Sunday, February 26, 2012

They Were Young, They Were Critics, and They Praised Mediocre Movies

Oscar night. It’s been years since I took more than a passing interest in Hollywood’s annual back-slapping ritual, partly due to the preponderance of Oscar groupies on the web for whom the award matters more than the films. There are also too damn many awards these days. Instead of adding my two cents to the already crowded field, I’m going back almost half a century to look at one of 1967's most significant films (an Oscar nominee) that, alas, I have never been able to appreciate. I know that I'm probably in the minority on Bonnie & Clyde, but this is how I felt in 2006 (when I wrote the following in my journal) and how I feel now:

Roger Ebert praised Bonnie & Clyde upon its 1967 release, and in his essay on the film in The Great Movies proudly takes some credit for the phenomenon that the film became since the only “ecstatic opening-day newspaper review” for the film was his own. A song inspired by the film, Georgie Fame’s “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde,” became a major hit, and the film’s 1920s fashion was all the rage for a time. The flick was a huge box-office hit, in almost constant release (often double-billed with Bullitt) through 1969, and it picked up a whopping 10 Oscar nominations, winning best supporting actress for Estelle Parsons, and the best cinematography prize for Burnett Guffrey. It also became a lightning rod of controversy for its then taboo-shattering depictions of violence.

But the phenomenon was a while in coming. When first released in August 1967, Bonnie & Clyde, advertised with the tagline, “They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people,” was a bomb, sunk in part by negative reviews in Time (“grisly”), Newsweek (“gross and demeaning”), and, most significantly, The New York Times whose chief critic, Bosley Crowther, dismissed it as “cheap, baldfaced slapstick comedy. . . reddened with blotches of violence of the most grisly sort,” being pawned off as art by a “raw and unmitigated campaign of sheer press agentry . . . ”

Pauline Kael, a critic whose influence was just beginning to be felt, made her name when coming to the film’s defense, saying “Bonnie & Clyde needs violence. Violence is its meaning.” Ebert, then less than six months into his gig as film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, and an admirer and protege of Kael, hailed the Arthur Penn directed film as “a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance.”

Legend has it that Warren Beatty, who produced the film as well as starred, got down on his hands and knees and begged Jack L. Warner, then still calling the shots at the studio that practically invented the gangster film with 1931's Little Caesar and Public Enemy, to re-release Bonnie & Clyde to take advantage of those rapturous reviews.

Bonnie & Clyde was reissued and was now a hit, especially with young people. Time ran a second, now favorable, review by another critic, Newsweek ran a second, now favorable, review by the same critic who panned it initially, and Bosley Crowther stuck to his guns in The New York Times, still negating the film that he argued was “as pointless as it is lacking in taste.” Soon thereafter, Crowther was replaced by Vincent Canby as the paper’s principal film critic.

I think Crowther was right.

Bonnie & Clyde is an example of the publicity machine triumphing over art. Bonnie & Clyde is no more profound than The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Roger Corman’s bloody depiction of the battle between Al Capone and Bugs Moran that was released the same month, but neither Corman nor 20th Century Fox thought to market it as anything more than popcorn entertainment.

Beatty and company were shrewder, more media savvy, and as producer, Beatty stood to make millions, which he did while gaining a foothold in Hollywood as one of the town’s most powerful players. Bonnie & Clyde was such a pop culture phenomenon that it mattered little that its star remained off-screen for three years, an inordinately long sabbatical for a film star in those days, not headlining another feature until 1970's The Only Game in Town, a dud co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and directed by George Stevens.

Bonnie & Clyde turned up on the cover of Time for the week of December 8, 1967 where it was the centerpiece for a story on “The New Cinema: Violence . . . Sex . . . Art.” That same week, the cover of The New York Review of Books caricatured President Johnson as Clyde, with Secretary of State Dean Rusk as Bonnie. Faye Dunaway, who won the role of Bonnie after Jane Fonda turned it down, was Life’s cover girl for January 12, 1968 (“Bonnie: Fashion’s New Darling”) and was called the “with-it girl of the ‘60s” in another cover story in Newsweek.

A phenomenon?


A great movie?

