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Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Tale of Three M*A*S*Hes

M*A*S*H, for three seasons you were maybe the best thing on TV, ever.

We never saw him leave, but at the dawn of season four, the mighty Trapper was gone. And the third and final MASH of the three different MASHes of my clever title, the longest one, had begun. There would be no quick sudden goodbyes now, they'd never miss a chance for Emmy-bidding sentiment, and the whole camp quickly boiled down to around eight people - the memorable ones, with a few nurses and fifth business types like Nurse Kelly and Corporal Igor left as the only supporting fifth business to survive from show to show. I gave one of Hawkeye's steady nurse girlfriends the top photo because the way the nurses, once an array of steady girlfriends and solid supporters, all slipped away along with Trapper over the third season-fourth season break was unfair. When they left, in came a liberal PC wholesomeness, heralded y the arrival of B.J. Hunnicutt and shortly thereafter Col. Henry Potter (Harry Morgan). Alda became just another eccentric nutball rather than a luminous star... less a playa than a perv, more likely to spy on girls in the shower then sleep with them.

I never noticed the difference in the reruns as a kid. I was too young to get all the sex references or to yet know the joy of booze. Coming back to the show now, via Netflix, I realize Alda-- who had stretched out and owned the entire first three seasons--Wayne his equal--both of them both young and starry-eyed and drinking and womanizing and playing golf--influenced my whole childhood and adulthood too. He's so close to my vest, so much a part of what I modeled myself on growing up, that I forgot he was there in my roots, along with dad's prodigious partying of course. I say this so you understand, and if you grew up with this show then you too might find it impossible to be objective.

But in revisiting the entire 255 episodes within a three month period recently, I realize just how much I owe to this second MASH Hawkeye: my association of true patriotism with the compulsion to continually subvert punctilious bureaucracy, my deadpan comedic timing (if any), and my love of the Marx Brothers (when I finally found them on local TV, their style seemed so familiar, having loved MASH and Bugs Bunny of course). With brilliant writing and one-liners bouncing off their foil, Frank Burns (Larry Linville), a wormy effeminate spoiled brat burlesque of military gung ho MacArthur-ism, I learned all the bad behaviors to avoid and how to blow them up in others.  I would be a different person without this second MASH, that's certain.

But there was also the movie... hmmm.

PS - Please forgive the rampant longevity of my third MASH description. I kept it so, as I might mirror that of the show itself.  

 M*A*S*H #1 (1970 film)

I know this is an unforgivable cineaste sacrilege, but the first three seasons of M*A*S*H are funnier and overall cleverer, even subtler, than Altman's original movie. Elliot Gould is a better Trapper in some ways but Sutherland has a lot of annoying little whistles and clicks and his vibe is far less exuberant and playful than Alda's, more skeezy, smarmy, and gauche, as evidenced in his taunting of Burns and broadcasting his affair with Hot Lips (all because of what? He made Bud Cort cry? Who hasn't!) and his pimping out of a nurse to help Painless, the suicidal dentist. These are some truly creepy dick misogynist moves, the latter especially in today's PC climate. It might be more realistic to that most sexually free of eras which became as a sticky male-centric swamp preventing perhaps astute feminists, still wading around with mud boots and trash bags and pitchforks, cleaning up a space for female orgasms to come in too, and old reprobates like Ring Lardner and Altman probably hated that. Compared to the more (relatively) sensitive show, it's far less rewarding in this first of the MASHes to see these doctors and their mix of self-righteous medical muscle and privileged skylarking, trading on their surgical skills as if some rich daddy's influence and money that gets them out of any scrape with the big brass. Their odious frat boy dick moves are 'fun' but in the film (the only character who really deserved the shitty pranks was Frank and he's dispatched early in Altman's film) but the targets pretty broad and just as bad in their way as hick prejudices: Ho-John, the Korean kid, for example, gets taught English via the bible by Duvall's Burns, that's bad, Christians are buzzkills) --but if  Ho-John serves the 'cool' surgeons drinks and cleans the tent, that's good (for they are getting a good buzz.

Altman's film does rule the others via sound design: overlapping dialogue and noisy outdoor recording making it feel much more vivid as far as an actual camp, an actual hospital. And it has the most actual blood, a lot of it. They'll talk about the blood in the TV show, and occasionally they'll get some arterial spray, but it's nothing like the film. These people are awash in blood, and the human body's interior is revealed in all its hideous glory.

Put your tongue in your mouth, "Hawkeye"
Looking at it today, Altman's film is unremittingly dreary --the ground is always freshly misty and rained on; the sun never shines -- the Painless episode and the football segment both drag on way too long. Here are the doctors poised like the last supper but in surgical costumes, a little obvious a comparison, but one the doctors and their messiah complex clearly felt, and why not? For the big football game it's like okay we get it, here are doctors shouting kill kill kill and tackling each other, Hippocrates wherefore art thou, carting wounded teammates off the field, and so forth. The name Spear Chucker is somehow not racist because he's a surgeon. Or something. Now move on to something else, instead of repeating the joke ad nausea over a repetitive brass band soundtrack until our fingers twitch towards the stop button. Some scenes are little more than overlapping shards, slow zooms up on some random bit part player doing nothing but listening (to cover Altman's overlapping dialogue). That's not bad in itself, but if that's all there is it's a problem. Scenes that either go too long or too short leave no cumulative effect other than annoyance.

But on the plus: the evolution of a few side characters: Bud Cort goes from wild-eyed quick-to-cry innocent intern, accused of killing a patient by Frank Burns and 'dumb enough to believe him' -to ending as a smooth lover boy, all while never leaving the periphery; Major "Hotlips" O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) goes from uptight military ritual loving stick-in-the-mud, to a chill girlfriend of Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt), one of the cooler doctors (his character doesn't last into the TV series - just as the "O" is dropped from Margaret's last name, and Henry becomes more discreet). As soon as you learn to laugh and quietly plot retaliation when they pull a prank on you, instead of fuming in indignant outrage and running to the colonel, then, madam, you are no longer an outsider. Or would be, in a sane universe where educated white males did fairly use their messianic complex and devilish lusts, instead of becoming Old Testament Yaweh dirtbags.

M*A*S*H #2: TV Series (1972-1974)

Skirting the rim between offensive sexism and good-natured tomfoolery, robust antiwar pacifism and broad compassion, the first three seasons showed Americans of all ages the core of sanity within madness, the ultimate Bugs Bunny in Bosch Hell trip. Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce was the combination Groucho Marx and Dr. Kildare we'd been waiting for. He had such impeccable comedic rapport with his buddy Trapper (Wayne Rogers) it was as if Howard Hawks was directing at the peak of his His Girl Friday rat-at-tat-tat overlapping conspiratorial dialogue. Seldom without a broad on their laps, a golf bag slung on their backs, a drink in hand at all times (or scalpel), they still haven't been equaled. And Col. Blake wasn't too far off that mark, either, relying on Radar O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff - the only actor carried over from the film) to handle the baffling minutiae of army life, while he dithered quietly in the nurse's tent or fishing lures. Hawkeye was single but Blake, Trapper, and wormy, effeminate but super gung ho Frank Burns (Larry Linville), were all married with kids at home but fooling around constantly on the side is just how it is, there's never any real remorse, or even condemnation from the show's subtext... of these first three seasons, this "second" MASH.

A classic example of the great dichotomy between these first three seasons and the latter million can be found in this early episode: the boys smear chloroform on Trapper's boxing gloves to win a boxing match against a rival camp's big boxing champ. This kind of underhanded behavior is hardly examplary and yet we're expected to boo Burns and Houlihan when they sneak in a bottle of regular water in place of the chloroform, which is actually the honest thing to do. Also, it's a matter of weight division. One should never fight a person in a higher weight class. But that doesn't warrant chloroform on the glove. In later seasons if anyone did such a thing it would result in a huge crisis of conscience, a public shaming, and so forth.

