Tuesday, August 29, 2017

No Names Changed to Protect the Innocent

We’ve all seen TV programs like Law and Order or the various entries in the CSI franchise.
In each episode’s first few moments, before the commercial break (when hucksters try to interest us in fast cars or clean floors or sweet-scented underarms), a heinous crime is committed. The victim—often a lovely young woman who’s gone somewhere she shouldn’t—is set upon by a mysterious someone. She is brutally attacked, but the key details are withheld from us. Uh oh!

After the car or the floor or the armpits are suitably promoted, we’re back with serious-faced cops and crime lab folks, all of them trying to figure out whodunit. There are strong potential leads that come to nothing, because alert professionals are checking out DNA samples as well as suspicious-sounding alibis. Just before the program’s end, the real killer—someone whom we’ve previously dismissed as harmless--is unmasked, with much fanfare. Case closed.

Such shows are as old as television, dating back to Dragnet in the Fifties and Sixties. (I’ve discovered that the original “Just the facts, Ma’am” show started on radio in 1949. Dragnet’s creator and star, Jack Webb, moved it to TV in 1951. It stuck around for eight years, then was revived in 1967 with Webb—in his familiar Sgt. Friday role—now handling cases that involved such updated topics as race riots and LSD. Dragnet and its four-note opening theme (dum da DUM dum) eventually became so widely known that the show was parodied twenty years later on an educational math program for kids, Math Net (1987-92), featuring Sgt. Monday and her sidekick George Frankly solving crimes with the aid of their trusty calculators. But I digress.

On Dragnet, Jack Webb and company wrapped up their sleuthing in 30 minutes. More recent police procedurals tend to last an hour. I think we all enjoy such shows both because they’re cleverly plotted and because we like their take on the world we live in. Yes, on these programs bad things happen to good people. But, in the end, the bad guy (or gal) is caught, and brought to justice. That’s the American way.

I wish it were always so in real life. This weekend’s Los Angeles Times had on its front page an item that shook me to my core. It included a photo of a pretty young brunette named Wendy Halison. I never knew her well, but we were high school classmates. She was honored in a class poll as having the best figure among graduating seniors. In 1968 I was horrified to read that her body had been found in the trunk of her car, not far from where she’d just purchased a hairdryer on sale at a local drug store. She’d been raped and strangled.   

The early news accounts cast suspicion on a former boyfriend. I stopped paying attention after that, not really aware that Wendy’s file remained open. Both her parents went to their deaths never knowing who’d killed their daughter.  Some thirty years later, with the rise of DNA testing, the four original suspects were officially ruled out. The killer’s identity remained a mystery until 2016, when some dedicated cold-case investigators conclusively linked Wendy’s death to a drifter who died in prison, after being linked to the strangulation of several attractive, dark-eyed young women in the Midwest. 

After 48 years, Wendy’s surviving sister now has some answers. But it’s too late for another pretty young woman who died in Burbank in 1969. Though the circumstances of her death strongly resembled Wendy’s, her file has long since been lost. No DNA evidence survives.

Wendy Halison, may you rest in peace. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Godfather Reaches New Heights (What? No Cannoli?)

A movie on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But both New York and L.A. hipsters are discovering the fun of watching movies on the rooftop of an urban high-rise. Last weekend in DTLA (the cool new acronym for Downtown Los Angeles) I checked out the Rooftop Cinema Club, perched atop a trendy residential building in the rapidly gentrifying South Park neighborhood. It was surprisingly chilly, but the price of admission included (along with a choice of soft drinks) a comfy blanket, plus some spiffy earphones and the privilege of curving my spine into a canvas deck chair. There are also tacos, popcorn, ice cream, and other suitable munchies available for sale: it’s an offer you can’t refuse.

The film I saw on that rooftop was a an all-time classic, The Godfather. Given the subject matter, it would have been more appropriate to watch it in New York, though at least one memorable scene is set in a Beverly Hills mansion. (Yes, I mean the one where John Marley wakes up to find he’s been joined in bed by the severed head of his favorite horse.) I first saw the film, of course, circa 1972, when it was racking up honors, some of them controversial. It won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor—the notorious Marlon Brando win that led to a colorfully costumed Sacheen Littlefeather refusing the trophy on Brando’s behalf, in protest of Hollywood’s mistreatment of Native Americans. I had almost forgotten that The Godfather garnered a remarkable three nominations (out of five) for Best Supporting Actor: James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino. The latter, though, refused to attend the ceremony, complaining that his role was bigger than that of Brando, and should have been judged as a lead actor performance. The Supporting Actor category was won by Joel Grey, who played the perverse Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret, a film that also won Oscars for star Liza Minnelli and director Bob Fosse.

It's remarkable to me how The Godfather has influenced our language. For the subtitle of my first book, a biography of my former boss Roger Corman, I was inspired to suggest that Roger be called the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking. (My publisher had suggested the much more somber word “Patriarch.”) And who can forget phrases like “go to the mattresses” and “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”? But on this viewing, at a time when our nation can’t stop thinking about the political scene,  I was also struck by the film’s commentary on leadership. When Marlon Brando’s courtly Don Vito Corleone sends his henchmen to commit nefarious acts, he apologetically explains that there’s nothing personal about it: business is business. The movie, though, gives the lie to such rationalizations. Don Vito wants to make money, but above all he wants respect, even fealty. And this attitude transfers to the son, Michael (Al Pacino) who ultimately takes over Don Vito’s crime empire. Michael, who at the start of the film has seemed to reject his father’s approach to life, ends up running the show precisely as Don Vito had done. Why, given his American education and his status as a war hero, does he fall back into the old ways? Money? A sense of obligation to continue the family legacy? Yes, but also a playing out of his resentment against his older brothers and the adoptive son (Robert Duvall) with whom he had to share his father’s love. 

Ironically, Don Vito had wanted Michael to stay clean—to have a future as a senator or maybe even President. Gangsters spawning politicians? Hmmmm.

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.