Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Saying “Skoal!” to “Another Round”

Danes of my acquaintance proudly note a global survey ranking them as the happiest nation on earth. (They were less happy during my 2017 visit, because they’d been beaten out of the top spot on this annual survey by their Norwegian neighbors.)  Having just seen Thomas Vinterberg’s Oscar-nominated Another Round, I’m now wondering whether all that Danish happiness stems from the fact that Danes go through life half-sloshed.

 Or so it appears from Vinterberg’s film, which corroborates some rather alarming statistics about drinking among Danish teens. Another Round opens with cheery pop music playing as a group of wholesome-looking Danish youth participate in something called the Lake Run. Teams of young people dash around a lake, following rules that have them chugging bottles of beer at regular intervals, ending up with a crate full of empties. It’s played like good clean fun, even when some of the contestants upchuck. No harm done: when it’s over, everyone celebrates, then moves on.

 But Another Round is not really about teenagers. Its focus is on four middle-aged men who are teachers at a local Danish high school. When we first meet them, they’ve gathered in a posh restaurant for the celebration of a fortieth birthday. Two of the men are single, at least one unhappily so. The birthday boy, a science teacher, is chafing under the pressure of a home life that includes three very young children, all seemingly inclined to pee in his bed. Then there’s the longtime history teacher, Martin, who’s played by Vinterberg favorite Mads Mikkelsen. Once an academic firebrand with a yen for modern dance, he’s now settled into a morose existence both in the classroom and at home. His wife balefully admits he is no longer the vibrant young man she married.

 At that pivotal birthday party, one of the men presents the half-baked theory of a Norwegian scholar that human beings need the constant presence of alcohol in their systems for maximum efficiency. Thus begins an experiment in secret daily drinking, one with profoundly mixed results. On the one hand, Martin and the others feel more invigorated, more creative, more attractive. Scenes of the four men together show them re-discovering the joie de vie of their youthful selves, frolicking through the city without stodgy inhibitions.  They’re also more dynamic in their classrooms, and Martin’s domestic life perks up when he takes the family on a camping vacation.

 Inevitably, though, problems creep into their happy new lives. Marriages wobble, school administrators get wind of their misbehavior, and one of the four teachers comes to a crossroad that ends tragically. Lesson learned, right? The experiment stops abruptly, and everyone lives happily ever after?

 Perhaps the most memorable part of this film is its ending, with teachers and students out by the harbor, celebrating graduation day. The kids are happily passing around the brewskis, looking forward to their future lives. They hail their teachers (still in pallbearer garb) as heroes and pals, urging them to drink up. It’s at this point that Martin—on the brink of making amends in his marital life—turns into the life of the party. With no prompting from anyone, he suddenly goes into a wild exhibition of jazz dance, culminating with an exuberant leap toward the bay below.  Freeze frame. He’s half celebrating, half drowning, and this film is honest enough to see both possibilities. Hollywood has treated alcohol (in such films as The Lost Weekend and The Days of Wine and Roses) as a dangerous drug. Vinterberg sees the same thing, but is honest enough to show the other side as well.




Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Larry McMurtry’s First Picture Show

In homage to the late Larry McMurtry, chronicler of the American West in all its complexity, I’ve been watching movies made from his work. There’s a whole slew of those, including Oscar winners Terms of Endearment and Brokeback Mountain. The very first was Hud (1963), adapted from a McMurtry novel. But The Last Picture Show (1971) was the first film (though not the last) for which McMurtry provided a screenplay, working with director Peter Bogdanovich to transform his own prose fiction for the screen.

 By the time he made The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich was a veteran of Roger Corman’s B-movie world, responsible for the macabre thriller, Targets. But The Last Picture Show was his leap into the bigtime, and he made the most of it, turning out a moody tribute to a dying Texas town and its lonely, love-starved denizens. The opportunity to participate must have thrilled McMurtry, who was known to lament in later years that “Movies have largely lost interest in character. It is not without significance that two of the most publicized characters in the cinema have been a shark and a mechanical ape.”

 The Last Picture Show, filmed in evocative black & white, mostly in the tiny Texas town where McMurtry grew up, is all about character. In contrast to the year’s big Oscar winner, The French Connection, it moves forward slowly, exploring the intricate relationships of the town’s citizens, who are played by some of Hollywood’s finest actors. Cloris Leachman won an Oscar for her poignant role as a neglected housewife; other acting nominees for this film included a young Jeff Bridges (as the hero’s laid-back buddy) and Ellen Burstyn as a mother who sees her daughter’s character flaws—and her own—with all too much clarity. For Randy Quaid, in the small but sharply observed role of a well-to-do high school kid, it was the start of a major Hollywood career. 

