Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Cult Movie Project #8 (of 200) :: The Asphalt's Lament on the Road to Nowhere: Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) is a film that requires a lot of patience that can be read (and reward you) on many different levels, metaphorically speaking. I don't think I've ever seen a film so obsessed with speed and movement that felt so inert. And apathetic. And alienated. But fluidly so. And yes, I know, that doesn't make any sense. At all. But it's true. And I freely admit my patience was stretched pretty thin, thanks to a third act that kinda slips the clutch and grinds itself up in its own existential gearbox; and I cannot settle on what, exactly, director Monte Hellman was trying to say as all those metaphors kept piling up on the side of the road. (See what I did there?) And then, there's that ending; a film within a film and a faulty projector based, Hellman later recollected, on a dream he'd had, where our hero realizes he has no room in his movie for anybody or anything.

The film's origins can be traced back to an autobiographical tale by Will Corry, which documented a 1968 cross-country road trip by two men and a woman who tagged along. Producer Michael Laughlin optioned the story and tagged Monte Hellman, another Roger Corman protege, to direct it. Hellman liked the bones of Corry's journey and Floyd Mutrux's adapted screenplay but felt it hadn't reached its full potential and recommended noted counter-culture scribe Rudolph Wurlitzer to flesh it out. But Wurlitzer barely got five pages into Corry's version before the decision was made to basically junk it -- except for the four main characters: the Car, the Driver (Taylor), the Mechanic (Wilson) and the Girl (Bird). 

Immersing himself in hot-rod mags and the stoner car culture of the San Fernando Valley, Wurlitzer added GTO (Oates) to the mix and plugged them all into a race that was less about the finish line and more about the journey and what was breached along the way. But all of this effort was almost for naught when the original production company pulled the plug. Fortunately, Ned Tanen, a young turk at Universal, not only agreed to take over and finance the film, but gave Hellman free rein on casting and guaranteed the director final cut. 

Still thinking outside the box, Hellman cast two musicians and a model with no acting experience for the leads. He also insisted that the film be shot on location as the journey progressed. Thus and so, the director led his cast and crew on an eight-week odyssey along the fabled Route 66 that would eventually land them in Memphis, Tennessee, shooting the whole way in sequence. And the film is beautifully shot as it immerses you into this auto-culture and the decay around the backwater byways as these once thriving arteries wither and dry up. You can honestly feel the heat and vibration of the engines and smell the gas, oil, and vulcanized rubber. And as filming progressed, the director only doled out the day's script pages as they went, never letting his cast read the whole thing and know where the story was going, causing some consternation with his players.  

Once filming wrapped, the editing process began, which netted a film nearly three and a half hours long. This, was a problem. For, even though he had final cut, a clause in the fine print obligated Hellman to edit the film however he wanted -- as long as the end result was under two hours. And while Hellman whittled the film down to 105 minutes, basically excising half of it, Esquire magazine featured the film on the front page of the April, 1971, issue, which proclaimed Two-Lane Blacktop the movie of the year -- even though no one had seen it yet. (The magazine based their opinion entirely on the screenplay, which it reprinted in its entirety.) Expectations were high, but, alas, proved too high.

Things began to fall apart when Lew Wasserman, the head honcho at Universal, screened the film and hated it so much he refused to promote it. Upon its release, the critics were fairly kind, despite the blow of heightened expectations, and felt the production had true grit but it utterly failed to find an audience. And by the time these favorable reviews came in, the film was already gone.

Honestly, it's easy to see why the film was initially rejected. It could almost be considered a foreign import for, aside from the thunder of revving engines and peeling of rubber, silence rules this film and the (perfunctory) language engaged by the Driver and the Mechanic is mostly shop talk. (Myself, I only know enough Gear-Head to get myself into trouble when I take my car for an oil change.) Taylor and Wilson do just fine in their symbiotic roles, searching for something. Perhaps perfection, perhaps not. If this was ever achieved, What would they do then? The sole purpose of their existence is to make enough money to keep the car going, their own sustenance be damned. The car is the top priority. Throwing a monkey-wrench into all of this is the Girl, played brilliantly by Laurie Bird, a hitch-hiker, whose presence does not compute and leads to some *ahem* 'well-entrenched systems' breaking down.

