December 31, 2012

shoahThe late Simone de Beauvoir, upon seeing Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, remarked that, “Despite all previous knowledge, the ghastly experience remained outside of ourselves. Now, for the first time, we experience it in our heads, hearts, and flesh.”

The ghastly experience is the Holocaust, the systematic destruction of 6 million European Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II. (Shoah is Hebrew for “annihilation.”) The key word in de Beauvoir’s phrase is “flesh.” We may have understood the Holocaust intellectually and emotionally before. But never has it been described as in Shoah, which locates the experience so exactly—in fields, trains, buildings, or flesh.

French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann spent 10 years making Shoah; his film is 9 ½ hours long. The movie contains not a single frame of film ever seen before—not the piles of corpses at concentration camps, not the emaciated survivors, not the speeches by Hitler. It consists entirely of memories—descriptions by camp survivors, Nazi officials, and bystanders.

As these people tell their stories, Lanzmann’s camera often roams across the places where the atrocities happened; especially Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Chelmno—the extermination camps, which existed for the sole purpose of eliminating people, with horrifying efficiency.

Lanzmann sometimes visits the sites with survivors. Here, he reveals his purpose: to construct a film that remembers the Holocaust in concrete detail. He has said, “My aim was to make a topographical, geographic, archaeological work.”

Thus, when he walks through Treblinka (now a brown-green, grassy plain), where thousands of Jews were herded off the trains to the waiting gas chambers, he is inquisitive and exacting: Where were the walls, he asks, where was the ramp? What kind of day was it?

In this way, Lanzmann locks us into the terrible reality of the experience. It is especially hard-hitting because we have just heard the survivors describe the same landscape, in the awful detail of the past.

There are no words to describe the power of these witnesses, except their own. Abraham Bomba survived because of his trade: a barber, he was chosen to cut the victims’ hair immediately before they entered the gas chambers (they were told they were entering a shower for de-lousing). Simon Srebnik was spared because his young singing voice was found pleasing by the Germans; his voice is remembered years later by the local Poles who lived and worked right next to the camps, and who matter-of-factly recall the awful screams that came from inside.

There are the remembrances of Nazi officials (filmed by Lanzmann with a concealed camera in his briefcase), who are bland and unremorseful. In a weird way, some of the most appalling moments in the film come with historian Raul Hilberg’s recounting of the methods of transporting the doomed: on regular German railroads through the bureaucratic channels of the travel department.

The Jews’ confiscated goods were used to pay for their passage to the camps; it was the “self-financing principle,” as Hilberg notes, and they received half-fare prices on the way to their death—the group rate. Rarely has the term “banality of evil” been give such exact incarnation.

From this description, and despite the many examples of courage, it is obvious that Shoah is not an easy film to watch. While previewing it, I sometimes had to look away from the screen, during those unspeakably inhuman passages when you can feel a part of your soul wither. But looking away from the subject is exactly what Lanzmann is trying to fight. He says that if we look away, we forget; and the existence of Shoah makes sure we will not forget.

First published in the Herald, May 1, 1986

The press screening of this movie was like no other: A TV set up in the very old-school lobby of the Harvard Exit theater, and a handful of us sitting there in the afternoon (it must have been two consecutive days—I don’t think they’d do the thing in a single sitting). The film is a remarkable experience, and the longer it goes on the more you realize the brilliance of Lanzmann’s decision to not use archival footage.

Holiday Off

December 24, 2012


Yes, it’s The Christmas Without Eighties Movies. But hundreds of old reviews are posted here, so we’ll rest on that for a few days.

Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling

December 21, 2012

jojodancerRichard Pryor has done a lot of courageous things in his bizarre, brilliant, occasionally out-of-control career. But taking on the duties of director, producer, star and co-screenwriter of a highly autobiographical film must rank as one of Pryor’s gutsiest leaps.

The film is Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, which chronicles the life of a comedian from his boyhood in a bordello, through popularity and personal unhappiness, to a crucial injury in a drug-related fire. All those things are recognizable as real events from Pryor’s life.

The movie begins with the fire. Pryor lets you know right away he’s not just fooling around. After being wheeled into the emergency room, Jo Jo is lying on a hospital bed when his alter ego rises from his body; this alter ego takes us through Jo Jo’s life up to this point, to find out how he could have ended up in such a sorry state.

Little Jo Jo (E’Lon Cox) is raised around prostitutes. Later, his father (Scoey Mitchell) ridicules his aspirations toward show business, but Jo Jo strikes out on his own to a promised stand-up gig in Cleveland.