Season three ended. The easygoing Colonel Blake was rotated home, and his helicopter was shot down--it was a spur of the moment thing at the very end of the final episode. Added in the very last scene of the last episode of the series, it proved an eerie omen. More than just a season ender, it was a rip in the time continuum, a harsh reminder of 'what really counts' in ways for example, that new Amy Schumer movie, Trainwreck (2015) turns out be. I guess in MASH it works in the context, for as I well know, the sudden death of a loved one sends even the staunchest swingers rushing home to their families, seeking some footing on what was suddenly a very unstable fun house floor. As we learned when season four commenced, nothing would be the same again. The eighties would not hear of it.

M*A*S*H #3 (1974-1983)

Thanks largely to the frank examinations of prevailing racist, sexist, homophobic dogma of middle America and the working class via the continual battle between the liberal Meathead and Sally Struthers vs. the implacable Archie Bunker in the show in the slot right before M*A*S*HAll in the Family, the major networks bowed to morality group pressure to institute 'the Family Hour' in 1974, which enforced a more gentle, morally conservative approach to content, at least until 9PM (M*A*S*H came on at 8:30). The unheralded (contract-based) departure of Hawkeye's partner in womanizing, Trapper John (sans tearful goodbye) and Blake's traumatic exit in the last season, as well, not coincidentally, co-creator Larry Gelbart. The arrival of the Family Hour, and the loss of two of the show's extramaritally libidinal characters, led to a drastic drop in premarital sex on the show. The scoring, golf, chicanery, and booze aspects in the first three seasons were replaced by sentimental blarney worthy of John Ford or even Norman Lear himself. The bland 'sensitive' doctor and devoted Mill Valley, CA family man BJ Hunnicutt replaced Trapper. The wizened paternal Col. Potter came in as the new CO, and the show quickly becomes defanged, robbed of its bite and snarl.

I liked BJ more than Trapper as a kid, but now, after my own decadent arc has dragged me into an older demographic, BJ seems hopelessly square, glomming onto Hawkeye like a little brother, full of pranks that prefigure Jim in The Office, with a family that he stays fairly loyal to back home. When Hawkeye sleeps with a now-married ex-flame, well, BJ is not one to tell other people what's right and wrong, but he will lay a sad-eyed guilt trip from 90 paces. Pictures of BJ's baby daughter and letters from Peg his wife (and Blake's wife Mildred) are invoked so often they become characters. Obvious messages like "war is hell" and "Koreans are people too" take center stage over the string of any psychoanalytical anarchy.

Hawkeye's still a prankster: "hardly military issue but he's a damn good surgeon" became also an emotionally sophisticated sage to the naif Radar: "people die, Radar. Even bunnies or little wide-eyed cherub soldiers."

I like Col Potter much better than BJ this time. He's at least a well-rounded character, better able to reign in the military bureaucratic fetishizing of Hot Lips and Burns than Blake could, but BJ Hunnicutt is a dire signifier who makes us realize just how sublime was the comic timing between Trapper and Hawkeye and their interaction with a roster of rotating nurses, including an adorable doe-eyed nurse (top) Marcia Strassman. She was fought for in an early episode, and then forgotten.

Good writers know that the more specific you are the more universal - but the reverse is also true - when the show veers away from the web of supporting characters all working more or less in service of the Army, it stalls out. We get a lot of moral dilemmas solved with generic pop psychology, and the bulk of the actual comedy coming from Klinger's parade of frocks and escape attempts. One is apt to give up and move on but as kids I well remember we loved Col. Potter and found B.J. Hunnicutt a reassuring presence and thought the earlier seasons too unnerving - when Trapper was around the adult themes soared over our heads (I was nine-ish); and they seemed very insular, like Trapper was the dad's drunk friend who crashes our father-son bonding time in Let the Right One In. But now that I'm far older, it's of course the reverse, especially when taking into consideration the way America was turning, impossible to say if the show caused it or just rode the wave... it was just too popular not to have an effect.

At the time the Col. Potter - BJ Hunnicutt seasons began it was still the mid-70s so the decadence of swinger suburbia was still in flourish, but by the time of the early 80s slasher boom, which as you know shattered me to the core, we clung desperately to such stalwart characters as old cavalry man and horse doctor Sherman Potter. Whereas Col. Henry Blake stuttered and hem-hawed around the generals and tried to deal with the Houlihan-Burns burr under the saddle by groaning and trying to make peace, Potter just dismisses them with a country witticism like "horse hockey!" and knows all the old generals on a nickname basis so easily kaboshes Houlihan's attempts to go over his head, usually. A 'career army man,' he knows the ins and outs, and has tolerance for Hawkeye and BJ because they're damn good surgeons, and they have a still back at the Swamp, so can provide him drinks after a tough operation; he's the first character to come along who makes the army look good - like they have some shit together to produce a fella so rounded, so Zen. His debut episode is great -- he starts out very suspect--no one knows if he's going to be a regular army buzzkill or cool like Henry. But by the end he's drinking and singing with the boys, and toasting old starlets: "Here's to Myrna Loy!" He won my heart all over again with that toast.

By season five it's clear M*A*S*H is now unremittingly wholesome, aside from the Burns Houlihan thing --now constantly under threat from his wife (and officially ended when Houlihan meets and marries Donald Penopscott while away on leave) and Hawkeye and BJ are reduced to practical jokers of sophomore high school level gauche innocence. Father Mulcahy's gentle presence, Radar's innocent sweetness, and BJ's letters home to Peg and Col. Potter's letters home to Mildred and growing paternal fondness for Radar and company, and his horse of course lap into high tide sentimental toxicity. Stuff that used to breeze by in a single masterful scene are now drawn out for the duration and the extra characters drift off one by one except for the Hawaiian islander nurse Kelly, the private Igor, and an occasional black person, trailing a very special episode about racism along in their wake. The kind of malarkey most of us overcome by high school but which seems to take the walk-ons and Burns whole episodes to face. And Klinger, who began in male drag going nutzoid from the stress, has moved into having more and more of a major character, a salt of the earth Lebanese waxing nostalgic over Toledo hotspots. All the sexy nurses are long gone. It's not even the 80s yet. But it will be. God help us. By season five, all that's left is drinking, but the drunkenness falls away.

And then... Burns leave, and is replaced by the stuffy but not entirely dislikable Charles Winchester III and the one fly buzzing the joint still allowed to be an unredeemable shit is gone.

The only time a nurse gets lucky now is if her husband comes to visit but his regiment leaves at dawn. BJ smiles with his familial reassurance, and he's not about to judge, yet somehow we spreads a cockblock tentacle through every secret tryst-ing door. If a nurse is around then it's a very special nurses episode. Each character now gets a chance to prove their humanity but it has to go away in order for it to come back. Klinger enters and exits with the regularity of clockwork with his new dresses and harebrained section-8 escapes for a joke - he's the Kramer! He's the freak. He's the tops. He's the Mona Lisa, as he lets you know in song. When BJ finally 'slips' with a nurse he nearly writes Peg about it until Hawkeye has to restrain him. Gradually, as often happens, the originally large constantly changing cast (like a real MASH might be) narrows down to eight. In the end it's just Houlihan, BJ, Hawkeye, Potter, Winchester, and Klinger. A MASH with only four doctors and a handful of nurses seems rather absurd, and one starts to long for the more realistic crowded, constant in and out of people that made the movie at least believable. The pandemonium was good for creating a vivid sense of we were there, but now it's just about "characters."

And worse: the jokes get sophomoric and pun-based: "The only spirits around here are the ones we drink" Hawkeye says, during the very special "supernatural" episode. "The spirits must be exorcised." "Well, exercise is good for you." Alda, now directing a lot, seems distracted as a performer and way too smitten with the hokey liberal malarkey afoot. His eyes don't glisten with the mix of joi de vivre, compassion, wit, and sexual charisma that elevated the early seasons to the pantheon of greatness.

