FILM: Late Summer Movies

The Lone Ranger

Reviews ◆ by Lucy Morrel

◗ White House Down

From director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day), White House Down is a summer action flick revolving around the hostile takeover of the White House and is not to be confused with the earlier released Olympus Has Fallen, which has a similar premise. White House Down is basically an imitation Die Hard with more patriotism and higher stakes. Channing Tatum embraces the average, just-doing-his-best action hero role, as John Cale, like John McClain before him, struggles to save his estranged family member (in Cale’s case, his eleven-year-old daughter Emily), who’s been taken hostage. He takes some punches and manages to kill a reasonable amount of men (as far as these movies go) all the while acting as the good ole American underdog, who’s not highly educated but is entirely competent and extremely dogged. Channing Tatum, like Bruce Willis, is easy to root for.

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White House Down

The parallels between the two films, however, go deeper than their leading men. There exists a similar inside/outside dynamic with miscommunication or mistrust often resulting in problematic attempts at rescue or attack. In White House Down, different agencies and political players like the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) and the Vice President (Michael Murphy) debate and vie for control of the situation, although it is mainly secret service agent, Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who communicates and guides Cale through the White House. The goal here being, not so much to save the hostages, but to protect the idealistic and affable President, played with surprising humor by Jamie Foxx. Refreshingly, this President seems to understand his responsibilities to the world and doesn’t just hand out his nuclear codes at the first sign of trouble.

With a couple of predictable betrayers joining their ranks, most of the terrorists never stray far from the expected, and some are even laughably suspicious “bad guys.” Their actions seem certain to end in nuclear war, yet unsurprisingly Cale manages to disarm, kill, and uncover the last of the villains during an eight-minute countdown to total destruction. For the moviegoer, though, it takes all of the last twenty minutes, and the characters even get to stop for some quick hugs. For all the intense buildup and fighting, the final confrontation with the last accomplice seems like the conclusion to an episode of Scooby Doo; one almost expects the accomplice to shake his fist and curse the “darn kids!” for not letting him get away with it.

The movie is fun and the characters likeable, but it suffers from having been done better before. Nonetheless, it embraces American culture, giving the audience patriotic, if a little too familiar, amusement for the summer months.

◗ The Lone Ranger

In Disney’s reboot of The Lone Ranger, John Reid (Armie Hammer), an uncompromising and idealistic lawyer, returns to his hometown, and in the process of trying to capture outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), is shot along with all of the other Texas Rangers, including his more capable and brawny brother Dan (John Badge Dale). John alone returns from death to administer justice with the help of Tonto (Johnny Depp) and a Native American spirit horse. John is, unfortunately, a principled dunce, able to rattle off some John Locke but unequipped for life as a lawman on the Texas frontier. While this makes for the occasional comedic moment, his transformation into a skilled gunslinger at the end is unbelievable, making all of the jokes throughout about John being “the wrong brother” ring sadly true. In the end, John just has to shoot the men desperately trying to kill him rather than try to take them to trial, and lucky for him, he doesn’t even have to learn how to shoot or fight at all because there is Native American spirit walker magic flowing through him. So all he really does in a two and a half hour movie is go from morally upright gentlemen to morally upright, but slightly less law-abiding, ranger.

At least Tonto is committed to frontier-style justice, but as an idiosyncratic character who defies understanding and has questionable sanity, he might as well be the wild west version of Captain Jack Sparrow. Johnny Depp is fun to watch, but a Native American actor could have done just as well and help make up for the one-dimensional portrayal of actual Native Americans. Victimized and certain of their demise, the Comanche are slaughtered in droves, with their very deaths providing for a convenient escape and plot point. The film seems to highlight the fall of the “noble savage” with even the elderly Tonto relegated to a sideshow diorama, but it doesn’t give American Indians any agency or their culture any validity. It capitalizes on a whole history of real problems and sorrows to give a couple of reflective minutes more punch.

From "The Lone Ranger"

Tonto & Friend

Overall, the film spends most of its time just throwing together all of the elements of a classic western, including the threat of Native Americans, the railroad and its expansion, silver mining, the traditional settler woman, saloons and prostitutes, and gunfights between outlaws and lawmen. There are a couple of nods to John Ford, but most of the elements seem flung in cavalierly, incorporated every which way into the plot, and punctuated by unnecessary anachronisms. It has moments of humor, but it is like the less successful, hodge-podge cousin of director Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean films.

◗ Pacific Rim

In Pacific Rim’s not-so-distant future, giant alien monsters called Kaigu emerge from a portal under the Pacific Ocean and wreak havoc on coastal cities. The governments of the world respond by making huge fighting robots called Jaegers, which two drivers operate through a mind-melding process known as drifting. Bipedal and scantily armed for the circumstances, the Jaegers are like boxers thrown into semi-aquatic bear fights, and yet are somehow capable of inflicting more damage than any arsenal of traditionally available weapons and vehicles. The Jaegers tend to win, mostly because the fights lack consistent logic.

When the jaegers do begin to fail, the international governments quickly abandon that project (and any remaining common sense) in favor of building an idiotic wall on the coasts that touch the Pacific Ocean. Clearly, a good premise won out against good judgment in this fun, but flawed movie.

The movie does deliver some exciting fight scenes with the Kaigu, which resemble Godzilla and marine animal hybrids. Director Guillermo Del Toro brings the same level of creativity to the Kaigu, as he traditionally has for his creatures in movies like Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy. Unfortunately, not everything in the movie is equally creative; the dialogue is trite, and no more so than in the fight scenes when (despite effectively sharing a brain with his co-pilot) protagonist Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) shouts such unnecessary platitudes as “we can do this together!” and “hang in there!”

It may be easy to find faults with the film, but it is also hard not to enjoy it. As every relationship and scene attempts to be fraught with emotional intensity, the movie can come across as melodramatic, but sometimes even the most over-the-top elements pay off. Two oddball scientists, played by the easily distraught Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, bicker and interact with an equally eccentric black market dealer played by Ron Perlman, producing some of the funniest scenes of the whole movie. This movie is not perfect, but it has gems of good humor and fun, predictable and otherwise.

◗ Red 2

With director Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) taking over the Red series, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) attempts to settle down with girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), but soon a former Cold War-era assignment forces him to join up with old friends and emerge once again from his restive retirement. This movie hopes to capitalize on the same successful humor as the first Red, namely, seeing an older generation wield weapons with gusto. There is a certain shock and awe that comes with the esteemed Helen Mirren whipping out a couple of pistols in slow motion amidst the turmoil of a car chase, but that sort of attention grabbing, based on upset expectations, is not enough to sustain the film.

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Red 2

When it comes to an actual plot, the movie fails to deliver anything worth the interest that it initially generates. With all of its locale changes and new characters, Red 2 a convoluted mess, seemingly aimed at having Frank and Sarah kiss various other people. It can be humorous watching them act like normal jealous lovers in strange situations, but it overshadows everything else—like what exactly they are trying to accomplish and why.

The sheer scope of magnified destruction, perhaps drawing on its comic book roots, is tallied in anonymous human lives and leaves an unsettling feeling. In order to prove just how amazingly awesome they are despite their age, Frank and his friends kill droves of people, distinguished only by nationality. The gratuitous killing of a dozen or so Russians and Iranians is intended to be lighthearted and creative; still, watching all of those unknown stooges get mowed over renders the film’s poor attempts at depth that much more difficult to believe.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

To Surly With Love

From "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"

The high school experience as refracted through the lens of ’80s comedies ◆ by Craig J. Clark

“Believe it or not, there’s life after high school.” So sang Daryl Hall and John Oates in their 1983 hit Adult Education, but it’s a message that may be cold comfort to anyone preparing to hit the books for another term. For the rest of us, all we have to do is look at the high school comedies that flourished during the ’80s to remember what it was like to be the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, the criminal, or whatever combination thereof that we were.

A good place to start, naturally, is with the work of former National Lampoon scribe-turned-writer/director John Hughes, who spent the mid-’80s cataloguing the travails of the modern American teenager in such films as Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The one that most accurately replicates the feeling of being trapped inside a brick building all day with no chance of escape, though, is 1985’s The Breakfast Club, which gathers together one of each archetype (as Hughes saw them) and bounces them off each other as they endure a Saturday detention together. As played by nerd Anthony Michael Hall, jock Emilio Estevez, flake Ally Sheedy, stuck-up Molly Ringwald, and troublemaker Judd Nelson – in many ways, the core of the so-called “Brat Pack” — these five individuals learn a lot about themselves and each other, and the audience is given a handy, if somewhat unrealistic, reminder of how codified the high-school caste system could be.

