Friday, May 25, 2007

We Seem to be Made to Suffer. It's Our Lot in Life: STAR WARS - EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH

May 25 is the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Star Wars, and to mark the occasion, I've dug out my review of Revenge of the Sith, written in 2005. The writing is a little clunky and fannish (and I couldn't resist sprucing it up a bit), but it's an accurate snapshot of how I felt when Sith was released. I've been absorbed in finishing a long, more intensive piece about something else for two weeks, and intend to contribute something heftier to Edward Copeland's Star Wars Blog-A-Thon, but in the meantime, this will have to suffice...

* * * * *

You will find, a wise man once said, that a great many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

Personally, I freaked out first during the opening space-battle. My favorite Prequel character is Obi-Wan’s helpful and polite little red droid, R4-P17. She gets her face ripped off by a robot bug in the first scene! The whole movie is like that.

Thank the Maker. "Good?," "Bad?," only a Sith deals in absolutes: Episode III is satisfying and thrilling, and that is better than good.


Consider this a Rorschach test of your fandom!

So this is a fan appreciation, by an appreciative Star Wars fan. I don't know any other way to watch the six films. In this and all cases, I'm not sure how feigned objectivity increases the usefulness of film criticism. So for your personal calibration:

I love the Star Wars. Darth Vader stands on my TV, plastic cape frozen mid-billow. Boba Fett guards my DVD shelves, rocket-pack utterly un-launchable. This is Pop Myth Love. Star Wars didn't spark my interest in film, as it seems to have done for most of my generation (credit Universal Pictures’ monster movies), but the Trilogy changed for me the possibilities of fictive universes. I am not sad that it is "over," because my relationship with a film is never over (though it would be nice for the cut to remain static for more than 5 minutes, to allow some perspective. I’m frowning in your direction, Special Editions!)

There's a lot of beautiful stuff here, stuff so good you’re a fool to let it be destroyed by the Utterly Botched Stuff. But the common missing key element of all the Prequel Trilogy is dignity.

That's Not True! That's IMPOSSIBLE!: Great Unanswerable Mysteries

How does Leia remember Padmé, but Luke does not, if they have equal face-time with mom?
Why is a glaringly obvious hiding spot the best place to stash Luke?
How is belief in the Force an "ancient religion" that utterly falls out of fashion in less than 20 years?
How is it a debatable "belief," if midichlorians are tactile, scientifically verifiable organisms?
How is Leia a "princess," if her adopted family is not royalty and being "Queen" of Naboo is an elected position, not a bloodline? [2007 Update: The answer is that Breha Organa is a queen, but there is no textual reference to this.]
If R2's memory isn’t wiped, why doesn’t he coherently tell '3P0 where he’s going when he runs away from the moisture farm in New Hope?
Why doesn’t Obi-Wan's glowstick ghost remember that Luke has a twin (Yoda has to remind him: "No. There is another!")?
When does Ben Kenobi stop using the name Obi-Wan? A long time before Luke is born, right? No? What?

And so on. And so forth. But who heard Kane say "Rosebud," and can you account for every murder in The Big Sleep? Do not watch these movies "in order."


This answers many of the above questions.

He's as Clumsy as He is Stupid: What's Wrong This Time?

The prequel trilogy is, film by film, and a 6 + hour single arc, a train-wreck. That is, something ostensibly simple, linear and on a predestined track, totally bent, wrenched apart, and, while the large shapes of the cars are still recognizable, they're laying on their sides and burning. One thing is very clear: these films are tone-deaf messes by any traditional standard. But they are not normal. They are not bloated, overblown misfires in the normal summer blockbuster mode. They are not shaped like or to be read like other movies. The Star Wars prequels are failures, but failures on their own misshapen, independent and defiant terms. These movies are fucking weird, man.

All that had to done, in the end, was to demonstrate Anakin Skywalke's fall from grace, and the transformation of a Republic into an Empire, and not violate a few clearly defined continuity signposts. These goals were largely not met by Episodes I & II. No matter how good Sith is, or could have been, it could never undo the work of Episodes I & II. Not the potential spiritual damage done to some spectators' nostalgia, but the internal integrity of the story: the structure is grossly out of whack.

You - and I mean You, Star Wars Fan. Not a general audience, not mean your dad. I mean YOU – should weep for Anakin Skywalker when he is slashed and burned like his limbs are so much Mustafar rainforest. But you probably won't. You've been made to hate him in the Episodes when you were supposed to love him.