But then, as season six gets to the halfway point, the show finds a way to be mature as well as mawkish: a second wind 'we hooked up and lets talk about it and still be friends' 70s sensitivity feelings-discussion motif rises up, a refusal to just ignore or condemn the peccadilloes that were just lusty fun in the Gelbart era. People hooked up, of all ages and attractive levels, without feeling like they had to get married or write their spouses anymore. We can see the bridge between the unbridled free love late sixties and the AIDS-scarred sexual brakes slam of the early condom 80s. And it's a sign that M*A*S*H is evolving. Even as it recycles old plots ---Hawkeye hits a superior officer but before he can be brought up on charges, the offended officer is wounded and Hawkeye saves him; amphetamine, which my pharmacist dad assured me flows wild and free amongst doctors (those famous 24 hour shifts would be impossible without them, making being a doctor and an amphetamine user almost indistinguishable) makes an appearance only in an episode towards the end of season six in 'a very special episode' where Charles abuses them. Why the hell does their supply include a big bottle of them if Winchester's the only one who ever takes them? Very special.

But it's all good. I had to kind of let go of my condemnation of this new less ribald 'third' incarnation this go-round (my girl and I watching all 255 episodes in around two months), but Hawkeye's nonstop joking was growing obnoxious even to me, Charles' burr under the saddle qualities manifest more overtly but never organically. BJ's early puppy-super ego vibe begins to dissipate as he finds his own way (a little bit) as a violent streaked hypocrite who preaches California peace but lashes out, physically, at anyone who suggests he might have a sprained wrist.

If you stick with the seasons through thick and then, of course, the show changes, evolves, illustrates a profound humanism, it had the ear of the world, a huge ratings share, and it used it. The laugh track--even the 'soft' laugh they used--vanished for the entirety of season eight, which in my opinion made the show suffer mainly due to the writing and comedic rhythms not eliminating the empty pauses after punchlines. Comedians when performing live realizing no one's laughing tend to go for longer stories where they don't pause for punch line laughs at all, until they get the audience slowly warmed up. That's only natural it took MASH awhile to find the right balance: what they call 'single camera' sitcoms, like The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Rec were only born in the last decade.

But M*A*S*H is too smart not to figure it out: By season nine the awkward pauses so ingrained in comedy shows have closed like sutures; now jokes overlap and build through mounting craziness; And gradually the writing becomes very 'whose Emmy is it anyway?" off-Broadway monologue-ing.
We love it when they occasionally reference past events from past episodes, sometimes even changing the memory, as memories do change, to forget who already knows as they were there when it happened, etc., all in ways not common with 'stand alone' episode formats.

As the show began to stretch far longer than the war itself, or any doctor's tour of duty, winter after winter, summer after summer, it became almost existential, as if there would never come a time when it wouldn't be war in Korea. So real life spilled over, and souls grew - Hawkeye was allowed to have his character weaknesses: always needing to be the center of attention, hyper competitive, self-righteous, we see these unpleasant characteristics manifest again and again as the years drag on. BJ could get very violent, and overly emotional and not apply the same rules of empathy to himself, but they all did their best, sometimes even risking the lives of those around them, as when their self-righteous worry over prisoner safety allows for a vicious North Korean guerrilla female in their post-op to almost kill the other patients and those who help her, and not only do the doctors refuse to stop helping her but they bite the hand of anyone who tries to restrain her, in this case a South Korean officer (Mako) planning to take her away for interrogation as soon as she's well enough. Even so, they don't admit they're wrong, but the audience is certainly allowed to think so, and to perhaps understand that the very same compulsive compassion that makes good doctors has brutal collateral damage. It's a damage they refuse to take responsibility for until it kills them.

Anyway, Radar leaves. Klinger takes over his job, goes back to wearing khakis, is promoted to sergeant and picks up a new trait: he starts trying to constantly find bizarre ways to make money using the army's surplus, bad puns and jokes like "the Two Musketeers" for the abridged version. And eventually who the hell knows? They run out of war-specific material so start to recycle sitcom-ish plots and life lesson illustrations from all around them, and everyone's boasting of immanent satisfaction via some trip or scheme always seems to ensure subsequent failure and dashed hopes--Tokyo is canceled, here come the choppers!

One thing's for sure, we're reminded again and again that eccentric steam-letting is all forgiven if you deliver in the O.R. It's not too difficult a trade-off to understand. But they sure do stress it.

BJ mopes every anniversary without Peg, so a Korean orphan plays sappy harmonica; a traveling cardinal gets Father Mulcahy's beads in an uproar; he's not just some traveling monsignor! Finally, a new character is introduced, a gravel-voiced sergeant in charge of the motor pool named Rizzo, a lazy gold-bricker from Louisiana. He gets the Guys and Dolls crap game going in the back of the chapel for the sake of tradition. Meanwhile Hawkeye overdoes his thing as a mess hall consultant. It's almost as if the entire cast forgets everything one season to the next.

Every so often there's a profound connection to life, its frailty, its be-there and goneness. Every so often there's a 'doctor heal thyself" episode. Houlihan gets all platinum blonde feather haired and perennially sunburned and we sense her awareness as status as a sexual icon of the day, right up with Farrah Fawcett Majors as far as popularizing the wavy long hair look which would then become the moussed up pouffy perm of the 80s. Season 10: the laugh track creeps back in; it comes and goes with a USO tour, "Colonel Potter is a verily happy married man!" - "So were my five husbands, until they met me." The laugh track disappears again later the next episode but the rhythm of the comedy never wavers, it moves into people not leaving space between speakers for the laughs, it becomes a kind of near Hawksian rhythm and more community, so the laugh track is organic, even subliminal.

They get excited over the newfangled thing like a Polaroid camera and it becomes a "shutterbug episode" with Potter reminiscing over pics he took of Mildred. And then there's the magic of regular occurances of camp thieves. The whole camp (all eight of them) get excited over a newspaper, they get excited over a Polaroid, it's the 'mail episode' or the competition over who gets to use the camera. But it's stolen, and a whole series of unfortunate coincidences hook Klinger into the clink (that kind of humor).

By now the camp is so small and normalized they're all like family - aside from the gravel-voiced Sgt. Rizzo there's no more recurring characters, with all the nurses being more or less represented by Nurse Kelly. Hawkeye's philandering is now down to a series or rejections which he seems to bring on himself by coming on too strong and direct and jokey, like he'd be terrified if he actually got a nurse into bed. If there is any flinging going on, it's kept far from the camera and if something happens it's then talked about, resolved, old vows renewed, the interloper let off gently. The trial of Max Klinger, who 'stole' sixteen bibles from some hotel, like that's even possible, or there's a market, makes no sense. There's never a shortage of bibles. Do Baptists track you down when you take the one in the drawer, not that anyone does? That's why they put them there. But I mention it as indicative of the way Fordian sentiment has crept even into the subterfuge. Between Mulcahy and his dumb Christian kindness, Potter's homey witticisms, BJ's ever-shifting mix of blind self-pity and caged fury, Houlihan's bluster and shaken poise, Winchester's snobby classical music blaring and refusing to share his epicurean tidbits from home, and of course Klinger's scamming, the show ensconced itself in a familiar trench rather than advancing over open ground in a forward Patton-esque charge ala Larry Gelbart's original vision.

Later on in season ten it's like the ninth inning of Bad News Bears, when Matthau finally sends in all the losers, so shlubs right and left get to direct episodes. Everything sounds like weak ass Thornton Wilder, or any number of anti-war tracts from the FDR New Deal. Houlihan does a great modulation from bitchy sober to confessional drunk; like a friend we know and tolerate as she comes back again and again to the source of her woe, a feeling of rootlessness the result of being an army brat, forever on the move. But time and again she has to be isolated in the wild with one other person, Klinger, Hawkeye, Trapper, and a bottle to let her hair down so to speak. Patrick Swayze is a loyal buddy praying for his pal's recovery; Larry Fishburne is a victim of Tom Atkins' racism; reliable actual WW2 combat veteran and Fuller's star of The Steel Helmet, Gene Evans is an embellishing war correspondent; Pat Hingle is an old buddy of Potter's; Linda Lavin does an alcoholic nurse who gets hilariously sudden and unrealistic DTs. And on and on into the infinity.

