Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Peter Fonda, An Easy Rider Who Chose the Path Not Taken

The death of Peter Fonda seems like one more reminder that the Sixties are now long gone. I vividly recall going out to dinner, circa 1970, with my husband-to-be in a trendy bistro on the Sunset Strip. To us the back room, overlooking the lights of the city below, was the height of elegance. So it was a curious moment when some well-dressed young women started excitedly unrolling a huge poster. It was an almost-life-sized image of Fonda and Dennis Hopper, astride their choppers, decked out in their Easy Rider duds. That wasn’t a poster I’d want to display in my own home, but it seemed a fair encapsulation of what was in a lot of youthful minds as the Sixties faded away.

Peter Fonda, son of the iconic Henry, began his film career in the romantic comedy, Tammy and the Doctor (1963). But before Easy Rider (1969) made the tall, lanky Fonda a spokesman for the Counterculture, he had already become a Sixties icon as the chopper-riding Heavenly Blues in The Wild Angels (1966), Roger Corman’s gritty celebration of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang. (Sample dialogue: “We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the Man! And we want to get loaded!”)  Fonda was then an enthusiastic supporter of the drug scene. He helped the fundamentally strait-laced Corman shed his inhibitions by shoving a kilo of marijuana into Roger’s mailbox as a Christmas gift. And when Corman followed up the notoriety of The Wild Angels with an hallucinogenic LSD film (1967), The Trip, Fonda demanded that Roger do research by dropping acid himself. (Roger’s one and only LSD trip, which took place in California’s Big Sur, has become the basis for The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes, a screenplay that Corman alumnus Joe Dante is still hoping to shoot.)

Peter Fonda described the genesis of Easy Rider in a 1969 issue of Take One magazine. Staying at a Canadian hotel for a motion-picture exhibitors’ convention, he happened to study a publicity shot of himself and Bruce Dern riding their choppers in The Wild Angels. Staring at the iconographic photo, Fonda got an idea: “Man, yeah, that’s the image . . .  a dude who rides a silver bike and turns everybody on and rides right off again.” As the movie’s plot evolved in his head, he decided, “Let’s get to Mardi Gras in the film, great time, we’ll have a lot of free costumes and shit like that, a real Roger Corman number where we don’t have to pay.” Easy Rider was produced by Fonda in 1969. He and Dennis Hopper (a longtime friend who had been featured in The Trip) wrote the screenplay, along with novelist Terry Southern; the roles played by Fonda, Hopper, and Jack Nicholson were to make them all stars. Corman, aware of the developing project, tried to help get it AIP backing.

Sam Arkoff, the creative head of American International Pictures, has admitted that AIP was ready to invest $340,000 in Easy Rider, but balked at Hopper’s plan to direct the film himself. Arkoff and company believed that Roger Corman, with his low-budget track record, would be the best man for the job. Hopper, of course, proved them wrong. But while Corman had no part in the finished film, it very much reflects his spirit and style. 

It was Fonda and Hopper, though, who got the kudos. They shared a screenplay Oscar for Easy Rider, and Fonda also collected an acting nod for his sensitive 1997 role in Ulee’s Gold. He’ll be missed.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Go Ask Alice (about Wonderland)

Oxford, England may have recently gone crazy for Harry Potter, but another literary figure connected with this charming college town has a much longer pedigree. It was back in 1865 that an Oxford mathematician named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson published, under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, a small book called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The story of a little girl named Alice who slips down a rabbit-hole and meets a number of outlandish creatures (a caterpillar smoking a hookah, a totally mad Hatter, the dangerous Queen of Hearts) evolved out of the tales he told three little girls as they rowed up the River Isis from Oxford to the village of Godstow, five miles away. The girls were the daughters of Henry Liddell, dean of Oxford’s Christ Church College. (There were ten little Liddells in all, of whom ten-year-old Alice was the fourth.) After the boat trip, Alice begged Dodgson to write down the marvelous yarn he’d spun, He borrowed her name for his heroine, and dedicated the published book to her.