This sets off by far the most satisfying segment of the film: the young comic struggling with early routines in a divey nightclub, and learning a few showbiz rules. He owes his first job to a stripper named Satin Doll (Paula Kelly); one night, Jo Jo takes her place (and her wig and G-string) and grinds his way through the striptease—it’s a tour-de-force for Pryor.

The film never equals the atmosphere of these scenes. It skips across Jo Jo’s rising fame, but doesn’t really give a sense of his career. Instead, it concentrates on a couple of unhappy marriages (to Barbara Williams and Debbie Allen) and the escalating romance with drugs.

The film’s most shocking moment is saved for the end. The fire, it seems, was not entirely accidental; Jo Jo had doused himself with rum, in a desperate suicide attempt.

Like many details in semi-autobiographical films, this moment raises provocative questions. Is this what Pryor did, in his real-life accident? Or has he altered the event for dramatic purposes?

The queasiness raised by this question permeates the film; you often get the sense of looking directly into a man’s life. Pryor’s nakedness in the strip scene turns out to be both literal and figurative.

I wish all this honesty had produced a better film. Although Pryor is lucky in having John Alonzo as his cinematographer, and the film looks okay, it’s jumpily assembled. It feels as though it went through some serious cutting before release (it originally had a Christmas ’85 slot, but was pulled for tinkering); certainly it’s not long enough to do justice to its ambitious subject.

More fundamental than this, Jo Jo Dancer just seems out of focus. As funny as Pryor is in the movie—and there are plenty of funny bits—there’s simply no sense of perspective. Pryor may be so close to the material that he still hasn’t been able to digest it all. It’s a series of scenes, many of them intriguing, laid out end to end but never quite coming together in a meaningful way.

In fact, it resembles a convoluted stand-up comedy routine, mining the facts of life for material, which Pryor has been doing for a long time. It’s a shame he couldn’t transform his monologues into the triumph this movie might have been.

First published in the Herald, May 3, 1986

There are movies that would never have been made without a star having a particular moment of heat, and this is one of them. It is a disaster, but you can imagine an alternate-reality version of an autobiographical Pryor film that truly unleashes his genius.

Tough Guys

December 20, 2012

toughguysIf you look at the new fall schedule of TV shows, you will see an unmistakable trend emerge: Old people are in.

The impressive popular (and Emmy-winning) success of such series as “The Golden Girls” and “Murder, She Wrote” has been a refreshing contradiction to the theory that all television must be for teenagers, about teenagers, and sometimes seemingly by teenagers. Now network heads are following suit, and a passel of aging character actors are getting new leases on their careers.

Moviemakers, too, are hip to these trends. And so it makes perfect sense that two spry actors, Burt Lancaster (age 72) and Kirk Douglas (age 69), should team up to exploit this sudden fascination with maturity.

Lancaster and Douglas are old teammates anyway, having appeared in seven films together, including the minor-classic film noir I Walk Alone (1947), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and Seven Days in May (1964). Surely no one else could have filled the tailor-made roles in the new film Tough Guys, or established the immediate chemistry between their characters, as well as these two veterans.

At the beginning of the film, they’re getting released from prison after 30 years, for pulling a daring train robbery, the last of its kind. They enter a modern world that is quite alien to them—a world that moves at a faster pace, and one which treats its older citizens in often dehumanizing ways.

They’re also forced to split up, as part of their parole. That doesn’t last long, of course, but Lancaster is put in a retirement home, where the employees humiliate the residents; Douglas lands a room in a seedy hotel and tries to find work in a variety of odd and inappropriate places.

The predictable upshot of all this is that these boys get fed up, and fast, with this new world, and go back to doing what they do best—robbery.

Even with its occasional angry asides about the poor treatment of old people in America, Tough Guys is very much a comedy (directed by Jeff Kanew, of Revenge of the Nerds). It is, in fact, too broad and silly for its own good, and the screenplay by James Cruickshank and James Orr plays as though it were written by committee. Every possible way for Burt and Kirk to put a cute spin on their encounters has been included, and many situations are all too familiar.

Most of the supporting characters are stale, too, with Charles Durning playing the crusty cop who put the tough guys away 30 years ago—and who now finds himself an anachronism, just like them. Eli Wallach does unleash some mad nonsense as a mysterious hit man who insists on stalking Lancaster and Douglas, though they can’t imagine who he is.

It’s not much of a movie, by any means, but the two stars, and the power they carry with them, almost make it worthwhile; sheerly because of their iconographic impact, the film has some very gratifying moments. Douglas gets most of the funny stuff, and he displays as much energy as ever. His innocent saunter into a gay bar, and the realization that the ol’ neighborhood tavern isn’t what it used to be, is priceless.

Lancaster plays it extremely cool, sometimes almost too much so. But he can still breathe the line, “My, you look snazzy,” as no one else could.

And he gets to shut down a truculent Douglas at one point with this bon mot: “Keep it up, and I’ll put another hole in that chin of yours.” Forty years of movies have gone by, waiting for someone to say that to Kirk Douglas. Tough Guys deserves a nod just for gathering a few such moments of grace.

First published in the Herald, October 1986

Not a great movie, for sure. Lancaster died in 1994, Douglas is still with us, and still looking like he could put Sylvester Stallone in a choke hold while biting through Arnold Schwarzenegger’s neck. Dude is tough.

The Journey of Natty Gann

December 19, 2012

journeyofnattyThe folks at Walt Disney Pictures have their fingers crossed: They’re banking on The Journey of Natty Gann to pull the studio out of a costly and humiliating slump.

The last Disney-produced feature to draw decent crowds was Splash; since then, it’s been a series of disasters: Baby… Secret of the Lost Legend, Return to Oz, The Black Cauldron. Those three were all expensive failures.

Natty Gann is a throwback to an old-fashioned adventure tale, featuring a youngster encountering danger, action, and friendship in the course of an extended escapade. It’s also a literal throwback—set in the past, in the depressed 1930s, against a backdrop of out-of-work drifters and disintegrating towns and cities.

A father-daughter team (Ray Wise and Meredith Salenger) are living a frugal life in Chicago when the father suddenly gets a job offer at a lumber mill near Seattle. He has to leave town immediately, and can’t find the daughter, Natty, so he leaves her in care of the landlady (Lainie Kazan) with a promise to send the girl along in a couple of weeks.

The landlady proves less than reliable, and when she makes plans to have the kid carted off to an orphanage, our heroine escapes her clutches by tying some old bedsheets and crawling out the window. Nice touch—what could be more reminiscent of a traditional adventure movie than the old bedsheets-out-the-window trick?

The girl starts hopping freights on her way west, and this accounts for most of the running time of the movie (as well it should); it’s all about the people and places she encounters on the road.

She gets caught in a train wreck, a reform school for orphans, and a cattle-rustling ring. Through it all she is accompanied by her trusty companion, a wolf she befriended (in this, the film gets perhaps a little too Disney).

If the outcome of this journey is never in doubt, it is nevertheless a pleasantly rendered quest. Jeremy Kagan’s direction is heavy on plush landscapes (shot in Canada), and the movie tends to be more pictorial than anything else.

Perhaps it tries to cover too much ground, because few of the experiences that Natty has linger in the mind. Even her most important encounter, with an experienced drifter (John Cusack), is too short on dramatic incident.

The time for that development might well have come out of the final 20 minutes, which are a drawn-out account of the girls’ discovery of her father once she hits Seattle. Jeanne Rosenberg’s screenplay comes close to shamelessness here, as the build-up to the reunion is milked for all it’s worth.

Fifteen-year-old Meredith Salenger, in her first movie role, gives Natty convincing life, and gives every evidence of being a tough little cookie. The film itself is a little softer than its heroine, but it doesn’t go mushy on you.

It ought to raise Disney’s respectability, but Natty Gann is not quite big enough and not quite good enough to break Disney out of its slump single-handed. An “A” for effort, but don’t look for it to be—if you’ll pardon the expression—a runaway hit.

First published in the Herald, October 9, 1985

Not too enthusiastic, although if this movie ever pops into my head, it usually generates a fond feeling. Probably because it has something to do with trains. Rosenberg scripted The Black Stallion not long before this. Jeremy Kagan is sometimes billed as Jeremy Paul Kagan, apparently at random. Unless there are two Kagans, like a whole Paul Thomas Anderson/Paul W.S. Anderson kind of thing.

Just One of the Guys

December 18, 2012

justoneofguysJust One of the Guys is an unsurprisingly limp teen romp that lifts the Tootsie formula and transfers it to high school. This time, the gender-switching involves a girl (Joyce Hyser) who wants desperately to be a journalist. We know she’s serious, because there’s a picture of Hemingway up there on her wall, next to Billy Idol.

A local newspaper annually offers an internship to a prize-winning high-schooler. Our girl’s story about hot-lunch nutrition doesn’t make the final cut, and her disappointment leads her to suspect that the decision-making was a sexist frame-up.