Season 10 begins and ends with some laugh track. Father Mulcahy is all excited about some incoming boxing champ. The peddler sells Klinger a goat and he starts selling fresh milk. Someone steals the payroll. "That's the third compliment you ever gave me," and a lot of bickering- that was no chicken, it was a babyy! oh my god!! Alda's never been entirely convincing in these big Sidney breakthroughs, but he tries, god bless him; and then 'Goodbye' - we were all pretty bummed out by that ending - "goodbye" - what the hell does that mean? Does it relate  to something he said earlier in the episode? How are we supposed to remember that tiny fraction of an exchange between them so far back either in the episode. It's a two hour finale - no one's going to remember something that early. Goodbye, indeed!

In some ways the North Koreans are still being fought today, and this show lasted more than thrice as long as the "official" police action, i.e. war. It went from edgy, ribald sexual openness to Apple's Way-Waltons esque moral lessons, presided over by the ubermeek chaplain, androgynous corporals, sporadic jaw-dropping incompetence in order for competence to re-manifest like the second coming; family matters, children being delivered nearly as often as wounded treated, terrible puns and every gun a lethal weapon in the hands of children. A possibly endangered Houlihan as the subject of comedy; a life hanging in the balance as Radar tries to pretend he's made uncomfortable by investigating the ladies' shower. Hawkeye devolving from ladykiller playa with a different nurse every night to a celibate pervert who prefers nudie magazines and peeking into the girl's shower, rattling off the kind of lame double entendres losers use when hitting on a girl they know will reject them. Of course I left a ton of things out. But I said my piece. Now that all the episodes are on Netflix (and the finale isn't there but you can find it online), I heartily recommend you revisit the show in the original chronology, something we could only dream about at the time. Taken together these 255 shows are the War and Peace meets Duck Soup of our time. And in the first seasons especially, Alan Alda is a god, and his comedic rapport with Trapper so alacritous it's never been equalled. As a hardened ex-swinger myself, all I can do is look into those twinkly eyes of Hawkeye and realize he was my older brother, and the show, even in the third incarnation, a priceless piece of American art, a key piece of our pop cultural psyche, perhaps as responsible for the sensitivity and liberal thinking of the 70s as PC gulags were to the 80s. See the entirety of it on Netflix and know white liberal America as it most liked to think of itself: fluid, open-minded, and always healing.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Midlife Crisis Month: Best of the Beards #1: Kristofferson

Do they still do that thing of growing mustached for prostate cancer awareness in November? My sober anniversary month, November 17th, stained with the rainy teardrops of shaking and quaking and the usual marker between my manic and depressive phases --the pain is all long gone but the tremors linger on. Rough times, man. October is my favorite month, November my least (after April). But what is Heaven if not Hell finally accepted? The flaming beard of the sage is as a nest for the bird of wisdom; rant against cigarettes and condomless sex still the cows come home, Safety-First Clydes. Gives a flying fuck doth the sage? He accepts Hell and finds heaven. Or as Kristofferson put it:
"I ain't sayin' I beat the devil, but I drank his beer for nothing.Then I stole his song." 
See, the man Kristofferson is from a different time, his beard is a different breed from the quirky hipster's. It's all there in the movies of the 70s vs. the movies today. Badass country songwriters in the movies today got about two options: twitchy meth dealers who abuse their wives and children as ominous music simmers on the stove score, or serious, hard working sober Christians in flannel who just want to teach the son of the single mom he shacks up with how to fish, whittle, or tune a guitar before he has to ride into the sunset or take one last shady job to pay for his boy's operation. There is no middle ground today, no man who is both reveler and decent guy, spiritual seeker but not a prude, not a cliche'd everyman but a dude, one free to drink and smoke without needing to make a good impression. There's only the Dude left, and he's just gonna keep ridin' - keep takin' 'er easy. But once upon a time there was a slew. That's why LEBOWSKI would be nowhere without Sam Elliot to supply the narration and Saspirilla drinkin' - he's the sanctification, the link we need for clarity --we'd never see the straight line woven along from Hawks and Bogart's Marlowe to Gould's Marlowe to Bridges' faux-low easy rider, unscrambling the remains of the Chandler Sleep-verse deconstructing around him to, recently, Phoenix's Doc. But what about the less educated, less artsy, more plainspoken and 'real' representations of manly cool? The cowboys, the straight line between John Wayne and Bob Mitchum to football players played by Kristofferson and Reynolds in SEMI-TOUGH? All we got now is Adam goddamn Sandler and his saintly manchild contingents.

Back before that manchild thing, the result of not being able to smoke in public, before the PC putsch that gave rise to unbridled Commie indoctrination in academia, back in the 70s, if you wanted to tell a story about a raunchy team in the flyovers you could make them hard drinking ten year-olds or coaches who'd just as soon call the game off and pass out. Those were real men! I wish to god I was with 'em, but they're dead or worse, sober. For 17 godly years, but I drank the devil's brew for free. 'Til I paid. Fitting that the quote above is an intro to a song about meeting a "great and wasted" friend of his, Johnny Cash in a Kristofferson's "To Beat the Devil":
"I saw that he was about a step away from dyin' and I couldn't help but wonder why. And the lines of this song occurred to me. I'm happy to say he's no longer wasted and he's got him a good woman. And I'd like to dedicate this to John and June, who helped show me how to beat the devil."
And so it makes sense, it being November, to honor the facial hair not of the co-op hipsters that haunt the coffee houses of Williamsburg, for they'll never be a step away from dyin', or as Kristofferson says in the great and underseen Alan Rudolph film SONGWRITER:

"Do you suppose a man has to be a miserable son of a bitch all the time just to write a good song now and then?"

The hipsters today don't need to be miserable anymore, they got antidepressants and Cialis, they'd never be son of a bitches, and they'll never get the nicotine and cyprine stained beards of the 70s dads and groovy football-when-it-was-cool older brothers, the goalpost indication, the beard that cares without being a pussy about it, the indication that a man had 'passed' his acid test, was no longer that into looking young and gorgeous, was cured of all his narcissism and insecurity and was, above all, too lazy to shave.

November's also a month of great introversion and isolation and blockedness, so for me the usual cinematic obsessions with wild cool women fades. All I do is sit around and watch World War Two documentaries and Vin Diesel movies (he's our century's John Wayne and don't make me prove it), Tennessee Williams movies, James Coburn, John Huston, Voight, Reynolds and the man with the best beard of all, Kris Kristofferson. (1)

So who gives a fuck about that little pisher Jesse Eisenberg throwing his lot in with the UWS bourgeoisie and their smug piddly ass New Yorker subscriptions and their tired tweed jacket self-importance and knowing chortles? Soon my kind will drop 'em down and the new generation of ten thousand talkin' and nobody listenin' will swallow them up. Kristofferson is still the coolest man on TV. And all you have to do is watch THE VOICE and how regular that lanky Blake Shelton beats his the crushingly insecure and narcissistic manchild Adam Levine. I'm no country music fan in general but between who I'd rather drink and shoot bottles with or have as an AA sponosr, it's old Shelton. You just know he'd be able to talk about more than how you like his hair and what people are tweeting about him.

"The "loving fight" concept was huge in the 1970s, especially, as I've noted before, in Burt Reynolds movies like SEMI-TOUGH. This was the age of bloodless bar fights, where chairs break easy over heads, and people fly through storefront windows with the carefree abandon of a kid jumping into a summer lake. Everyone makes up outside in the parking lot, their macho fury soothed with some good old fisticuffs in the grand drunken John Ford tradition. And SEMI-TOUGH has the coolest two guys and a girl group bond since DESIGN FOR LIVING.