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The Breakfast Club

A rather more nuanced take on the experiences of high schoolers – and one that features some actual schooling – is 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (To be fair, Ferris Bueller does include some classroom scenes, but the title character is notably absent from them owing to his having taken the Day Off.) Directed by Amy Heckerling, Fast Times was the screenwriting debut of rock journalist Cameron Crowe, who based the script on a book he had spent a year researching at a high school where he was able to go undercover as a student. The result is a perceptive, well-observed comedy-drama that gave early exposure to the likes of Sean Penn (as the spaced-out Jeff Spicoli, the film’s breakout character), Judge Reinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, and Nicolas Cage (back when he still went by Nicolas Coppola). Even more importantly, it didn’t give short shrift to the teachers, in particular Vincent Schiavelli’s creepy biology teacher, who takes his class on a field trip to the local morgue, and Ray Walston as the indomitable Mr. Hand, who has no illusions about his ability to reach his charges.

From "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"

“Mr. Spicoli”

Appropriately, the side of the educators is also represented in 1984’s Teachers. Director Arthur Hiller had previous experience exploring the inner workings of a public institution with 1971’s The Hospital, which benefited from having been written by Paddy Chayefsky. For its part, Teachers is centered on a popular social studies teacher played by Nick Nolte who tries his best to defuse the tension between his students and the rest of the faculty, which can run high at times. Comic relief is provided by Richard Mulligan, who plays a mental patient who wanders into a history class and begins teaching it, taking on the roles of such iconic historical figures as General George Custer (he of the last stand fame) and President Abraham Lincoln. The less said about the subplot about the gym teacher who sleeps with one of his students and gets her pregnant, though, the better.

Then again, the line separating the teen-sex comedy from the high school film can be so thin at times as to be nonexistent, as in Bob Clark’s surprise hit Porky’s and its sequels and imitators. And then there’s the teen-slash film, which gave rise to such lifeless parodies as Student Bodies (which was so bad director Michael Ritchie disclaimed all responsibility for it), National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (which incredibly enough was the feature screenwriting debut of John Hughes), and Slaughter High (which took the “stalking and slashing people at their high-school reunion” trope to new lows).

If you’re looking for something you can sink your teeth into, you would be better off seeking out something like 1985’s Once Bitten (which gave Jim Carrey an early starring role) or 1987’s My Best Friend Is a Vampire (which did the same for Robert Sean Leonard). In the former, Carrey is a virgin who’s targeted by an older, female vampire who needs his blood in order to stay young. In the latter, Leonard has to deal with the consequences of a similar encounter. Neither of them spends too much time worrying about their studies, though.

The same goes for Michael J. Fox in both of the movies he had out in the summer of 1985. In Teen Wolf, he’s just your average, underachieving, van-surfing nobody until his latent lycanthropy gene kicks in. Far from turning him into an outcast, though, his new abilities transform him into Mr. Popular, especially when wolfing out improves his skills on the basketball court. Fox then traded his basketball for an electric guitar and the werewolf suit for a time-traveling DeLorean in Back to the Future, in which he bumps into his parents in 1955 and prevents them from bumping into each other, nearly erasing himself from existence. At least in the course of correcting his mistake he manages to improve things for his family in the present.

The question of how much you would change about your past is also the theme of 1986’s Peggy Sue Got Married, in which Kathleen Turner plays a soon-to-be-divorced housewife who faints at her 25-year reunion and wakes up in her own body in 1960 with all of her memories of future events intact (as well as the fact that she’ll have no need for algebra whatsoever). Theoretically, this gives her the chance to alter the course of her life by not marrying her high school sweetheart (Nicolas Cage, showing that he’s long had an affinity for making off-kilter performance choices), but she soon finds out what some things are harder to change than others.

That’s also the lesson learned by the dim-witted title characters in 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, who are gifted with a time-traveling phone booth that allows them to ace a history presentation, thus saving the future from something totally bogus. The end result isn’t nearly as inventive as the similarly themed Time Bandits, which Terry Gilliam co-wrote and directed at the beginning of the decade, but it’s still a lot of fun watching Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves (as the titular dim bulbs) stumble their way through time, picking up historical figures like Napoleon, Lincoln, Socrates and Joan of Arc along the way.

The protagonist of 1987’s Three O’Clock High, played by Casey Siemaszko, probably wishes he had a time machine, that way he could go back and prevent himself from meeting new student — and ticking time bomb — Richard Tyson, who takes such exception to being touched that he challenges the honor student to a fight at the designated time. Considering the lengths Siemaszko goes to try to get out of it, it seems like nothing short of blowing up the school would have done the trick.

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Heathers

Speaking of blowing up a high school, that’s the endgame of two films that bookended the decade: 1979’s rebellious Rock ’n’ Roll High School and 1988’s pitch-black comedy Heathers. The first, with its story of Ramones superfan P.J. Soles standing up her school’s strict new principal (cult movie legend Mary Woronov), cheerfully set the stage for the decade to come, and the second effectively closed the door on it. In it, Winona Ryder stars as the newest member of the most exclusive clique in school who falls under the spell of transfer student Christian Slater (literally playing a character named J.D.), who takes a page out of the Massacre at Central High playbook and starts methodically ridding his new school of its most popular (and, to his mind, least essential) pupils. Featuring a corrosively funny and endlessly quotable screenplay by Daniel Waters and dynamite direction from Michael Lehmann, Heathers is the ’80s high school comedy to end all ’80s high school comedies. You certainly wouldn’t be able to get away with making it today.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

The Papaw Project

A Family Re-enchantment ◆ by Shayne Laughter

This story from the Papaw Project collection, “The Stronger,” was published in the Spring 2011 Bacopa Literary ReviewShayne will read “The Last” — based on her great grandfather’s encounter with a mystery on the Kansas prairie — at 1:30 pm, Saturday, August 31, at the 2013 Fourth Street Festival’s Spoken Word Stage.

It was a classic setup.  In 2007, I moved back to Bloomington from Seattle to get Mom through knee replacement surgery. “Would you please go through this trunk,” she said, “and throw out some of Papaw’s papers?” A classic setup, and a classic payoff.  Granddaughter meets Grandfather’s writings in a file folder stashed away in a trunk.

My Papaw died in 1976, age 81.  An autopsy showed that he had been enduring Alzheimer’s, which explained the bad temper of his last years. Elmer Guy Smith had been born in Tipton County in 1895, the late baby of four children.  He had two years of military service in Paris and fifteen years as a Veterans Administration payroll accountant in Washington, DC, but lived most of his life in Bloomington and Monroe County.

Elmer Smith had more poetry in his nature than was entirely helpful to a farming family teetering on the edge of poverty.  His parents had come north from Kentucky to work more fruitful land in Indiana. After a few years in Tipton County, they wound up south of Bloomington on South Rogers Street, on acreage bordering the Monon track between Indianapolis and Louisville.

Smith

Elmer Guy Smith, 1920

The farm house was built in 1848 and burned in the 1930s, after Elmer finally sold the place. Elmer called it Glen Echo Farm. He wrote in a 1976 letter (all quote marks are his):

I have never “set foot on the 28 hopeless acres” since 1924. Highway #37 came later, but when I sold, it was very inaccessible – across two railroads and the creek that often flooded, carry (sic) raw sewage from the “city plant” and creosote from the plant ¼ mile north. In dry weather the R. R. engines set fire to the pasture grass, and I would have to run down the hill, & grab the bucket of water and jute-sack I kept there, to try and beat out the fire, before it ruined the pasture-land.

(The creek he mentions is Clear Creek, and the creosote plant was still in operation at the south end of the Monon [now CSX] Switchyard, during my childhood in the 1960s.)

At Bloomington High School, Elmer won honors for his poetry and essays.  He graduated and went off to the Great War in 1918, came down with the Spanish Flu and shipped to an infirmary in a chateau the minute he set foot in France. He had trained as a machine gunner; the flu was probably what saved his life. Few of his unit survived battle.

Being six feet tall, Elmer was reassigned to Military Police once he had recovered his health.  His post was Gare Montparnasse in Paris, after Armistice and during the peace talks at Versailles. Elmer kept a diary and asked his family to keep the letters he sent home; he had an idea he wanted to be a writer.

From the same 1976 letter:  From that house one could hear the “echo down the valley” as the trains went a-whistlin’ south-bound. From there I went “down the valley” on the “troop-train” with a lot of other Monroe County boys, in 1918.

In the early 1930s, his wartime letters and diary entries were published as weekly columns in the Bloomington Evening World  (he took his five-year-old daughter with him to deliver them, and she got bit by the newspaper bug).  He carefully clipped the columns and glued them into the pages of blank books he paid to have printed with the column’s title on the cover and spine: Away From Glen Echo.  It was a poor man’s vanity publication; just three copies were made.

Then, when Elmer was forty years old — husband and father of two, eking out a living as a Library Assistant at IU under the WPA — he was finally able to take college courses, thanks to Depression-era schemes for WPA workers and War veterans.   Accounting turned out to be a breadwinner, but English Composition was where his heart had been aiming since boyhood. In these classes he was finally able to play with his memories and family tales, to shape them and see what could come up from under his pen.

By the time Elmer died, I was already familiar with Away From Glen Echo.  I didn’t like my grandfather’s writing at all. He was sentimental and used far too many “quote marks.” I felt deeply embarrassed for him.

