Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Witching Hour at the Movies

Halloween, of course, is a good time to talk about witches. Little girls today may trend toward Disney princesses for their Halloween costumes, but their moms and big sisters who want to put va-va-voom into their holiday attire often choose leggy Sexy Witch outfits. The movies are full of witches: cute witches (Bewitched), sultry witches (The Witches of Eastwick), scary witches (who can forget Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz?), even a maybe-not-there-at-all witch (The Blair Witch Project). In any case, movies that deal with witchcraft are generally going for fun, whether of the benign or the exciting variety.

But there was a time when to be named a witch was akin to a death sentence. Throughout European history outspoken women (and some men) have been accused of witchcraft, and few of them survived to refute the accusation. And that tradition unfortunately persisted in the New World, most famously in Puritan Massachusetts, where in 1692 dozens of local citizens were condemned to the gallows by tribunals determined to purge all witches from their midst. 

Years ago, I was featured in several productions of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s hit 1953 play that draws from the Salem witch trials an indirect parallel to the witch-hunting being done by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the members of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in his own day. The experience made me want to know more about the reality of the historical event, in which almost twenty locals (14 of them women) were sent to the gallows. Some of the victims were town renegades and cranks, but others were solid citizens known for their piety and good works. How did they come to be accused?

The answer lies in bestselling author Stacy Schiff’s fascinating narrative, The Witches: Salem 1692. Schiff, author of biographies of everyone from Véra Nabokov to Cleopatra, digs deep into the historical record to reconstruct the deadly doings in that small New England town. Much of her focus is on the pre-pubescent girls whose testimony before the witchcraft tribunal brought down so many members of their community. Today we diagnose their writhing and screaming as mass hysteria, but Schiff goes further, seeing in the strict rules of Puritanism the seeds of a covert rebellion that evolved into an impulse to undo others. Conditions in Salem were harsh: not only was daily life an ongoing challenge but a rigid religious system allowed for few emotional outlets. Schiff notes how many of the accusing girls had previously suffered the loss of a parent. She also grasps how easy it was for bereaved children to accuse their father’s new wife of witchcraft. 

As an historian, Schiff makes a shrewd observation: “History is not rich in unruly young women; with the exception of Joan of Arc and a few underage sovereigns, it would be difficult to name another historical moment so dominated by teenage virgins, traditionally a vulnerable, mute, and disenfranchised cohort.” Noting that these young accusers’ testimony  is often rich in details of  brightly colored clothing supposedly worn by the witches on their revels, she wonders: were the accusers themselves so desperate for color in their lives that they turned their forbidden longings into accusations of others?

The first filmed version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was made in France in 1957. It featured French-speaking actors like Yves Montand and his wife, Simon Signoret. Hollywood didn’t dare film Miller’s play until the Daniel Day-Lewis version, based on Miller’s own screenplay, appeared in 1996. It contains the very sexy love triangle that Schiff doesn’t find anywhere in the chronicles of Salem Town.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Baseball Goes to the Movies (or Root Root Root for the Home Team)

OF COURSE I’m rooting for the Dodgers to win the World Series. I’ve loved the team since it moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, putting down roots at Chavez Ravine after a crazy season playing baseball in the historic L.A. Coliseum, where homeruns over the short left-field fence were almost inevitable. I admit these days I’m something of a fair-weather fan, ignoring the team when they are flailing and paying attention mostly when they’re in the thick of a pennant run.

When I was growing up, though, my whole family bled Dodger Blue. That was the era when Danny Kaye performed a hilarious song outlining a hypothetical game in which the Dodgers miraculously whip their arch-rivals, the San Francisco Giants. (Oh really? No, O’Malley.) Not only did I learn the Dodger Song  (see below) by heart but I actually seized the opportunity to sing part of it for Danny Kaye himself, when he visited the U.S. Pavilion at Expo ’70. (If you think I wasn’t a bit tongue-tied at that moment, you’re very much mistaken.)  

Anyway, now that baseball is in the air, I’m taking the opportunity to wax philosophical about why so many Hollywood movies have baseball settings. I haven’t done a serious survey, but it seems to me there are far more movies about baseball than about any other sport, like football, basketball, tennis, or golf. Why? Maybe it’s for the same reason that baseball has long been considered America’s favorite pastime. Though it of course celebrates teamwork, it also remains the spectator sport that best spotlights the talents of a rugged individualist, the player who can win a game with one pitch or one swing of the bat. 