The 1970s dad was peaceful enough to understand the need for these sorts of outlets for his children and friends. In our more "enlightened" times no one is allowed to fight or have raunchy sex without consensual agreement in writing beforehand, and gloves on all contacting parts, or even the compulsive need to boast, overthink, drain the spontaneous joy out of it, and feel guilty afterwards, second-guessing and self sabotage all because we drank the nonsmoking manchild/perfect man dichotomy rom-com Kool Aid, which is exactly how European men describe the American woman's attitude towards sex. For all it's tossed-off clumsiness and Burt's intentionally shocking freedom with vulgarity and the N-word, SEMI-TOUGH is a rare document revealing that if only for a decade, we had sex like the French and fought like Americans instead of the sad reverse." (MORE)


We can see dim shades of it in Demi Moore and Ashton, but it's far more about, or seems about, two insecure narcissists desperate to connect. And Ashton and Burt in 1974 have a certain immature rawness in common where you could understand an older woman going for it, because she knows she has something worthwhile to give them back, more than money or maternal support. But there's no comparison beyond that because unlike Ashton, Burt was/is a real man. And here on Larry King he's being more emotional than Shore was, and that's why it's so brave, why it brings me almost tomy knees to read that interview above because it reminds me of something our 21st century man has yet to find. Male sensitivity now is inescapable, but it's worthless, it's just passive-aggressive snickering boy nonsense wrapped in high-voiced ectomorphic pretentiousness. Dinah would bitch slap the lot of them, while Burt cracked up in the background, and because she's not here to do it, we all mourn. (more)

1. I should add I'm very unnerved by Kristofferson when he's clean shaven. I know laudable critics from Kim Morgan to David Thomson love the naked faced KK in films like PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID and CISCO PIKE... maybe I will too, one day.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

An Acidemic Nic Cage Reader

So many actors mistake genuine wild man edge for just being a dick or bugging their eyes, but ever since he won our hearts by shouting "bring me a knife so I can cut my FROAT" in MOONSTRUCK Nic Cage has had a grip on our darker looney tunes prickly pear hearts of darkness. He once spent a whole movie talking in a joke of a nasal whine I thought totally ridiculous until I met my Italian-American college girlfriends' adenoidal cousin from Yonkers who talked the same way. Sublime. As always, Cage was ahead of his time even then. As I battle my usual post-Halloween sober date mid-November ennui and its inevitable writer's block, I realize there's only one way to go, the past. I realize there's only one man to battle the demons with me, Nicolas Cage. And one reader, and you know who you are. It's you... always you.

(Nov. 30, 2009)

If you're familiar with Cage's oeuvre you will undoubtedly realize this role is something of a mid-career capstone. He even finds his way home to the nasal whine he adopted in his uncle Francis's time travel romance, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986) and branches out all serpentine. Lots of us back then who were in awe from him from BIRDY (1984), RAISING ARIZONA (1987) and MOONSTRUCK (1987) thought to ourselves where the hell he picked up this ridiculous nasal vocal style? Shit was so good it became ridiculous in PEGGY, it was too much. Now we know how he got it, from all the crack he be smokin' in the future!

[...] Lastly is the brilliant way the film brings in sobriety as an option. Going off to AA and leaving your druggie mate behind to drink alone is hazardous to any relationship, an instant point of cataclysm usually seen from the sober person view (28 DAYS, CLEAN AND SOBER), but Herzog would never dream of following the sober person and leaving the crazy druggie behind. When everyone else is slinking away as the abusive crackhead rants and froths at the mouth, Herzog walks boldly in with his camera and asks said crackhead about his dreams. Herzog would be a great "guide" on an acid trip. You can see him getting all up in a cop's face over his charge's right to roll around foaming at the mouth in Central Park or to bite the heads off slow-footed squirrels. And that's how it should be, maybe, in a perfect world. (MORE)

(January 7, 2010)

Whenever we think our man Cage is totally sucking, it's probably that he's just so far ahead of the curve we're afraid to follow lest we get hit by a truck careening around the bend. Not unlike the character he plays in the BAD LIEUTENANT 2, Cage's cop in WICKER is brave so far beyond reckless that he comes back around to cautious and upwards towards brave again. (MORE)

(August 3, 2012)

"There were several scenes in SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE where I was almost rolling on the floor in hysterics like I was the first time I saw FASTER PUSSYCAT, KILL! KILL! and never before or since. The peak scene in the film being outside an underground boxing match, where Cage's Blaze--his eye sockets warping into skull pits and flames shooting out of his nose--threatens a shady promoter that the 'rider wants to come out,' over and over. It's a moment as thoroughly awesome as Cage's rant against the elderly woman in Herzog's BAD LIEUTENANT or against the maid in VAMPIRE'S KISS! Junk cinema has been needing scenes this crazy for decades, and you're not going to get them anywhere else except with crazy Cage. The film's sheer psycho-cycle balls out, hanging brain, pissing fire off the back of a pick-up truck as it speeds down the highway reckless giddy oil-stained freedom is all him, and his obliging directors of course. It's clear co-directors Taylor and Neveldine work very well with the right actor, like Statham in the CRANK films, tailoring the madness to fit their leading man, director and actor encouraging each other like bad influence friends into progressively more dangerous and foolhardy endeavors, to all our benefit. " (more)

(June 8th, 2011)

DRIVE finds Cage--once again back from the grave to avenge his daughter's death and/or save his granddaughter. Apparently Hell consists of watching helplessly from beyond the veil as your loved ones suffer. If the veil in this case was the screen and we were his loved ones, well, there you are, all meta and--unless you're at a drive-in or 3-D ready--choking on the exhaust fumes of cynical producers and product placement.

A pretty boy from the WB casting couch (Billy Burke) is the swaggering evangelical Satanist cult leader who's holding onto Cage's granddaughter until the moon is right for the solstice sacrifice which will herald doomsday. William Fichtner is 'the accountant' who's followed Cage up from Hell to ask him to at least call Satan and let him know when he intends coming home for dinner.

There are some plusses to DRIVE ANGRY: in one scene Cage is shooting bad guys while having sex with a naked waitress, fully clothed, with sunglasses (that's not the plus part) and holding a bottle of whiskey. He shoots the guys without spilling a drop and even takes a slow mo swig between bullets. Damn! The copious humiliated naked women parts however taint the film with that new leather misogynistic smell. Amber Heard, Nic's gal Friday has a lot of moxy and fighting skillz but does that really make up for her objectification? She all but grinds herself on the hood ornament like a frat pledge's dorm room poster. And doesn't she and that waitresss have mothers, too? Where's their moms roaring back from the grave to punch old Nic for this uncharacteristic display of misogyny? (MORE)

(KNOWING)  (Bright Lights, January 29th, 2010)

Playing one of the most unbelievable MIT professors in cinema history, Cage is so out of it his science classes consist of elementary film school plot exposition like “Sharon, what can you tell me about the sun?” Still grieving the loss of his wife some years before, he drinks like a fish and won’t let his son have any friends because he’s the only friend his son needs even as he ignores him or misunderstands him continually.

Able through an elaborate and rather labored series of plot devices to predict future disasters, Cage runs hither and yon, yelling at SWAT teams like they’re incompetent student aids, and chasing possible terrorists around on subway platforms. This is a guy who probably cries and freaks out over every single death he sees on the news. You can imagine him calling up Haiti and demanding something be done about the earthquake, the guy who has to butt into every accident he passes on the highway in case me misses a chance to cradle a dying child’s head in his lap and scream “Noooo!” in pitch-shifted slow motion. He’s the kind of navel-centric nutjob that the SIMPSONS parodies by having Mrs. Lovejoy scream “Won’t somebody think of the children!” (MORE)

(August 20, 2010)

I thought the age of great 70s dads was done, but that was before I saw KICK-ASS (2010), in which a truly cool father (Cage) manages to slide past the doting widower daddy ("mommy's in heaven!") morons of Hollywood to finally do what Batman should have been doing all along: using firearms, gutting mobsters with exotic weaponry, and teaching his 11 year-old daughter to be a pint-sized killing machine.