Yet when I read through the little class assignments, something was different.  He wasn’t giving an account; he was using bits of his memories to tell a story. He still wasn’t terribly good, but he had a knack for descriptions of country life. That knack beamed like a sweeping radar arm, showing me where jewels lay buried. I knew I could reach them, with fiction.

Four years later, I have finished three stories of a four-story collection based on these writings. Does that mean the stories are now mine?  Or are they still his? Papaw did plenty of fictionalizing himself, since he obviously changed place and character names to mask his loved ones and his home.

My mother – now eighty-six and a long-retired newspaper editor — isn’t sure she agrees with my enthusiasm for fictionalizing her father’s life. I’m okay with that. For me, this “Papaw Project” isn’t about reporting what happened. It’s about fiction’s re-enchantment of a hard country life – and the jewels Elmer could not quite reach.

Shayne Laughter, is the author of the novel: YU: A Ross Lamos Mystery.

In the early 1930s, Elmer Smith’s wartime letters and diary entries were published as weekly columns in the Bloomington Evening World.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

FILM: Radiation’s Rising…

From "The Bed Sitting Room"

“…but one mustn’t grumble too much” – Nuclear apocalypse in Richard Lester’s film, The Bed-Sitting Room ◆ by Tom Prasch

Some readers may find this hard to believe but many years ago, before the zombie apocalypse was all the rage, nuclear apocalypse was quite fashionable.  The nuclear nightmare may have been somewhat less alarming than a world consumed by zombies but nevertheless, at the time, it seemed equally plausible.  Frightening books were published, grim PBS documentaries aired, and of course there were movies, most somber but a few satiric. One of the best of these was Richard Lester’s The Bed-Sitting Room.

A man in tattered formal wear—it only looks proper from the chest up—knocks on a door that no longer leads to any house.  He announces “I am the BBC,” and he sticks his head behind an empty television box to read “the last news.” The Central Line tube still works, thanks to a lone man on a bicycle, England’s sole source of power, but when a family that has been riding the circuit for years decides to leave (because the vending machines in the underground have run out of chocolate bars), the still-functioning escalator drops them into piles of ash.  A policeman roams the ruined landscape in a Volkswagen beetle dangling from a hot-air balloon, shouting warnings to the meandering nomads below to “keep moving.” A postman carries a cream pie across the blasted landscape, through ponds of muck, across mountains of ruin; you probably know what will happen when it reaches its destination. Such are the conditions for what’s left of London and Londoners (all twenty of them) in the wake of nuclear apocalypse in Richard Lester’s dark farce.

Bizarre nuclear mutations beset the population: Lord Fortnum fears (quite rightly, it turns out) that he is turning into a bed-sitting room; mother transforms into a chest of drawers (we get a hint of the direction of her change when she can no longer move and, weeping, opens a drawer in her chest to fetch a handkerchief) and father turns into a pigeon (who then commits suicide, providing a dark last meal for the family). Penelope, meanwhile, the daughter of the roving family, is 17 months pregnant and worries about the “monster” in her womb (when she tells her boyfriend, Alan, “I can’t bear to go through with it … having this monster,” he reassures her, sort of: “Well, no one else can have it, can they?”). Meanwhile, raucous instrumental music-hall tunes play constantly in the background, suggesting a sort of deranged Kurt Weill, save when they are replaced now and again by strains of “God save Mrs. Ethel Shroake, of 393A High Street, Leytonstone” (the awkward refiddling of the traditional tune to accommodate the nearest surviving relation to the preapocalyptic queen).

Lester assembled a remarkable cast of comic actors, many with rich experience in theater, music hall, and television comedy (Dudley Moore, Rita Tushingham, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, Marty Feldman, Mona Washbourne, and Ralph Richardson, among others). He adapted Milligan’s stage play to the visual conventions of cinema, filming in a range of devastated rubbish-heaped locations. He mixed pun-heavy pratfalling music-hall comedy with the bleakness of Samuel Beckett (or perhaps just amplifying the vaudeville side of Beckett’s Godot). The result is a stark dark farcical vision of post-nuclear apocalyptic Britain. Comic and depressing in equal measure, the film offers a rich opportunity to examine the limits of genre in treatments of the apocalypse. Can sketch comedy make nuclear apocalypse its territory for the length of a feature film? Does the end of civilization as we know it work well as farce?

Tushingham/Lester

Rita Tushingham & Richard Lester

The short answer to the question, at the time of the film’s release, was: no. Lester had, in the mid-1960s, established a name for himself with a series of highly popular, inventive film comedies—the two Beatles films, Hard Days Night (1964) and Help! (1965), mod-London-set The Knack (1965), and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), all of which seemed to catch something of the mood of the rapidly changing decade. But, later in the 1960s, the hit machine faltered; the two films that immediately preceded Bed Sitting Room, the antiwar comedy How I Won the War (1967) and a swinging-San Francisco-set romantic drama, Petulia (1968), failed to spark at the box office, and The Bed Sitting Room truly bombed.

Typical of the film’s reviews was the thrashing Vincent Canby gave it in the New York Times: “The movies of Richard Lester … seem to get worse in direct relation to the seriousness of their intentions. The Bed Sitting Room is Lester’s most seriously intended film to date…. Apocalyptic or prophetic cinema, whether it is in the form of science fiction or farce, demands more than picturesque sets and costumes and a decent, concerned sensibility.” Other reviewers were similarly unenthused. While making the film, Lester noted for the New York Times: “The fact that they don’t know what a bed-sitting room is in America poses a problem, of course,” but he seemed relatively unconcerned about the point. Perhaps he should have worried more, but the obscure title likely had less to do with the film’s utter failure than the inability of audiences to appreciate Lester’s tone and style. They stayed away in droves.  As Roger Ebert noted in 1976: “It was … a total disaster at the box office. So great was its failure, indeed, that Lester didn’t get another directing assignment until 1974 and The Three Musketeers.” The time was not ripe for apocalyptic farce.

Lester himself seemed to have second thoughts about the work, indeed, even as he filmed it. He explained to Mark Shivas of the New York Times, in an article tellingly titled “Well, the Bomb Is Always Good for a Laugh”: “The film will be much more barren than the play, much sadder and less frenzied. There are moments of people sitting alone in an empty field, hungry and trying to eat grass. It’s sad, and I didn’t feel sad at the play. I hope, though, that it’ll be as funny as the original as well. …I’m not able to tell whether it’s funny, because I feel terribly sorry for these people, cartoons though they may be. They’re cut-outs moving through abstract landscapes.”

Richard Lester

Lester

This hardly sounds like advance publicity that will bring audiences into theaters. Lester even shared some concerns about potential box office during filming: “farce seems to me one of the best ways to do this, partly because more people are inclined to see a farce and partly because the result of the bomb can perhaps be more easily suggested by giving surrealist parallels than by showing actual realistic desolation…. Actually, I’d have felt much more confident about this had How I Won the War been seen by a larger number of people.”

Decades later, talking to Steven Soderbergh, comparing his film to Milligan’s source play, Lester noted that the play was “funnier.” Soderbergh asked: “Do you think literalizing stuff hurt it?”, and Lester responded: “The only way we could try to literalize it was to produce excesses like a huge pile of boots and teeth and things like that…. Spike didn’t like the film particularly. He felt it was bleak and that worried him.…. It was a depressing film to work on. It was painful. And that came over.”

The Bed Sitting Room may have simultaneously anachronistic and ahead of its time.  For Lester, anachronism reflected a deliberate choice, as he explained at the time: “I was interested in how the Bomb has become a sort of period piece, how it’s almost ‘that old thing’ we mention rather apologetically after we’ve discussed violence, civil rights and Vietnam…. I thought it would be nice to remind the audience that the B-52s go on flying, and farce seems to me one of the best ways to do this.”   Roger Ebert, writing in 1976, argued that the film was released before its time: “If Monty Python’s Flying Circus had never existed, Richard Lester would still have invented it. In 1970 [sic] he directed The Bed Sitting Room, a film which so uncannily predicts the style and manner of Python that we think for a moment we’re watching television. The movie’s dotty and savage; acerbic and slapstick and quintessentially British.”  It is not clear, however, if this constitutes an endorsement by Ebert.

So what, finally, is this film about? Usually, the answer to such a question could begin with a quick outline of the plot for those who have not seen it or have seen it too long ago. But here, there is no plot to speak of. For the most part, there are disconnected characters or small groups whose courses intersect in arbitrary ways as they meander across the devastated postwar landscape.

We can notice some minor character arcs, perhaps most notably the romance plot between Penelope and Alan, although that is complicated by the fact that she is already pregnant and by her father’s decision to marry her off to Bules Martin for political reason (the father having just been selected to be the new prime minister, on the basis of the length of his inseam). Still, the longest monologue in the film connects to the romance plot, when Penelope talks about the boy then asleep in her lap, although as declaration of love her speech is rather odd: “I will say this for him, I can’t really say anything for him, except he’s like a sheet of white paper. I haven’t seen a sheet of white paper for years I could draw a face on.” And there’s another developing romance as well, between the bed-sitting room and the cabinet of drawers.