 And of course The Last Picture Show marked the cinematic debut of model Cybill Shepherd, who plays Jacy Squires. Shepherd’s blonde beauty is electric on screen, and in one sense the entire town is shown to revolve around her haughty sense of sexual entitlement. But there’s a sad footnote to her presence in the film. Bogdanovich was apparently as bedazzled as his cast of characters. By the end of the shoot, he and Shepherd were together, leaving his wife and longtime artistic partner Polly Platt out in the cold. The multi-talented Polly, whom I was fortunate to interview at length in 2008, eventually recouped and went on to have a major Hollywood career of her own. But this film marked the end of the strong husband-and-wife collaboration that had seen them through their Corman years.

 The Last Picture Show was nominated for a total of eight Oscars, including Best Picture. Aside from Leachman’s win, the only other Oscar for the film was taken home by Ben Johnson, in the small but commanding role of the town’s moral conscience, known as Sam the Lion. The story is that he had to be persuaded by his mentor, John Ford, to accept the part. He was sought after by Bogdanovich, a true student of cinema history, partly because of his association (as stuntman and actor) with Ford and John Wayne, whose sidekick he often played. The Last Picture Show draws to a close with a final screening at the town’s one cinema. The movie on the screen is the 1948 classic western, Red River. This film, as well as Ben Johnson’s casting, represents a fond look back at the glory days of the silver screen.







Friday, April 9, 2021

Life as an Obscure Hobo in “A Bucket of Blood”

In Roger Corman’s birthday week, it seems right to focus on the master, now 95, and some of his most memorable achievements. Like the horror comedies written by the irrepressible Chuck Griffith and ground out by Roger in a few days on impossibly low budgets. A few weeks ago I was interviewed at length by a scholarly type with the wonderfully biblical name of Adam Abraham, who’s writing a book on the history of  The Little Shop of Horrors. His fascination with the film began when he encountered Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s masterful transfiguration of the 72-minute black-&-white flick into a sparkling stage musical that began Off-Broadway and is doubtless playing somewhere in the world at this very moment. (Eventually, of course, it became a splashy full-color all-star 1986 movie musical that lacked the original’s mordant charm. And now there’s talk of a remake.)

 Adam is convinced that the original Little Shop remains in the public imagination today mostly because of the transformative skill of Ashman and Menken’s work. I’m not so sure. Clearly the stage musical brought new fans to the 1960 Corman flick. My Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers traces how Roger – cashing in on the play’s success -- eventually made a nice bundle off a three-day production he had not even bothered to copyright. Still, Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, and company are still fondly remembered by B-movie aficionados everywhere.

 Still, I believe that Roger and Chuck’s earlier effort, 1959’s A Bucket of Blood, is the better, smarter black comedy.  If you like morbid satire, this film’s for you. Running a tight 66 minutes, it boldly pokes fun at the high seriousness of beatnik culture, in which bearded and beret-wearing hipsters sit around in coffee houses pontificating on the meaning of life. Its hero, of sorts, is the coffee-house busboy, a young loser who wants so badly to be admired for his artistic talent that he eventually resorts to mayhem. This poor shnook, a would-be sculptor named Walter Paisley, is played by the always memorable Dick Miller with such intensity that the film isn’t easy to dismiss – like Little Shop -- as outrageous fun. No wacky man-eating plant here, just a deeply flawed character making the wrong choices and (almost) finding himself rewarded for getting away with murder. (Dick was originally offered by Roger the lead role in Little Shop, but turned it down because he didn’t want to be typecast as a schlemiel; he appears instead as a flower-shop patron, the petal-munching Burson Fouch.) 

 Even in its own day, A Bucket of Blood seemed darker, more real, and less laughably goofy than Little Shop. That, I suspect, is why Howard Ashman, who had grown up with Corman’s horror comedies, turned to Little Shop as material for his first really big outing as a theatre lyricist, librettist, and director. Still, A Bucket of Blood has also had a bit of an afterlife. In 1996, as part of a TV outing called Roger Corman Presents, Anthony Michael Hall starred in an updated version that found a place for lots more blood and nudity, as well as cameos by such comic favorites as Will Farrell. In 2009 an enterprising Chicago team hoping to be the next Ashman and Menken launched Bucket of Blood: The Original Beatnik Musical. (Nothing seems to remain of it but a nifty website, which includes lively recordings of some of the score.) And for the rest of Dick Miller’s life, he was cast by famous Corman alumni as characters affectionately named Walter Paisley. Even, ultimately, Rabbi Walter Paisley.