This is the kind of film where you see something genuinely subversive -- kids as instruments of lethal vengeance-- and know instantly that a dividing line will form between film critics that are cool (i.e. they get intentional subversion of the treacly overprotective cinema status quo) and the dull self-appointed moral guardians (i.e. status quo dogma-eating suckaz) as easy to demarcate as a scroll down the rotten tomato meter. (MORE)

Cher's chemistry with Nicolas Cage sizzles like butter and garlic. Cage was a relative unknown at the time but brings such mushmouth ferocity to lines like "Gimme da knife so I can cut my froat!" and "I'm going to take you to da bed" that we all would have fallen off a cliff for him if he asked. Between this and Raising Arizona (also 1987) and The Vampire's Kiss (1988), Cage's effect on us was akin to what Brando must have been 30 years before, that infectious mix of madness, heat, wit, beauty, and ferocity all unleashed at the right time to electrify an entire generation. Interestingly enough, all three of these Cage films from that era are dark comedies, though Jewison's is dark literally, a beautiful palette of black clothes, red roses, and silvery nights, which makes overflowing with color and character balanced without need for animosity, climaxing in a family breakfast where all grievances are aired, love declared, and Olympia Dukakis steals the film with little more than a series exasperated but resigned sighs. Forget Scorsese, it was this film that made me proud to be dating overlapping Italian-American chicks at the time. They treated me way better than I could then appreciate, for I'd found the real love of my life, whiskey. 

Friday, November 06, 2015

Takin' it Bond by Bond

November is the second cruelest month, after April: all my autumnal October ghoulish cheer slides off like a Bond villain off a continental shelf during an underwater chase scene. Glug glug. Down he goes to the depths, just as glug glug this was the month of my bottom alcoholically thrice in the 90s. The month Cassandra brought over ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE on a Friday Night just like this one, and saved my life, for a few months longer...

Bond was there. Bond is here. SPECTRE. Dig.

As whenever a new Bond appears, all the old ones show up on TV, to prep the faithful. I've been updating and elaborating my "Bond by Bond" guide from a few years back, so do revisit, there's a good chap, or girl. Not to be sexshist or lazy, for my keen insights over the years are as sexist, elaborate and thrilling (and grandiose about it) as Bond films themselves.

My Favorite: Elektra King (and she has my initials)

From Father's Day Bond Marathon:
(Acidemic - 6/14)

Following a handful of similar but deceptively elaborate plots that seem to bleed across each other (making each particular film hard to remember), Bond films have always rewarded repeat viewing; as we change from children to men our perceptions of the movies change, too, and new fissures of interest are sussed out. Atomic bomb hijacking minutiae and intrigue, the most boring parts when we were kids, are now fascinating. The giant computers and tracking devices are like windows into a forgotten field of technology, like finding the distant relatives of Skynet.

(expanded 11/15)

n THUNDERBALL (1965) it takes about five minutes of real cinematic time to throw a camouflage net over one lousy sunken NATO bomber. Now that I'm an adult lost in a world of whiplash editing, I love that the early Bond films weren't about saving the world but stealing code machines from embassies and foiling relatively un-apocalyptic sabotage-blackmail schemes to save the British government a few million pounds. On pan and scan the copious ocean footage was hard to follow, making whole segments of that film as boring as 2001. Now, on the anamorphic, it's a poem. Connery is at his best here, elbowing a fire alarm at a health spa without breaking his stride down the hall; turning some painful spine stretching into a chance to blackmail his masseuse for sex (but then massaging her with a mink glove); and he's got a great opposite side spy to contend with, a woman who--like him--uses sex freely and often in her work and is smart and ruthless and thoroughly a villain, and now the beds these spies work on are stretched out to the full widescreen to savor their ornate frames framing the screen and exposing our agog minds to the wonders of Mad Men-era decor.

My first memories of Bond: falling in love with the very kinky edges (Largo applying scientific hot and cold to the naked heaving back of kept woman Domino [Claudine Auger]). As a little sadomasochistic seven year-old, it was some hot stuff. That was Bond in the 70s, in a wet suit, shooting at a shark or a bad guy with his harpoon gun while a hot girl with a cute mole lounged in the white sand at his side, this all via network TV, with my dad watching during the time of Roger Moore's SPY WHO LOVED ME, which was a colossal PG hit my parents felt I was too young to see. Then, in the 80s, when sexual harassment was becoming a thing we rented them all from the newly opened video stores at the mall (or from the back room of appliance stores) and saw them over and over, as reminders of the power we were once going to inherit as men, allegedly, but now never would, for with awareness and compassion--forced on us via the very media we sought refuge in--came loss of the kind of naive innocence that allows for the heedless exploitation of others.

(expanded 11/15)

The idea to make George Lazenby's first appearance the same one where he gets married and then cries is a bit of a misstep, makes him seem a weak Bond, like he can't handle the gaffe, but closer examination makes you realize he's damn good, easily the second best, and had he been allowed to continue, who knows?  And it's a great film, the only Bond to deal with the issue of post-hypnotic suggestion and mind control (sleeper agents, recalling MK-Ultra Monarch's "angels of death", not to mention Dr. Goldfoot's bikini machina,) complex evil plots (infertility) whole second half of the film is a long winding chase down the Alps, the villains pursuing him relentless and intelligent, the skiing phenomenal (the echoes of Leni Riefenstahl's alpine silents surely intentional). But the whole down the Alps chase is all so well done it achieves greatness leagues beyond the usual (his foes are so dogged and resourceful the chase lasts half the movie). Lazenby is a bit of a cypher in spots--critics ragged on him for being such a blank slate--but that works for a spy, and through it all Lazenby shows real emotion underneath the cold mannequin blanket, the way Connery was the opposite.

For example when Lazenby's Bond goes undercover as a snobby genealogist sent up to Telly Savalas' high-in-the-Alps stronghold, Lazenby's Bond puts on a posh droning bore professor demeanor that's so vivid casual viewers think that's the Bond Lazenby has envisioned. When Blofeldt finally unmasks him, we see Bond become very relaxed, even bemused. And then, slightly scared when he has such a hard time escaping in the packed Swiss streets and at his wit's end when Diana Rigg skates over, to the rescue. She's there when it counts, and his kisses on her cheek as she delivers some top notch evasive driving, he needs her. It's not like his usual cavalier élan but genuinely fond, very real, affection. Then there's the worried look in his eye when he realizes he's madly in love with this girl in ways he wasn't with anyone before, it scares him almost as bad as when he was rattled by fireworks and a man in crazy white bear suit at the Piz Gloria rink. At the end, the wedding, he breaks beautifully. See it again and check out his eyes when he says a wordless goodbye to Moneypenny after throwing her the bouquet. He's like a genuinely hopeful child, warm and alive with a new innocence he may not have had since he was a child; Moneypenny recognizes it and the true extent of their bond is made clear. Lois Maxwell's relation to Lazenby's Bond isn't just the usual flirting, both actors make it something real. Lazenby's still Bondian, tough, resourceful, generally fearless, but those tears at the end are earned. Let him grow on you, and Lazenby will grow. And Kojak's a funny Blofeldt (I always crack up when he starts his mind control tape with "You remember when you first came here? How you hated chickens?" And Joanna Lumley's one of the sleeper agent beauties and the great Italian actor Gabriele Ferzetti as Draco, Rigg's Italian 'demolitions' mogul father. Ilse Stepatt is second only to Lotte Lenya as far as butch henchmen, like Divine crossed with a German shepherd.

