Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Miyazaki and Gorman (Who?) Meet Russ Meyer

My friend Roxanne Lane, once the powerhouse PSA coordinator for Women in Film, is serious about movies and the status of women. That’s why she turned me on to a blog called “Cherchez La Female,” in which entertainment journalist Krystyna Hunt muses about “the power and influence, good or bad, of women in films.” So far Hunt has discussed The Hunger Games, Winter’s Bone, Chicago, and the work of Hayao Miyazaki, whose strong female leads in animated features like Spirited Away strike her as the best possible role-models for young girls. Hunt describes her topic thus: “The roles of women in film have most often been controlled by men. Sometimes the portrayals have been very good (such as those produced by Studio Ghibli), sometimes they have been very bad (such as those directed by Roger Gorman).”

Hey, wait a minute! There’s no question that Studio Ghibli, which is Miyazaki’s home base, has produced wondrous heroines. But Roger Gorman? (The misspelling is Hunt’s, and reminds me of all the ways that Corman writers and directors have amused themselves by sneaking Roger’s name into their cast of characters. On TV’s The Phantom Eye, he himself played a mad scientist pointedly called Dr. Gorman. And I recall an oddball neighbor named Namroc, along with other variations.)

Anyway, though women in Roger Corman movies definitely serve an eye-candy function, I wouldn’t be so quick to see their roles as entirely negative. I’m thinking, for instance, of Angie Dickinson in Big Bad Mama. She’s strong; she’s tough; she’s sexy as all get-out; she takes charge of her own destiny. There are lots of other kick-ass women in Corman flicks too, and even the heroines of his slasher movies (like Slumber Party Massacre) have what it takes to survive, bloody but unbowed. Then there’s the fact that Roger has always made a point of promoting women behind the scenes. Many an established writer, director, editor, production manager, and crew member got her start thanks to Roger. Most notably, he discovered the talents of producers-to-be Barbara Boyle (Phenomenon) and Gale Ann Hurd (Terminator, Aliens, Armageddon) at a time when Hollywood was even more of an all-male club than it is today.

I suspect that a better example for Hunt of really offensive female characters can be found in the oeuvre of the late, unlamented Russ Meyer, who used his movies to work out his own obsession with the female anatomy. I admit to a certain fascination with Meyer’s sado-masochistic girl-on-girl slugfest, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! But his much-talked-about Vixen (which I watched in the line of duty while researching the films of the late Sixties) just left me queasy. Its leading character’s exuberant sexuality is matched by her racism, her lack of scruples, and her overall bitchiness. Amazingly, in 1970, Twentieth Century-Fox gave Meyer a shot at the big time, with an assignment to direct the big-budget sexploitation flick, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (The screenplay is by Roger Ebert, of all people, and I consider it not just trash but unwatchable.)

Nor was Meyer open to women on his creative staff. My old buddy Stan Berkowitz, who crewed on Supervixens, tells me that on the set he saw plenty of women, most of them flaunting the audacious "Guns of Navarone" bazooms that were Meyer's stock in trade. But on the production team there was not a female to be found, and the pneumatic starlets were strictly off-limits. Meyer made movies to feed his personal fixations. He wanted his crews, like himself, in a permanent state of arousal.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Pomp and Circumstances Beyond Our Control: Returning to Rock 'n' Roll High School

June’s almost here, so thousands of eighteen-year-olds in rented gowns and mortarboards will soon be traipsing across the stage of their high school auditoriums. I trust all of them will be on their best behavior. But as a former Roger Corman person, I can’t help associating the teen years with the anarchic spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

I’m also thinking about Dick Clark, known forevermore as “the world’s oldest teenager.” By championing teen-friendly music on American Bandstand, Clark helped establish the teen market that continues to drive the entertainment industry. Clark’s death on April 18 marked the final fadeout of a vision of teens as rambunctious (perhaps), rock ‘n’ roll crazy (certainly), but also ultimately wholesome. This is a view that Rock ‘n’ Roll High School emphatically challenged. It’s a curious fact, though, that in a roundabout way Dick Clark was responsible for the Rock ‘n’ Roll High School script that many of us know and love.