I’ve seen Bonnie & Clyde many times through the years, and since I am consistently unimpressed, my habit is to read as much critical analysis of the film as I can to determine if I’m missing something. Roger Ebert, in his original 1967 review and again in a more recent essay, and Richard Schickel, in a retrospective piece for a National Society of Film Critics book called The A Movies, both failed to convince me that the film is a masterpiece, though they succeed somewhat in hailing the film as a defining moment in cinema.

Yes, it clearly inspired such films as Badlands, Thelma and Louise, and Natural Born Killers, and its portrayal of violence was trendsetting, but the parallels that Schickel - or was it Ebert? - drew to the student protestors of the ‘60s and the war in Vietnam sound like so much pretentious posturing.

“The fact that the story is set 35 years ago doesn’t mean a thing,” Ebert wrote in 1967. “It had to be set sometime. But it was made now and it’s about us.”

Schickel includes an attack on Bosley Crowther in his piece, dismissing him as a “fud” and “clueless.” I would argue that Schickel was clueless about the merits of this thoroughly routine gangster film. From here it looks like many of the critics who praised the film were following the pack, imitating Bonnie and Clyde and those student radicals, by thumbing their nose at the Establishment, the old guard like Crowther who they needed to displace before establishing themselves as the “new breed of critic,” rogues who were seduced by the French and their “auteur” theories, and by Pauline Kael.

Crowther, despite a long tenure as film critic for The New York Times, is now probably best-known for panning Bonnie & Clyde. He’s ridiculed right along with the spokesman for the Grand Old Opry who told Elvis Presley that he should stick to driving a truck, and the record company executive who explained that “groups were out” when deciding against signing the Beatles to a recording contract.

But alas, even Crowther came around, or at least conceded that he believed he was wrong about the impact that Bonnie & Clyde had on cinema.

“I still hold that (my major criticisms) were valid in the broader context of a moral point of view,” he wrote in 1978, but now he agreed that Bonnie & Clyde was “a cinematic trailblazer.”

I can’t argue with that. Bonnie & Clyde blazed a trail, all right, but that doesn’t make it a great film. I would have to agree with Variety, whose critic Dave Kaufman reviewed the film after it premiered at the Montreal Film Festival, and found it “erratic” with uneven direction and inconsistent performances. Beatty is never convincing as the psychotic Clyde, and the film’s explanation for his love of big guns and violence (he’s impotent) wouldn’t seem so silly if his potency wasn’t miraculously restored after Bonnie praises his prowess in a poem. It is, as Crowther said, “ludicrous” and “crude.”

I agree even more with The UK Critic, Ian Waldron-Mantgani, who revisited the film in 2003 and said “Every time I see the film, I want to resist it less, and end up resisting it more . . . It plays likes a glorification, and has immortalized its characters as figures to be admired rather than understood.” Influential and popular?

No question about it.

A work of art?

The fact is, you won’t find any works of art in the filmographies of the film’s two principal “auteurs.”

Director Arthur Penn’s name is still uttered with reverence by many film critics, but none of his films before or since Bonnie & Clyde approach greatness. In the 1995 edition of A Biographical Dictionary of the Film, critic David Thomson asks, “What has happened to Arthur Penn? In the last fifteen years, he has been nearly a nonentity. In the fifteen years before that, he was one of the best directors in America, and the filmmaker with the most acute sense of what the audiences dreamed and feared.”

Actually, Penn was something of a nonentity throughout his career. Before Bonnie & Clyde, he made a handful of good films, including 1962's The Miracle Worker, but following Bonnie & Clyde he made a handful of perfectly average, though sometimes overpraised, movies. There was 1969's Alice’s Restaurant, 1970's Little Big Man, and 1975's Night Moves, the latter described by Thomson as “a perplexing film noir, more unclear than disturbing, its allegory tangled with its anecdote.” Penn’s last major film was also his worst: 1976's The Missouri Breaks, which teamed Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, made more critic’s 10 worst lists than any other major film that year and was such a bomb that Penn never made another major film.