(expanded 11/15)

This is where Moore's Bond shows the ridiculous kid-friendly slapstick side, with a villain who continually gives Bond free passes for his blunders. I mean this rich killer constructs an elaborate funhouse just to chase Bond through so he can use a golden gun? Why does he have a wax statue of Bond in there before even meeting him? The whole way Bond will finally trick him and win is speled out right there if you have eyes to see way too many twisty movies. In that since, this plays like a long episode of FANTASY ISLAND rather than a real Bond movie and not just because of Hervé Villechaize. Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) is an ex carnival sharpshooter and ex-KGB assassin and has a superfluous third nipple. But "who would pay a million dollars to have me killed?" Moore wonders if his situation might improve if he finds Scaramanga first, before Scaramanga shoots him. Brilliant work, OO7. At any rate, now on HD widescreen, his expressionist funhouse shooting range is most attractive, built rather lovely in and around natural cave formations. There's dumb bits of comic relief like the return of the fat sheriff from the last film shouting at the HK locals as a bunch pointy heads in PIE-jamas and idiot things with no real need to be in the film except to provide scenes (a fight scene in a belly dancer's dressing room is just window dressing). Thai boxing and karate demonstrations paint a portrait of Asian culture as sweaty, brutish and quick, overcrowded, humidity condensed on every surface. The way Bond girl (and supposed British field agent) Good Night (Britt Eckland) shouts vital information and bemoans Bond's womanizing (they had an affair years earlier) and acts at all times like she's trying to be ditzy-era Goldie Hawn rather than capable spy Martine Beswick. The first Bond girl to be truly offensive in her endangering incompetence. We wouldn't see Good Night's like again until Cameron Diaz showed up in KNIGHT AND DAY (See: Terms of Endangerment). Good thing then that the script relies on dumb TV plot luck and past Bond formula instead of ingenuity: "I could have shot you down when you landed, that would have been ridiculously easy," notes Scaramanga. Yeah right. Thing is, Connery wouldn't have relied on the villain's idiocy, and certainly wouldn't be such a drag about it. His Bond admitted he was a killer, and callous and confident enough to get away with it --he had a license! Moore's Bond seems to think he's goddamned Pope Pious, on the other hand, all while dropping awkward sex talk that sounds like he's squinting at a Penthouse bar napkin through bifocals. Still, it's got Christopher Lee.

(expanded 11/15)

Rated G. Am I right? Now my parents had no more excuses. I missed the party, though. Bond seems very old and tired, suddenly, like he should be home watering his garden, not being spun around in a G-force simulator or pretending he could punch Jaws in the mouth and not shatter his wrist. The girls he meets and seduces seem like Valium-zonked call girls paid to pretend he's a spy, tagging along as he romps around his mansion, uncovering little clues his butler sets up the night before, like an easter egg hunt. It's G, so Bond doesn't even carry his own gun, Drax has to supply him with hunting rifles and lasers as needed. He doesn't even drink or smoke. Not even tea. He'd rather quip and try to stand up straight.

THE SPY WHO LOVED ME had been such a huge hit, so popular, the underwater sports car thing so cool, so of its time, thrilling parents and kids alike, so perfectly in tune with the shark-obsessed vibe of JAWS and gadget vibe of STAR WARS, that for the follow-up they made the mistake of trying to deliver more of the same instead of doing something new. Now instead of a car that becomes a submarine, it's a gondola that becomes a comical parade float. Richard Kiel returns as Jaws, gets a Pippi Longstocking girlfriend, and becomes a good guy. The biggest crime, so rare in any Bond movie, is that the filmmakers and Moore presume our love and laughter without bothering to really earn it, and Drax is a dreadfully dull villain, barely an afterthought. The girls all wear dowdy old peasant blouses, the sort that make girls in the 70s sometimes resemble sister wives from old Mormon scrapbooks, or LOGAN'S RUN and ZARDOZ cast-offs and, when not seducing Bond, stand around in readiness like the prostitutes in EYES WIDE SHUT prior to their mind control trigger activation ceremony, remodeled into a WESTWORLD for guys with British spy fantasies. Dumb sight gags abound and repeat: an old coughing Italian man at the Venice cafe sees a floating coffin and throws his cigarette away; the password to get into the secret lab is the notes from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. That's two just off the top of my head.

Thank god the 70s were almost over, and all the variety show schtick that resurged from its watery Vaudeville grave would descend once more into the abyss. With cable there would no longer be a need to appeal to the elderly, children, and everyone in- between all at the same time. But it's still the 70s here and it's a G. And so we have the sort of movie where we get a tour through a priceless antique glass exhibit and know in a few scenes it's gonna be trashed in a brawl--why else is there even a 'glass exhibit'? It's like a delivery boy trying to cross the street with a stack of boxes during the running of the bulls. And bouncy music plays after every lame innuendo, and Kiehl survives everything with a flustered genial slow burn like Wiley Coyote after his latest Acme gadget explodes in his face. Still there's one great moment: a slow Carnivale clown stalk that in its weird shambling silence recalls the previous year's HALLOWEEN!

(from: The Elektra King Hair Complex: Acidemic 11/08 - revised 11/15)

Thus we see the sad result of our collective capitulation to the ever-shifting desires of third wave feminism: even Bond believes he should apologize for being a man. What Tomorrow Never Dies needs more than Michelle Yeoh is Camille Paglia. Yeoh's got the high kicks, but Paglia could have trounced Jonathan Pryce's media pundit with a single trenchant pop culture essay.

Which brings me to Sophie Marceau, sweet... sweet Sophie. She's got the sense of nymphonic entitlement we ned for a Bond girl. When Marceau lounges in gold-trimmed Middle Eastern richness, she not only breaks the Vogue Kazakhstan fantasia mold, she breaks its American and British neighbors. Being French surely helps; she acts like she grew up in luxury, truly embodying and comfy with the finer things designed for and by the big money French which the petit Bourgeois of America pretend suits them, i.e. Tomorrow Never Dies' first Bond girl, Terri Hatcher, who looks like she'll start stealing the designer shot glasses as soon as Bond steps into the hotel bathroom.

Representing the Americans in World is the much more age-inappropriate Denise Richards as an atomic physicist named Christmas Jones, one of the best pieces of stunt casting in the history of cinema. One look at her marching around the abandoned Russian missile silo in sexy khaki shorts and all your worries slip away. Richard's not a great actress but she doesn't need to be, maybe even shouldn't be. Like all the best Bond beauties she acts from her hips, sexual the more she tries not to be (the way a better actress like Halle Berry can't). She's the ultimate third wave fantasy. The best Bond movies are ageless the more they grow antiquated, but the SKYFALL has so raised the bar that it's tough to go back to the lewd double entendre smirking and embarrassed pun groaning of the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan eras (which the more discreet Timothy Dalton avoided) that's why the very 90s capsule-ish THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH has always been unusual for me. One because it has two of my favorite Bond girls, for opposite reasons, two, because for all that it's still not satisfying--it's made at the end of the 90s and is like a tentative swimmer dipping a toe across the centennial Cocteau traversable mirror, unable to let go of 90s things like venetian blinds, Goldie's teeth, post-ecstasy depression, and sexual disillusionment.

But I love Sophie Marceau's Elektra King. The first true femme fatale of the series she easily outpaces the the cancer-stricken-looking miscast Scotsman Robert Carlyle, who was clearly hired because he was so good at being a terrifying Glasgow hooligan in Trainspotting, another quintessential 90s curio. That was clearly a one-time deal - here he's dull as dishwater, just another bloated and bitter townie suffering from his love to a pretty co-ed who wouldn't in a million years take him home to meet her folks. Luckily Marceau's so good as King she redeems the whole affair, survives even Bond's overall trite condescensions, where every woman in the world is supposed to fall for him, give up her life on his whim, and then forget and forgive him while he wanders off with nary a word of thanks once the credits roll. In this case all Elektra has to do is shed a tear and Bond gets all paternal. He deserves all he gets, as does every man who lets himself be blinded by her beauty, myself included. And for her, well, it must suck to be the only mature one in a world run through of stock stereotype snickering, to be in the 'bubble' where no one ever contradicts or refuses you. In fact, if anything Bond reminds me of Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder's DOUBLE IDEMNITY only Denise Richards is Eddie G. and Sophie is Stanwyck. The difference is, McMurray knew she was evil and was frightened by how much it turned him on, how much her evil itself was an aphrodesiac to potent to fight, even knowing it's only a matter of time before that evil destroyed him.


(1/07 -Bright Lights)

Finally saw the new Bond and totally freaked out about it. First off, it’s interesting to see Bond as a young man “learning not to trust again” –SPOILER ALERT– by actually falling in love and trying to live a normal life, with all the weeping and acting emotional that such a life entails. In other words, CASINO ROYALE is not a remake of the Peter Sellers version, but a pre-modern re-imagining of the last Bond film that attempted to be this good, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. It’s like every 37 years Bond meets a girl and falls in love for the first time.