Beyond such stray bits, however, the only arc is downward. Through the course of the film, conditions worsen, and near its close, as a radiated fog arrives (made only slightly amusing by gasmasks with funny animal faces on them), as Penelope’s finally-born baby dies, as starvation looms, things look very bleak indeed until the police inspector arrives, dangling on a ladder from his balloon and announces: “I’ve just come from an audience with Mrs. Ethyl Shroake and I’m empowered by her to tell you, that in the future clouds of poisonous nuclear fog will no longer be necessary, mutations will cease any day…. All in all, I think we’re in for a time of peace, prosperity, and stability. The earth will burgeon anew, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the goat give suck to the tiny bee. At times of great national emergency, we often find that a new leader tends to emerge. Here I am, so watch it!” Even the rosy ending is undercut, however, by a final BBC news flash: “I have great news for the country. Britain is a first-class nuclear power once again.” (Never mind that the new status is only earned because one undelivered bomb has been returned to sender by the postman, with fees due; it still suggests something about lessons not learned.)

Over the course of this unstory, three broad targets for Lester’s satire emerge. The first and most obvious though in some ways least important, is the war itself, and specifically the dynamics of a possible nuclear war. The BBC man’s “final news” near the outset makes this clear, as he reports the Prime Minister’s speech: “On this, the third, or is it fourth, anniversary of the nuclear misunderstanding that led to the third world war, here is the last recorded statement of the Prime Minister, as he then was… ‘I feel I am not boastful when I remind you that this war was the very shortest war in living memory: 2 minutes and 28 seconds up to and including the grave process of signing the peace treaty. The great task of burying our forty million dead was also carried out with great expediency and good will.” The nature of this new war is such that no one served, or is sure what happened; as Bules Martin says, when Lord Fortnum tells him he slept through the war and never got to serve: “Neither did I. Mind you, I was standing by, ready to face the enemy, whoever they might be, but I couldn’t find them. Tell me, do you know, who was the enemy?”

But nuclear-war gags can only go so far, and indeed the broader focus of Bed-Sitting Room’s comedy is about two aspects of British society thrown into comic relief by the new conditions of the postapocalypse: deeply rooted institutions, and even more deeply rooted traits of character. Institutions held up for abuse range from formal political ones like the National Health Service to more socially constructed institutions like the class system. That political institutions have now tended to be reduced to a single person—a one-person military that carries out both sides of a conversation just to make up for the fact that there is no one to follow his orders; a single nurse comprising the National Health Service, and one played alarmingly by Marty Feldman; that man on the bike who is the Electrical Board, and who has to keep peddling to keep the juice flowing—makes the institutional comedy a bit easier. That they are still filling out forms (even for a custard pie’s delivery), or that, when only twenty people are alive in Britain, it would be anyone’s concern who among them was closest in line to the throne, seem absurd, but it is the sort of absurdity that makes us question those conventions in our own time as well. Social conventions, most notably the class system, work in a similar way. When everyone is ragged and starving, the logic of titles and privilege seems especially unclear (particularly when how those titles were determined is also fuzzy; Lord Fortnum notes that he “acquired the title from a social person who had fallen on hard times”). But that these aristocrats would seek to maintain their class views and prejudices under the changed circumstances seems more absurd still. Thus, when Lord Fortnum learns in what neighborhood he has made his final transformation he pleads with Bules Martin: “Put a sign in the window. No coloured. No children. And definitely no coloured children.” That such views are still appropriate for someone who is now a bed-sitting room—and, frankly, a rather shabby one at that, much improved when the chest of drawers joins him—makes  such views seem more absurd, but again in a way that opens them to question outside the limited realm of the film’s postapocalyptic timeframe.

Beneath these satiric targets, and informing the structure of them, is the film’s most central target and interest: that stiff-upper-lipped British character. Bules Martin, holding a bottle of milk up to the light and looking somewhat dubiously at the odd color of the stuff, comments to himself: “Radiation’s rising. Still, mustn’t grumble too much.” The theme is picked up by Alan later in the movie, when he tells Penelope, “We’ll just have to keep going.” “What for?,” she wants to know; “Because we’re British,” he tells her. Penelope, in fact, is having none of it: “British, what a lot of use that is. We don’t even know who’s won the war. Run out of food, no medicine, we’re eating our parents. British!” But even her protests serve to accentuate the theme: that it is the peculiar character of the British to soldier through whatever the circumstances, and to pretend as much as possible that there just is nothing wrong.

That Britishness makes these characters endearing, connects us to them in ways that their roles do not quite justify. That Britishness makes this story more tragic, since after all no one is ever convinced by deus ex machina as a way out of hopeless situations (it’s why Aristotle panned Euripides, after all). But that Britishness also makes the film more insular, since audiences outside Britain not only are unlikely to know what a bed-sitting room is but will have dim if any connections to the institutions the film mocks, the comic stylings it borrows from music-hall conventions and Goon Show bits, or the locations it ravages. That Britishness is thus the film’s great virtue and the source of its box-office doom.

Photo caption
Rita Tushingham and director Richard Lester.
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Photo caption #2
A policeman roams the ruined landscape in a Volkswagen beetle dangling from a hot-air balloon in The Bed Sitting Room.

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

MUSIC: Breaking Beats

Music is more than a hobby for one Bloomington DIY artist ◆ by Amanda Jacobson

Sitting in his second-story room on the north side of Bloomington, music producer Austin White plays back one of his tracks on his Apple laptop – his device of choice for mixing his own music.

The song is off his first album, titled Constellations. It’s a compilation of his earliest original beats created using the computer program FruityLoops, which he downloaded when he was 15 to start his DIY music career.

“Really anyone with a few dollars and the Internet can start making beats,” White says. “Music is so accessible now because of that. It’s not about having a big fancy studio anymore or being rich enough to have your music heard. It really levels the playing field for anyone who wants to be a musician.”

White

He says the variety of music he listened to when he was a young boy led him to appreciate and respond to music in a way most other kids didn’t. It’s no wonder music production was the career path he ultimately chose.

White grew up in a household filled with varied musical influences. He remembers his mother listening to strictly popular music of the ‘80s by Donna Summer, Anita Baker and Madonna, while his father snuck Tupac Shakur tapes into the car as a musical backdrop to road trips without Mom.

“My mom refused to let me listen to rap music,” he says. “And my dad was a street punk in Chicago. He wasn’t terrible, but he was a guy growing up in inner city Chicago. So I was listening to all this Madonna, Donna Summer and Tears for Fears, all of that. Anything that was on the radio, Mom loved it. And my dad would always listen to Tupac. Not all the time, but enough that he had to sneak it. And he would listen to it on his own and not realize I was in the car just absorbing all of this. I’d be listening to the lyrics and not know what any of it meant, like this one 2Pac song Tradin War Stories, – it was on a cassette. We would drive to Mississippi all the time and my dad has this thing – and I have it too – where if you like a song or artist or album, you listen to it for months. So all the way to Mississippi, a 14-hour drive, I heard the double All Eyez on Me, front side, back side, and over again, and the whole time not really listening to the lyrics. The lyrics were just an extra instrument. I’m like that now. It’s just another sound until I interpret it. I feel like anytime I make something now, I go ‘This is correct,’ or ‘It’s not correct,’ based on the whole database of music that I’ve ever heard in my entire life. Because that’s what your own originality is. It’s just everything that’s ever compiled you, anything you’ve ever seen, tasted … I mean sometimes your tastebuds can come into music somehow. Everything you have is just one big interpretation of everything you’ve ever known.”

White says this musical exposure when he was little led him to curiosity about the rap industry and the instrumental nuances of the mixes on each track. It wasn’t until he was in grade school that White moved to Chicago to live with his grandmother on the south side of the city. White said the outcome of his adult life was almost predicted for him by the societal expectations of that neighborhood, before he could decide his fate for himself.

“I was going to school at a public school in Chicago for a little bit and music is like playing basketball there. It’s not like people grow up to try to play basketball there, it’s like you grow up and either get a job or you play basketball or you rap. It’s seriously that mentality and that is all you know. Ghettos are seriously built to trap you. But I was going to school and we’re sitting at the lunch table and this song Grindin’ came out when I was in the fourth grade and that’s when rap hit my radar.”

At the lunch table, White and his group of friends would play “musician.” White would tap out rhythms and beats on the plastic tabletop while others of his friends sang, added melodies or rapped on top of the claps and drums from his hands. It began as a way to dream in an environment where most kids wanted to get out of the inner city but didn’t have the means to, or didn’t know how.

When he was old enough to enter high school, White started buying his own recording equipment. That was the turning point. It was then White says he became obsessed with the idea of making his own music and one day becoming as famous as Kanye West and other big name artists. He bought an M-Audio keyboard for $200 and a USB microphone and stand for $200 before the age of 19.