Today Dodgson and Alice Liddell are honored by Christ Church College with a special stained glass “Alice window.” It can be found high on the wall of the formal dining hall that was once the seat of Parliament during England’s seventeenth-century Civil War. At the center of one panel is a portrait of the actual Alice. Surprise! Instead of  the long, straggly blonde hair of Tenniel’s famous illustrations, she wears a neat brown bob. Other panels include memorable images of familiar “Alice” characters. One is the White Rabbit, clutching his pocket watch. Legend has it that this rabbit, forever anxious about being on time for some very important date, is Dodgson’s comic portrait of Alice’s own father, who was known to be continually checking his timepiece. .

There’s one more Oxford place that provides a link to Alice in Wonderland. The venerable Oxford Museum of Natural History, founded in the Victorian era, contains the world’s best-preserved remains of the long-extinct dodo. There’s not much to see, merely the head and foot of a single bird. But the museum also displays a 1651 painting of a dodo by a Flemish artist, and it’s probable that Dodgson, a frequent museum visitor, used this as the basis for his  wonderland dodo. Today display cases honor Alice as well as the dodo, showing off a taxidermied dormouse and even providing a stuffed white rabbit with his own tiny pocket watch.

It goes without saying that Hollywood has always loved the Alice stories. Back in 1933, Paramount Pictures introduced an elaborate black & white version, featuring such stars as Gary Cooper as the White Knight, Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen, Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, and W.C. Fields as Humpty-Dumpty. Disney’s inevitable animated version, from 1951, of course favored the sweet over the scary side of the story, emphasizing how it takes place (in the words of one of the film’s songs) all on a golden afternoon.  In 2010, director Tim Burton took the opposite tack. Updating Alice into a nineteen-year-old (Mia Wasikowska) on the brink of marriage to a dunce of a nobleman, he returns her to a phantasmagoric 3-D Wonderland where she must join forces with an outrageous Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) to defeat the villainous Red Queen (an eye-popping Helena Bonham Carter)and her Jabberwocky, thus returning the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to her throne.  I admit I’ve only seen the trailer for this film, but that was enough to steer me away from Burton’s hectic, exhausting take on what Lewis Carroll wrought on a golden afternoon in Oxfordshire. 

Alice is in the top left panel

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Tarantino’s Bedtime Story: Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

When I think of the Tate-La Bianca murders, which made headlines fifty years ago this month, I remember first of all how scary L.A. suddenly seemed after news broke of the brutal murders on Cielo Drive. That feeling was reinforced when a student told me he’d grown up in the Los Feliz neighborhood where supermarket executive Leno La Bianca lived with his wife Rosemary. Not movie stars or socialites, they were the kind of homey middle-class people who gave special holiday treats to all the neighborhood kids. That didn’t stop them, alas, from being butchered by Charles Manson’s young thugs.  No Angeleno, I quickly decided, was safe from a home invasion by a crazed hippie with something to prove.

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to take us back to that terrible time and put his own spin on what happened. Tarantino has a genius for making L.A. look both beautiful and deadly. His camera sweeps down Hollywood Boulevard and the Sunset Strip, capturing the sizzling nightspots I recall from the past, like the young-oriented discotheque known as Pandora’s Box. He films his cast in restaurants I’ve known forever, including the clubby Musso and Frank and the kitschy Mexican eatery called El Coyote, in which the real Sharon Tate and her friends apparently had their last margaritas. Everywhere, in Tarantino’s L.A., there are movie houses, like the classic Village and Bruin, where the movie’s Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) drops in to watch herself on screen in a Dean Martin spy flick, The Wrecking Crew. We also zip past lesser theatres, as well as movie billboards and posters advertising such dreck of the era as Three in the Attic and Joanna. (I suffered through both while serving as a film critic for the UCLA Daily Bruin.) The airwaves are flooded with music I remember well—“Mrs. Robinson” and Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game”—along with promos for the teen-oriented KHJ.

Tarantino’s film is well named, and not just because it seems to be an homage to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a  Time in America. His central subject in his best films is perhaps the making of stories. So it’s appropriate that his take on the Manson murders is far less interested in the killers and in victim Sharon Tate (who appears mostly as a beautiful icon) than in her fictional next-door neighbor, an aging actor struggling to move beyond his TV role in something called Bounty Hunter in order to make use of his genuine but sometimes tortured talent. As played by Leonardo Di Caprio, Rick Dalton is stuck in hackneyed bad-guy roles, a fact he deals with by drinking much too much. Still, he’s a celebrity, one whom everyone else (including the Manson gang) regards with awe for the simple reason that they’ve seen him on their TV screens.