As for Warren Beatty . . . Shirley Maclaine’s younger brother may be a star, but it seems he’s always been more popular with the press than the public, and his career has been marked by pretension and mediocrity. His ambition has always overwhelmed his talent, and though he is, along with Orson Welles, the only person to be Oscar nominated for producing, directing, acting, and screenwriting in the same year, and inexplicably surpassed Welles by doing it twice, neither the featherweight comedy Heaven Can Wait nor the ambitious Reds (for which Beatty won his lone Oscar as best director) are equal to Welles’ muddled but interesting Lady from Shanghai, let alone a threat to Citizen Kane. His worst film, which he took credit for co-writing, is 1975's Shampoo, a smug sex farce masquerading as a commentary on political apathy. (You see, all the characters are too busy screwing to vote against Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election. Deep, deep stuff.)

Bonnie & Clyde is a masquerade of sorts, too: a shallow farce given an illusion of depth simply because it was released in such perilous times.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Monday, February 20, 2012

The hits keep coming on Antenna TV

One of the results of the recent switch from analog to digital broadcasting is the glut of channels now available even to viewers like me who continue to resist cable and other pay TV options. I now have two channel 3s, one of which shows nothing but a weather map 24 hours a day. There are two and sometimes three of most channels now. Fans of Ernest Angley can get their fill of his sermons on channel 55.2 which presents repeat broadcasts of The Ernest Angley Hour and The Ninety and Nine Club, both of which also air on 55.1. Devotees of public television have benefited the most. In addition to the PBS programming on channel 25, there’s coverage of the Ohio Senate on 25.2, repeats of PBS shows on 25.3 and 25.4 and audio programs, some from the local NPR station, on 25.9.

Then there’s 43.2 which presents old movies and TV series from the MGM library courtesy of the This network which specifically caters to the substations that have popped up in the last year or so. Antenna TV, a similar network that premiered in my area on New Year’s Eve 2010, is a feast of nostalgia for lovers of TV’s past. In addition to airing genuine classics like All in the Family and Maude, they are digging deep into the Sony-owned archives of Screen Gems, the name given to the television subsidiary of Columbia Pictures, for such two-season wonders as The Flying Nun and The Monkees, both of which could provide a wake-up call to those who think current television is not up the standards of previous decades.
Much of television was truly abysmal in the mid-1960s, the era for which The Flying Nun and The Monkees are fairly typical representatives. For Sally Field, The Flying Nun must be an embarrassment that can only be relieved by hugging those two Oscars she won for best actress for Norma Rae and Places in the Heart. In what kind of imagination could such a show originate? Set in Puerto Rico, The Flying Nun cast Field as Sister Bertrille whose small 90 pound frame just happens to take flight whenever a strong wind blows. Her ability to float through the air was not integral to the plots of the two episodes I saw recently. It’s simply some weird little gimmick to the story. Was it the sudden and quite unexpected popularity of the Batman TV show that made the producers give a sort of superpower to a nun? The Catholic church actually gave its blessing to the show which really should be buried somewhere in the vast catacombs where the Vatican stores its dead popes.
The Flying Nun had stories. The Monkees merely used bare-bones plots in which to insert musical numbers, many of which were repeated week after week, presumably to promote whatever single was currently riding high on the charts. If you can get into the spirit of the proceedings, the shows are pretty entertaining, owing much of their appeal to the charms of its lead players. In one episode, the Monkees devise bizarre ways to teach American History to a girl who can’t concentrate on her college exams because she’s in love with Davy Jones, the one English member of the American group. In another segment, comedy legend Stan Freberg appears as the employee of a toy company where the boys work to pay the rent on the apartment they all share.

The Monkees were created to capitalize on the success of the Beatles, and the show took the casual style of 1964's A Hard Day’s Night as its inspiration. It proved to be a winning formula commercially. Although the sitcom, which aired Monday nights on NBC in the 7:30 - 8:00 p.m. time slot from 1966-68, was never a top ten hit, the Monkees became a phenomenon of sorts, scoring hit singles and selling more albums than the Beatles during their brief time at the top. In 1967, the year in which the Fab Four’s groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper was the tenth biggest selling album according to Billboard, the Monkees’ debut album and its follow-up held down the top two spots. Within a year of that achievement, however, the Monkees were pretty much finished. Head, their oddball big-screen debut (with a script by Jack Nicholson) that met with audience indifference, was also their swan song, at least until their '80's comeback with the hit, "That Was Then, This Is Now," and the ongoing reunion tours.

