. Interestingly director William Thiele was actually an Austrian expatriate who fled to America from the Nazi regime in the mid-1930s. Perhaps reflective of Thiele’s particularly personal anti-Nazi stance, Tarzan comes to echo the US political position on the War – that of initial non-involvement when the Nazis started invading other countries and only becoming involved when the attack came close to home. It is quite a political film in that much is made of the issue of Tarzan learning the errors of his isolationist ways. To this end Tarzan is bent somewhat out of shape as a character – he initially refuses to become involved in helping the beleaguered people of Palandria after they are invaded by the Nazis (something that one finds hard to believe the Weissmuller Tarzan would do upon any other occasion if it were say White Hunters invading the jungle or enslaving a native tribe), and when he is eventually persuaded to join in does so with a good deal of enthusiastic bloodshed (again something that seems out of character) and the classic cry of “Now Tarzan make war!” There’s lots of caricatured B-movie villainy, including the infamous comic scene where Cheetah [sic] starts chattering on the radio and is assumed to be the Führer by the Nazis on the other end.

"Now Tarzan Make War!"

Maureen O'Sullivan's Jane is noticeably missing from this RKO production, her glamour slot taken over by Princess Zandra of Palandria. Zandra was played by the beautiful Frances Gifford, the younger sister of NFL great Frank Gifford, whose career was wrecked by a horrible automobile accident in 1949. (Though she tried a comeback in the early '50s, her health was so bad she couldn't make it, and she spent quite a lot of time in a mental hospital before dying in 1994 at the age of 73.) Gifford previously earned her acting stripes as Nyoka in the 1941 Republic serial Jungle Girl, another story based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel and the first serial to star a woman (her Jungle Girl co-star Tom Neal went on to star in Edgar Ulmer's low-budget noir classic Detour).

Tarzan Triumphs is a bonafide hoot and made me seek out more Tarzan adventures. But though the Tarzan films are very enjoyable, there is one glaring omission in them that forever dooms them to be nothing more than pure Hollywood escapism. Namely, dark-skinned Africans.

Heart of Whiteness

In the imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Hollywood, the continent is whiter than a Klan rally at Christmas, peopled by "civilized" European colonists, civilized - albeit sometimes treacherous & pagan - Arabs (Tarzan's Desert Mystery), and mythical all-white super races of incredibly fit Amazon women with impeccable shaved-leg hygiene (Tarzan and the Amazons), pale Palandrians (Tarzan Triumphs), and light-skinned Leopard Men who worship the pallid High Priestess Lea - played by Hollywood curio Acquanetta (above left, from Tarzan and the Leopard Woman). Black Africans seem to exist only as an expositional device - usually as sadistic pygmies/bloodthirsty cannibals or expendable safari porters who are the first to be speared by angry natives or mauled by wild animals - to which the white explorers/hunters invariably casually remark, "Poor Devil!", all the while worrying more about whatever precious supplies the Poor Devil was carrying (You could start a drinking game in which you chug a shot every time a black safari member is speared, eaten by crocodiles, clawed by panthers or jettisoned off a hillside; of course, if you really want to get smashed, simply chug-a-lug every time Tarzan shouts "Ungawa!"). Worse still, the otherwise enjoyable Tarzan's New York Adventure (1943) is marred by a blatant racist scene in which an uncredited Mantan Moreland (one of the great African-American comic actors and a regular in the Charlie Chan film series) is seen talking on the phone with Cheeta and exclaiming, "You making fun of me colored boy?"

And even when there are sympathetic Black Africans, they are shown to be subservient to the white characters. Ultimately, the "King" of the Jungle is Tarzan, whose name translates as "white-skin," and who significantly lives apart from the other "savages".

Darkness on the Edge of Town

While many of the racist attitudes in Tarzan reflect their times (a time that also embraced National Socialism's racist theories of "master races"), some of them may have hit closer to home because of Burroughs' roots. According to Wikipedia's entry on Edgar Rice Burroughs:
    Burroughs' opinions, made known mainly through the narrative voice in the stories, do reflect racist and sexist themes widely held in his time. The author is not especially mean-spirited in his attitudes. His heroes do not engage in violence against women or in racially motivated violence. Still, the attitudes of a superior-inferior relationship are plain and occasionally explicit; according to James Loewen's Sundown Towns, this may be a vestige of Burroughs having been from Oak Park, Illinois, a Sundown town (a town that forbids non-whites from living within it).

    I had never heard of the term "Sundown Towns" before. Researching it, I learned that sociologist James Loewen wrote his study after stopping in October 2001 at a convenience store in the small Illinois town of Anna - a name that, as a store clerk confirmed, stands for "Ain't No N****** Allowed." At first he thought Anna was an anomaly, but soon found out that there were over 440 such towns - in Illinois alone! (For a list of possible "Sundown Towns" in Maryland, click here.)