It seems that fledgling screenwriter Joe McBride had just sold Roger Corman a script called Rock City. It was a takeoff on American Bandstand, involving a local TV show on which a no-talent kid (think Fabian) becomes a pop sensation, wins the heart of a girl dancer, and goes off to Hollywood. The script also contained a satiric version of Dick Clark in his role as avuncular emcee. McBride’s project was a go until the real Dick Clark chanced to visit the offices of New World Pictures. Roger unwisely shared the script with Clark, who put the kibosh on it, thus ending McBride’s chance to get Rock City produced.

Fortunately, McBride (who’d hung around New World long enough to snag the role of the “drive-in rapist” in Hollywood Boulevard) had become accepted by Cormanites as an expert on teenagers and their music. I’ve already written about Joe’s key contributions to the script of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, but his memories of filming the movie’s climax are worth preserving. The location was Mt. Carmel High School, a Catholic school in Watts that had been condemned because it was not earthquake safe. Roger paid a priest $1000 to rent the campus, but didn’t disclose specifics about the film’s ending. Director Allan Arkush had first suggested using a miniature, but Corman replied, “Are you kidding? It’s too expensive to build the miniature. You’re going to have to blow up a real school.”

The idea was to create a showy series of small bangs and booms. A crusty old SFX guy put smoke pots in the school windows, adding explosives that would be triggered by the flip of a switch. Joe prudently watched from across the street, but the school lawn was filled with actors and Ramones, plus 300 teen extras. When the switch was flipped, a gigantic fireball erupted – twice as big as what anyone had anticipated. Joe told me, “Luckily nobody got hurt, even though there was broken glass and windows were flying out, and some of the trees caught on fire and the American flag caught on fire. . . . All these people came out of their houses in their pajamas, because nobody had bothered to tell them we were gonna blow up the school. It was pretty funny to see all these people totally freaking out.”

The teen extras, who’d been bussed in from Orange County, were supposed to leave by 10 p.m., but they were persuaded to stay on until 3. Too bad some of them were taking SATs in the morning. At any rate their college years certainly started off with a bang.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Location, Location, Location (or Dan and Justin Do Hollywood)

I’ve got a gripe with Time Magazine. Several months ago, in an issue highlighting the world’s most influential people, Time drew up a list of the world’s most influential places. Past and present Time honorees were invited to contribute, by picking “spots that have made a difference.” Given the range of participants, the selections were predictably idiosyncratic: financial guru Suze Orman opted for Sutter’s Mill, where the American Gold Rush began; pop princess Taylor Swift went with Central Park; and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson chose the moon. But in the interest of balance (I guess), Time editors came up with a host of other spots of major symbolic importance, like Wall Street, Calvary Hill, and several greats: Great Pyramid at Giza, Great Wall of China, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Another Time pick was Silicon Valley, certainly a locale where today’s dreams are made. But that San Jose high-tech mecca was the closest Time came to recognizing a place where dreams have been made for a century. I’m talking, of course, about Hollywood.

Hollywood’s glitter may have tarnished over the years, but it still exerts a tight hold over our imagination. Though we know that the Hollywood Sign at first promoted a real estate development, it continues to loom over a mental as well as physical landscape: a place where stars are embedded in the pavement, where celebrity footprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese are treated as holy relics, and where pretty little girls from Kansas (or Kankakee or Kenya) flock in hopes of finding fame and fortune. The story of Dorothy leaving home to find the Emerald City is so deeply connected to mythic Hollywood that the Metro stop (yes, there is one!) at the legendary corner of Hollywood and Vine is decorated to reflect a Wizard of Oz motif, complete with yellow brick road.

People who live far from Hollywood still feel its allure. One of my Mother’s Day gifts this year is a book called Framed: 100 Round Trips to Hollywood. In the 1950s, Italian supermarkets gave away to their customers small collectible portraits of Hollywood lovelies. Italian authors Iaia Filiberti and Debora Hirsch, having found a stash of such cards, have assembled a slim volume in which they lovingly reflect on the careers of everyone from Louise Brooks to Arlene Dahl to Sandra Dee.

Then there are my English friends, Dan and Justin. Dan has fantasized about Hollywood all his life. Growing up in Kent, he dreamt of steering a red Alfa Romeo down the California coast, just like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. This past month, on his first trip to the U.S., he finally made his California dreamin’ a reality. No red sports car, alas, but he and Justin did motor south from San Francisco, arranging their brief L.A. stay to include Universal Studios, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and the L.A. Observatory, site of key scenes from Rebel Without a Cause as well as a great place to appreciate the Hollywood Sign.

