Sunday, December 29, 2019

Don't Make a Scene: Waiting for Guffman

The Story: Merch. Shopping this Holiday season, you couldn't get away from it. One wonders if you ever could.

But, I couldn't walk into any store this year without having to navigate through some monolithian display of Funko big-head vinyl dolls with increasingly obscure and arcane origins, yet still maintaining the style that reduced every subject to an expression-less big-black-eyed drone. Some you couldn't even tell apart.

People buy these things. And, if one didn't have enough to dread about the future, one can only imagine that the Pop! figures are going to go the way of LEGO® and start showing up in films, so you can by the merch-based-on-the-movie-based-on-the-merch. Dante couldn't have created a more circular path to Hell.

But, I digress...

This is the coda to Waiting for Guffman, Christopher Guest's film of the preparations for the sesquicentennial celebration of the founding of Blaine, Missouri, complete with parade and a live-theater musical about the town, conceived and directed by Corky St. Clair, artistic director of the city's theater group. The cast puts a lot of hope into the apparent interest of a New York theater impresario named Mort Guffman, who might—just might—be interested enough to take it to New York. But, things do not go as planned, and the film ends with a review of what happened to the play's participants after its performance.

The last segment—interspersed with the credits—is of Corky's post-Blaine activities, moving back to New York and opening a Hollywood-themed memorabilia shop, selling merchandise based on...well, let us say, "unique" productions. I found it hilarious and not entirely inconceivable.

After all, I'm still eyeing that 2001 "Black Monolith" action figure.

The Set-Up: Corky St. Clair (Christopher Guest) shows us around his memorabilia shop. 


CORKY ST. CLAIR: And I suppose that the cake-and-eat-it-too part of this whole story is that another dream of mine has come true, which is that I've gotten to open... 
CORKY: ...this shop... where I have all my show business treasures and all my memorabilia. 
CORKY: This is without a doubt, one of my favorite items. Um, My Dinner With Andre action figures...
CORKY: ...and what you can do, which is so cute, is you can reenact the whole scene. You know, where the two guys talk to each other and say, you know... 
CORKY: "Boy, I'm sure glad you found a good restaurant. "You know, it's so hard these days to get in. Who do you know?" 
CORKY: "Oh, I just called. Made a call. Spur of the moment." "Ha ha! Oh, you, you can always get a reservation." 
CORKY: You know. That's not from the movie, but you can make up your own dialogue, which is one of the great things about action figures. 
CORKY: I'm trying to get... it's very rare... the one... the action figures for Das Boot, 'cause I love to do that whole claustrophobic thing inside the sub where they're, you know, "Das kande, Das mushten...." 
CORKY: That whole German thing. Can't speak German, but it sounds like sort of a bunch of barnyard animals, "muck, muck, muck," making that noise and sweatin'. 
CORKY: Uh, over here, these are my big heads, I call 'em, starting with Anthony Michael Hall, one of the brat packers. 
CORKY: In fact, in the background there, 
CORKY: ...there's Andrew McCarthy
CORKY: Over here, some new lunchboxes we've gotten in, The Remains of the Day lunchbox, 
CORKY: ...and the kids, they're just having such a good time with these, you know. Kids don't like eating lunch at school, but if they're got a Remains of the Day lunchbox, they're a whole lot happier.

Waiting for Guffman

Words by Eugene Levy and Christopher Guest

Pictures by Roberto Schaefer and Christopher Guest

Waiting for Guffman is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on Warner Home Video. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) It's a legendary movie that was a failure upon release. It was the first movie by an Oscar winning populist director, an immigrant to the U.S., after serving as the chief propagandist for the Armed Services during the horrific days of World War II.

The war had changed him. And when Frank Capra started work on a new project, it was a tough sell. But, Capra started a new production company, Liberty Films (with two other director-veterans, George Stevens and William Wyler) and the first project was an adaptation of a self-published short story by Phillip Van Doren Stern, "The Greatest Gift." RKO bought the film rights and after several drafts (by such as Dalton Trumbo, Clifford Odets and Marc Connelly, RKO encouraged Capra to read the short story, and Capra championed it, starting work on a script with a handful of writers—along with the credited husband-wife team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, there were contributions by Michael Wilson, Jo Swerling, and even Dorothy Parker.