    Repeat As Necessary

    Another laugahable annoyance in the Tarzan series is the reuse of stock footage. I can't keep track of how many times I watched the same scenes of Tarzan fighting crocodiles, rhinos, lions and tigers over and over and over again. Basically, any time Tarzan jumps into a river, you can count on the director cueing up the one stock clip of a croc entering the water and cutting to the same clip of Tarzan battling a spinning mechanical crocodile created by the special effects team. Same with any time a lion or big cat menaces someone. I think it was in the first film that Big Cheeta was killed trying to protect Tarzan from a on-rushing rhino; the same scene was reused, cutting out the Big Cheeta collision clip, with Tarzan now saving Jane in Tarzan and His Mate. And I may have even seen it in Tarzan Finds a Son!, this time Tarzan coming to the rescue of Boy through willing-suspension-of-disbelief editing.

    The MGM Six

    OK, the above reservations aside, following are film by film assessments of the 6 Tarzan MGM films.

    Tarzan the Ape Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1932)
    The first of the Weissmuller Tarzans is considered one of the best, but it's probably my least favorite. Inspired by and borrowing heavily from the stock footage contained in the previous year's Trader Horn, it takes a long time to get off the ground, employs ridiculously hokey rear-screen projection, features way too many scenes of Tarzan battling wild animals (which would be re-used in future films) that bog down the pacing, and is perhaps the most racially insensitive. As Stuart Galbraith IV observed in his review of the film's Political Incorrectness: "Climbing the Mutia Escarpment, one of the pack-bearers loses his footing and falls thousands of feet to his death. Before he even hits bottom, Holt crassly asks, 'What was in that pack?' When the natives begin getting restless, Holt instructs their black foreman, "Well, you've got your whip. Give them something else to think of.'" In other words, D. W. Griffith could easily have directed this one!

    It does, however, establish the framework for the evolving series by introducing the setting - the mysterious Mutia Escarpment - the backstory, the Tarzan theme music, and the cast of characters that will reappear throughout the series (Tarzan, Jane, Cheeta, etc.). But I found Willie "One Take" Van Dyke's direction boring and uninpsired.
    Film Facts in a Nutshell:
    • The character of Cheeta was created for this film. He did not appear in the Edgar Rice Burroughs books. Though a number of chimps of portrayed Cheeta, the longest-running one is still alive and holds the Guinness Book of World Records mark as the world's oldest living (non-human) primate (born April 9, 1932), coming up on his 75th birthday this year (chimps typically live no longer than 50 years in captivity). There's a nice feature about Cheeta on the Special Features disc of Warner Home Video's The Tarzan Collection Starring Johnny Weismuller Volume 1 DVD. Cheeta is cared for by Dan Westfall, at the Cheeta Primate Foundation in Palm Springs. Apparently Cheeta likes to paint, smoke cigars, go for drives and watch the old Tarzan movies on TV; he also used to drink beer, but now is a diabetic who drinks Diet Coke.

    • Tarzan's home turf, the "Mutia Escarpment", was an MGM concoction named after Mutia Omoolu, the African native who played Rencharo the gun-bearer in Trader Horn (1931).

    • The role of Harry Holt was played by Neil Hamilton, who later became famous as Commissioner Gordon on ABC's 1960s TV series Batman.

    • There's no "Me Tarzan. You Jane" line in this or in any of the Weissmuller Tarzan films (it's a myth, just as James Cagney never said "You dirty rat!" in any of his pictures and Ingrid Bergman never said "Play it again, sam" in Casablanca). The actual exchyange is as follows: Tarzan: "Tarzan. Jane. Tarzan. Jane. Tarzan. Jane. Tarzan. Jane. Tarzan. Jane. Tarzan. Jane." Jane: "Oh please, stop!"

    • The birth of UNGAWA!: Whereas Burroughs created a whole ape language for Tarzan, screenwriter Cyril Hume simplified matters via the all-purpose command "Ungawa," which could mean "up," "down," "halt" or "go." Or anything else, for that matter.

    • Jungle Boogie: An unpublished piece called "Voodoo Dance," written by George Richelavie and arranged by Fritz Stahlberg and P. A. Marquandt, was used as the Tarzan theme music. At the conclusion of the film, we also hear a strain from Tchaikovsky's theme from Romeo and Juliet

    • Hollywood & Vine: In addition to the the matte paintings used to represent the Mutia Escarpment, the MGM jungle that Tarzan called home was made up of the Toluca Lake region of North Hollywood, West Hollywood's Sherwood Forest (the same one used in the 1922 Douglas Fairbanks production of Robin Hood), and a faux stage landscape made up of imported tropical fruit trees, plants and other lush vegetation. Not to mention the stock footage filmed in Africa that was lifted from Trader Horn.

    Tarzan and His Mate (Cedric Gibbons, 1934)
    Everyone considers this the best Tarzan film and rightly so: it's got great pacing, non-stop action, lots of yodeling, a nude swimming sequence and Jane sporting the a "scantily-clad" outfit so revealing that it was "retired" after this one celluloid appearance.

