Friday, October 31, 2014

“Shock Value”: Shock and Awe on Halloween Night

Be afraid, be very afraid . . .  the witching hour approaches! Here in L.A. there are multiple ways to celebrate. If you’re the arty type, perhaps you showed up at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art dressed as your favorite painting, then checked out an exhibit called “Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s” before dancing the night away. The funky Ace Hotel downtown offered a screening of John Carpenter’s classic Halloween, followed by the live performance of a band called Slasher Flicks. (Its website is well worth a gander.) In many a suburban neighborhood, residents who make their living on film crews enjoyed scaring the local kids with home-grown haunted houses. Guaranteed: a creepy good time.  

Or you could stay indoors and read Shock Value: How A Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares,Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. This well-researched 2011 study by New York Times writer Jason Zinoman admirably explains how the scary movies of the 1970s differed from what had come before. Hollywood horror used to mean Boris Karloff as a misunderstood Frankenstein monster, or else Roger Corman directing Vincent Price in an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation. In other words, costume drama with psychological underpinnings and a soupçon of the supernatural. Zinoman argues that by the seventies horror flicks had become both more realistic and more ambiguous, anchored by a wholly unknowable monster. He begins his book, aptly enough, with a quote from Wes Craven: “The first monster that an audience has to be scared of is the filmmaker. They have to feel in the presence of someone not confined by the normal rules of propriety and decency.”

In each of his chapters, Zinoman focuses on a key horror film of the era, tracing its origins and implications. There’s Rosemary’s Baby, of course, and Night of the Living Dead, followed by Last House on the Left, The Exorcist, Carrie, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Alien. Zinoman proves especially acute when discussing Carpenter’s Halloween, which spawned scores of imitations after it proved that “cheap horror could be big business.” He has high praise for Halloween’s stripped-down piano score and for its much-imitated bravura opening tracking shot, in which we see through the killer’s eyes as he zeroes in on his prey. Zinoman claims that Michael Myers represents a radically new kind of monster: “The monster has traditionally been a stand-in for some anxiety, political, social, or cultural. But Myers doesn’t reveal anything. He wears a mask, but there is nothing of importance under it.” In the original Halloween (in contrast to its later follow-ups), Myers’ actions cannot be explained. Instead he’s a blank, a bogeyman. This fits with Zinoman’s thesis that “the central message of the New Horror is that there is no message. The world does not make sense. Evil exists, and there is nothing you can do about it.”

One of Michael Myers’ most distinctive characteristics is that he does relatively little:  “Michael Myers doesn’t jump into the screen, and while he certainly attacks with a variety of knives, he is at his most threatening standing still, just looking.” Zinoman quotes Carpenter himself on the source of  this inspiration: “There was a movie called The Innocents made in the sixties where ghosts were standing across a pond, just looking. Doing nothing but looking.” I too saw The Innocents back in the day. This Deborah Kerr film, directed by Jack  Clayton, was based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. It terrified me then, and I haven’t dared watch it since.

I wish Jason Zinoman, and everyone, a happily haunted Halloween.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Lullaby of Birdman (aka Gone Guy)

Two of today’s most talked-about films, Gone Girl and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), both focus on the hot topic of media celebrity. Gone Girl dramatizes the way members of the viewing public, egged on by TV commentators with biases of their own, choose up sides when faced with scandal or crime of a particularly heinous nature. If you’re unlucky enough to be featured on a TV news broadcast, you’ll inevitably find yourself typecast as either a villain or a victim. And you’ll discover along the way that changing public perception is by no means easy.  

Birdman – which appealed mightily to my sense of humor and sense of wonder – concerns itself with the world of actors. It belongs in the category of movies (including everything from Forty-Second Street to Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway) that chronicle the staging of a Broadway play, taking us behind the scenes to meet actors with large egos and larger insecurities. In Birdman, there’s a priceless performance by Ed Norton as a cocky Broadway Method actor, and an appealing one by Naomi Watts as a fading Hollywood beauty both thrilled and alarmed at the prospect of making her debut on the Great White Way. 

But Birdman belongs to Michael Keaton, whose long career includes outrageous roles in two early Ron Howard comedies (Night Shift and Gung Ho). Also in the 1980s, he starred in the popular role-reversal comedy Mr. Mom, then put on the cape and mask for Tim Burton’s Batman. The latter film surely helped prepare him for Birdman: in it he plays a former Hollywood he-man who, having once walked away from the fourth film in a popular superhero franchise, now wants to revive his reputation by presenting himself as a serious New York actor/director/playwright. His stage adaptation of a grimly realistic Raymond Carver short story couldn’t be more different from the films in which he made his name. The joke is that, though Broadway insiders scorn Keaton’s character as an over-the-hill interloper, the public still considers him royalty. That’s why they’re ready to respect anything he does, however misguided. It seems that playing a caped crusader on the big screen is clearly a form of godliness.   