The Prequels waste so much time, space, energy and money on confused, needless tangents (anyone have any idea what the Trade Federation really does or why they’re blockading Naboo?), unresolved, muddled questions that didn't need asking (so who was Sifo Dias, and why did he order those clones? Why did we waste 1/2 of Episode II watching Obi-Wan investigate this, only to receive no answer?), peripheral characters who are important for a chapter, and promptly dropped like rotten, wormy potatoes: Where did Jar Jar go? Where did those handmaidens go? Where did Typho go? Where did the Geonosian bug guys go? Why are we adding General Grievous, when there are more than enough baddies all ready?

The answer to this question comes straight from the Journal of the Whills, ladies and Bothans. George Lucas is making up the details as he goes along. For him, the details include everything but the broadest of strokes. Why no one was hired to nitpick the plot on such a detail oriented production, none can say. There is a funny Radar Men from the Moon in-joke, naming a clone-trooper captain Commander Cody, providing an honest laugh, letting us know that Weird Beard is ready to have fun, and play loose. But is the intention to make a junky serial pastiche? Or does Lucas want to make modern Myth? One requires good continuity, and the other does not.

It's this overall mess that is more frustrating than individual elements or moments. That is: Jar Jar Binks himself, Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters voice and all, is less galling than the total dropping of Gungans from the story by the time we reach Sith. If this trilogy were less of a mess, we wouldn’t hear Mace say the word Kashyyyk, and the big invasion would be about the nascent Empire slaughtering Gungans. That is what is set up in Episode I, and that should’ve been delivered in tragic spades in III.

In a real way, besides the personal stories, the larger political context is that the Prequels are a story about how kings, politicians, armies, aristocracy and bureaucrats wreck everything, and farmers, criminals, freedom fighters and old men have to set it straight. One of the major themes is not to judge a person’s worth by their appearance: R2, Ewoks, Chewie; they can all look after themselves. So it’s a little shameful that Jar Jar is ultimately a fool figure. Perhaps Jar Jar's arc should really be viewed as the death of a warrior by becoming a politician. Beat cop takes a desk job. Too bad.


This is Jar Jar. He is from space!

A few character beats are misplaced or wimped-out-on in Sith... which is perhaps better than the gross misplacement in Clones, wherein Padmé finds out Anakin is a genocidal maniac before she falls for him (?!). Here, Vader isn't allowed to actually kill Padmé, who instead "gives up her will to live." This may sound poetic to the writer, but makes no story or moral sense, as we’ve seen him perform the less personally agonizing but equally morally repugnant acts of slaughtering a village of Tusken Raiders, a prisoner of war, and a Jedi kindergarten class. By comparison, a man driven to intentionally murder his wife is the precise Shakespearean-swiped note Lucas needed, and could’ve felt downright classical. If the storyteller is concerned about pushing the character into territory too repulsive, he may have forgotten the consequences Vader suffers.

Received wisdom blames Hayden Christensen's placemat-thin performance on Lucas’ "you can't say this shit" dialogue. But side-by-side comparison of Harrison Ford in New Hope delivering a line that Anakin echoes at the opening of Sith reveals the truth: "This is where the fun starts." It’s all in the wrist, folks. Christensen expresses inner torment by scowling, anger by shouting, happy by smiling, spits out sentences as phonetic sounds he invested with no meaning. The kid can’t say words or make faces good.

Likewise Natalie Portman, whose glassy-eyed performances are nothing unique to these pictures, but her every screen appearance. Perhaps it is her utter lack of anything fun to do in Episodes I & III (in II she got to fight a giant cat), but wherever she’s standing looks like a big swatch of greenscreen someone forgot to Light and Magic.

Laundry list complaints: the Obi-Wan/ Vader duel should’ve had moments more perfectly mirroring their New Hope fight; the battle droid voices and unfunny jokes; wasted '3PO; wasted Chewie; confusing elevator shaft sequence (?); Kashyyyk not matching the Holiday Special depiction; things "falling" in space; a droid that has a Will To Live monitor. None of this is as bad as Greg Proops' pod race commentator.

All this, friends, from a guy who likes Ewoks.


Now let's feel good!

Someone Who Loves You: I Heart Sith

Yoda. Looks. Like. Yoda.

Look at that thing in Phantom Menace and tell me that’s Yoda. Look at the off-model cartoon in Clones. That’s not my Jedi Master. This return to form is nearly across the board.

In The Empire Strikes Back, we may have presumed when Yoda tells Luke he is "too old to begin the training," it meant that there are too many skills for a young man to absorb in the short time before the Rebellion will be wiped out. In Phantom Menace, when Anakin is also deemed too young, and the Jedi Council exchanges shifty looks, we may have assumed it meant knighthood is a lifetime of training that must begin with toddlers, they all know it, and everyone is starting to doubt Qui-Gon Jinn’s judgment.