Instead of letting his naiveté get the best of him, White got smart. He created a MySpace page dedicated to his creation of original music. He began working on tracks using FruityLoops, and decided to buy his first keyboard with money from (get this info from the interview tapes). From there, he says he still had much to learn in the way of approaching other artists to work with him on songs, but for the most part he found a way to make his work heard, albeit sneakily. He would reinvent his MySpace page, naming it after the artist or song he remixed. When people searched for that particular artist or song, they would come to White’s page instead. Even though it wasn’t initially what they wanted to hear, White says, he knew the visitor at least stayed a while to listen to his version of the song and may have then listened to other songs he produced. The exposure he gained from each of his songs earned his page more and more views, but it always made him work harder, he says.

After he figured out how to market himself and once his music was being heard, he realized he needed to improve even further. He began reaching out to other regional artists that had thousands-or-more song plays, a thing he coveted and desired for his own tracks.

White began networking. He wrote email after email to each of his desired collaborators. His early emails were a little less confident, he says. He would approach other artists as if he felt he wasn’t worthy, but wanted to be. At first, he would hear back with either a rejection or not hear back at all. But he didn’t let it discourage him – it made him work harder. He sent samples of his beats to more and more rappers in the upper Midwest area and beyond, hoping to find someone who would collaborate with him.

Finally, he felt his efforts paid off when a rap artist named The Werd, whose voice is heard on the track Careless from White’s second self-released album The Pink Tamago, collaborated with White.

“At the time I saw this guy’s page and he had a ton of plays and I was like, “How’d you do that? Yes, I will work with you!’ And at the time I didn’t realize that it was just a MySpace play generator that you could just pop all the songs you wanted into, but it fooled me. And on the side of the page it would say ‘Record Label (whatever you decide to put) and ‘Management, This Guy,’ and I’m like ‘Shit, a record label, a manager?’ What I didn’t realize is the record label was his own making, you know. But I was in total infant stage. Anything new that comes up to me, I’m just like, ‘What’s that? I’m interested!’, ‘Manager? I don’t have one of those!’.”

The Werd’s manager was Matt Murdoch. The Werd introduced White to Murdoch as a potential business partner. White was over the moon.

“So I’m like, ‘Why do I need a manager … well I’ll call him anyway’, so I talk to him and he’s like ‘Austin, good to hear from you, I’ve been hearing a lot from you from this guy, you know, The Werd?’ and he’s telling me, ‘so basically I’m looking for artists to produce hot tracks and The Werd sent me some of your stuff and it sounds hot Austin, we’re gonna do things, it’s gonna be awesome and we’ll talk later’ and as I hung up, I’m just cheesing from ear to ear, like ‘I’m gonna be BIG!’”

After his telephone meet-and-greet with Murdoch, White said he kept making beats for The Werd to use as a backdrop for his rap music, but all he kept hearing back from Murdoch was that the artist needed more beats. After a while, the communication on Murdoch’s end stopped. White felt he was being used, and decided to break ties with The Werd and Murdoch.

White says he learned a lot from that experience and grew from it. Rather than collaborating with anyone that was interested, White started researching artists in more depth. He chose to pursue working relationships with musicians who had experience and the credentials to back up their success. He slowly continued reaching out to rap artists, until he ultimately came across the up-and-coming rappers Theo Martins and Mike Posner a few years ago. White and Posner talked on the phone and from those conversations, White ended up headlining at a small venue in Michigan, which he says he wasn’t really prepared for at the time, but the show ended on a high note for him. White says he doesn’t regularly perform in front of crowds–that he’d rather be behind the scenes– but the show was a good way for him to branch out to a new segment of music listeners in Michigan, an area with which he was less than familiar at the time.

Mike Posner later reached stardom with his songs Please Don’t Go and Cooler Than Me, but White still has the artist’s phone number and says they occasionally keep in touch via email.

“With Mike I was going out on a limb. My mindset was ‘hey man, let’s work together.’ But I had to keep up my end of the bargain, too. And when he replied I was just felt like I was one step closer to working with Kanye,” he says, laughing. “Where I am now, I want to do producing and I want to make other people sound pretty. Of course, I want to rap and sing on my own, but I want to do it when I have the time and money to do it the way I want to. With me growing up not knowing anything about rap, now I’m in a position where when I make something, I’m not worried about what it’s going to sound like compared to what’s already out. I just make what I make without even worrying about what’s already out there. Because I feel like you’re not an artist until you stop totally caring about what’s already out there. And I never feel intimidated that I have to do something to gain exposure. I basically do what I do and feel that eventually it will come through.”

Now, at 23, White sees a small amount of royalties from past collaborative work with regional rappers and musicians from the Midwest, including Theo Martins, whose latest album Wonderland features White’s work on the track Killer. Currently, he posts his most recent beats and instrumental pieces to his Soundcloud page. The Soundcloud site is more than just a place to showcase his work; it allows listeners to comment on specific pieces of a song, providing direct feedback to him. The site also allows for a broad network of contacts within the music world, where White can find collaborators and share his talents with a wide variety of audiences. Even though he uses a fairly inexpensive approach to making his music these days, White says he still maintains a full-time day job at Mardon Salon. He ultimately wants to improve upon his past work as much as he can, with the time that he has. And he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

“It’s more than a hobby,” White says. “I’ll be working on this and trying to place beats forever. As long as I have a job that keeps the electricity going to propel my music, I’m happy.”

The Ryder ◆ August 2013

Afghanistan

The Juice Ain’t Worth the Squeeze ◆ by Douglas A. Wissing

Douglas Wissing is a Bloomington-based independent journalist who has contributed to the New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy, GlobalPost, CNN, and BBC. His most recent book, Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, was published by Prometheus Books.  This essay is adapted from his remarks at a Washington, DC press conference with representatives Walter Jones (R-NC) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) on May 15th, 2013. More info at his website.

The New York Times recently reported the CIA hauled tens of millions of dollars in cash to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai’s office in suitcases, backpacks and shopping bags. “Ghost money,” they call it. But instead of buying influence, the CIA money fueled corruption and funded double-dealing warlords, kleptocrats—and the Taliban.

When I was in Kabul, my taxi drivers liked to point out a marble-clad four-story mansion owned by Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum—a mansion that he reportedly paid for with his $100,000/month CIA payoff. It’s a nice place.

I recently returned from my third set of embeds with US troops in Afghanistan, and I saw firsthand the toxic system that connects ambitious American careerists, for-profit US corporations, corrupt Afghan insiders and the Taliban. The deeply flawed system continues to waste billions of American taxpayer dollars, without accomplishing our military or diplomatic goals–“phantom aid,” development critics call it.

US funds paid for teacher-less schools that were turned into houses and even brothels, falling-down clinics and hospitals, wells that disastrously lowered water tables, vastly expensive generators that have never been installed, fuel for nonexistent Afghan army vehicles. US funds paid for military logistics and development contracts that funnel enormous sums to Taliban fighters—to provide security against themselves.

A recent United Nations Security Council report estimates about 10 to 20 percent of Afghanistan contracts funded by the US and other international donors end up in Taliban pockets.

Wissing

Doug Wissing In Afghanistan

USAID’s five-year, $150 million counter-narcotics program called IDEA-NEW was supposed to help Afghan farmers develop new crops so they wouldn’t grow illegal opium poppy. But instead of weaning Afghan farmers from poppy production, Afghanistan’s opium crop surged 61 percent during the IDEA-NEW program, including opium production in two provinces that were poppy-free when the program began. The UN reports that today Afghanistan still produces about 90 percent of the world’s opium.

The story doesn’t get any better as the projects get smaller. One US military development team told me about a useless animal slaughterhouse in Zabul Province. USAID and the military contracted out the project to an American for-profit development company. The expensive facility was built in the wrong place, which was just as well, because it had  floor tiles with a raised pattern that held blood. “Wall of flies,” the military veterinarian told me with a grimace. The worst part of the story is that this was the second failed slaughterhouse that US officials paid to have built in Qalat City. No one remembered the first one until after the second one had problems. I knew about failed US-financed slaughterhouses, because I’d seen one in Ghazni Province that now serves as the local dog-fighting ring.

Afghanistan is a great gig for the military-industrial and development-industrial complex. Even as the US troop levels are declining, the numbers of private contractors are rising. I’ve embedded three times at one large frontline base, FOB Salerno, in eastern Afghanistan. When I was there this winter, I started laughing when I saw all the civilian contractors. I asked the officer with me where the soldiers had gone. The officer just shrugged.

The enormous US embassy in Kabul is a forest of construction cranes as a gargantuan expansion is running at full steam. Private contractors are building an embassy complex for 2,000 people at a time when drawdowns will probably put embassy staffing levels at 600. One low-level State Department staffer laughingly told me that he was going to stay in Kabul—because he figured he could get a penthouse for his accommodations.

Tens of thousands of American and Afghan lives have been destroyed by this war. The death last month of Anne Smedinghoff, the 25-year-old diplomat killed in Zabul Province by a suicide bomber, particularly touched me. A few months before her death, she facilitated a meeting for me in the US embassy in Kabul with an Afghan Threat Finance Cell official, who railed about Afghan government corruption. Anne Smedinghoff was smart, informed, ambitious and witty.