I was more intrigued by Warren Oates' GTO, the compulsive liar, who challenges our two mechanized-zombies to a cross country race for "pinks." A race no one seemed interested in winning let alone finishing. And I was most intrigued by the juxtaposition of the challenged, the '55 Chevy, a relic from the past, rebuilt and maintained by people who have grease on their hands from the ground up, and the spiritual connection this creates, going against the challenger, the '70 Pontiac GTO, a mass-produced muscle-car driven by a "weekend warrior" with no true identity.

It's also easy to read these cars as a substitute for masculinity and the loser of the race must lose theirs to the other; all part of a emasculating de-evolution process of American men being builders turned into mindless consumers. And it's kind of amazing with all that open country how isolated everything feels. It also feels more honest about the malaise of the late 1960s and early '70s as the counter-culture movement flamed out than Easy Rider (1969) ever did.

This was my third viewing of Two-Lane Blacktop and each time my initial less-than-positive reaction to it erodes a little more. Who knows, a couple more viewings and this film might really be something. Right now, definitely worth a spin. Just keep your expectations below 55mph. 

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"All these characters are not heroes to admire -- they are miserable case studies. The sad aspect of Blacktop is that while these two young men take their endless trip to nowhere in their cubicle on wheels, they pass stationary cubicles -- houses owned by all economic classes -- where lights go on to signal that there are people inside who are just as withdrawn and isolated from the problems / horrors of the world. Roland Gelart of The Saturday Review recognized the film's strength: '[It] manages to speak compellingly of contemporary alienation without ever tumbling into the visual clich├ęs of sex, drugs and violence.' We already knew about the alienation of the drug culture and war protesters -- this is about the alienation of everyone else."

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The Fine Print: Two-Lane Blacktop was watched via Anchor Bay's Widescreen VHS cassette tape (-- because when he bought it some idiot thought DVDs weren't gonna stick). Watched as a High-Octane double-feature with George Miller's Mad Max (1979). What's the Cult Movie ProjectThat's eight down, with 192 to go.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) Michael Laughlin Enterprises :: Universal Pictures / P: Michael Laughlin / AP: Gary Kurtz / D: Monte Hellman / W: Rudy Wurlitzer, Will Corry, Floyd Mutrux / C: Jack Deerson / E: Monte Hellman / M: Billy James / S: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, Harry Dean Stanton

Monday, April 27, 2015

Shameless Plugs :: The Archive is Going Ape!

In lieu of actual content, here's a link for our sister site, The Poster Archive, where we spent the last month posting the poster campaigns for all five films in the classic Planet of the Apes franchise. So, click on over and have a look you damn dirty boils and ghouls.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Cult Movie Project #7 (of 200) :: Quipping With Sharks and the Fine Art of Gender Upheaval: Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940)

Originally intended for Broadway, The Front Page was written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, both former newspapermen from the self-aggrandizing and cutthroat (dark) days of Chicago's circulation wars, basing their characters on themselves and several old colleagues. Produced by Jed Harris and directed by the legendary George S. Kaufman, their play proved a smashing success. Seems audiences were delighted by the intricate plotting and the snarky, slang-filled dialogue of the irascible characters that inhabited the newsroom of The Examiner. Howard Hughes obtained the film rights and Bartlett Cormack adapted the screenplay for Lewis Milestone's 1931 film adaptation for United Artists, with an assist by Charles Lederer.

Lederer was also a holdover for Howard Hawks' proposed gender-bending remake of The Front Page for Columbia nine years later, who stayed true to Hecht and MacArthur's crackerjack, rapid-fire dialogue, soon to be his director's signature trademark, in perhaps the screwiest of screwball comedies of all time, His Girl Friday (1940).

"I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another," Hawks expounded later during an interview with fellow director, Peter Bogdanovich. "Especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialogue in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping."

To get the right mix for this effect, the director employed several microphones for each take, some hanging from above, others hidden around the set, all going to the same recorder, requiring the sound man to keep the dialogue in-synch with the switch-flipping to keep the right mic hot -- as many as 35 times a take! I'm telling ya, having a conversation in this film is like swimming with sharks in deep water, where multiple characters must keep paddling and defensively flailing to stop from drowning and being devoured simultaneously. And this is why His Girl Friday is one of those flicks that absolutely requires multiple viewings, where a person can pick up something new each and every time and STILL not catch it all.