It is Christmas Eve in Bedford Falls. The thoughts and prayers there are causing a stir in Heaven and an angel-in-training (Henry Travers), but not—to use Lincoln's phrase—one of the "better angels," is dispatched to help one man, George Bailey (James Stewart) from throwing away his greatest gift—his life. But, what has transpired in that life to reach that point? For fully 99 minutes of the film's 129 minute length, the potential angel Clarence—and we—are given his history. 
George has big dreams, but they are always dashed by circumstance and sacrifice for "the right thing." George is a victim of that old saw "life is what happens while we're busy making other plans." Life, the Depression, the decisions of others, all conspire to make George's life one of desperation, stuck in his hometown at a job he didn't intend...that makes him forget that he has an adoring wife (Donna Reed) and a clutch of kids at home, which might be taken away from him if the prominent banker in town (Lionel Barrymore) makes good on his plot to destroy George and his family's little savings-and-loan, made possible by the banker's theft of its assets.
It's a good life, but not the one George wanted, but he might even lose that, and so on that snowy dark Christmas Eve, he contemplates taking matters into his own hands and taking his own life, before it can be taken from him. For 3/4 of the movie's length, George is put through the grinder, sees all the work and sacrifice gone to naught, and the realization—from the banker's words—that he's worth more dead than alive. In a monetary sense, it may be true, but worth is more than dollars and cents. And with incarceration looming over him, George is only looking at the bottom line. And he's reached it.
What could be worse?

It is only by heavenly intervention that George can be shown the ledger of his life by contrast. Clarence grants him a look into an alternative version of the Universe—one in which he had never been born. And everything has changed—the people he's known, the people he's helped, his families that never knew him and never existed, the city he grew up in, all are a Dark Universe version of what he had known. The big difference is that no one knows him; he was never born. He is shown the significance of his life by the void that is left in its absence. His Christmas gift is the revelation of just how much his life is worth and the difference it has made.
It's a novel way to look at life, not too far different from the fantastical approach The Archers had with A Matter of Life and Death (released at approximately the same time) in dealing with the affairs on Earth—elements of fantasy are mixed with the hammering bluntness of recognizable reality to deal with matters that might be common with the audience. At the same time, Capra uses the flashback technique (ala Citizen Kane) to tell most of his story and compress a life into pertinent highlights, the better to mix and match the contrasting realities and make them as recognizable and significant to the audience as they do to George. We experience his horror to the alternate "Non-George" reality as soon as he does.
The film starts in Heaven, takes us through Purgatory and Hell as surely as "The Divine Comedy," and lands us back to Capra's version of Heaven—a democratized solution to the issues that have, given George's nightmare vision, been reduced in significance. For Bedford Falls, thoughts and prayers are not good enough—little do they know their significance to George—but grassroots actions, good-intentioned, save the day. Money, the root of George's depression, is volunteered, and George's worth is satisfied, both in their actions to his charity, but also in a way that would impress even a banker.

Significantly, the film begins and ends with the ringing of a bell—a call to action and attention. 
The film is a depressive's nightmare, yet it has endured, long past its lackluster run at the box-office, and despite—and probably because of—a slippage into the public domain due to clerical neglect, as a Christmas classic since the 1970's, cheering and warming the hearts of millions for the special film that it is. There isn't much dissension in that, and its message of the worth of one life and its impact can touch anybody.

For example: I had an acquaintance, a quite brilliant writer, who, after battling a long and terrible disease, joined with his family one night, all together, to watch It's a Wonderful Life, and, satisfied, went to bed where he passed away in his sleep. I can't think of It's a Wonderful Life without thinking of him, as little interaction as I had with him, and the two are inextricably linked. That's the significance of one life, how powerful it can be, and how it can influence the lives of others. We are "The Greatest Gift" to the world when we can make it a better place, when we can change it—for the better—and when we can see the individual value of the person, despite the attempt to turn us all into statistics, metrics, hits, followers, samples or net worth.

As baseball announcer Red Barber used to say, God doesn't count the net worth or toys at the end of a life, He counts the scars.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Star Wars, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

"Long Have I Waited" (Yeah, Yeah, You're Not Special)
"Excellent Job, Sir." ("Terrible Job, Sir")

There is no way that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker could live up to expectations. The expectations are parsecs high and one could not/should not think every characters' stories to be satisfactorily tied up to every fan's hopes and dreams. 

Plus, this one has to make up for a lot of dissension with Rian Johnson's Episode VIII: The Last Jedi—which I quite liked—and so rather than have things unfolding in this one, it has to fold-back, providing nostalgia while not exactly advancing things...the way that J. J. Abrams did with The Force Awakens. 