I won’t go into the many surprises that grace Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film, except to praise the way he balances magical moments with the nitty-gritty of the New York theatre world. We see a lot of an actual 44th Street theatre, whose cramped backstage hallways and grimy dressing rooms belie the glamour most of us associate with Broadway. The script, which convincingly portrays the tangle of emotions most actors know all too well, also has fun with insider references  ranging from Robert Downey Jr.’s superhero chops to Meg Ryan’s plastic surgeon.

 In this context it’s worth noting that the number of Hollywood legends who look for legitimacy on the Broadway stage continues to rise. In the recent past, Scarlett Johansson has trod the boards in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Tom Hanks just starred in an original called Lucky Guy. Daniel Radcliffe, trying to shed his Harry Potter mantle, has done everything from a musical (How to Succeed in Business) to a take-your-clothes-off drama (Equus). Michael Cera is currently wowing critics in This is Our Youth, but not every Hollywoodite receives serious critical respect. The public, though, remains starstruck.

During the annual Tony Awards ceremony, honorees continue to imply that acting on a  Broadway stage is somehow far more noble than mere movie-making. Still, Hollywood celebs sell tickets, and New York seems happy to let their stars shine bright.        

Friday, October 24, 2014

All Ben Bradlee’s Men

It’s hard to believe that Ben Bradlee has left us. I always pictured Bradlee, the longtime executive editor of the Washington Post, as something like the figures on Mt. Rushmore: unmovable and eternal. What a shock to learn that this brilliant and feisty man succumbed last Tuesday, at the age of 93, to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee started life as a Boston blueblood, with a direct connection to wealth and power. He was by all accounts a charismatic leader, one whose mannerisms and sartorial style (slicked-back hair, striped shirts) were imitated by generations of rising journalists. But he was also a man of courage. A champion of modern investigative journalism, he re-made the lackluster Post as a gutsy newspaper that skewered the Nixon administration by publishing the Pentagon Papers and then blowing wide open a little caper called Watergate. As a direct result of stories first published in the Washington Post, Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974.

Of course the enterprising newsmen who investigated the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s D.C. headquarters were Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. At the time, they were lowly reporters following a hunch that the Watergate burglars were backed by someone high in the Nixon White House. Over the course of two years the pair became America’s most famous newspapermen, as well as models for a generation of young journalism students eager to uncover political wrongdoing wherever they found it. Woodward and Bernstein’s newfound celebrity was reinforced by a book they published in 1974, All the President’s Men. And this book quickly led to an immensely popular film of the same name, in which the chief roles were played by two of the industry’s brightest young leading men, Robert Redford (Woodward) and Dustin Hoffman (Bernstein).

A breathless political thriller, All the President’s Men was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was beaten out of the top prize by Rocky, but won four Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay ( by Hollywood legend William Goldman) and Best Supporting Actor. This latter award went to the great Jason Robards, for bringing Ben Bradlee so vividly to the screen.

Bradlee was also impersonated in other films. He was played by G.D. Spradlin in Dick, a wacky little 1999 comedy in which two high school girls who wander away from a school trip to Washington meet President Nixon, and come to advise him on handling the Watergate scandal. (For the record, the two girls were Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams, while the role of Bob Woodward was given to none other than Will Ferrell.)

I can think of at least two more Hollywood films that connect, in one way or another, with the Watergate era. The first involves Carl Bernstein, who was married to writer-director Nora Ephron from 1976 to 1980. Ephron later fictionalized their marriage, including Bernstein’s disastrous extramarital fling, in the darkly comic Heartburn, a bestselling novel that later became a movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. And let’s not forget the shadowy informant who gave Woodward and Bernstein the key to the Watergate mystery. In the reporters’ book, this Nixon administration higher-up who spilled secrets in a Washington parking garage was nicknamed Deep Throat. Needless to say, Deep Throat was the title of a  hugely popular soft-core porn flick (1972) in which Linda Lovelace demonstrated a very unusual talent.

I’m not sure how Ben Bradlee felt about that connection. But, wherever he is, I wish him well.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Dan O’Bannon: Real Horrorshow

Halloween is coming, which means scary movies on everyone’s radar. Last week I was invited to the USC Film School to see a documentary titled Shock Value: The Movie—How Dan O’Bannon and Some USC Outsiders Helped Invent Modern Horror. This assemblage of USC student films circa 1970 provides a riff on Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value, a fascinating book on the evolution of contemporary American horror films that I’ll revisit as October 31 creeps near. At USC I was enthralled by my glimpse of student work in the early 1970s, full of sex, miniskirts, and endless cigarettes. (The level of violence, though, was tame indeed, even by today’s TV standards.)

These days, USC’s film school—the nation’s oldest—is housed in palatial digs built by George Lucas and other Hollywood royalty. But in Dan O’Bannon’s era, film students mingled in a ramshackle former stable. Everyone knew everyone, and they all knew Dan O’Bannon, who was probably both the weirdest and the most multi-talented of the film geeks. O’Bannon could do it all: writing, directing, acting, special effects. But, as a post-screening panel made crystal-clear,  he was not an easy guy to be around. For one thing, he would never suffer a fool . . . or a bad movie. At student screenings  in  the hallowed Room 108, he could be blunt when criticizing the work of his classmates. And his private life was turbulent. He kept by his bedside a huge stack of porn , topped by a wicked-looking .45.