Looking back on the baseball movies of the past, I see that some of the most famous are those that focus on the deeds of a single hero, like Lou Gehrig in 1942’a The Pride of the Yankees. There are also multitudes of movies in which the heroics come from underdogs who unexpectedly rise to the occasion. Witness, for instance, The Bad News Bears (1976, plus a slew of sequels and remakes), as well as A League of Their Own (1992), in which women show that they too have what it takes to play ball.

For some reason the 1980s (the era when the Dodgers last enjoyed World Series play) gave rise to many notable baseball films. Both The Natural (1984, based on Bernard Malamud’s first novel) and Field of Dreams (1989) endow the sport with mythic dimensions. In 1988, John Sayles delved into baseball history’s ugliest moment, the fixing of the 1919 World Series by the Chicago White Sox, in Eight Men Out.  Here was a case where the mythology turned dark, in a film highlighting the betrayal of America’s hopes and dreams. Much more fun was the subject matter of 1988’s other baseball movie, Bull Durham, with its focus on sexy fans who’ll do just about anything to show their loyalty to their favorite minor-league team.  

In recent years,  the heroics of Jackie Robinson, baseball’s first black player, were highlighted in 2013’s lively tribute film, 42. But our cynical era is perhaps best represented by 2011’s Moneyball, a hit movie based on the real-life story of how the Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane, used computer-generated analysis to build himself a champion ballclub.  It’s a provocative subject, and the film was nominated for six Oscars. But I admit I for one feel machinations in the front office are ultimately less interesting than exploits on  the field. 

Go Blue!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Inching Down the Amazon with Theodore Roosevelt

When  I worked for Roger Corman at Concorde-New Horizons, his deal with Lima-based filmmaker Luis Llosa had us sending movie crews to make movies in Peru’s crumbling colonial cities, stark grasslands, and dense jungles Though we used Peru as a stand-in for Vietnam and many other places, we also dreamed up several  projects intended to have a true Latin American flavor. One was Fire on the Amazon, an ecological drama that remains special to me both because it contains a Sandra Bullock nude scene (yes, really) and because my rewrite of the script gave me a screenwriting credit I probably didn’t deserve. We also adapted a nineteenth-century Jules Verne novel called Eight Hundred Leagues Down the Amazon into a PG-13 action-adventure that drove us all somewhat crazy. Here’s the official logline: Outlaw Joam Garral makes a clandestine journey down the crocodile and piranha infested Amazon river to attend his daughter's marriage. Not only must he brave the dangers of the Amazonian jungles, but also the bounty hunter hot on his trail. This may sound potentially exciting, but we hardly had the budget, nor the technical know-how, to make an Amazon rafting trip seem really exciting.

I’ve just finished reading a book that makes me glad I never went on an Amazon expedition. Candice Millard is an historian and biographer who once worked for National Geographic. Her first book was a 2005 bestseller, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. It chronicles the period in which the 56-year-old Roosevelt, after his White House years and the failure of his campaign to initiate a new political party, plunged with characteristic vigor into an expedition to survey an uncharted Brazilian River known as the Rio da Duvida, or River of Doubt. Among the adventurers who set out with Roosevelt to travel the river from its source to its mouth were the renowned Brazilian military man who had first discovered the river and was dedicated to charting its course, a respected American ornithologist, a medical doctor, a Catholic priest, and Roosevelt’s son Kermit. The latter was a brave and stalwart young man quite accustomed to the rugged life. Though Kermit was along on the trip to watch over his father’s well-being, he was distracted by his recent engagement to a society beauty. Unfortunately, his impulsive decision along the way led to the death of one of the corps of  native paddlers who shared in the hazards of the journey.

Roosevelt’s story has everything: dangerous flora and fauna, hostile natives, fearsome rapids, lost canoes. There’s even a buffoon, the priest who assumed that as the physically weakest member of the party he’d be carried through the jungle on the shoulders of others. And there’s a villain too: one of the local laborers (or “camaradas”) on the trip turns out to be a thief and a murderer. As the men approached starvation, Roosevelt aggravated an old injury that weakened him to the point that he seriously contemplated suicide, as a way to keep from holding the others back. He somehow survived, but in three months lost 55 pounds, or a quarter of his normal weight. He returned home to international acclaim, but was never again quite the robust specimen he’d always prided himself on being. 

To read Millard’s book is to be reminded of how much exploration has improved since 1914. For one thing, there was no penicillin back then to fight off the infection that nearly drove Roosevelt to take his own life. Some of the expedition’s choices seem foolish in the extreme, but nobility of character is always worth celebrating.