We've been teased—"Dark Rey", Kylo and Rey teaming up (again) and dueling (again), C-3PO "dying," re-purposed Carrie Fisher footage, and the Return of  Emperor Palpatine (Thank badness Ian McDiarmid has good genes), who was killed off six films (or three by regular timeline) ago, and thus negating the triumphal moment of the first (or middle) trilogy.

So, is it "The Skywalker Saga" or "The Emperor Saga"—one was hoping for the former rather than the latter.

One should at least be happy there's no new Death Star—they're happy to re-purpose an old one.

Now, it is going to be very dicey doing a summary of the film so as not to spoil the surprises—and there are jolts throughout, even though the film plays out in what one would think is a logical progression that feels organic enough that one could conclude that this was the intent from the original plot-line devised for The Force Awakens.* 
I am still not used to not hearing the 20th Century Fox Fanfare heralding the film's opening, but then I've seen the new trilogy a lot less than I've seen the old ones. It shouldn't be since the Disney take-over, but it is. But, the first words of the opening crawl does give a certain unease: "The Dead Speak!" With the passing of Carrie Fisher, those words resonate a bit more. Fisher is top-lined (for the first time in the series) and that is entirely appropriate, despite the use of discarded scenes making up the entirety of her performance—reverse shots and stand-in's make the transition a bit more organic. But, there is still a slight disconnect with her scenes, especially in dialog with other actors. Fisher's Leia spouts aphorisms and exposes just how generic lines from "Star Wars" can be.
The film starts out with Kylo Ren, nee Ben Solo (Adam Driver—jeez, he's great in this!) on the hunt for the Emperor, seeing the old Sith as a threat to his status as Supreme Commander of The First Order. First, he has to track down some googah to help him find his location on the planet of Exegol (sounds like a pharmaceutical planet), and once he does, Palpatine makes him an offer he can't refuse—kill Rey (Daisy Ridley—jeez, she's good in this), the waif Source prodigy and become Commander of The Final Order's massive Star Destroyer fleet.
(The logician in me said that 1) it's a bad deal as guys in power don't like to give up their power and 2) where the Hell did they get all those ships?! Who built them, as it would take a Sith-load of supplicants to build them...but then, this is "Star Wars" where there is sound in space, X-wings can make turns and swoop around in space, there can be such a thing as a space-ship that's a bomber, and there are things like light-speed and The gotta get rid of science in these things, which is why I see this as more in the Fantasy/Fairy Tale genre than as science-fiction).
So, where's Rey? Jedi-training with General Leia (Fisher) where she's starting to get a "bad feeling about this"—her "Force-bond" with Kylo interferes with her training, like getting phone-calls from your too-ardent boyfriend who keeps interrupting your homework with calls asking "What are you doin'?" Speaking of ardent boyfriends Finn (John Boyega—jeez, he's good in this), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac—jeez, he's....ditto) and Chewbacca (always good, but he tugs at heart-strings a couple times here) are returning from a spy-mission that has confirmed the Emperor is still alive and his threat is real—they have to do some fancy flying to avoid First Order ships in order to get the information back to Leia (they couldn't have just hidden the information in a droid?).
So, the story revolves around Kylo trying to subvert Rey to the Dark Side, rather than kill her in order to defeat the Emperor (Golly, he really IS his grandfather's kid!), while Rey and the boys try to find a duplicate googah—it's a Sith "wayfinder" that hones in on Sith energy or something—so that the Resistance can find the Emperor and defeat the Phantom Menace (to coin a phrase).
So, that's the plot—which is basically the plot of Episodes IV-VI, one generation once-removed—with the customary serial-formula of a fight or a chase every ten minutes. The first half-hour is editorially compressed into a short-hand of highlights, so that the film-makers can squeeze enough story-line into the movie and keep it under 3 hours, but one has to say that gripes and plot-holes don't appear like a force-ghost in your head until after the movie is over. That means the movie is doing it's job. It's "Star Wars", after all, the thing is supposed to be a crowd-pleaser.
Many of the established characters are given short-shrift—as if serving as convenient plot-points in earlier movies had exhausted their possibilities—except for the ones mentioned. And there are new characters, including a sort-of love-interest for Poe in Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell—jeez, I can't tell if she's good or not!) and a new disposable General for the First Order named Pryde (Richard E. Grant, sneering appropriately), who you just know is going to goeth before The Fall. There is quite an amazing array of others in the movie that you'll hear, but not see, that—for me—was kind of a thrill. C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is given a beefier part and, for once, he has a good reason to be annoying.
The special effects are quite amazing, if cluttered, and there are a variety of planets in various eco-systems, that you might as well just forget because nobody spends much time on them for very long.
And Lando's back. Big plus. Billy Dee Williams is older than Methuselah now, but he has lost none of his charm.