And what visit to California would be complete without a star sighting? Driving through Malibu, Dan and Justin stopped at a scenic spot to photograph the coastline. A trio of older men were there with cameras too, and Dan volunteered to get all three in a commemorative shot. His offer was gratefully accepted, and then the men introduced themselves. One turned out to be singer-songwriter Neil Sedaka, a genuine Hollywood Walk of Fame inductee. Dan and Justin couldn’t have been more thrilled if they’d met Prince Charles. After all, this was a prince of Hollywood, and it doesn’t get much starrier than that.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Battleship: It's All in the Game

I love Battleship. No, not the movie extravaganza that’s apparently dead in the water after a slower-than-expected domestic opening. I’m talking about the original game, which dates from World War II. It’s a game to which I was introduced by my parents, and it couldn’t be simpler. All you need is two players, two pencils, and two special spiral-bound game pads. Your pad gives you a grid on which you block out your fleet: cruisers, destroyers, a battleship. Then on a second grid, you get a fixed number of chances to take potshots at your opponent’s unseen navy. You call out your coordinates, and your opposite number must admit to the number of times you’ve struck his various sea-going vessels. The goal is to locate and sink his entire fleet before yours heads down to Davy Jones’ locker.

The low-tech nature of Battleship appeals to my Luddite sensibilities. But my kids played the more energy-intensive electronic version that first appeared in 1977. Same game, but with lots more bells and whistles. Electronic Battleship was followed a decade later by Electronic Talking Battleship, and then a plethora of video spin-offs. And now, of course, the 2012 film, which somehow introduces romance, a complex backstory, and an attack by critters from outer space. And – I’m sure – enough death and destruction to satisfy Hollywood’s insatiable appetite for blood and guts.

I love movies, and I’m not opposed to blood and guts (or even alien attacks), so long as these are confined to a movie screen. But I wish Hollywood would leave my favorite games alone. Years ago it was Clue that underwent the Hollywood treatment. And now this.

Not to sound impossibly old-fashioned, but I have fond memories of my childhood, when the family would assemble around the dining room table to play a game. I’ve tried to pass that enthusiasm on to my children. For me, anyway, card games are a little too mentally taxing to be a source of relaxation. (After a round of Hearts, my father -- the numbers whiz -- had a maddening tendency to point out to me where I’d gone wrong.) My kids and I like word games (Boggle, Bananagrams), knowledge games (Trivial Pursuit), and silly games that rely on chance as well as strategy. I consider the children’s game Sorry, with its maddeningly sudden reversals of fortune, the perfect light-hearted pastime (as well as a great metaphor for life, come to that.)

But today it’s all about computer games, and the various electronic goodies that a tech-savvy generation finds entertaining. It’s true you don’t need to play computer games in complete isolation. Through gaming you can actually interact with friends who live halfway around the globe. But sitting at your computer can also be a most solitary form of fun. I’m also pondering how so many young people (and their older relatives) now watch movies on a personal screen, thus sidestepping the communal experience that for me makes film so compelling. (If you’ve seen the original Rocky in a theatre, you know what I mean.)

When my daughter was a middle-schooler, she made a new friend. Jessica surprised me with her in-depth knowledge of my entire Roger Corman output. In her household, it seems, no one gathered around a table, either to play games or even to eat dinner. You took your food to your room, where you could watch TV in privacy, at any hour that suited your fancy. That’s how a twelve-year-old girl came to be an expert on Body Chemistry and Stripped to Kill. Someday will she be Sorry about what she’s missed?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Keeping Abreast of Motherhood (T&A at the Movies)

So breasts have become a hot topic. This week’s Time Magazine has starred on its cover a svelte young mom, looking proudly into the camera as her three-year-old son suckles at her shapely breast. Obviously, this is an image that commands attention, especially from males older than three. Theoretically, the subject under discussion is new trends in parenting. But there’s no question that Time’s cover engenders other ideas. Call it nursery porn.

You may think I have a dirty mind, but hey! I spent most of a decade making exploitation movies for Roger Corman. It wasn’t so much that Roger was a prurient guy. Everyone who worked for Roger at New World Pictures or Concorde-New Horizons knew that sex sells. And by sex, Roger generally meant female nudity. He made it clear that actual intercourse was not terribly photogenic. So the emphasis was always on ecstatic writhing that showed off as much as possible of the female anatomy. Woman-on-top sex, with the female of the species climactically arching backward to display her well-endowed chest, was featured so often in our later films that I took to thinking of this as “the Concorde position.”

