Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Seizing the Day with Asimov’s “Nightfall”

Like many Americans, I spent yesterday morning trying to figure out how to watch the eclipse without burning my eyes to a crisp. In SoCal we didn’t get to enjoy the whole phenomenon of the sun totally blocked out by the moon’s shadow. But my neighbors and I did enjoy an ad hoc science lesson while lolling on someone’s front lawn. (They had some nifty little glasses they were nice enough to share. I had my pinhole camera made from a cereal box – thanks, Bernie!)   

The whole experience carried me back to 1988, when I was involved with Julie Corman’s production of a famous Isaac Asimov sci-fi story from 1941. Julie, of course, is Roger’s wife, and a producer in her own right. The story, called “Nightfall,” is set on distant planet illuminated by six different suns. Darkness is non-existent; the possibility of a starry sky is discussed by religious cultists but ignored by the rest of society. The narration begins at a moment of crisis for this society: an astronomic quirk has darkened all the suns but one, which is rapidly being blotted out by another celestial body whose presence no one quite understands. The last time something like this happened, society legendarily devolved into chaos, as its citizens began burning everything they owned in a desperate bid for the comforts of light and heat.
Asimov, a professor of biochemistry as well as a science fiction writer, is at his most vivid in describing the progression of the eclipse. Early on, referring to the one still-functioning sun, he writes, “Beta was chipped on one side! The tiny bit of encroaching blackness was perhaps the width of a fingernail, but to the staring watchers it magnified itself into the crack of doom.” Soon afterwards, we learn that “Beta was cut in half, the line of division pushing a slight concavity into the still bright portion of the Sun. It was like a gigantic eyelid shutting slantwise over the light of a world.” Finally, as the darkened sky reveals a brilliant star cluster, “thirty thousand mighty suns shone down in a soul searing splendor that was more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the cold, horribly bleak world.” No wonder the planet’s inhabitants go beserk.

It’s dazzling writing, but Asimov is not especially strong when it comes to action and characterization. The entire story takes place inside a fortress-like lab where scientists try their best to understand (and survive) what’s about to happen. We get several perspectives, but there’s not the sort of rich human drama that the screen demands. We who were working with Julie Corman on writer/director Paul Mayersberg’s screen adaptation all knew that the eclipse would be the film’s climax, but it seemed essential to explore the society that would be turned upside down by the crisis in the heavens. We needed to know these people’s lifestyles and belief systems. And it would be nice to have a love story. 

Unfortunately, Mayersberg’s Nightfall gets carried away with its view of an elaborate and somewhat kitsch-driven world, full of exotic rituals and really bad wigs (one worn by the film’s miscast star, TV actor David Birney). And we Cormanites certainly didn’t have the special effects budget to carry off the climax that Asimov’s drama demands. Leonard Maltin pronounced the finished result a BOMB, but Roger Corman—always good at hype—advertised that it was based on “the best science fiction story of all time. And in 2000, Roger sent David Carradine and company to India to try to make Nightfall once again.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Meet “Meet John Doe”

Today, while questions of political leadership are dominating our national conversation, Frank Capra’s  1941 Meet John Doe has an unexpected resonance. Though the details of this Robert Riskin comedy-drama are eccentric and even bizarre, the story has some relevant things to say about ethics in the world of mass media.  

Meet John Doe starts out with the takeover of a popular urban newspaper by a tycoon (Edward Arnold) looking to score political points. His goal for his paper is the sort of slash-and-burn journalism practiced today by Rupert Murdoch and sons. Journalistic standards be damned: what had been The Bulletin is now to become “The New Bulletin – A Streamlined Paper for a Streamlined Era.” 
On the chopping block are most of the newsroom’s staff, including feisty Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck). Furious at being canned and then expected to cough up a final column, she invents a heart-tugging letter from one John Doe, a jobless man who plans to jump to his death from the City Hall tower on Christmas Eve in a protest against society’s failings. Yes—fake news at its finest.

The outcry from the public leads Ann and her editor to search out a John Doe stand-in, someone who can be manipulated into keeping readers interested. Many out-of-work men apply, claiming to have written the letter. But the nod goes to Gary Cooper’s John Willoughby, a former baseball player with a wounded wing,  He admits the letter is not his, though he badly needs a job. Ultimately his brawny good looks and his aw-shucks manner make him an appealing John Doe substitute. This is yet another of Cooper’s great man-of-the-people performances, perhaps his finest. (He was to win a Best Actor Oscar for another 1941 common-man role, that of the heroic Sergeant York.)