So—and you’ll need considerable willpower to swallow this—she enrolls (how? I ask you) at a rival high school as a boy, and enters the same journalism contest there. The hypothetical laughs ensue when this “boy” becomes attracted to another boy at the school—and becomes the object of desire for a healthy (but eventually confused) girl.

So, the basic laugh-getting situations are stolen outright from Tootsie. The big problem is, a good sex farce is supposed to be funny, and Just One of the Guys is absolutely deadly dull.

Everything is by rote. It’s one of those films in which juicy predicaments are set up—Hyser’s introduction to her new all-boy gym class, for instance—and then left quite undeveloped. Evidently, the situation is supposed to be funny enough in itself. Forget about any attempt at comic invention.

The characters are the usual parade of jocks, geeks, princesses, and trollops. The only intermittently funny stereotypes are two incredibly dorky losers who like to imagine they’re from another planet, and thus communicate with each other in metallic barks and blips. But even this idea is stolen from Sixteen Candles, where it was funnier.

The single well-written character is Hyser’s 15-year-old brother, who craves his first sexual encounter with ferocious single-mindedness. (Presumably, the writers felt some deep kinship with this character.) Unfortunately, the kid is so unimaginatively played by Billy Jacoby that all the comic force dribbles out of him.

Just One of the Guys is the debut feature film of director Lisa Gottlieb, whose short film Murder in the Mist attracted some attention a few years ago. Sad to say, Gottlieb proves here a rather depressing equality-of-the-sexes argument: It’s clear now that a woman can make a teen comedy that’s just as mindless and stupid as anything a man could make.

First published in the Herald, April 1985

The movie played endlessly on pay-cable for years thereafter, for reasons that will not be mysterious to anyone who’s seen it. I watched it again during that period, actually, and I think it’s better made than I gave it credit for—at least the skeleton of a screwball comedy is visible here, and Joyce Hyser has something. Billy Jacoby was the brother of Scott Jacoby, adolescent star of TV-movies in the early 1970s (Billy has been known as Billy Jayne since this time). Early outing for Sherilyn Fenn, too.

Those Glory, Glory Days

December 17, 2012

gloryglorydaysThe glorious event referred to in the title of Those Glory, Glory Days is the victory of the 1961 Tottenham soccer team in the football Final Cup—the first time a soccer team had won the English “double” in this century. (I’m not exactly sure what the “double” is, but it seems to be something very, very big.)

This victory is the central event in the lives of four schoolgirls, who form an exclusive club to follow and worship the ups and downs of the Tottenham Spurs. The season is remembered in flashback by Julia, who in adulthood is a journalist covering her old favorite team.

In the flashback, the young Julia (Zoe Nathenson) gains entry in the secret club when she reveals her football fanaticism in class one day. When the teacher asks her name, Julia claims her name is Danny. “I’ve taken a pseudonym,” she blithely announces, in honor of her all-time favorite Tottenham player, Danny Blanchflower.

This foolish act impresses the other club members (Sara Sugarman, Liz Campion, and Cathy Murphy), and they take Julia/Danny to the football stadium, where the initiate her in a ceremony that includes strapping on a Spurs kneepad and invoking a “God playing football, in a Spurs shirt.”

They follow the team’s successes throughout the season, climaxing in some frenzied attempts to get tickets for the Cup Final game, which has Julia spending a reverential night in the deserted team headquarters.

At the same time, the film charts the marital woes of Julia’s parents, who seems as oblivious to their child’s enthusiasm for sports as she is of their problems.

This little tale is an autobiographical screenplay by Julie Welch, who really is a sportswriter for a London newspaper. Welch went through soccer mania as a child, and she actually bumped into her childhood idol, Blanchflower, many years later (an encounter that forms the framing device for the film).

Welch’s script is directed by Philip Saville, who captures a number of lovely moments, notably the stadium initiation and Julia’s frantic rounding-up of her pals when she thinks she really has got tickets for the Cup Final.

Saville doesn’t quite tease out all the possibilities in the situation. Julia’s night in the team headquarters, full of awards and photos, is not quite the marvelous epiphany it should be, for instance.

But he gets most things right, and he’s certainly done well by his leading lady, Zoe Nathenson. She gives a lively performance as Julia, with her hair all askew and her ungainly eyeglasses held fast with scotch tape. The performance has the kind of clarity that only some child actors seems to be able to give, and it gives the film its steady forward motion.

First published in the Herald, May 8, 1986

Another of the “First Love” series produced by David Puttnam. I like soccer, although I betray my ignorance of the leagues and seasons and all that, which is mystifying.