Even in scenes that had nothing to do with the bedroom, we were instructed to be on the alert for moments when women could lose their clothing. Future Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme remembers that, during pre-production for his directing debut in Caged Heat, Roger would scribble onto the script notes like “Breast nudity possible here?” The right answer, of course was, “Yes, Roger, I believe it is.”

When I was interviewing Corman veterans for my biography of Roger, one-time exec Laurette Hayden joked with me about how, in the New World movies we shot in the Philippines, the female lead is inevitably falling out of her clothing while running through the jungle: “I think the faster she runs, with the machete in her hand, the more quickly the clothes fall away.” Such movies always had shower scenes too – what’s a women-in-prison flick without a shower scene? – and I recall a topless kickboxing bout in TNT Jackson. In later eras, we got even more creative, especially when Jim (“Take ‘em out and let ‘em breathe!”) Wynorski was in charge. Typical of the Concorde era was Wynorski’s slasher extravaganza, Hard to Die, in which female employees of the Acme Lingerie Company have an after-hours party, try on the company’s product line, then get drenched by a malfunctioning sprinkler system for that wet-Tee-shirt look.

There was a time when mainstream Hollywood wouldn’t dream of mimicking the excesses of Corman-style T&A. As I wrote last year, America’s first glimpse of bare breasts in an MPAA-sanctioned studio movie came in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, which was making a serious point about Nazi atrocities and ghetto squalor. Eventually, of course, the whole industry became Cormanized. In Titanic, when Rose has Jack sketch her wearing nothing but the fabulous Heart of the Ocean necklace, I chuckled at the thought of how well Jim Cameron had learned his New World lesson. Ah yes, T&A on the high seas!

One thing’s for sure: breasts in movies have nothing to do with feeding babies. When my mother started a family, she declined to nurse, partly because she had no sophisticated role-models to pave the way. (As a social worker in the late 1930s, she associated breast-feeding with the downtrodden Okies she served.) Today breast-feeding may have acquired serious social cachet, but Hollywood has not caught up. On American movie screens, women’s breasts are still intended for big boys, not little ones.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Gay Marriage: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

I understand why many Americans are so bothered by the notion of gay marriage. It enshrines in our culture something we’re not used to seeing: two men (or two women) in love. And then, of course, proceeding from love to long-term commitment, sometimes complete with children. When social norms undergo a shift, it’s not always easy -- particularly for those of us who might be deemed the older generation – to adjust our thinking. That’s where movies have a role to play.

Movies, as fantasies writ large, allow us to see the world in new ways. Sidney Poitier is iconic because of how he expanded our view of the African-American male. When blacks were stereotyped as Pullman porters, janitors, and farmhands, Poitier played doctors, social workers, and police detectives. In many of his films, he wore a suit and carried a briefcase, providing a visual symbol of what African-Americans could potentially become.

Before Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, you couldn’t see a Hollywood movie about a happy interracial couple. Films like Pinky and Imitation of Life showed America that romantic relationships between black and white were doomed to failure. Larry Peerce’s One Potato, Two Potato (1964) bravely depicted a happy marriage between a white woman and a black man, but it reflected the reality of its day by painting society as not ready to accept such a relationship, especially when children were involved.

One Potato, Two Potato was a small indie, aimed at the art-house crowd. Then along came Stanley Kramer, a progressive thinker determined to explore the possibility that – under ideal circumstances – love can bridge the racial divide. That’s why he released a mainstream movie in which Poitier (as a brilliant young doctor) is introduced to Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (playing a crusading newspaper publisher and his wife) as their daughter’s surprise fiancé. When Kramer made his film, interracial marriage was very much in the news. On June 12, 1967, just three weeks after shooting wrapped, the Supreme Court finally banned all race-based legal restrictions on marriage within U.S. borders. In September the wedding of the daughter of Secretary of State Dean Rusk to an African-American classmate so startled the nation that it made the cover of Time (and sparked rumors that Rusk had offered resign his post).