She wanted to get out in the field, as US officials in the fortress-like embassy are seldom allowed out in Kabul. One of last things she said to me was that on a good day the embassy was like living in a small liberal arts college but on a bad day, it was like being in a maximum-security prison.

Anne Smedinghoff and four other Americans were killed and many others wounded while reportedly “lost and walking around” in a wholly insecure environment. American commanders had told me major parts of Zabul were Taliban controlled.

I was on an earlier mission to the same base where Anne Smedinghoff was killed. To negotiate the two miles from another US base, my unit had to travel in a convoy of five armored gun trucks, accompanied by a heavily armed security platoon. I cannot fathom why a group of Americans was out walking in this dangerous situation. Anne Smedinghoff’s death was senseless and unnecessary. It was a stunning breakdown of operational security. With the details of Benghazi still being unveiled, it is important for Americans to learn the whole story about how Anne Smedinghoff came to be in harm’s way.

Secretary of State John Kerry also worked with Anne Smedinghoff at the US embassy in Kabul. Secretary Kerry was also touched by her death.  He spoke about what he called the “extraordinary harsh contradiction” of a bright young woman, who believed in diplomacy and western-style education, being killed while carrying books to a school. Anne Smedinghoff was on what the military calls a WHAM—a winning-hearts-and-minds mission. Kerry called it “a confrontation with modernity,” and a “huge challenge,” and said Anne Smedinghoff embodied “everything that our country stands for.”

When I first embedded in Afghanistan, I didn’t have a preconceived notion of the ground reality—“the ground truth,” as the soldiers call it. If anything, I thought that things couldn’t be as bad as they are. Today I can plainly say that many disillusioned American soldiers and civilians tell me we need to stop this waste of American taxpayer dollars on a war that’s unwinnable. Soldiers told me, “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”

Picture 1

Wissing Interviews An Agriculture Consultant

After 12 years of an American intervention that economists say will cost over a trillion dollars, Afghanistan’s government is ranked as the most corrupt on the planet and sixth on the Failed States list. It is near the bottom of the World Bank’s Human Development Index infant mortality, life expectancy, per capita income, literacy, and electricity usage lists.

Twelve years in, with $100 billion in US development aid, and the country is still a disaster zone. The US is still spending $1.5 billion a week in Afghanistan.

Soldiers tell me, “We’re funding both sides this war.” They talk about “fighting the MAN”—the military acronym for Malign Actors Network. The insurgency continues to grow each year. Attacks are jumping to record levels. Every day American soldiers and civilians face injury and death at the hands of Afghan insurgents, who use mismanaged US logistics and development funds to help fight their war.

I cannot help but recall the remarks that John Kerry made on Capitol Hill in April 1971, when he was a young, anti-war Vietnam vet. Back then, 27-year-old poignantly asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

The Ryder ◆ July 2013

FILM: Four Summer Movies

From "The Great Gatsby"

Superman, Star Trek, Gatsby, & Other Magic ◆ by Lucy Morrell

● Man of Steel

Man of Steel is the newest reboot of the Superman franchise and it attempts to split from the other cinematic incarnations of the iconic superhero. Directed by Zach Synder (300) and co-scripted by Christopher Nolan (Memento, the Dark Knight Trilogy), Man of Steel begins with the military coup and destruction of the planet Krypton, necessitating the flight of newborn Kal-El to Earth, where adoptive parents raise him as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). Flashbacks of childhood experiences punctuate Clark’s adult life, as the film attempts to establish the new Superman as a complex, brooding character, much like the most recent imagining of Batman. In taking this serious approach to Superman’s development, the film weaves between the two sets of parents, each sharing wisdom and advice, and although their speeches never quite turn into morality sermons, they do not lack inspirational fodder.

From "Man of Steel"

“Man Of Steel”

These familial relationships, specifically those with the father figures played by Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner, are weighted with questions of life and death, responsibility and acceptance, and lend the film a solemn air. The movie clings to this gravitas, quite understandably, as it tries to give the story its own credence and importance in order to stand apart from the other Superman films. The visuals, too, contribute to the sense of grandeur and seriousness, with beautiful shots of moments on Earth and the well-rendered demise of Krypton. In maintaining the tone, though, the film sacrifices humor and lightheartedness. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and her interactions with Superman provide most of the (sadly few) comedic moments, and the audience seems to laugh as much out of relief as out of genuine humor. There is a desire, conscious or unconscious, for anything to break through the severity of the film.

When General Zod (Michael Shannon), one of sole remaining Kryptonians, comes to Earth looking for him, Clark has to make choices that determine the fate of both humans and Kryptonians, Thus the endless battling of the second half of the film begins. The damage is wrought in incredibly realistic detail, and whole city blocks and skyscrapers collapse into rubble. Yet for all the destruction and fleeing crowds, the fighting seems to have no meaning because it requires no sacrifice and offers no change. Superman and the other Kryptonians are basically indestructible, so their fighting is impersonal, despite occasional verbal bouts, and has little emotional weight. When a weakness does present itself, there is a hasty retreat back to the ships, and the fighting resumes again as though nothing has happened. Only the surroundings are permanently affected. The fighting’s significance, then, lies in what happens to the humans, but they, too, are treated impersonally. They die off in droves, not from the fighting itself, but rather indirectly from the resulting destruction. Superman never even thinks to draw the fighting out of Metropolis. Only when he is finally confronted with the death of a few (the deaths of a thousand unseen not having influenced his actions) does the status quo change.

So even though the film is visually dramatic (with plenty of explosions) and brings up interesting issues related to morality and the determining one’s fate, it is neither light-hearted enough nor clever enough to be truly pleasurable to watch. It is not a fun superhero film like The Avengers, nor is it as darkly intimate as the Dark Knight Trilogy. It seems to operate detached and distant on a scale of its own.

● Star Trek Into Darkness

J.J. Abrams, the mind behind this Star Trek revamp and the soon-to-be director of new Star Wars installments, gives us Star Trek Into Darkness, a film more comfortable than challengingly new. In it Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are ordered into a potential war-zone on a manhunt for a terrorist later discovered to be Khan, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. There are a few twists, but the whole plot just seems to be an excuse for Captain Kirk and Spock to explore their feelings for one another. Depending on how one measures weepiness, Kirk cries about three times, and Spock about one and a half. But then again, Spock is only half human. Near constant fighting and explosions (which somehow make noise in empty space), however, work to offset any offense of overt sentimentality.

From "Star Trek Into Darkness"

“Star Trek Into Darkness”

The crew is a family now, no longer in the getting-to-know-you phase of the last movie, and with the actors interacting as such, the film comes across as easy and heart felt, if not particularly deep. All of the main characters from the series command the screen for at least a few minutes of dedicated airtime. Scotty complains, McCoy says snarly one-liners (replete with country metaphors), Spock is logical, and Kirk is bullheaded. While Ahura demonstrates her linguistic intelligence, she seems little more than her romantic role with Spock, providing a few heterosexual sparks in a movie filled with male romance.

In one of the few moments of depth, Kirk struggles with an ethical dilemma concerning his orders and their source. Butting against the always rational Spock and even the manipulative terrorist, Kirk has to determine where his loyalty lies and whether or not to compromise his principles for an order. For Kirk, who is always breaking the rules, such a conflict was bound to arise, yet this comes down to conflicting sources of authority. Unfortunately, a twist at the end sharpens rather than blurs the line between right and wrong, putting Kirk and Star Fleet firmly on the right side. What could have been an interesting dilemma, bound forever to a gray area in our minds, is resolved by having a traditional bad guy pop up in the last half hour. In the end, we do not have to fear for Kirk’s conscience, any more than we have to stress about the inevitability of a happy ending.

While the movie may not have made the audience think beyond its two-hour duration, it had a lovely and familiar display of characters that kept me engaged and smiling throughout. If the crew is a family, then it is the sort of family that I wouldn’t mind being a part of.

● The Great Gatsby

The latest re-imaging of The Great Gatsby comes with the typical visual extravagance of Baz Luhrmann. It is a spectacle of bright colors and glitz befitting the casual wealth, sex, and booze of New York City in the roaring twenties. The movie stays true to most of the original novel as Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) relates the tale of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Nick’s married cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). The novel itself is a voyeuristic first person narrative, but now in the transition to the screen, in order to justify a single man’s lengthy retelling of past events, the film conjures up a new framing device: an older Nick struggles to write about his experiences from within a sanitarium. His psychiatrist’s file neatly lists his reasons for being there, providing convenient and instant characterization, albeit heavy handed. This framework keeps emerging at every pause in the main storyline with the flashing to a feverish Nick surrounded by pages as he inner voice reads what he’s already written. While the Nick in the book is almost forgettable, a watcher of the protagonist Gatsby rather than the protagonist himself, the movie’s ever-present voice-over and frame device prevent him from ever fading into the background. Toward the end, the voice-over is even further emphasized with the addition of text, which dominates the screen and distracts from the story. Some of the beauty of the language is lost with the accompanying text because there is so much pressure on the words to stand apart from their written context and compete with the moving images. The text seems to exist only to prove the filmmakers capable of quoting from a book.