But, then, all the actors are on their "A-game" here—as I've been making a joke of. Everybody does a good job, but some of the interactions between actors are the best-timed I've seen in the series, zipping along like in a Howard Hawks screwball comedy. This is their last shot at this and everybody in front of the camera gives it their all, especially in scenes that must have been conceptually hard to play. Brava!
So, yes, take the "fan-service" talk with a grain of salt—there has always been a bit of it where "Star Wars" is concerned, starting with The Empire Strikes Back. It's a bit like criticizing a duck because it floats. You can...but why? I would've liked to have see a little more about the democratizing of The Force (ala The Last Jedi), although there's a variant of it here (that might have been convenient in earlier episodes...!), but it gets the writers out of several jams, so...amazing thing, that "Force," midi-chlorians or no.
So "fan-service," yeah. But, with this closer, it does bring to mind what Lucas envisioned for the last trilogy, where the victorious Rebels lose their way allowing for a new Empire to spring up in a circular variation of the Episode I -III trilogy. And as in the line attributed to Mark Twain "history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." That rhyming becomes more than apparent in The Rise of Skywalker, paralleling what has come before in a manner of playing out.
That feels real. And is sure as the setting of twin suns.

* One could think that, but the fact is they were making it up as they went along—Ben Kenobi wasn't supposed to die in A New Hope (that was revised during shooting), most of Return of the Jedi was recycled from original New Hope treatments. These are stories, not reality. People make them up.

Don't Make a Scene: A Christmas Story

The Story: Alas, poor Flick. Victim of the "triple-dog-dare" and a folk-tale of freezing weather.

The story of the tongue-on-the-flag-pole challenge was one of the many tales spun by Jean Shepherd on New York radio station WOR—specifically "Flick's Tongue" broadcast on April 6, 1966 and made its way into his book "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash" from which most of A Christmas Story originates.

Not a success when it was released, it achieved cult status and is now a Christmas perennial, like that other Christmas movie that did marginal box office It's a Wonderful Life.

I've been wanting to do this scene for a year, planning it for this Christmas, after doing a post on the film itself last year.

What struck me while doing the breakdown is just how creepy Ralphie and Schwartz are about keeping their guilt unknown. Of course, it's charming in children, but the same sort of behavior in adults is deplorable...unless, of course, you're a politician where it's natural.

It's a taste of situational ethics for the Holiday Season from one of the great story-tellers.

After all, what's Christmas without a Shepherd?

The Set-Up: It's just before Christmas—that time when children must be on their best behavior or they must suffer something worse than the fiery furnaces of Hell—no presents. But, kids are little grown-up's; they will always get themselves in trouble. They just have to figure out how to play the angles so they don't get the blame. So, it is with Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and his pal, Schwartz (R.D. Robb). Alas, poor Flick (Scott Schwartz).



Recess. In the drifted dirty snow, kids stand in little clots.
Skies are darker than in the earlier scenes. We sense a blizzard on the way. The steady BANGING of a lanyard on the flagpole in the cold north wind provides a sinister ringing tempo to the scene.

CAMERA PANS DOWN to the pole TO PICK UP the kids. The conversation from the morning continues.

FLICK You're full of beans and so's your old man.
SCHWARTZ Says who?
FLICK Says me.
SCHWARTZ Well, I double-dare you.
NARRATOR The exact exchange and nuance... 
NARRATOR ...of phrase in this ritual is very important.
FLICK Are you kidding?  Stick my tongue to that stupid pole? That's dumb.
SCHWARTZ That's 'cause you know it will stick!
FLICK You're full of it.
SCHWARTZ Oh, yeah?
SCHWARTZ Well, I double dog-dare you!
An audible gasp from the other kids.
NARRATOR Now it was serious. A double dog-...
NARRATOR ...dare. What else was... 
NARRATOR ...left but a "triple-dare you"? 
NARRATOR And finally...
NARRATOR ...the coup de grace of all dares - 
NARRATOR - the sinister triple dog-dare!
SCHWARTZ I triple dog-dare you!
Flick flinches.
They watch the great showdown.
NARRATOR Schwartz created a slight breach of etiquette by skipping... 
NARRATOR ...the triple-dare and... 
NARRATOR ...going right for the throat. 
FLICK All right, all right.
SCHWARTZ Go on, ya smart ass, and do it!
FLICK I'm going!
NARRATOR Flick's spine stiffened, his lips curled in a defiant sneer. 
NARRATOR There was no going back now.
CLOSEUP - RALPHIE wonderment
He stands a few inches from the pole, staring it down. He turns and gives the guys one last bravado look.
He smirks, but a little less comfortably.
FLICK This is nothing.
He laughs a bravado little laugh, turns, and with utter disdain thrusts his tongue to full extension and plugs it forward onto the flagpole.
It sticks, freezes solid as a popsicle.
FLICK Stuck?
Flick mumbles in panic and tries to pull free. He doesn't try this for long. It smarts.
FLICK Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!
CLOSEUP - SCHWARTZ His smirk turns to astonishment.