Now, there are many apocryphal tales surrounding exactly why Hawks pulled this gender switch, making the battling and bickering Walter Burns and Hildebrant Johnson a divorced couple instead of just being an unscrupulous editor and a crack reporter. One catalytic influence that I think gets overlooked is Torchy Blane. See, in-between adaptations, Warner Bros. had unleashed Glenda Farrell in a successful series of films, starting with Smart Blonde (1937), spotlighting a savvy, motor-mouthed female reporter with an acid-tongue who always outwitted, out-quipped and out-reported her male counterparts, and she always, always, got in the last cracked-wise word with everyone, that were truly hilarious.

The most oft told tale on the origin of this switcheroo is how Hawks had his secretary reading the part of Johnson during the pre-production phase (other sources claim it was at dinner party during a dialogue tutorial) and a mental light-bulb clicked on, sending the director scrambling to Lederer for, well, not as massive a rewrite as you'd think because even though the story might've changed the dialogue remained the same as the scheming and cajoling Burns still wants his ace reporter to get him the real scoop on a condemned man (Qualen) destined to be hanged at midnight for his newspaper but this is also part of his overall stratagem to win her back by derailing (the now) Hildegarde Johnson's impending marriage to a doltish (but earnest and completely overwhelmed) insurance salesmen who kinda looks like Ralph Bellamy.

What's a cold hard fact is that Rosalind Russell was about sixth or seventh in line for the role and only got it when Carole Lombard proved too expensive and several other big names -- Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Margaret Sullavan, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunn, and Jean Arthur -- took a pass; a source of bitter contention between the actress and the director, causing a few dust-ups during production. Lombard was Hawks' first choice for Hildy, then Hepburn, whom he had hoped to pair up with Cary Grant again just like in the director's other britches-burning comedy, Bringing Up Baby (1938). Grant was the director's first choice all along for Walter Burns, who had a ball. For once, the actor got to stir the pot instead of being at the mercy of whoever else was pee--*ahem*, sorry, whoever else was holding the ladle.

Russell would have the last laugh on the director, though, beating him at his own game. Knowing Hawks favored a loose script, spontaneity and improvisation, Russell hired her own gag writer to punch-up her dialogue to match Grant, barb for barb and double-entendre for double-entendre. Grant soon caught onto this but played along and didn't rat her out. And in the end, with the crackling chemistry these two show as they spark off of one another, we should all be grateful that those casting dominoes fell that far. Also, major kudos must be given to Bellamy as the never-say-die but never-had-a-chance corner of this love-triangle. And how 'bout a big hand for the gaggle of reporters at the courthouse, who proved this gender identity switching goes both ways. I mean, that poker game is one of the most gossipy hen-parties I've ever witnessed onscreen.

I'm always kind of amazed that it took until the 1970s before Hawks conversational style really caught on, cinematically speaking. (Remember, Robert Altman was fired off Countdown in 1968 because the studio charged his actors were all talking at the same time.) But right here is where it really started, a veritable well-stocked vocabulary bar, brash, brassy, rowdy, and ballsy that'll leave your ears a little punch-drunk. And if you haven't seen it yet, the film is (quite inexplicably) in the public domain; and thus, available to stream almost everywhere, so give it a whirl. Just be sure to hang on to something after you push play because there's a gale-force storm of comedy primed and ready to run you over -- and then back up and run you over again. And again. Aaaaaaand again. 

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"Hawks immediately recognized that with Hildy as a woman the story takes on a new, interesting dimension: the characters play for higher stakes. In The Front Page, Walter wants Hildy to remain with The Morning Post instead of marrying Peggy and taking a higher paying advertising job. This is as much out of spite (as Peggy points out) as out of fear of losing his ace reporter. (In the play, there is additionally a subtle homosexual bond between Hildy and Walter.) In His Girl Friday, Walter, who becomes the lead male character, needs Hildy (as all Hawks' heroes are incomplete without women of equal intelligence, wit, and strength of character) because he loves her and because she is a crack reporter -- not necessarily in that order."

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The Fine Print: His Girl Friday was watched via Amazon Prime's streaming package. Watched as a Howard Hawks double-feature with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). What's the Cult Movie ProjectThat's seven down, with 193 to go.