From "The Great Gatsby"

“The Great Gatsby”

That being said, the acting is well done, even if it takes a moment for the actors to disappear into their roles. DiCaprio is such a recognizable figure and Gatsby such an indeterminate character that at least initially it is hard to separate the two. The emotional intensity is there, but much of the subtlety of the novel is lost in the visuals, or marred by unnecessary flashbacks—flashbacks that revel in the beauty of the shot with little concern for an audience discovering truths on its own. Emerging from troubled clouds and star-studded skies, the flashbacks border on the ridiculous. At one point, Gatsby even marks the passage of his life with a grand gesture only to have a shooting star trace the path of his finger a second later.

Overall, the spectacle, while exciting to watch, seemed almost too obvious for a story about half-truths, rumor, hidden desire, and underlying social problems.

● Now You See Me

From director Louis Leterrier, Now You See Me is a movie about four street magicians gathered together by a mysterious organization to perform illusions, which involve real heists like robbing banks. The story is told mostly from the perspective of FBI agent Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Dray (Mélanie Laurent) as they search for the truth behind the illusions. The law enforcement officers are, however, sadly formulaic. Rhodes is the experienced cynic, out of his depth and in a state of continual disgruntlement and aggression, while Dray, being a stereotypical rookie and woman, is more in touch with her emotions and talks about having faith. In a few instances, professional magician debunker, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) suggests the possibility of Dray double-crossing Rhodes, but rather than having their whole relationship evolve into a delicate power-play, it ends up turning into blunt confrontation again and again, with the oft-repeated conversation of “How can I trust you?” and “You must! Just have faith!” Rhodes and Dray’s relationship goes nowhere new in these exchanges, and the filmmakers seem to have confused dull antagonism with romantic chemistry, leaving the two to “naturally” pair up like soul mates in the end.

From "Now You See Me"

“Now You See Me”

As for the other characters, the movie relies heavily on letting the established personas of the actors stand in for much of the characters’ development. Jesse Eisenberg plays the same slightly neurotic fast-talker that he always does, and Woody Harrelson hangs out on screen as his typical affable wise-cracker. Within a few minutes of meeting each, we know exactly who they are, and nothing ever challenges our pre-conceived notions of them. Who really suffers from this sort of fallback characterization are the characters of the less-established actors like Dave Franco and Isla Fischer, whose only noticeable traits (at least to the other characters) are her beauty and her weight. The motivation of the four magicians is vague, as we spend almost no time with them, but it seems to be encompassed in the mysterious secret society known only as the Eye, which ostensibly protects magic and goes back to the days of the ancient Egyptians.

Despite all of its problems with characters, though, the film is entertaining and contains many of the staples of a fun summer action flick, namely heists, secret societies, and chase scenes. The magic tricks are actually explained as the film progresses, although it never goes seriously in-depth into their set-up. There is even a twist at the end, which is definitely unexpected, but may or may not be altogether believable. Overall, the film delivers what one might expect from a summer blockbuster: an action-filled plot with big-name actors in unremarkable roles.

The Ryder ◆ July 2013

ARTS: From Knob Creek To The Big Screen

The Story Of A Homegrown Filmmaker ◆ by Malia Bruker

In the 10 years that I have been making films, my childhood spent at Knob Creek Road in Lawrence County, Indiana has always been a strong influence. I realized early on that my Mom and Dad were very different from my friends’ parents. My mom wore Birkenstocks with socks, didn’t shave her armpits, and didn’t eat meat (no, not even chicken). My dad played bass in jazz bands, had a big beard in a time and place of bare faces, and had no patience for conservative or religious bigotry. We stood out in Bedford, the traditional farming town where I went to school, but fit perfectly at Knob Creek, our little hippie community at the end of a gravel, dead-end road 20 miles from Bloomington.

It wasn’t until I left Indiana and saw a bit more of the world that I began to understand how others might describe Knob Creek: it was not a commune, but perhaps an intentional community. My parents and their friends were back-to-the-landers, fed up with consumerism and environmental degradation.

When I began studying media production at Florida State University, I once again felt out of place. I was not obsessed with any particular film director like my fellow students, and I had never heard of the French New Wave. I hadn’t even seen Star Wars. But despite the geographic isolation, the lack of exposure to media, and the relaxed, earthy lifestyle of my youth, I actually think that Knob Creek provided me a great background for being a filmmaker.

There were 10 children living at Knob Creek at its height, and all but two were girls. Although my brother found this situation something resembling hell, for me it was perfect. Most of our parents were not big on TV. We only got a few channels anyway, so we were often left to our own imaginations out in the wilderness. We played in the creek, grinded “make-up” out of the bedrock stones, pretended we were explorers, and spooked ourselves by imagining ghosts and witches in the woods. I’m convinced that if screenwriters had access to the mind of a bored child they  would have a lot better stories to tell.

Bruker

Malia Bruker At Knob Creek

Without the constant entertainment of TV or those nice, paved suburban roads to bike on, I read. A lot. I remember going to the Monroe and Lawrence County Libraries and piling up more books than my spindly legs could carry. (We did borrow the odd movie here or there as well—Spaceballs was a family favorite.) Although I didn’t realize it at the time, by reading so voraciously I was learning how to tell a story, how to build characters, and how to draw in an audience so well that you could even forget you’re in the middle of nowhere in Indiana in the midst of a hot, humid summer and your brother doesn’t want to play with you.

Because we were in such a remote area, our schools were quite small, and our classrooms were sparsely populated. In my 6th and final year at Heltonville Elementary, we only had 12 kids in the entire grade. That kind of attention from teachers, many very good ones, made my elementary and middle school education as solid as any private one. I kept reading and I even wrote my first book, Cloudy with a Chance of Furries, as an extra credit assignment (I’m still waiting for it to be picked up by Harper-Collins). I have never had much trouble putting pen to paper, which has made the first steps of creating a film much easier.

Knob Creek was also full of creative people—actors, photographers, painters, quilters and a lot of musicians. Bonfire sing-a-longs were regular occurrences, among other communal performances. What began as charades on New Year’s Eve turned into an all-out yearly performance of prepared skits and scenes. I have not one single memory of fireworks at midnight, but the images of the grown-ups, red in the face and dressed in costume, are still clear in my mind. One of the moms even wrote plays for us kids to perform, which were thrilling despite the fact that the stage was a creek bank and the audience sat in chairs in a field. There is still nothing I like better than participating in an act of creativity, and I learned early on that it is best when collaborative—essential qualities for a filmmaker.

When my family left Knob Creek and moved to Miami, Florida my junior year of high school, my entire life changed drastically. That is probably very obvious and also an understatement. I was quite different from my peers, a fact only exacerbated by my history teacher, who told all of his classes about “the Indiana kid who lived where there are farms!” Despite my attempts to fit in, I was “the Indiana kid,” or just “Indiana” according to my basketball coach, or even “Wyoming” to our senile athletic director.  Instead of isolating myself, I opened up in Miami, and found that as boring as my life might have been, it was interesting to those kids because they had never heard anything like it. If there is one thing I could say about my favorite film directors, it would be that they have unique perspectives. I hope they could say the same about me.

My family has been quite mobile since our time at Knob Creek. My parents moved from Miami, back to Bloomington, then to California. I moved from Florida to Colorado to Philadelphia, where I now live. My documentary, Heirloom, is the closest I’ve come to capturing what Knob Creek has meant to me throughout all of these changes, although most of the film was shot elsewhere. Heirloom is set on a 4-month long road trip I took with my parents as they returned from their home in California to Bloomington, where they will retire. Throughout the film, as my parents get closer and closer to their home, I realize that I really cannot go back to Knob Creek, not the Knob Creek of my childhood. It is a tough realization, the stiff awakening from the nostalgia of youth, but in the process I learned that Knob Creek has carried me this far and will be with me the rest of my filmmaking days.

Bruker

Coming Home?

[Editor’s note: Heirloom will have its premiere screening in Bloomington at Bear’s Place on August 17th at 5:30pm. Malia Bruker’s recent film Chase, which takes a humorous look at the banking industry, will screen prior to Heirloom, and she will be in attendance to discuss both films.]

The Ryder ◆ July 2013

 

 

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BOOKS: Exit Roth

Notes on the Occasion of Philip Roth’s Retirement ◆ by Kevin Howley

Last October, a few months shy of his 80th birthday, Philip Roth, America’s most celebrated living novelist, quietly announced his retirement. Roth made the disclosure in an interview with Les Inrockuptibles, a French cultural magazine. Weeks later, Salon confirmed Roth’s retirement with his publicist at Houghton Mifflin and the Paris Review translated Nelly Kaprielian’s complete interview with Roth. Assessing his handiwork – some thirty books over the course of more than half a century – Roth invoked not a man of letters, but a sports legend from his youth: “At the end of his life,” Roth recalled, “the boxer Joe Louis said: ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ This is exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had.” Roth’s “best” is a poignant, incisive, inventive, raucously humorous, sometimes controversial body of work. Any appreciation of Roth’s legacy, however modest, would do well to take Roth’s own assessment as a starting point. What was it, then, that Roth had to work with?

Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1933, Philip Roth was raised in a working class, secular Jewish household: a milieu Roth plumbed for his antic comedy, most notoriously, Portnoy’s Complaint, as well as his darkest imaginings, The Plot Against America. The Newark of Roth’s youth – a vibrant urban space with decent schools, ethnic neighborhoods, and a bustling downtown figures prominently his work. As does Newark after de-industrialization, white flight, and the racial tensions of the 1960s that decimated a quintessentially American city. Roth’s evocations of Newark are rarely romanticized; instead, Newark serves to ground his characters, and their stories, in a discrete and discernible time and place.

Roth

Of his forsaken city, Roth writes in the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral, “It was Newark that was entombed there, a city that was not going to stir again. The pyramids of Newark: as huge and dark and hideously impermeable as a great dynasty’s burial edifice has every historical right to be.” The calamity that befalls Newark provides the backdrop to the familiar catastrophe that wrenches the novel’s protagonist, Seymour “Swede” Levov, from his “longed for American pastoral … into the indigenous American berserk.” Levov’s harrowing tale, as recounted by Roth’s most enduring character, the writer Nathan Zuckerman, is part of a trilogy that includes I Married a Communist – a period piece set in the McCarthy era – and The Human Stain. Arguably one of Roth’s most vivid, sympathetic, and penetrating portraits, The Human Stain tells the story of Coleman Silk, a respected professor of classics at a small liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts, and his great undoing on the alter of political correctness at the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

The gravity of Roth’s work finds its antithesis in the comic absurdity of some of his most memorable and imaginative fiction: The Breast, wherein the protagonist, Professor David Kepesh, another of Roth’s recurring characters, undergoes a Kafkaesque metamorphosis into an enormous mammary gland; Our Gang, an uproariously indignant response to the excesses of the Nixon White House; and, most famously, the aforementioned Portnoy’s Complaint – the book that made Roth rich and reviled. At once a product and send-up of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Portnoy’s Complaint signaled Roth’s arrival as one of America’s preeminent satirists.

Alexander Portnoy’s psychoanalytic confession of sexual defilement and insatiable appetite to the silent therapist, Dr. Spielvogel, is an extended Jewish joke. Of course, not everyone got the joke. Despite its rebellious, ribald, and unprecedented assault on sexual taboos, feminists decried Portnoy’s Complaint, chiefly, but not exclusively, for its caricature of Mary Jane Reed (aka The Monkey). Others lambasted Roth for exploiting, reinforcing, and legitimating stereotypes of Jews and Jewish life. This was not the first, nor would it be the last time, Roth provoked the ire of Jewish readers. His first published short story, “Defender of the Faith,” created an uproar among those who took the tale to be the work of a “self-hating Jew” whose comedy did nothing to dissuade the goyim from their distaste and distrust of the chosen people.

Roth’s work provokes and explores a central question: What does it mean to be a Jew living in postwar America? This thematic concern – some, including Roth in the guise of any number of his protagonists, might call it an obsession – is a particularly rich vein for his fiction. Indeed, Roth’s autobiographical dexterity – as much a reaction to his perceived self-hatred as it is a declaration of his Jewishness – proved an excellent vehicle to interrogate the relationship between fact and fiction, lived experience and imagination, authors and their creations. Most evident in the Zuckerman trilogy – The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson – this theme permeates other work as well. Consider, for example, Operation Shylock, wherein the writer Philip Roth confronts his double, or Roth’s nonfiction, including the deeply moving account of his father’s prolonged illness, Patrimony, and The Facts, Roth’s autobiography, in which Nathan Zuckerman writes an afterword that puts the book’s veracity into question.

And yet to define Roth exclusively or even primarily as a Jewish writer limits our understanding, and appreciation, for his art and craft. One needn’t have grown up a Jew to know the shame and guilt that adolescent boys, fond of whacking off, know all too well. One only needs a prick to register a familiar laugh, as when Alex Portnoy, fearing the worst – that his self-abuse has given him cancer – just can’t leave it alone.  Inevitably, inextricably, Portnoy’s paranoia yields to his desire: “If only I could cut down to one hand-job a day, or hold the line at two, or even three! But with the prospect of oblivion before me, I actually began to set new records for myself. Before meals. After meals. During meals.”

Then there is Roth’s love for that other national pastime: baseball. Consider the audaciously titled The Great American Novel, which tells the story of the ill-fated Port Ruppert Mundys: a team so bad it has no home field. A team so inept that the franchise has been stricken from all of baseball’s recorded history. When the Mundys actually win a game – albeit an exhibition game against the inmates of a local insane asylum – the players recount their exploits with the same gusto and gravitas you are likely to hear when Bloomington’s boys of summer enjoy a bit of tailgating down at Twin Lakes softball field. “‘Yep,’ said Kid Heket, who was still turning the events of the morning over in his head, ‘no doubt about it, them fellers just was not usin’ their heads.’”

Roth’s gift for farce is matched by his single-minded devotion to the novel. From the writerly introspection of his most radical work of fiction, The Counterlife, and his editorial stewardship of the Penguin series, Writers From the Other Europe, to his collection of literary interviews and criticism, Shop Talk, this much is clear: Roth is a writer’s writer. In his exit interview, Roth said, “I’ve given my life to the novel. I’ve studied it, I’ve taught it, I’ve written it, and I’ve read it. To the exclusion of practically everything else. It’s enough! I don’t feel that fanaticism about writing that I felt all my life. The idea of trying to write one more time is impossible to me!”

If Roth, trickster that he is, is to be believed and he really is retired, his final series of short novels, culminating with Nemesis, a study in “the tyranny of contingency,” caps a luminous and prolific literary career.

[Kevin Howley is professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is indebted to Professor Parke Burgess, his undergraduate advisor in the Department of Communication Arts & Sciences at Queens College, for introducing him to the work of Philip Roth.]

The Ryder ◆ July 2013

MUSIC: The Thrill Of Victory

The USA International Harp Competition ◆ by Megan Landfair

This time last summer people around the world were waiting with bated breath for the start of the 2012 London Olympic Games. The excitement of seeing the world’s top athletes strive to perform at their highest level had audiences from all walks of life glued to their TVs and computers for two weeks. This summer, you’ll be happy to know that you can witness the competitive spirit again right in Bloomington! On July 10-20, the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music is hosting the 9th USA International Harp Competition.

Fifty of the best harpists from around the world, ages 16-32, representing twenty countries will travel to Bloomington in hopes of winning the gold medal. One of the first traditions they will take part in is the Opening Ceremony scheduled to take place in Auer Hall on July 10th at 4:00 p.m. Contestants will be greeted by Indiana’s political elite and be assigned their performance order.

Throughout the ten days competitors strive to achieve their peak performance in order to win the coveted $55,000 Lyon & Healy Gold Concert Grand Harp. To win the gold harp, they must pass through four stages in which they will be judged by seven world-renowned musicians. Like many Olympic events, the competition jury members will utilize a point system for each harpist but instead of being judged on their athletic prowess the points are based on musicianship, technique and artistic presentation.

The first stage will last for three intense days, after which the jury will identify only half of the harpists for the next round. From the field of 25 in Stage II, only eight will move on to Stage III.

At this point the harpists will have to show mastery of the instrument by demonstrating their ability to perform both traditional repertoire and a brand new piece, written specifically for the competition by French composer Benjamin Attahir. At the end of Stage III the jury will decide which three harpists continue to the final stage.

Following nine days of intense competition, diverse musical interpretations, and world-class performances, the excitement will culminate at the Musical Arts Center on Saturday July 20 where the finalists each perform with the Indiana University Summer Festival Orchestra. Shortly following their performances, the Closing Ceremony will commence with the presentation of the medals and the gold harp.

So why does the Jacobs School of Music host this prestigious event? The school has the largest harp department in the world. It also has Distinguished Professor of Harp Susann McDonald who founded the competition in 1989. Just like the USA Gymnastics team, the IU harp department has had a long-standing tradition of distinction and excellence. This year six participants from the Jacobs School will represent this country.

2010 Harp Competition Winners

2010 Winners (l-r) Vasilisa Lushchevskaya, Russia; Agnes Clement, France; Rino Kageyama, Japan. Photo: Alain Barker

While it is exciting to watch the competition unfold and see a winner announced, the ultimate goal of the USA International Harp Competition is to foster friendships, bring together musicians from around the world, and introduce the harp repertoire to a broader public. Just as with watching an Olympic sporting event, the recognition of the competitor’s hard work is celebrated throughout the ten days.

This summer, be sure to come out and be part of the excitement. The competition is in your own back yard and all events, including the finals at the MAC, are free and open to the public. For more information a complete schedule of events visit USA International Harp Competition.

The Ryder ◆ July 2013

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