Now that a fake John Doe is on the team, Ann feeds him talking-points about how people need to be more neighborly to one another. Too honest a guy to accept the subterfuge for long, he goes on the lam with harmonica-playing buddy Walter Brennan, intending to leave John Doe far behind. A stop at a rural diner, though, persuades him that his John Doe persona is needed by the American public. In fact, everyday folks all over the US of A are spontaneously founding John Doe Clubs as a way of increasing neighborliness in local communities. Despite it all, he’s a hero.

This is when, of course, the nefarious newspaper publisher comes in. Determined to take advantage of John Doe’s hold on the heart of the common man, he launches a huge rally at which Cooper’s character is expected to endorse him and his brand-new political party. His ultimate goal: the White House. But his hope of populism-run-amok is foiled when Willoughby again refuses to be a party to the deception. The publisher retaliates by spreading the word that John Doe is a fake. Which leads to a thoroughly-humiliated Cooper deciding to jump off the tower for real. As his suicide becomes imminent, various forces align to save his life. Care to guess if there’s a happy ending?

Frank Capra has always been revered for his warm depictions of American life. In this mid-career work (one of two films he directed for Warner Bros. after leaving his home at Columbia Pictures), he showed his skill with actors, including those in supporting roles. It’s strange, though, to see a Hollywood film so obsessed with the notion of suicide. And Capra’s iconic faith in common folk at times seems misplaced. Still, in this day and age, seeing people stand up to bullies is a major treat.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

“Here’s Looking at You, Casablanca”

Casablanca lives on, at the intersection of Lincoln Blvd. and Rose Avenue, not far from me in Venice, California. It’s true there’s nothing even faintly Moroccan about this nearly forty-year-old restaurant: its menu features California-Mexican cuisine, complete with margaritas, guacamole, and flour tortillas made on the spot. But Casablanca Restaurant does boast Casbah-style décor, and  houses a prime collection of memorabilia from the 1942 movie. The restaurant’s founders were so enamored of the denizens of Rick’s Café Américain that their parking lot has assigned parking spaces for Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, and the rest of the movie’s featured players, should they deign to show up. 

Noah Isenberg, though SoCal born, doesn’t seem to know about Venice’s Casablanca Restaurant. But his new We’ll Always Have Casablanca is a paean to the many ways in which the seventy-five-year-old film – “Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie” – is still with us today. This is the place to find comic allusions to Casablanca on The Simpsons and Saturday Night Life; he also tracks down various literary attempts, some of them bizarre, to update the love story of Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund, chronicling what happens after he urges her to get on that plane with her husband because “the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Isenberg even introduces Rick’s Café Casablanca, a picturesque nightspot opened in 2004 by a former U.S. diplomat in Morocco to serve those who hanker for good seafood amid nostalgic reminders of a movie that was filmed in its entirety on the Warner Bros. backlot.

Though Casablanca is best remembered as a love story, it owes its impact partly to the fact that it was released just as Hitler and his Nazis were overrunning Europe. Isenberg is at his best in focusing on a cast filled with actual refugees, actors who’d fled to Hollywood from such places as Austria, Germany, and France to escape Nazi persecution. (Some of them ended up playing Nazi on screen to make ends meet.) The actors’ own personal sense of loss helps explain why the scene containing the singing of the Marseillaise in support of the Free French packs such a wallop. He also makes the excellent point that Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, the detached cynic who finally chooses political involvement, nicely represents the attitude of many Americans before (and even after) Pearl Harbor. The American public in the 1940s, notes Isenberg, tended to prefer isolationism, but films like Casablanca helped sell the appeal of  a principled commitment to solving the world’s larger problems. Jack and Harry Warner, themselves from a Jewish immigrant background, boldly used their films in this period to address the specter of Nazism in Europe. One irony: though Casablanca highlights the desperation of the refugees, the specific threat to Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe is never mentioned. 

 Isenberg also traces the popularity of Casablanca into the Sixties, when scores of young campus activists identified with Humphrey Bogart’s iconic blend of idealism and cynical cool. That’s why Bogart-as-Rick posters were so visible in college dorm rooms in my day, and why theatres like the Brattle near Harvard University played Casablanca as part of an end-of-term ritual for many years. Now, as the Syrian refugee crisis makes headlines, the public’s appreciation for Casablanca seems to have waned not at all.  It turns out that Senator Elizabeth Warren, of all people, watches the film each New Year’s Eve, seeing in it much relevance to our nation of immigrants. “Each time I watch it,” she writes, “Casablanca gives me hope.”