When Guess Who’s Going to Dinner (billed as “a love story of today”) appeared at Christmas, the nation was already so comfortable with Poitier that the film became a huge hit, even in the South. Yes, some hackles were raised and some hate mail arrived on Kramer’s doorstep, but most Americans seemed ready to consider the notion that a white family could welcome a (handsome, successful, well-spoken) black son-in-law. What viewers saw on a movie screen gave them permission to consider that this might be acceptable in their own world as well.

Gay marriage, I think, needs something of the same: an appealing gay couple whom we moviegoers can take to our hearts. The tortured love depicted in Brokeback Mountain showed the tragedy of anti-gay sentiment; what’s required now is an upbeat movie that raises the possibility of happily-ever-after among two gays by showing us what it looks like. Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids are All Right did a remarkable job of probing -- with humor and affection -- the domestic life of two gay women and their children. But a male couple in a marital-type relationship is even harder for many of us to imagine, which is why we need the movies to help us put two faces to an issue that’s not going away anytime soon.


Friday, May 11, 2012

In a Nutshell: Memories of Maurice Sendak, Vidal Sassoon, & George “Goober” Lindsey

We’ve lost a few remarkable people in the last few days. On May 8 it was Maurice Sendak, whose eerie illustrated fables capture the dark moments of childhood. (His final interview with Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air, recorded last fall, is one of the most poignant radio farewells I’ve ever heard.) The following day brought news of the demise of Vidal Sassoon, not merely a hairdresser to the stars but also a gutsy bloke who rose from the slums of London to fight Fascism and anti-Semitism. (One of his daughters, Catya Sassoon, was briefly a Roger Corman action star, kicking butt in such martial-arts flicks as Angelfist before dying of a drug overdose in 2002.)

I never spoke to either Sendak or Sassoon. But I once enjoyed a long phone conversation with George Lindsey, who passed away at age 83 on May 6. George was best known for playing Goober, the amiable but dim-witted cousin of Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show. I was then researching my biography of Ron Howard, and most of my questions involved young Ronny’s performance as Andy’s son, Opie. George didn’t hesitate to praise his co-star: “I can just tell you he’s one of the best actors, not child actors, but one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. I never saw him be unpleasant on the set. You loved to do scenes with him ‘cause he always knew his part. And he was always as good as you were in a scene.” George added, “It was a nice part of my life, ‘cause when the person that you’re acting with can act that good, you can go full bore.”

Years after Andy and Opie headed to the fishing-hole for the last time, George always got laughs by quipping, “If I’d been nicer to that little red-headed boy, today I would be a movie star.” Instead he spent the rest of his career on the tube, mostly repeating the Goober characterization on Mayberry R.F.D., on the corn-pone variety show Hee Haw, and in several TV movies. Although, like most of the Andy Griffith cast, he was Broadway-trained, he found himself largely typecast as a rural bumpkin. Not that he entirely minded. For him much of the show’s success had come from the fact that over time “I really think we became those people when we worked. I think we believed we were those people. [Frances Bavier] was Aunt Bee, and [Ron Howard] was Opie.”

Fortunately for George Lindsey, his later years treated him kindly. A few decades back, he moved from Tarzana, California to Nashville, the epicenter of activities for The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club. With Andy Griffith Show über-fans Ken Beck and Jim Clark he wrote his autobiography, Goober in a Nutshell. He participated in several Nashville Mayberry Reunions (Howard and Griffith never showed, but Don Knotts and Howard Morris have been honored guests), and he went on tour with his comedy act. He proudly revealed, “I was just at the Illinois State Fair. I had a line plumb down the midway waiting to get autographs.” (One woman wanted to snap a photo of him for her dogs.)

He also staged golf tournaments, raising money for the Special Olympics, and inaugurated a film festival at his alma mater, University of North Alabama, in gratitude for the football scholarship that once helped pay his tuition. I wondered, after his many years in Hollywood, if he missed Southern California. Said George Lindsey, “I was there for twenty-five years, but I don’t miss it.”

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Shedding Some Light on Film Noir

Last week, I dined at Musso’s with a tall, dark stranger. If that couldn’t get me in the mood for a Film Noir festival, nothing would. Musso and Frank Grill, a mainstay on Hollywood Boulevard since 1919, is dark, wood-paneled, and clubby. It’s famous for juicy steaks, dry martinis, a solicitous staff, and a history of welcoming great writers to its leather-upholstered booths. Patrons once included Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, and longtime regular Orson Welles. Musso’s has shown up in many a Hollywood novel, including one of the best of the genre, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.