Once the show was cancelled and the hit records stopped coming, the Monkees were regarded as a joke, a blatantly commercial enterprise whose records were created by session musicians from songs by the likes of Neil Diamond, Carole King, and the duo of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. It was a time when rock bands, following the example set by Bob Dylan and Lennon-McCartney, were expected to write their own songs, and certainly play their own instruments. The Monkees did neither. Two of its members, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, were musicians, folk artists who played the local clubs around L.A. before answering an ad to audition for the group. But Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz, who alternated lead vocals on most of their hits, were actors who would continue to pop up on TV occasionally in the years to come.

I don’t know what became of Tork in the years that followed, but Nesmith scored a solo hit with a lovely self-penned country ballad, “Joanne,” in 1970 before becoming a pioneer of music video with the Grammy winning Elephant Parts. He hasn’t done too badly, and presumably can thank his mother for his financial independence. She invented Liquid Paper, the correction fluid particularly popular in the pre-computer age.

Despite their purely calculated success, the Monkees did produce two classic singles which, coincidentally, share a word in the title: “I’m a Believer,” written by Neil Diamond, was their biggest hit and a song that’s been revived several times, most recently by Diamond himself on an album titled Dreams. Then there’s “Daydream Believer,” a John Stewart composition that provided the Monkees with their last number one hit. It’s a great song and a just about perfect recording whose fans include actor Johnny Depp and punk-poetess Patti Smith.

It’s not a bad legacy for a pop group conceived for a dumb sitcom. If nothing else, the Monkees can boast of having flown higher than The Flying Nun.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Glenn Beck's bibles

It’s been months since I've heard Glenn Beck, and "heard" is the accurate word, since the only time his voice penetrated my ears was on those mornings when I fell asleep the night before with the radio on, tuned to Coast to Coast, which airs on the same station. I doubt that I’ve missed anything.

Beck spends most of his broadcast time excitedly promoting his products, usually a book for which he takes credit as author but which common sense suggests is the work of his staff. Where would he find time to write books when he has a five day a week, 3 hour a day radio show to do, a nightly show on cable TV (since cancelled by mutual agreement), and also makes personal appearances? And it’s not like he writes one book a year. In the past year and a half or so, he’s had a book of his usual rants, a novel (The Overton Window), a rewrite of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (for those apparently too dumb to comprehend the original), and most recently, an update of The Federalist Papers which, he tells his audience, they “must read.” Beck has a real talent for sounding urgent, for shilling his products while insisting they benefit his audience rather than his bank account.

Although some of what he says is sound, I think the man is a huckster. He found a successful gimmick and is exploiting it to make millions. “Glenn Beck” is a brand name like Budweiser or Camel. Just as one beer tastes much like another no matter the label (Budweiser, Bud Light, Bud this or that), and a cigarette is all smoke regardless of the style (unfiltered Camel, Camel Filters, Camel Wides, Camel 99s, Camel Red, etc), one Beck book is just a rewrite of the others and merely print versions of his radio show.

Like many another “conservative,” Beck wields a Bible in one hand (he’s a Mormon, by the way) and Atlas Shrugged in the other. The late Ayn Rand’s 1,000 plus page novel has become an alternate Bible for modern right wingers who champion Capitalism and denounce the socialist policies of the Obama administration. But the Bible is at odds with Rand’s secular vision which she wrapped in a philosophy she called “Objectivism.” Rand loathed religious faith and once told William F. Buckley, a devout Catholic, that he was too intelligent to believe in God. The kind of conservatism - if, indeed, it is conservatism - that Rand proposed lacks compassion which Jesus had in abundance, and, it could be argued, said was the most important quality for His followers to possess. Rand separated the world into two warring factions - the haves and have nots with the former considered admirable and the latter dismissed as mooching parasites. There were no shades of gray in her world view.

Rand’s philosophy actually compliments the kind of ideas embraced by atheists and others who reject God. To Rand, man is a sort of god himself. Is that not the same twisted notion that brought about Lucifer’s fall?

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks