Thursday, December 29, 2016

Luminous Beings

In what now seems a lifetime ago, I once had to go through tens of thousands of feet of 16mm behind-the-scenes footage from the original Star Wars trilogy.  Most of this was not shot on the set, but rather with the effects crew, model and creature shops, and other artists commonly known as “below the line” but critical to any movie’s success, especially those.  So you rarely saw much of the cast, but one memorable sequence was Carrie Fisher in her (in)famous slave bikini outfit from Return of the Jedi (1983, Marquand) sunbathing in the Arizona desert during a break, side by side with her similarly costumed stunt double.  And it was a jarring moment because you actually saw her interacting with another woman.

For let’s face it—the original three films are a sausage fest and Bechdel test nightmare.  There are only 3 female speaking parts in the whole trilogy—the short-lived Aunt Beru, the blink-and-you-miss her Mon Mothma (recently revived in the terrific Rogue One), and Princess Leia Organa.  So Carrie had to do the heavy-lifting for all 3 films when it came to female characterization, since she was both love interest and leader of the Rebellion.  Powerful, commanding, willing to stand toe-to-toe with anyone she came up against (Vader, Tarkin, Jabba) but also kind, caring, and authentic.  One of the highlights of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was seeing her back in action, still filled with authority and compassion.  The fact that the last two franchise films have had women at the center of the heroics is due in large part to her influence. 

Of course, since then she has also proven herself a witty writer and raconteur, smart aleck and cinematic sidekick, member of a vibrant-but-troubled Hollywood dynasty, an object lesson about addiction and an ambassador for destigmatizing mental health issues.  And she leaves us just a few months after her co-star Kenny Baker (who played R2-D2) and, tragically, one day before her mother Debbie Reynolds.

Just a month ago, I saw a sneak preview of Bright Lights (2016, Bloom/Stevens), a documentary about Carrie & Debbie.  It's a marvelous film in how it shows the once tumultuous mother-daughter relationship that evolved into one of deep love and support, but leavened with an enormous amount of playful ribbing, snark, and self-deprecation.  They had come to terms with the demons of the past and were both continuing to dive into creative pursuits fueled by wisdom and nostalgia.  So much of their personal bad luck and bad choices were scandal sheet fodder for so long, that there was little choice but to face the future with bravado and pluck.  The film follows each of them individually (Debbie rehearsing a one-woman show, Carrie attending a scifi convention), but the best parts are when they are together.  They come off as best of friends and savvy partners in crime, and it really did seem hard to imagine how one could exist without the other.  Both full of such indomitable spirit in the film, and both gone much too soon (Carrie at 60, Debbie at 84).
Another wonderful thing the film highlights is Debbie’s tireless campaign to save the artifacts of Hollywood history, particularly the costumes—not just of her films, but of films that predate her and that would have otherwise been thrown out by studio departments who were, back then, far less interested in preserving their past than making space for the latest productions.  Pieces that she purportedly saved over the years (through fundraising and her own backlot connections and initiative) include Charlie Chaplin’s bowler, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra headdress, Marilyn Monroe’s subway grate dress from The Seven Year Itch, and Judy Garland’s Oz ruby slippers.

One of my favorite songs is “Graceland” by Paul Simon, who was once married to Carrie, and whose relationship with her is documented in that song (among many others).  It’s a song about renewal and second chances, and when I drove across country last year, I listened to the whole Graceland album as I approached Memphis to visit Elvis’s legendary estate of the same name.  In the song, Simon writes about his ex:
She comes back to tell me she's gone
As if I didn't know that
As if I didn't know my own bed
As if I'd never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow
Life is a pilgrimage and we should all be so lucky as to have it filled with grace (in both the poetic and spiritual dimension).  Yoda says to Luke, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”  2016 was a rough year for a lot of people for a lot of reasons.  May the road we take in 2017, portentous clouds notwithstanding, be filled with the light, courage, good humor and fierce resolve that they both embodied so well.

Carrie and Kenny share a USPS stamp, essentially, from the Star Wars issue back in 2007.  That is Scott #4143f .  The X-wing fighter is #4143m.  The Wizard of Oz stamp is #2445, Judy Garland #4077, and Yip Harbug #3905.  The music stamp from the American Filmmaking series is #3772d.  And Elvis is #5009.  Incidentally, the first film poster on a postcard I ever owned was a gift from my high school girlfriend.  It was for Singin’ in the Rain, still one of my favorite films ever.  I’ve included it here, along with the inscription she wrote on the back, since this whole blog & collection originated, in a sense, with her.