My dining companion that night – someone I’d never before met -- is a writer too. If Alan K. Rode is a man of mystery, it’s because he’s somehow combined many unrelated careers. After 21 years in the Navy, he earned an MBA and spent the next decade in aerospace. Now he manages an electronics firm during the daylight hours, but devotes his nights to his true passion: rescuing and restoring America’s film noir heritage. As an all-around factotum for the Film Noir Foundation, Alan introduces screenings and contributes to the foundation’s magazine, Noir City; he also helps organize events, like the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival now running in Palm Springs. All this, and he’s still finding (scant) time to work on a biography of director Michael Curtiz.

Alan, who’s a fellow member of BIO (Biographers International Organization), had invited me to a screening at Hollywood’s venerable Egyptian Theatre, part of the American Cinematheque’s recent Noir City series. That particular evening seemed devoted to rogue cops, law officers who use their clout on the streets of L.A. to fatten their own wallets. Alan’s colleague Eddie Muller introduced two not-on-DVD films from 1954, making the provocative suggestion that the moviemakers of the McCarthy era – itching to attack the powers that be – had settled on wayward elements within the LAPD as a safe target for their anger and fear.

Shield for Murder is classic pulp, featuring Edmond O’Brien (who co-directed) in a taut little melodrama that’s been flakked as “Dame-Hungry Killer Cop Runs Berserk!” I loved it, especially the scene of the cop showing his naïve girlfriend the suburban dream house he’s got all picked out, complete with tchotchkes, overstuffed sofa cushions, and a built-in rotisserie in the kitchen. The second feature, Private Hell 36, relies on the considerable talents of Ida Lupino, who co-wrote the screenplay with her ex-husband, co-stars as a world-weary lounge singer, and released the film through her own small company, known as The Filmmakers. Though she and tough-guy star Steve Cochran strike real sparks on screen, the pacing here often seems flaccid. Alan explained to me that director Don Siegel, then near the start of a long career, was asked to begin production when only 40 pages of script were ready to go. On set, the various participants (including Lupino’s ex, Collier Young, and her new husband, Howard Duff) were constantly at each other’s throats. Money was in short supply, but liquor was not. Alan tells me that “every scene was cause for a philosophical argument with the scent of vodka in the air. The picture is an interesting mess.”

A mess indeed, though an entertaining one. Once Private Hell 36 was over, I slunk out into the late-night shadows of Hollywood Boulevard, unsure of what awaited me in the alleys and byways between the theatre and my parking lot. I got home safely enough, but an evening of film noir can really goose one’s imagination into working overtime.

For more about Alan K. Rode, including his One Way Street blog, see

Friday, May 4, 2012

Old Folks’ Holmes: Sherlock Holmes and Other Old-Timers At the Movies

On a recent flight, I watched the 2011 film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, on one of those tiny overhead screens. Robert Downey, Jr. certainly makes a most unusual Sherlock Holmes: the great detective as action hero. Anyone weaned on the old movies starring Basil Rathbone will immediately see the difference. Rathbone was tall, lean, and dapper, forever associated with an Inverness cape and deerstalker cap. Downey, some five inches shorter, is rumpled, burly, and sometimes bumbling. His disguises can be inept – as when he shows up in grotesque drag regalia – and he’s as prone to solve problems with a well-placed punch as with the cerebral cogitation for which the literary Holmes is so famous.

It was fascinating to see Downey’s take on Holmes (with its obvious appeal to the youth market) because I’d just finished reading a 2004 novella by Michael Chabon. The Final Solution, billed as “a story of detection,” moves Holmes into the twentieth century. The year is 1944, and the 89-year-old Holmes is living in retirement in the Sussex countryside, tending his bees as well as the demands of his aging body. He seems to be long past his years as a crime-solver, but the curious sight of a solemn young boy with a parrot walking on the railroad tracks near his home starts the old juices flowing. A murder and a kidnapping draw Holmes in, and soon he’s cautiously making his way to London to solve a case that’s unexpectedly tied to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

The Final Solution is a modest book, with not enough meat on its bones to be an obvious candidate for movie adaptation. (Chabon, much enamored of movies, has struggled to write a screenplay for his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.) What struck me about The Final Solution was its vivid depiction of old age. Chabon’s Holmes is not the cute codger of so much popular media. He’s the Conan Doyle original, but now bedeviled with physical frailty and an occasionally shaky grasp of the world. In the recent past, I’ve spent long hours with people of advanced years, and I appreciate Chabon’s respect for what the elderly can and can’t do.