The evening at USC was essentially a tribute to the work of O’Bannon, who’s best remembered today as the writer of Alien. (He also directed such Hollywood hits as The Return of the Living Dead, but succumbed to Crohn’s disease in 2006.) The documentary kicked off with his funny and gruesome Blood Bath, in which a young man bumbles from a morning-after hangover to a death most bloody. Dan’s acting chops (as well as his makeup skills) were also on display when he impersonated an elderly codger in the futuristic Good Morning, Dan. Most memorably, in Judson’s Release -- which was later renamed Foster’s Release -- he played a maniacal stalker, harassing a pretty babysitter over the telephone before making a deadly in-person appearance.

Sound familiar? Author Jason Zinoman applauds this student film (directed by my future Roger  Corman buddy Terence Winkless) for establishing the horror tropes that we associate with John Carpenter’s big breakthrough movie, Halloween. No surprise: O’Bannon and Carpenter were USC classmates, who together had their first taste of success with the spoofy sci fi flick, Dark Star. This student film was snapped up by Hollywood and expanded into a feature, with O’Bannon on camera (eluding the fearsome tomato monster) as well as collaborating with Carpenter on the script. When they hit the big time, though, Carpenter was only too happy to dump his old pal. It was clear from all of the evening’s speakers that John Carpenter is not the most generous of men.

Of course, that’s the way Hollywood operates, and in later years  Dan O’Bannon suffered
 his share of betrayals. He had to fight for credit on screenplays he had originated, and (according to an elaborate story that was told from the stage) the great Orson Welles apparently swiped one of his story ideas.  Others have gotten far richer, but his widow Diane insisted that  “what he cared about was the work . . . and the audience.”  Diane knew Dan for 17 years before they married, by which time he had mellowed from a weirdo into “a fusty old guy with a very big heart.”

Friday, October 17, 2014

Interacting with Neil Patrick Harris, 2015 Oscar Host

In the midst of a serious Ebola scare and so many other national disasters, it’s great to be able to trumpet a bit of good news: Neil Patrick Harris is going to host the Oscars. I doubt I have to explain who NPH is. Albuquerque’s favorite son first made headlines as a teenager in the goofy title role of Doogie Howser. M.D., a popular TV series (1989-1993) about a fourteen-year-old med school graduate. 

He also made films. I was surprised to recall that one of his very first was the leading kid role in an amiable fantasy called Purple People Eater, written and directed by a Roger Corman friend of mine, Linda Shayne. Many of his later films have been lightweight too, like Starship Troopers and (playing a parody version of himself) Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. And of course there’s recently been his Emmy-nominated sitcom role as playboy Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother. Yet his appearance in Gone Girl proves he can go dramatic as well.

But he’s made perhaps his biggest impression in a series of Broadway musicals. (He can sing, dance, do magic tricks, and probably walk on water.) He’s starred in everything from Sondheim to Rent to the Tony-winning transvestite role in the rock musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It must be said, he has great legs. What’s really going to prepare him to serve as Oscar host, though, are the years he’s spent brilliantly hosting the Tonys, by far the  most entertaining of the big awards shows.

One of the things that most intrigues me about Harris, aside from his versatility, is the fact that he’s the ultimate social media creature. He has 10.7 million Twitter followers, to whom he sends out almost daily tweets, like this one: “Yesterday I celebrated the birth of my twins. Tomorrow I celebrate the birth of my book. I hope the book poops less.”

Yes, he’s got a new memoir out. In a typically puckish twist, NPH  pays homage to the Choose Your Own Adventure books kids used to love. Here’s part of the official blurb: “Sick of deeply personal accounts written in the first person? Seeking an exciting, interactive read that puts the ‘u’ back in ‘aUtobiography’? Then look no further than Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography! In this revolutionary, Joycean experiment in light celebrity narrative, actor/personality/carbon-based-life-form Neil Patrick Harris lets you, the reader, live his life.”

Sounds like fun. See his official book trailer below. For those not involved with today’s publishing world,  it might not be known that video book trailers are now considered de rigueur, but Harris’s is surely more entertaining than most. And of course it smartly capitalizes on the current fad for all things interactive. Even the stuffy old Academy of Arts and Sciences, the organization that stages the Oscar broadcast each year, has finally recognized that fans want to get involved on an active level. The Academy just completed a redesign of its site, so that movie buffs (and not just visitors to the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library) can view priceless photographs and film clips. Now anyone with Internet access can see Audrey Hepburn’s screen tests for Roman Holiday and the theatrical trailer for William Castle’s Homicidal, which offers a “fright break” (with full refund of the ticket price) for those too scared to continue watching. 

I doubt I’ll need a fright break when watching NPH strut his stuff at the Oscars. True, the Oscar hosting job has scared some of the biggest names in the business. But not NPH, surely.