My 10 favorite films featuring Debbie*, Carrie+, or Kenny#.
1. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Donen/Kelly) *
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Kershner) +#
3. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Allen) +
4. Time Bandits (1981, Gilliam) #
5. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989, Miyazaki) *
6. The Elephant Man (1980, Lynch) #
7. When Harry Met Sally… (1989, Reiner) +
8. Mona Lisa (1986, Jordan) #
9. Star Wars (1977, Lucas) +#
10. The Blues Brothers  (1980, Landis) +

Friday, December 9, 2016

One Kool Kat

Kirk Douglas was never really known for comedy.  Brawler, tough guy, a hero who was often tortured, if not physically (which was often), then psychologically—his films are typically serious stuff.  When he did smile, it was often wolfish, or as if the cat ate the canary.  What humor he showed in his characters would often be wry, acerbic, cynical.  The most playful he ever got—his Ned Land in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)—was in a fantasy adventure, but even his films that had a comedic bent (There Was A Crooked Man... (1970), for example) would have a dark undercurrent.  While this changed towards the end of his career (1980 and beyond), it was mostly in the service of forgettable films, the best of which was Tough Guys (1986), his final pairing with long-time screen partner Burt Lancaster—another actor, in fact, who rarely did comedies, though his screen charisma had far greater natural buoyancy.  Even when Kirk wasn’t fighting, he was always like a coiled spring, ready to pounce at any time.  It’s what made him a great villain in his early years and such a suitable anti-hero as his career blossomed, this authentic intensity.

But we know from various interviews he’s done that he is a funny, warm, charming guy in real life—a trait that didn’t fade an iota even after his debilitating stroke in January 1996.  So on the occasion of his 100th birthday, I thought we’d talk about the best, overtly funny thing he was ever in, his guest appearance on The Simpsons which aired just a few months after the stroke: “The Day the Violence Died.”

In it, the famous Itchy & Scratchy cartoon pair are celebrating their 75th anniversary, commemorated by a parade through downtown Springfield.  It’s here that Bart meets the bum Chester J. Lampwick (Douglas), who claims to have created Itchy, only to have it stolen by Roger Meyers Sr. (a Walt Disney proxy in the world of the Simpsons).  The ensuing court case and rags-to-riches storyline for Chester is packed with a ton of fun references to animation tropes from a variety of decades.

Of course, Kirk is no stranger to exposés on the cutthroat character of Tinseltown.  He played a merciless producer in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and a washed-up actor in Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), and his real-life political courage in the face of enormous industry pressure during the Blacklist era is the stuff of legend (his Spartacus storyline is the best thing about the otherwise tedious Trumbo).

So it’s fun to see his irascible Chester go up against the craven, money-grubbing system.  But Chester doesn’t care about art.  He only cares about restitution.  So It’s no skin off his nose when the studio goes bankrupt.  In this way, he’s a kindred spirit to Grandpa Simpson (one of the most reliably hilarious characters on the show).  A funny running gag is that various Springfield characters have a history with Chester, contracting him to do odd jobs he never completed for food he insists was terrible.  Invariably, each of these ends in a roll-on-the-floor fist fight.  He’s a crank, and the tough guy hasn’t softened a bit with age, though he also plays a good piano accompaniment to his silent short.  Throughout, Douglas plays it straight, but still sounds like he's having fun.  And in the end, he gets his just reward: his solid gold house and rocket car.  And eventually, the studio finds an unexpected cash flow, so that means for the last 20 seasons, Chester has been getting residuals on all the new Itchy & Scratchy cartoons that are made.  A suitable happy ending.

What is the origin of Itchy & Scratchy?  Certainly the most famous cat vs. mouse dynamic in film history is Tom & Jerry, a pair that has yet to earn a USPS stamp but which earned more Oscars for their shorts than either Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny.  But a more obvious progenitor is Krazy Kat by George Herriman, most famously a comic strip for over 30 years but also the subject of some very early animation efforts.  In the strip, Krazy Kat is a soft-hearted character who is constantly trying to woo Ignatz the mouse.  The latter always responded by throwing bricks at Krazy’s head.  Similarly, Scratchy is always depicted as a sweet or sentimental soul, with Itchy the brutal aggressor, blessed with a limitless imagination when it comes to inventive ways to murder his nemesis.  Chester also says, "Before I came along, all cartoon animals did was play the ukelele."  One of Krazy's signature traits was strumming a makeshift guitar or banjo.  So even though Krazy Kat is hardly known at all anymore, it holds striking similarities with the Simpsons’ incarnation.