His Girl Friday (1940) Columbia Pictures Corporation / P: Howard Hawks / D: Howard Hawks / W: Charles Lederer, Morrie Ryskind, Ben Hecht (play), Charles MacArthur (play) / C: Joseph Walker / E: Gene Havlick / M: Sidney Cutner, Felix Mills / S: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Abner Biberman, John Qualen

Friday, April 17, 2015

Blogathon Alert :: Keep Watching the Skies!

Listen up, Boils and Ghouls!

Once again the fine folks at Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod and Wonders in the Dark are hosting another For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon to raise money to help preserve our film heritage for future generations. This year’s theme is Sci-Fi, HOORAY! Thus and so, the Brewery is giddily answering the call to participate. And what will I be putting under the microscope? Oh, just this little nugget of the awesome:

It's better than you'd think. Honest. Well, sort of.

I'm participating. Are you?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

In Memoriam :: Happy Trails, Herb.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, my comic book buying was very sporadic. Purchases were usually made every six months or so, basically whenever the whole family was hauled to the barbershop for a mass haircut, which was located right next to the Central News Stand, which had a wall of comics to peruse through. (Also, a huge amount of porn, which brought tri-annual picket lines from the local demagogues. Lines I remember defying and breaking through. Even the Lord Almighty couldn't keep me from my funny books. Anyhoo... ) A virtual 4-color Nirvana it was, and if you behaved in the barber's chair, your reward was a comic book. And whenever, by some miracle, I behaved, I usually blew my reward on a copy of The Incredible Hulk -- because what child can resist the story of a gentle giant that no one understands but his woman with a penchant for city-leveling temper tantrums and the mass of army men charged with capturing him, amIright?

Thus and so, began a decades long love of old Jade Jaws. Sure, my version of the story was severely truncated but at least some effort was made back then to treat each issue as if it was the very first one you read, allowing new readers to get up to speed and others, like myself, to get caught up on what we'd missed. (As usual, my timing sucked enough to miss out on issues #180 and #181, which could've helped pay off my house, but, no. Of COURSE I got #182... ) And if you were really lucky, and good at the con game, you could get your hands on one of those Treasury Editions, which were super-sized reprints featuring whole story arcs of your favorite characters. Hell yeah!

Herb Trimpe was the artist on the Hulk when I got hooked. Trimpe is probably best known for his work on The Incredible Hulk, which, for my money, was the best rendition of the character ever put on paper -- especially if John or Marie Severin were doing the inks. The artist drew the mag for nearly seven years straight, where he famously rendered the first appearance of Wolverine (in those aforementioned missed issues. No. I AM NOT BITTER. AM NOT! AM NOT! AM NOT!)

And while the stories were cool, full of monsters, and kind of a head-trip, it was the art that kept bringing me back. Trimpe's drawings simply exploded off the page, with fists or feet or whole bodies breaking through the panel and plane. His art was fluid and you'd swear you could see it move from panel to panel and feel each landed punch. I loved his splash pages, and would spend hours perusing all the details in his massive double-spreads.  He was also amazing at depicting tech and military equipment. Trimpe was instrumental in the formation of the Hulkbusters, who constantly hounded our hero, even though he usually made short work of their tanks, aircraft and artillery.

After he left the Hulk, Trimpe sort of became Marvel's go-to artists for their licensed properties and toy-lines, including Godzilla and the Shogun Warriors (and he later helped launch G.I. Joe), where his layouts and forced perspective work to give the King of the Monsters and those giant battle-bots size and scale were pretty damned amazing in my book.

In fact, I think Trimpe runs second only to King Kirby, himself, when it came to these kind of nightmare creatures, kit-bashed doodads and cosmic whiz-bangery. And I kind of bristle when Trimpe is tagged as the Poor Man's Kirby or Kirby-Lite. It's funny, but I found out later that the artist actually favored the work of Jack Davis and the boys at EC Comics. So much so, that Stan Lee had some of his first work redone and told him to be more like Kirby in the future. And so, being a good employee, that's what Trimpe did, to great effect.

I could go on rambling, but I think I can bring this tribute down to a succinct point. I grew up with this artist. He was the first artist whose style I recognized. He was formative. He will always be one of my favorites. He was my Kirby. Rest in peace, sir. And thank you.

Herbert W. "Happy Herb" Trimpe
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