SCHWARTZ Jeez! It really works!
They stare dumbfounded. Flick grunts an inchoate cry for help.
SCHWARTZ Look at him!
Schwartz and Ralphie, now vaguely aware of impending official doom, back off.
Suddenly the BELL RINGS. 
Ralphie and Schwartz look at the school and then back at Flick. The BELL RINGS like a shriek out of hell. That's it. Ralphie and Schwartz are off like a shot.
FLICK: Ralphie, come back! 
FLICK Come back! Don't leave me! Come back!
RALPHIE But the bell rang!
SCHWARTZ What are we going to do?
RALPHIE I don't know! The bell rang!
NARRATOR In Indiana, when the school bell rang, you went. Neither sleet nor snow nor frozen tongues stayed your headlong flight to your desk. Flick's predicament was no exception.
And as the wind rises and the lanyard BANGS with a steady drumming beat, the playground is emptied except for a tiny huddled figure frozen to the flagpole.

slide into their desks and play dumb. Over their shoulders, away across the schoolyard, they see the hapless Flick. Ralphie and Schwartz collectively wince. We now have an empty seat halfway in the back row. 
Miss Shields radar begins to warm up. She knows something is wrong.
MISS SHIELDS Where's Flick?
Conspicuous silence.
MISS SHIELDS Has anyone seen Flick?
Conspiratorial silence. 
NARRATOR Flick? Flick who?
MISS SHIELDS He was at recess, wasn't he?
MISS SHIELDS you know where Flick is?
MISS SHIELDS I SAID...has anyone seen Flick?
Finally one little girl beckons to Miss Shields.
MISS SHIELDS Yes, Esther Jane?
The little girl points hurriedly to the playground.
Miss Shields looks out at the playground. 
She sees the figure. She walks to the window, looking closer.
At this point, twenty-two children stampede toward the window, gawking out. 
Only two innocents remain uninterested. Ralphie and Schwartz sit unconcernedly looking nonchalantly at the ceiling. You could never tell they were involved.
Miss Shields flies from the room.
LOOKING PAST the kids out to the playground. Ambulances and two fire engines are just removing Flick from the pole. We hear the steady keening of sirens.
Ralphie and Schwartz turn and look at one another with doom in their faces.
KID: Holy cow, it's the fire department!
RALPHIE Oh, no...
KID: Wow, it's the cops!

with bandaged tongue being led back into the classroom. 
He doesn't say a word, looking straight ahead as he moves to his seat and sits down. 
But Miss Shields looks directly at Ralphie and Schwartz. 
Has Flick squealed?

MISS SHIELDS Now, I know that some of you put Flick up to this. 
MISS SHIELDS But, he has refused to say who. 
MISS SHIELDS But those who did it know their blame.
MISS SHIELDS And I'm sure... 
MISS SHIELDS ...the guilt you feel...
MISS SHIELDS far worse than any punishment you might receive. 
MISS SHIELDS Now, don't you feel terrible? 
MISS SHIELDS Don't you feel remorse... 

MISS SHIELDS ...for what you have done?
MISS SHIELDS That's all I'm going to say about poor Flick. 
NARRATOR Adults love to say things like that. But kids know better.
NARRATOR We knew darn well it was always better not to get caught.

A Christmas Story

Words by Jean Shepherd, Bob Clark, and Leigh Brown

Pictures by Reginald H. Morris and Bob Clark

A Christmas Story is available on DVD and Blu-Ray ubiquitously from Warner Home Video and for 25 hours on WTBS every Christmas.