    Much has been written about Tarzan and His Mate, but my fingers are tired, so I'll let reviewer Stuart Galbraith IV take over: "If it weren't for all the routine and occasionally lousy Tarzan movies, this film would be regarded as one of the all-time classics, a picture as thrilling and imaginative as King Kong (1933). This DVD release features the complete, pre-release version, which was shorn of about 23 minutes during its theatrical release and subsequent reissues and television showings. If you've never seen this incredible film, and assume all classic Hollywood films are puritanical and tame, you're in for a shock. Set "nearly a year" after the events in Tarzan the Ape Man, the film has Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton again) joining ne'er-do-well Martin Arlington (Paul Cavanaugh) for a second expedition: to retrieve the valuable ivory found at the Elephant's Graveyard, and try to win Jane back from Tarzan and return her to civilization. Things go wrong almost immediately, as two scoundrels in their expedition steal Holt's map and are (very) gruesomely murdered and their bodies mutilated by hostile natives.

    After the success of the previous Tarzan and the colossal returns on RKO's King Kong, MGM accorded Tarzan and His Mate a lavishness unequalled in a Tarzan picture until Hugh Hudson's 1984 Greystoke. The exterior sets are extremely elaborate, and the number of extras and animals used in this film is genuinely staggering. The care paid off: the film is far more atmospheric and more believably African than any other film in the MGM series.

    Better still, it's a perfect blend of tense action and racy, romantic sexuality. Jane's one-shot costume (she was far more demure in subsequent films) is very revealing, and her nude swim with Tarzan is almost poetic. Part of the appeal of all the Weissmuller/O'Sullivan movies is that Tarzan and Jane clearly adore one another and have an obviously active and healthy sex life quite unusual for movies of the 1930s. The climax, in which natives and man-eating lions surround the cast, cornering them against a mountainside, is a remarkable achievement; it's incredibly tense and exciting, now some 70 years after it was made."

    Film Facts in a Nutshell:

    • Cedric Gibbons, who was art director on most of the Tarzan films and is credited with designing the Oscar statuette, was the original director of Tarzan and His Mate but was replaced by Jack Conroy. Still, Gibbons gets his props by having the Gamboni tribe named after him.

    • Jane's Almost Outfit: Tarzan and His Mate was the most risque film of the Tarzan series, reflecting Hollywood's pre-Code sexual candor before the Hays Office got its censorship act together. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jane's skimpy outfit that was "retired" after this 1934 entry. Maureen O'Sullivan's costume was so brief that during a swimming scene, one of her breasts was exposed. This scene was included in an early edit of the film, but it was cut to appease censors.

    • Skinny Dipping: Jane's famous nude swimming sequence (cut out of the film's original release but restored by Ted Turner for the film's 1991 video rerelease) was actually performed by 1932 Olympic gold medal champion Josephine McKim, who knew Weismuller from the 1928 Olympics.

    • He Said, She Said: Tarzan Finds a Mate finds Jane now yodeling her own feminine version of the Tarzan yell. And boy is there a lot of it between the two of them, almost like a jungle parody of a Nelson Eddy-Jeanette McDonald musical.

    • The melody at the end of the film is "My Tender One," written by Dr. William Axt for Eskimo (1933). Awl!

    Tarzan Escapes (Richard Thorpe, 1936)
    Some critics think this is the dud in the Tarzan MGM canon - admittedly, it it had a long, troubled production with 20-90% of the original film completely scrapped and reshot by several different directors and co-star John Buckler (Captain Fry) dying in an auto accident the week it was released - but I couldn't disagree more. Rather, it's the one I would haved entitled Tarzan Emotes. Faced with the prospect of losing Jane, Weismuller gives his finest acting performance of all the films in the series, virtually turning in a jungle version of Hamlet's melancholia ("Alas poor Jane; I knew her") and allowing himself to be captured by anti-Sierra Club white hunters when he thinks Jane doesn't love him anymore. This is Tarzan's existential moment, his mopey Morrisey phase when everyday is like Sunday (gloomy and grey), his UNGAWA! now vocal shorthand for the lyrics of Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows": "If you should ever leave me/Though life would still go on believe me/The world could show nothing to me/So what good would living do me."

    The story concerns Jane's cousins, Rita (Benita Hume) and Eric (William Henry), trying to convince Jane to come back to England because they need her help to inherit a million-pound fortune. This plot would be reused, with minor tweaking in the next film (Tarzan Finds a Son!), when Jane is convinced that Boy should be reunited with his blood relations. As usual, Jane wrong, Tarzan right. When will Jane ever learn to distrust her Westernized notions of propriety and trust Trazan's primal instincts?

    Film Facts in a Nutshell:

    • The original version of this film, entitled The Capture of Tarzan, was shown to preview audiences in 1935 and was heavily criticized for scenes of excessive violence, especially a climax featurng giant vampire bats and friendly pygmies. MGM fired the director and ordered the film re-shot. This resulted in a watered down version meant to appeal to children. MGM got around the delay with the tagline, ""It's New! It's amazing! 2 years to produce!"