In the show, we learn that Chester first created Itchy back in 1919, long before his “official” debut in 1928’s Steamboat Itchy.  The first Krazy Kat cartoon was in 1916, and while I’ve never heard any allegations to Disney using Krazy Kat as a model for Mickey, it’s a different story with the design elements of his famous mouse and Felix the Cat (also stampless) who debuted in 1919 in Feline Follies and became incredibly popular thereafter, with more than 150 shorts between 1919 and 1928.  When we see footage of Itchy’s debut Manhattan Madness, it’s a fun lampoon of the visual style of the time, as well as a satire of the unfortunate tendency to use ethnic or racial stereotypes back then.

Other animation references in this episode:

·       Mickey’s Steamboat Willie (also 1928), of course, as well as Roger Meyers Jr. no longer being able to afford the cryogenic chamber where his father was being stored (another allusion to one of the dafter Walt Disney rumors).

·       Chester’s last name Lampwick is also the name of Pinocchio’s juvenile delinquent friend in the 1940 Disney feature.  His terrifying transformation into a donkey (fated for a life of animal servitude) remains one of the most horrific moments in the studio’s history.

·       The unnamed Itchy & Scratchy cartoon featured at the end has the familiar southwest landscapes used in all the Warner Bros. roadrunner cartoons, as well as the rocket skates by Acme (Wile E. Coyote’s favorite brand).

·       Itchy & Scratchy Meet Fritz the Cat, another animated feline, this time created by R. Crumb and featured by Ralph Bakshi in his infamous 1972 feature film.

·       Perhaps the most blistering lampoon is that of Schoolhouse Rock, with the Amendment-To-Be song that acts as a gross perversion of the original Saturday morning civics lessons.  They even got Jack Sheldon (who sang the original “I'm Just a Bill”) to perform this number.  Check it out.

At 100, Kirk has had a wonderful run, and he’s managed to outlive several of the other guest actors from his episode.  Terrible lawyer Lionel Hutz (who actually manages to win his case here) was played by frequent guest, the late Phil Hartman.  And Alex Rocco did recurring bits as Roger Meyers, Jr. on the show before passing away last year.  At least Sheldon and other guest actor Suzanne Somers are still with us.

One other bit that makes this a particular favorite episode for film buffs: When Bart uses the school projector to screen Chester’s copy of Manhattan Madness, the film catches fire and incinerates just like a movie made from the old nitrate film stock would.  The former film archivist in me values this moment a great deal (though the less said about how much I resemble Milhouse at that age, the better).  And the philatelist in me appreciates how the Itchy & Scratchy studio becomes solvent again once it’s revealed the United States Postal Service plagiarized Roger Meyers with its Mr. Zip icon (a real cartoon brand in the 1960s, used to publicize the importance of the newly introduced Zip Codes).

One other bit of Simpsons trivia.  At exactly 100, Kirk still isn’t the longest-living person to appear at one time on the show.  Bob Hope lived to 100 years, 2 months.  So it won’t take long to beat that record.   Another curiosity: Even though the Stanley Kubrick references are prolific throughout the series's lifetime, there has never been a Spartacus spoof, unusual for a film with such iconic possibilities.  Maybe one day.  But Kirk's legacy on the show is secure.  Look at the postcard below and you’ll see Chester in the upper left-hand corner, nestled between Dr. Nick and Nelson Muntz.

Kirk isn’t eligible for a USPS stamp yet (thank goodness) but he has appeared in stamps from other countries, like the Mali one depicted at the top.  The Walt Disney stamp is Scott # 1355.  Other Scott #s for the Disney issues: Mickey w/friends (3865), Pinocchio (3868), Mickey & Pluto (3912), Mickey & Minnie (4025), Dumbo (4194), Fantasia (4192) Steamboat Willie (4343).  Homer, Bart, and Lisa Simpson are Scott #s 4399, 4401, and 4402 respectively.  The cartoon cat stamp on the Fritz the Cat poster is part of the Bright Eyes series, Scott # 3232.  The Stanley Steamer stamp is Scott # 2132, Krazy Kat # 3000e, and Roadrunner # 3391.  And the pet stamps from this year included cat (# 5122) and mouse (# 5117). 
For more entries in the Kirk Douglas Centennial Blogathon, go here

       My Top 10 Kirk Douglas films
  • 1. Paths of Glory (Kubrick, 1957)
  • 2. Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)
  • 3. Seven Days in May (Frankenheimer, 1964)
  • 4. Champion (Robson, 1949)
  • 5. Lonely Are the Brave (D.Miller, 1962)
  • 6. Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960)
  • 7. Detective Story (Wyler, 1951)
  • 8. The Man from Snowy River (G.Miller, 1982)
  • 9. Lust for Life (Minnelli, 1956)
  • 10. A Letter to Three Wives (Mankiewicz, 1949)