The nifty thing about this new Bond approach is the way it remains conscious of the Moebius strip upon which it runs. It is aware, for example, that the entire cycle of Bond films–which stretch from the Cold War straight through to the future–actually involve the surpassing of technologies in real life that were created in the older films as sci fi devices. Consider for example the “full circle” of our post-modern nostalgia over the gigantic “futuristic” computers of the old Bond villains like Dr. No–with their reel-to-reel computer tapes and punch cards–which we watch on plasma screens from super deluxe DVD sets or ultra slim laptop computers. And now Bond is actually younger and the futuristic gadgets he thought were so nifty have not just been invented but have been over-promoted to the point of un-coolness, and promptly forgotten, and his boss has become a woman, and suddenly he is newly promoted to the job he’s had all his life, and he is ready to meet the only woman he will ever love… for the SECOND TIME!

This sort of thing happens on purpose a lot in David Lynch films like LOST HIGHWAY, but in James Bond it happens entirely as a way to keep the films fresh and the character alive, I know that. But that’s what makes digging for Lacanian subtexts all the more rewarding.

One of my favorite theories for life after death and alternate dimensional living is called quantum immortality. I read the phrase in Cliff Pickover’s amazing book, Sex, Drugs, Einstein, & Elves, but actually arrived at a similar theory myself after realizing that alcoholic black-outs proved we would never die as long as we could remember where we were. (more on that some other time). Seeing Bond tonight in his sixth incarnation, in a title-only remake of the film of the book by Ian Fleming, I felt myself lost in a train car of mirrors, traveling the Moebius strip around and around like a tiger chasing its own tail, or serpent eating its own foot, and I loved every first second of it, because I don’t need to have alcoholic blackouts to double back on myself and be assured of the validity of quantum immortality anymore, I have BOND.

Everyone’s talking, for example, about how great it is that this film offers a “stripped down” Bond: no gadgets and space needles and laser beams. Right. Don’t you see, dear reader, what that means when “stripped down” is still using gadgets–such as cell phones, notebook computers, wireless webmail, satellite surveillance–that would blow the minds of Dr. No or Ernst Blodfeldt, that would make them howl with delight? That sort of stuff is, to us, “stripped down.” We have reached the primordial Now of technology already, where there is nowhere higher to go so the imaginary IS the real. With the digital age spinning faster and faster around us we realize it’s impossible to die because we see ourselves re-born before our eyes, right there plain as the phallic nose on your face in the mirror silver screen. How cool would it be in the sequel of they got all the still-alive Bond actors together in one room (top)? You know, like in 2001, when Kier Dullea sits in a room with himself as an old man and then heads back to earth as a star baby? Damn cool, is the answer, especially if they were all yelling at each other.

Another great example of the Bond effect that comes to mind is in the end of TERMINATOR 3 when future, past, future/past, and past/future all suddenly connect and stop into an eternal now with just Clare Danes, two turntables and a microphone… that future when machines take over, baby, that’s already happened. It’s as clear as the “look” on your face. And you know what?? we LOVE it. We invented it after all, and what can’t kill us only makes us smaller, faster, and more efficiently designed. (James Bond Rides the Strip)

(Acidemic 11/08)

An example of a character having innate understanding of Lacan's "impossibility of desire" can be found in the James Bond series' Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) and her office flirtations with James Bond (in all his various incarnations). She's remained the same for several. Come along with me on this structural adventure as we see just how and why.

Maxwell, in her grrlish days
Note that the regular flirtation of Bond and Moneypenny begins with her feigned anger at him for arriving "late." No matter when Bond arrives, she makes it seem as if he is late and that M is angry at him. But in the locus of their combined desire, Bond can never be anything but "on" time. M will usually berate him on some minor point before laying out the details of his case. Q also pretends to be annoyed with Bond's childishness, but at the same time, entrusts him with millions of dollars of high-falootin' gadgetry. He regularly saves the world but also avoids the thanks of his government as his prize is already in hand, a hot Bond girl all wet from a narrow escape.

Moneypenny doesn't give Bond thanks but what he truly appreciates. She sets herself up as an upper-middle class spinster, pining for a secret agent who prefers more exotic, younger women. And he in turn professes to love only her, implying he's sleeping with everyone but her as he can only love the one he hasn't quite gotten around to yet. And if she pushes the issue, he instantly propositions her: "Drinks, my place. Tonight." But she ignores his request; sure that he is not being serious. Between the two of them is an implicit understanding regarding the parameters of their pretend courtship. If she took him seriously, or if he was actually sincere, bad blood would instantly erupt. Alas, in our post-PC era, no such parameters can really be established, so the fine art of fake flirting is all but gone. Too bad, because it's great practice... the pair switch role from pursuer to pursued on a regular basis, each claiming they pine for the other, and so forth.

Thus, Moneypenny's desire for James is innately dependent on his withholding of that desire's gratification. Such examples occur throughout cinema as well as in life, but this one is worth noting since it's ubiquitous and recognizable, a key signifier of the Bond series. This regularity itself makes it a fine example of the Lacanian phallus. Bond "owns" the phallus, as the ultimate "one who enjoys" the way that's impossible in the Real; but Moneypenny is the one who truly owns its lack in the purest Lacanian sense; she alone understands that having access to the phallus will not prevent its lack, but will in fact destroy the position from within which that lack originates. (MORE) 

(Bright Lights - 11/08)

Critics are mixed and audience feedback wildly disparate over Quantum of Solace, but while you are formulating your opinion or, like me, waiting for the initial crowds to disperse before taking in the second Daniel Craig entry, why not give a ‘flix to the Bonds of the illustrious past? Better yet why not look at their hot babes? And better yet, the babes who are also evil henchmen, seductress-spies and/or the super villain of the film themselves!

The first such babe appears in Dr. No. Zena Marshall plays the sinister-spy secretary Miss Taro. A buxom, sumptuous Asian-hybrid babe in the early Playboy tradition, Ms. Marshall oozes libidinal treachery as Taro, but she’s an amateur in the spy game and James is a professional. After surviving the ambush set for him en route to a booty call at her hilltop chalet, Bond “takes what’s coming to him” as a survivor’s fee–letting her think he doesn't suspect she's stalling him until the second round of assassins arrive. He’s aware though, naturally. After the post-coitus haze has cleared, he hands her over to the authorities and calmly waits in her darkened bedroom for the next cockblocking killer to creep in.

Sexual chessboard spy games would become taboo with the dawn of “political correctness” Bond, where sex must be harnessed to confessions of love with moistened eyes or at least some amount of mutual respect, but seen today, this sort of grudge-f*cking is fresh and totally tantalizing (Connery's Bond especially never misses a chance). Why shouldn’t male spies be active in the web of counter-seduction, rather than moping around passively like Claude Rains in Notorious or John Gilbert in Mata Hari? That stuff is for chumps! The East German Stasi had a whole program of handsome undercover spies seducing lonely NATO secretaries. Sean Connery’s Bond knows full well that the best intel is won between the sheets, and he’s just the man to go after it, letting his target think she’s playing him for a sucker all the while. Call it sexism all you like, but I would argue, in hindsight, Bond shows Miss Taro real equality; she’s treated like a spy among spies, and not some precious third wave princess who must be showered in jewels and pampered royally just to get it on already.

FINAL LINK: We've gotten into the spirit of the thing by having a lot of 'ahem' girls up in these pics and descrips. Bond seems to breed Mad Men era sexism like a virus... but maybe I can prove I'm sensitive via this double book review of HAMMER GLAMOR (there was bit of bleed over between Hammer and Bond girls, both coming from the same country and studio) and a book called FEMME FATALE - back in Bright Lights 

That's all, but Erich Kurtz will return in ANYTHING THAT KILLS YOU MAKES YOU COOL FIRST.