    • Baltimore native and Freaks (1932) star Johnny Eck made an uncredited appearance in the original film version as Gooney-Bird, one of the Vampire Bats. But though reviewer Stuart Galbraith IV claims that "About the only thing left from the original film seems to be its a strange, bird-like creature, played by armless wonder Johnny Eck," I never saw this scene in the Warner Home Video DVD release. Apparently, this footage is lost, which is a shame. Below is a still from the original Johnny Eck footage:

    • Tarzan Escapes is the film that introduced Tarzan and Jane's treehouse home, which was modeled after the one in Swiss Family Robinson, and featured an elephant-powered elevator. Later additions would include a Cheeta-operated fan, fire-heated stove and a water pump

    • Remake/Remodel Redux: Stuart Galbraith IV remarks: "While all the Tarzan sequels are guilty of using stock footage, Tarzan Escapes is mind-numbingly filled with reused scenes, from the long trek up the Mutia Escarpment to Tarzan's eye-popping fight with a giant crocodile (from the previous film)."

    • ERBzine notes that the film-ending melody "My Tender One" was "never more appropriate than when the jungle king sees the smoke rising from the tree-house stove and realizes, with tears in his eyes, that his beloved Jane has not abandoned him."

    Tarzan Finds a Son! (Richard Thorpe, 1939)
    This is the film that introduced Johnny Sheffield as Boy and introduced the Lord Greystoke theme that wouldn't be fully explored in film until 1984's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. And it also marked the first attempt to kill off Jane's character. Jane gets speared by the natives at the end of the film and was supposed to die, potentially setting up a free-swinging bachelor Tarzan for some new romantic possibilities in future films, but test audiences hated it and Jane miraculously recovered (through the magic of love) at the end after Tarzan protests, "Jane not go!"

    From Stuart Galbraith IV's review: "Despite a title which suggests MGM sentimentality at its most stickily saccharin, this is a huge improvement over Tarzan Escapes, and full of honest, earned emotion. A plane carrying "Lord Greystoke's favorite nephew" and bound for Capetown crashes atop the Mutia Escarpment, and the only survivor is an infant child, whom Tarzan finds and eventually names Boy. The baby soon grows up to become a precocious five-year-old (and now played by Johnny Sheffield) who makes the jungle his playground. The film abounds in animal action, from some terrific underwater photography (shot in Silver Springs, Florida) of Tarzan, Boy and a baby elephant enjoying a swim, to Boy's ensnarement in a giant spider web and menaced by pizza-sized arachnids. (Spoiler, sort of...) The script was originally written with Jane dying after sacrificing herself to save Boy. This is carefully set-up early in the film as it's paralleled to the death of a mother elephant. Jane's last-second rally in the film's closing seconds rings false. Had the film actually ended as originally intended, it might have been the greatest Tarzan of them all. Even in its compromised form, Jane's last moments with Boy are quite moving, and Tarzan's sorrow at Jane's apparent imminent demise will break your heart"

    Tarzan's Secret Treasure (Richard Thorpe, 1941)
    From Stuart Galbraith IV's review: "This time four scientists (Reginald Owen, Tom Conway, Philip Dorn, and Barry Fitzgerald), searching for the lost Van-usi tribe, learn of a mountainside of gold, and Conway and Dorn hold Jane and Boy hostage demanding Tarzan lead them to the rich vein. An enjoyable film that's more of the same, with new underwater footage (Weissmuller impressively out-swims a fish he wants to eat for dinner), greater emphasis on Cheetah's hijinks (he gets drunk in this one), and more Rube Goldberg contraptions in the family's treehouse. (A refrigerator turns up here, a dishwasher in the next film.) And once again, footage of a charging rhino (about the fifth time we've seen this footage) and the giant crocodile is brought out of storage and worked into the action-crammed plot. In fairness, it should be pointed out that since these pictures were released several years apart, and thus were only foggy memories to casual moviegoers, the use of so much stock scenes is almost forgivable, though it becomes surreal watching them now, one movie after another.

    And despite all the repetition, the film has some good ideas, such as Tarzan and Boy's introduction to the movies via a 16mm projector Fitzgerald has brought along on the safari. Theirs and the naives' sense of wonder at the projected images is something to behold. With his "never again" drunk scene, talk of the Blarney and "seints presarv us" dialogue, Fitzgerald is the Irish stereotype incarnate (all he's missing is a clay pipe and muttonchop whiskers). Nonetheless, he's also sweet as one of the few outsiders Tarzan takes a liking to.

    And, most importantly, Tarzan's understated nobility and love of Jane continues to delight. In one scene he's introduced to a native boy, Tumbo (Cordell Hickman), recently orphaned after his mother contracts a jungle plague. Tarzan speaks to the boy in Swahili (or maybe Tarzanspeak) and their untranslated conversation has enormous poignancy. Later on, Tarzan and Jane enjoy a moonlight swim and reflect on their first meeting, another sweet moment. (By now, Jane's once natural look has unfortunately been replaced with standard Hollywood glamour, complete with permed hair and long, false eyelashes.)"

    Tarzan's New York Adventure (Richard Thorpe, 1942)
    From Stuart Galbraith IV's review: "The last of the MGM Tarzans, and the last to feature Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane, is the only film of the batch that feels like a B-movie. At 72 minutes it's substantially shorter, and the production values aren't much above that of an Abbott and Costello comedy. In this entry, Tarzan, Jane, and Boy are visited by lion-trappers Charles Bickford and Chill Wills, who kidnap Boy to put in their circus. Pilot Paul Kelly is against the idea, and with girlfriend Virginia Grey come to Tarzan and Jane's aide. The film is what the trades would describe as "sheer hokum," but the novelty of Tarzan roaming the big city with Jane in search of Boy is undeniably amusing, and surely escapist fun for its May 1942 audience (no mention is made of the war, despite the Africa setting and trans-Atlantic flight).

    The change of pace setting and emphasis on comedy is easily forgiven, especially with such highlights as Tarzan scaling and diving off the Brooklyn Bridge, wearing his first suit, and hearing a soprano on the radio: "Woman sick!" Tarzan exclaims. "Cry for witch doctor!" Unsurprisingly, Cheetah runs amok in this one, including a funny but politically incorrect telephone conversation he has with janitor Mantan Moreland. Silent screen Tarzan Elmo Lincoln is supposedly in there somewhere, as a circus roustabout, but this reviewer didn't spot him. Bizarre movie connection: The Japanese monster movie Gappa: The Triphibian Monster (1967), which has mother and father giant monsters leaving their jungle home to rescue their kidnapped and exploited son, is practically a remake."

    Suggested Reading:
    David Fury's Kings of the Jungle: An Illustrated Reference To Tarzan on Screen and Television is the best book written on the Tarzan films. An essential tome and reference guide.

    Suggested Online Reading:
    Bill & Sue-On Hillman's ERBzine is the "Official Edgar Rice Burroughs Tribute and Weekly Webzine Site" with over 5,000 pages in its archives. The film reviews are excellent and have tons of great pictures, posters and original lobby cards.

    Related Links:
    Tarzan (Wikipedia)
    Kings of the Jungle

    Wednesday, March 21, 2007

    March of the Librarians

    As I card-carrying librarian, I had to post this "March of the Penguins" spoof I found on YouTube. I was created by Nick Park, who documented the recent migration of those strange birds known as librarians to the mid-Winter American Librarian Association conference in Seattle. I love the cameo appearance by that new breed known as "Hipster Librarians." Who knew?

    Sunday, March 18, 2007

    Brainal Leakage & Suburban Blues

    Following are dead-on reviews of the two most recent movies I saw at the theater. One film was really good (Little Children), one was really bad (300). Both reviews are really accurate.

    First, the good news.

    LITTLE CHILDREN (Todd Fields, 2006, 130 minutes)

    by David Denby (The New Yorker, October 16, 2006)

    Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), the thirtyish heroine of Todd Field’s extraordinary new movie, “Little Children,” dropped out of graduate school to marry an older man—a business consultant—and moved into a neo-Colonial house near Boston that he inherited from his mother. Some years have gone by, and the marriage is not in the best shape: Sarah’s husband communes on the Internet with a friendly person known as Slutty Kay, and Sarah, unwilling to hire any help, feels imprisoned by their three-year-old daughter, whom she (rather negligently) looks after by herself. Sarah is the latest version of the baffled Americans that Betty Friedan wrote about forty years ago in “The Feminine Mystique”—the women supposedly living the American dream. What’s particularly embittering in this case is that Sarah knew all about the trap and still stepped into it. Her face pale with disgust, she sits in a tiny suburban playground with three other young mothers who ruthlessly put down anyone who’s even slightly different from themselves. These three witches—the only element of caricature in the movie—live on a rigidly controlled schedule. But there’s an unaccountable element in their lives: Brad (Patrick Wilson), the good-looking, strongly built young man who makes them all flutter when he shows up at the playground with his little boy. Brad is married to a beautiful filmmaker (Jennifer Connelly) who works for PBS, leaving him at home to take care of the baby and to study for the state bar exam, which he has failed twice. A former golden-boy college jock stranded in adulthood, Brad is decent, not too bright, irresistibly attractive—a man designed for adultery. As the children take their daily nap, Sarah and Brad run to an empty corner of her house. If they leave town together, where will the kids fit in?

    There’s an element of garden-variety suspense in “Little Children,” but sex and possible home-wrecking are only part of what the movie is about. “Little Children” is based on a best-selling 2004 novel by Tom Perrotta, who worked on the adaptation with Todd Field. Together, the men have preserved Perrotta’s tone, which fluctuates between slightly satirical, even mischievous, irony and the most generous sympathy. Perrotta and Field make you see how their characters are weak or screwed up without allowing you to despise them. Moral realists, they know the world does not yield easily to desire. “Little Children” is a sharply intelligent and affecting view of suburban blues—a much bigger canvas than Field’s previous movie, “In the Bedroom” (2001), which was about a placid middle-aged couple thrown into turmoil when their son takes up with an older woman separated from a violent man. Field has grown in ambition, but he still works on an intimate scale. He surrounds his characters with an intense stillness, and then slowly introduces the ungovernable into their lives.

    Handsome Brad, it turns out, is not the only disturber of the peace. A convicted sex offender, Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a polite, childlike fellow, has been released from prison and is living in the neighborhood with his mother. For parents who have moved to the suburbs to protect their children, Ronnie’s presence is an unbearable outrage. Everyone is obsessed with him, especially a troubled ex-cop (Noah Emmerich), who runs around putting up pictures of Ronnie and forming committees to guard against him. After a while, one realizes that Perrotta and Field may be creating a metaphor of life under terrorism. It’s not that Ronnie isn’t a genuine threat, but he causes people to lose all sense. At the least, the filmmakers are hinting that both men and women are projecting their sexual frustrations and fears onto a pervert. What fuses Ronnie’s story and the rest of the movie is the charged suggestion that outright perversion and ordinary unhappiness (sexual indifference, adultery, porn obsession, semi-psychotic rage) belong on the same spectrum of recognizable behavior. Almost everyone in town has a secret, or at least an itch.

    Field works with such fluid grace and perception that the movie goes right to the top of the suburban-anguish genre. The picture is not as aggressively designed or as witty as “American Beauty”; nor is it as malicious as Todd Solondz’s “Happiness.” It’s smarter, tougher, closer to the common life. Field captures, for instance, the way the daily routines of child care—getting a kid into a car seat or a hat, putting him down for a nap—have to be accommodated within the furious passions of adultery. The picture moves swiftly and surely; the separate shots that evoke the town are fitted together with uncanny precision, and Field neatly pulls off a big set piece that another director might have ruined with overemphasis. When Ronnie jumps into the town pool on a very hot day, the parents scream for their children and haul them out of the water, leaving Ronnie, in a mask, alone under the surface. As the police expel the invader, the children riotously jump back in, and the mass hysteria, followed by mass relief, is both sinister and funny—an interruption of summer pleasure that intentionally leaves our sympathy split between the alarmed parents and the sad outcast.

    The sexual awakening of a disappointed wife may seem like an old movie turn, but when has it been done with such candor? At the beginning of the movie, Kate Winslet’s hair looks dead, and she hides her body in denim overalls. Her Sarah is a slightly clumsy woman who has lost her confidence. When she falls in love with Brad, the transformation comes slowly and painfully: at first, a nervous gesture, a smile that turns anxious, and then a golden aureole of beauty, a body in movement. The sex scenes are brief, naked, heated, startling. But Winslet never quite loses the awkwardness and uncertainty that will always be Sarah’s signature. Brad is not a type, either. Patrick Wilson, a stage actor who appeared in the movie version of “Phantom of the Opera,” has a slightly puzzled air: his Brad is pleased by the attention of women, but he doesn’t think much of himself, and Wilson, as a performer, seems quite without vanity. Looking at teen-age boys flying through the air on skateboards, Brad falls into a rapt silence; his longing for lost youth is so defenseless that it’s impossible to dislike him, however irresolute he is as an adult. At first, Sarah and Brad seem prematurely defeated. Yet the filmmakers hold out the possibility of new life stirring under the domestic halter and the intellectual sloth. Adults may not be happier than overgrown children, but at least they have a chance of finding out who they are.

    And now for the bad news.

    300 (Zack Snyder, 2006, 117 minutes)

    by Mark Harris (, March 15, 2007)

    Remember Olestra? You know, the magical fat alternative that was supposed to enhance the greasy mouthfeel of our favorite junk foods and then zip right through us, leaving no trace of anything that would trouble our waistlines or arteries? The stuff that sounded good until all those stories about ''anal leakage'' came out? I just saw 300, Zack Snyder's blood-and-body-oil blockbuster about the battle of Thermopylae, and I think I had an Olestra experience. Not only did the movie immediately exit my mind after I saw it, it practically slid away while I was still watching. I think the reason — other than its belligerent stupidity — was Snyder's decision to use CGI for just about every element of 300 except the actors (for whom it might have done the most good). Oatmeal-colored CGI skies that don't look skylike; CGI hills that don't appear hard to climb; CGI blood that spurts in unconvincing geysers; a dinky CGI thunderstorm that looks like a tempest in an iMac. Nothing in 300 has weight, dimension, or density; every overstylized, joysticky frame has been sprayed with a coat of I Can't Believe It's Not Movie. Warning: May cause brainal leakage.

    Computer technology is not the enemy of art, or of great filmmaking, as anyone who has seen The Lord of the Rings (or even Letters From Iwo Jima) can attest. But CGI is no friend to a director who imagines it will help him achieve a kind of visual perfection that would otherwise be thwarted by the annoying humanness and/or variability of stuff like production designers, extras, weather, changes in the light, physical landscape, and the spur-of-the-moment inspiration that can bring a film to messy, exciting life. It may sound silly to fault a movie like 300 for ''perfectionism,'' considering that the goal on its petite mind is nothing loftier than to reach into the psyches of its fanboy fan base and offer their militaristic and sexual anxieties a well-lubricated man-fondling. And even if 300 had been made the old-fashioned low-tech way, it would have been just as gory and dim-witted. But at least it wouldn't have been sterile, a sad fate for a movie built on testosterone.

    Any director striving to get his movie exactly right has my sympathy — abandon that objective too hastily, and you land in hell, where every screen shows Wild Hogs. But some otherwise good filmmakers are succumbing to the delusion that perfection is actually achievable as long as they control everything themselves, and the result is movies that don't feel perfect — just overcontrolled. The work of David Fincher, the meticulous sadist behind Fight Club and Seven, has usually left me impressed and unmoved; every bruise and dripping wound is rendered with exactitude, and each camera move is choreographed to the millimeter, but the films seem oxygen-deprived, hermetically sealed. His new movie Zodiac is a thrilling leap beyond his earlier work, partly because it dives into a subject very close to the director's heart: the madness- inducing frustration of trying to get something right for years...and still not being able to do it. Zodiac offers the exciting spectacle of a filmmaker leaving his and his audience's comfort zone. And yet, in some ways Fincher, who insisted on 50 takes of some scenes, remains his own worst enemy. There are sequences in which his skilled cast — Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, even the untamably anarchic Robert Downey Jr. — look even more wiped out than they need to. A director who demands 50 takes either doesn't know how to get what he wants or can't open himself to what other people bring to the table; he's too stuck on his own fixed vision to let any air in.

    Fincher isn't alone. I can still remember each follicle of Hugh Jackman's stubble and every shaft of poignant light on Rachel Weisz's sickbed in Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, but his schematically pictorial movie felt as lively as a ship in a bottle, with no unplanned humanity to sully the visuals. Why make a movie about the untidy agony of losing a spouse if you're going to art-direct every emotion in it? And I can't really recall much about Christopher Nolan's The Prestige other than its scene-by-scene flourishes; it's a magic trick that ends by making itself disappear. If the post-human digital environment of George Lucas' last Star Wars films is the model for 300, then the refrigerated, do-it-my-way-or-else solipsism of late-period Stanley Kubrick may be its more ambitious equivalent — the gold standard to which Fincher, Nolan, and Aronofsky aspire. Given their immense talents, I wish they'd pick a different role model. Kubrick's greatness is irrefutable, but movies, and moviegoers, would benefit if a few more of our best directors longed to be Robert Altman or Sidney Lumet, to name just two of the smart, prolific, pessimistic humanists whose movies teem with noisy life, with grace notes that can still surprise you because, once upon a time, they surprised the directors. Film (and digital video) is still a collaborative medium. And when a director's closest collaborator is his computer, who can be surprised when the results feel as forgettable as a game of solitaire?

    Wednesday, March 14, 2007

    Something Weird Videos

    When I'm not watching soccer or tennis on Digital Cable, I'm watching Something Weird Video On Demand. Here's a trailer explaining why:

    Tuesday, March 13, 2007

    300: Gay Racist Fascist War-Porn for the Xbox Generation

    I saw 300 the other night at the Senator Theater and, while I wish the Senator continued capacity crowds for this humongous money-maker (it raked in over $70 million on its opening weekend alone), I hated this film more than a cell-phone chatting, Starbucks-gulping neocon tooling around town in a Hummer with a Bush-Cheney sticker on its bumper. Like Sin City, it is impressive (albeit hollow) CGI-enhanced eye candy for people who see life's rich pageantry in stark black and white and think in the simplistic, empty-sloganeering language of bumper stickers. In other words, it's for Fox News watchers and potential U. S. Army recruits.

    The film was based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, but I say BFD. I've never been a Frank Miller fan (maybe because I've been told I look like him and the self-loathing thing comes into play); I'll take Alan Moore for thought-provoking graphic novels any day. But Moore, admittedly rather cantakerous when it comes to adaptions of his work, would never allow his work to be wooed by the Whore of Babylon, er, Hollywood, like Miller has (understandably so - V for Vendetta was the only decent adaptation of Moore's work to date). The Dark Knight Returns was OK, but the film of Sin City was a waste of hundreds of millions of dollars on something that had no lasting value, all bells and whistles for attention deficit syndrome cineplex viewers. And now this mind-numbing crime against narrative.

    But my words pale next to those found at The Daily Gut (, whose reviews of 300 sum it up best (especially Josh Bell's!):

    If 300, the new battle epic based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside The Eternal Jew as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war." -- Dana Stevens, Slate (very first sentence!)

    "Keeping in mind Slate's Mickey Kaus' Hitler Rule - never compare anything to Hitler - it isn't a stretch to imagine Adolf's boys at a 300 screening, heil-fiving each other throughout and then lining up to see it again." -- Kyle Smith, NY Post

    "It may be worth pointing out that unlike their mostly black and brown foes, the Spartans and their fellow Greeks are white." -- A.O. Scott, NY Times

    "At least in the short run, 300 is something to see, but unless you love violence as much as a Spartan, Quentin Tarantino or a video-game-playing teenage boy, you will not be endlessly fascinated." -- Kenneth Turan, LA Times

    "It really is like a gay fetish movie. There are so many pecs and chests and rips and tears and nipples..." -- David Poland, Movie City News (before pausing to wipe his brow)

    " militaristic and single-minded that it's like a CGI-heavy blockbuster version of Triumph of the Will. It's brutal, it's painful, it's mind-numbing and, most disturbingly, it's a rallying cry for the testosterone-heavy that posits 'no mercy' as the most noble sentiment in the world. The U.S. Army needs to pick this up as a recruiting film, stat." -- Josh Bell, Las Vegas Weekly

    "Five-word review of 300: I got that many boners!" -- Me

    Sunday, March 11, 2007

    Messi Cleans Up

    Barca's Messi-anic Miracle

    As much as I've bitched about Comcast's crimes against humanity in terms of botched installations and billing incompetence, I have to admit I'm glad I upgraded to Digital Cable, if only for one reason. The Sports Package gives me Fox Soccer Channel and GOLTV, which means I got to watch yesterday's classic clash between Barcelona and their bitter rivals Real Madrid.

    As Jack Bell wrote in The International Herald Tribune, "Thisonewastrulysuper. Barcelona and Real Madrid played one of the most exciting and enthralling games in the long and mythical history of the Spanish supercláscio at the Camp Nou, a roiling cauldron for 90 minutes of unrivaled Iberian excitement."

    Big-spending Real Madrid and its Galactico superstars (whose ranks over the years have included Beckham, Ronaldo, Raul, Roberto Carlos, Zidane) have been a major disappointment over the years, and on this day the visiting 4th place White Angels trailed Spanish La Liga co-leaders Barcelona by 5 points. They wanted a win and - despite playing without an injured David Beckham (who strained knee ligaments last week and missed the chance to face Barcelona for the final time before he leaves for the Los Angeles Galaxy in August), Jose Antonio Reyes, Fabio Cannavaro and Roberto Carlos - led every step of the way thanks to Ruud van Nistelrooy's brace and looked likely to pull the upset at Camp Nou after defender Sergio Ramos' header put them up 3-2 in the 72nd minute of the second half.

    But Barcelona - playing without suspended Ludovic Guily and Gianluca Zambrotta and then playing a man down when Oleguer Presas was sent off just before halftime for a clumsy challenge - had an answer in Lionel Messi. The tiny teenaged Argentine star (who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Roman Polanksi) scored a hat trick, including a dramatic last-minute goal in injury time, to salvage a 3-3 draw with Barca's arch-rivals. It was a huge result for Barcelona, coming at the end of week in which both Barcelona and Real were ousted from the first round of the Champions League and averting a second defeat to Real Madrid (who spankedBarca earlier in the season 2-0 at home).

    "This is always a very special game," Coach Frank Rijkaard of Barcelona said after the match. "We had a bit of luck. Certainly this is one of the most intense games in all of football. It's a derby, although the teams are not from the same city. It goes way back historically."

    Watching Messi' brilliance in a game that was a testament to everything "The Beautiful Game" of soccer stands for made me think back to last June and Argentina's loss to Germany in the 2006 World Cup. What was Argentina's idiotic coach Jose Pekerman thinking when he left Messi on the bench in that overtime, penalty-kicks loss to the Germans? Messi showed that he has last-minute magic in his feet. One wonders how far Argentina would have gone in the World Cup if only their coach had believed in magic.

    Watch the Last-Minute GOOOOOOOL!:

    See All of Messi's GOOOOOOLS!:

    See All 6 GOOOOOLS!:


    Thursday, March 01, 2007

    Caffeine Awareness Month

    I Know An Old Man Who Swallowed a Fly...

    I read on Yahoo news today that Marchi s Caffeine Awareness Month, a celebration of America's favorite addiction (90% of us consume it daily and it's the most widely-used drug in the world). The addictive power of one particular caffeine delivery system - coffee - was illustrated this morning when I went in to get my morning wake-up cup of Joe at the corner cafe. I got the last dregs of almost empty pot, just enough to make one cup, but as I was stirring it, I saw what I thought was part(s) of a fly in it. I tried to scoop the insect remains out with my coffee straw stirrer, but wasn't sure I got it (them) all. But instead of tossing the cup and waiting for the coffee shop staff to make another pot, I accepted my fate and obeyed the caffeine code. I drank my morning fix, fly parts and all. That's Caffeine Awareness for you!