Hollywood, of course, loves old coots, so long as they conform to certain stereotypes. Male actors like to sink their teeth into roles that let them be crusty and cantankerous but good-hearted: see Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino and Richard Farnsworth, the oldest ever Best Actor Oscar nominee for his role in The Straight Story. The classic old man of recent times is the one voiced by Edward Asner in Up. He’s grumpy but lovable, and ultimately rises above his condition (in quite a literal way) to take on the world. True, Meryl Streep won her latest Oscar for a portrayal of Margaret Thatcher that made old age look realistically daunting. But the British are especially fond of casting aging performers like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in films (see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ) where they can ride motorcycles and perform youthful stunts for comic effect.

There’s an extreme example of adorable oldsters in Betty White’s newest TV venture, Off Their Rockers. The point of this Candid Camera-style reality show involves apparently feeble folk who succeed in punking our nation’s youth with their raunchy sensibilities and unexpected physical prowess (on skateboards and such). White, who acts as host, seems to find this naughty good fun. Personally, I like the idea of treating the elderly and their challenges with respect, rather than reducing then to Gen-Y'ers with wrinkles.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Thumbs Down on Texting in Movies

Yes, I admit I’m old-fashioned. I’m just back from a writers’ conference hosted by the American Society of Journalists and Authors. There I discovered it’s considered cool to share the insights you’re gleaning by tweeting them to your thousands of followers. Instead of looking at the speaker, you now keep your eyes fixed on your hand-held device as you tap out (spelling and punctuation be damned) nuggets of wisdom. Some speakers actually feel you’re not listening well unless you’re spreading their words in real time to the far corners of the Twittersphere.

Fortunately, my own panel didn’t encourage such behavior. I moderated a session on investigative reporting. My two award-winning speakers, Jim Frederick and Bill Dedman, are old-school journalists, the kind who know how to uncover dark secrets involving local governments, the U.S. military, and the banking industry. How do they gain access to truths that many would rather keep hidden? Both spoke eloquently about the need to forge relationships, to gain the trust of those in the know. For them the art of listening is essential. And it’s not easy to really, truly listen – to pick up nuances, to share in the telling of a story – if your hands and your brain are engaged in a completely different task.

What does all this have to do with movies? Of late there’s been a rash of texting in movie theatres. It doesn’t take a genius to know that the culprits are not in my age-range: it’s America’s youth who are so accustomed to fiddling with electronic toys that many see a darkened movie house as just another place to multitask.

Maybe we of the television generation bear some of the blame. Yes, we were taught to be quiet and attentive at the movies, but when we watched TV in our living rooms no one much minded if we were simultaneously playing a game, eating a snack, or carrying on a conversation. Hey, most TV programs seemed so inconsequential that we felt no particular need to give them our full attention. (There were exceptions, of course -- in those days, reality programming meant the Apollo 11 moon-landing or President Kennedy’s funeral, not Jersey Shore.) Today most widely-circulated movies seem inconsequential too, so perhaps it makes sense that teens can regard them as background noise, not the main event.

Some movie exhibitors, I’m told, are wondering if there should be a place for texting at the movies. Since it’s the youth audience that theatre-owners most want to attract, perhaps the rules need to be changed to accommodate their lifestyle. This subject was hotly debated at Cinemacon, a major exhibitors’ conference in Las Vegas (a locale well versed in the charms of distraction). I leave it to Patrick Goldstein, who writes “The Big Picture” column for the Los Angeles Times, to argue the case against texting during movies: “The whole idea of going to the movies is about leaving all your other baggage behind. It’s why we call it escapist entertainment. If you’re checking your text messages, you’re missing out on the feeling of awe and exhilaration you can only get in a darkened theatre.”

Film, notes Goldstein, is a communal medium. As someone who’s had the weird experience of seeing Teshigahara’s great Woman in the Dunes in a completely empty auditorium, I know that movies are for sharing. But sharing your unfolding moviegoing experience (or your dinner plans) via text or Twitter seems a violation of those special moments in the dark. It’s hard to truly see and hear a great film when your hands are telling a story of their own.