Movie and TV stars, of course, do a lot of shedding of pretend blood. They also do a lot of fighting: even Tate is shown, at that Bruin Theatre screening, in a martial-arts cat-fight scene battling co-star Nancy Kwan in The Wrecking Crew. So it makes sense that playing opposite Di Caprio in Tarantino’s film is Brad Pitt as his stunt double, a guy quite used to getting physical, when he’s not cooking up his pathetic Kraft Mac-and-Cheese dinners in his sad little flat. Movie violence is faked, but Pitt’s character is quite good (possibly too good) at the real thing, which is how the Di Caprio/Pitt story and that of Sharon Tate happen to overlap. In ways, I can’t help saying, that might surprise you before the lights come up.    

Friday, August 9, 2019

“Minding the Gap”: Middle America Rolls On

“Penny Marshall put Rockford, Illinois on the map with A League of Their Own, her 1992 movie about the Rockford Peaches women’s baseball team.” That’s the kick-off of a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter, announcing the town’s plans to honor the late director by staging a Penny Marshall Celebration in mid-September. Marshall’s daughter and grandchildren are scheduled to participate, and a highlight will be the unveiling of plans for Rockford’s International Women’s Baseball Museum.

A recent Hulu film—one that’s been nominated for both an Oscar and a primetime Emmy—shows another side of Rockford, Illinois. Minding the Gap, a documentary feature by Millennial filmmaker Bing Liu, also deals with athletics, but women who play baseball is hardly its focus. Instead, Minding the Gap plunges us into the world of skateboarding, introducing us to several young men (including the filmmaker himself) who are passionate about jumping onto a seven-inch slab of maplewood outfitted with wheels in order to sail down sidewalks, soar off ramps, and flip ecstatically skyward. Skateboarding, a sport with no formal rules, is clearly the definition of “cool.’ It seems well suited to young bodies and young minds, and when the film began I assumed it would be a paean to skateboarding as an emotional release from the mundane life of boys growing up in a drab middle-America town.

Minding the Gap is that, but also much more. What makes the film unique is the intimacy of its look at its central characters: Keire Johnson, Zack Mulligan, and Liu himself.  They are all skateboard buddies from way back: Liu started filming their boarding antics when he was only fourteen years old, though it took a decade for him to decide that their stories would be the basis of his first documentary film. (He’s now reached the ripe old age of 30.) Through visual footage and on-camera interviews he brings us into their lives. Johnson is a sweet-natured,African American haunted by the death of his father soon after they had angrily parted ways. Liu, born in China, shares his own anxieties about his mother’s second marriage to a tough-minded Anglo. Mulligan, perhaps the most charismatic of the three, is a wild man on his board, but also a husband and a father who can’t seem to reconcile his competing urges to protect his toddler son Elliot and to shuck off all sense of responsibility. In the course of the film, we also meet Bing Liu’s immigrant mother, Zack Mulligan’s increasingly frustrated baby mama, and other Rockford residents who comment tellingly about the world the three young men inhabit with such obvious discomfort.

What becomes startling in the course of the film is the realization that none of these three skateboarders is a stranger to domestic violence. Keire Johnson’s childhood is remembered as a time when stringent discipline within the house was considered the best way to keep young black boys out of trouble outside it. Bing Liu , his younger brother, and their sad-eyed mother all admit they were victims of the stepfather’s raging brutality. As for Zack Mulligan, he copes with his inability to grow up by hard-core drinking and by lashing out at whomever is present. Says he to the camera at one particularly telling moment, “You can’t beat up women . . . but some bitches need to be slapped sometime.” 

Minding the Gap ends with a shred of hope that these broken lives can be mended. In a poignant scene at his father’s grave, Keire Johnson muses that his dead dad’s qualities—tough discipline and love—are akin to those that skateboarding demands.