Sith sets it straight, plays mean, and lets us know those two movies weren’t all badly planned. Sith tells the terrifying truth: Jedi rip babies from their families for the sole purpose of making sure they do not form personal relationships. That ends up being their downfall, after a thousand generations. That difference in Luke Skywalker is what will eventually let the Jedi return.

This is very different from the fun but ultimately pointless moments of revelation in Clones. No one particularly needs to know that the Geonosians built the Death Star, or what Boba Fett looked like as a boy. But there is suave storytelling here, with symmetry and thematic resonance, and that is carefully built.

There are such intellectual thrills here in quantity. The moment most enriched and beautified by this film is not in Sith at all, but the climax of Return of the Jedi; the moment when Anakin fulfills that prophecy (for such a key plot point, we really should have been privy to the full text of said prophecy at some point, Mr. Lucas...), and kills the last of the Sith Lords. It takes Anakin decades to arrive at the point where he can choose to be the Chosen One, and a split second to restore the balance of the Force. It’s always been a Great Scene, the finest in Jedi. But last time you saw it, it was about how Luke redeems his father. Next time you watch it, it will be about Anakin, guilt, personal change, and apology.

It no longer seems like a fuck-up that Darth Maul died at the end of The Phantom Menace. That’s a tough row to hoe, eliminating your scariest, coolest character so we gain an understanding that won’t pay off until Sith, and not fully until Jedi. But we must see that Sidious treats his apprentices with a tough love bar none. Just as he does with Darth Tyrannus near the beginning of Sith, we know that Sith are willing to throw away a hard-trained, ruthless apprentice if it means gaining a student even more powerful. It makes Anakin’s turn to the shadows scarier if we know he’s even more powerful potential evil than Maul and Tyranus. It makes the Emperor’s offer to Luke scarier and more genuine, as we’ve seen him replace apprentices before. "It is inevitable," right?

The characterization (never mind the performance) of Anakin in Attack of the Clones is clever and unexpected, a show-off jerk adolescent who believes his own press. This is how the guys on your high school basketball team acted-- cocky, immature and casually cruel. It is an interesting take on the character, but how could this teenager grow into Darth Vader?

The Darth Vader of Episodes IV-VI is not prone to bratty outbursts... or is he? Are his running-gag Force-chokes of Death Star generals the behavior of a man who has his shit together and expects perfection, or remnants of the hothead, braggart, swinging-dick we met in Episode II? Now that we’ve seen the literal meltdown, and now that we’ve seen the laziness, impatience and nervous, paranoid energy of other Sith Lords, Lucas' - and Yoda's - explanation of where evil is born (from the inside, out) hangs together. Think Maul pacing like a caged tiger as Qui-Gon kneels calmly. Think Dooku’s swollen ego speeches to the captive Obi-Wan. Think Sidious’ glee at his fully functional battle station... The revelations of the Prequels in the case of Vader end up shading the previously faceless stock villain. Vader never learns patience or cool-headedness. Instant gratification, shortcuts, and attempting to evade the inevitable are his downfall, and they’ve always been in the character, and it's a shortcoming we can all recognize in ourselves. Jake Lloyd's a disaster in The Phantom Menace, but if he has a line that will gain poignancy with distance, it is when he pouts to Padmé, "I'm a person. And my name is Anakin."

There’s a lot of pay-offs like this in Sith, of what seemed like painful choices in Phantom and Clones, such as Anakin’s virgin birth, Palpatine’s extreeeeemely slow Senate takeover, and Qui-Gon’s strange demise; they’re all resolved to some degree. This would all be well and good for fan fetishism, but this fiddling detail rarely bogs down the movie that general audiences will see. Sith strides forward with confidence and urgency, saber out, black cape swirling behind. There have always been brief nonsensical diversions in these movies (the Falcon’s layover inside an asteroid-worm’s mouth), but the prequels have been utterly driven to distraction (Pod race, droid factory, etc.). After a needlessly prolonged elevator shaft action set-piece (it’s meant to mirror the trash compactor in New Hope but is merely confused), every scene is like a steel door slamming into place. This Episode boasts the best plotting of the six films.

The other standout performances are Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid, both fully inhabiting characters like no one else in all six films save Frank Oz, Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams. Those are the five best performances in the series. McGregor is hilarious as a man rascally by nature but forced to be a tight-ass by profession, and the most lovable of Jedi is given a performance that magically bridges the trilogies.

McDiarmid handles every ounce of Heavy that Hayden Christensen cannot. The Opera House scene, in which Palpatine tells Anakin a Sith fable, as they watch what looks to be the Laser Light Show at the Science Center is a perfectly modulated performance – quiet, with layer-cake upon layer-cake of ulterior motive and complexity. For the first time, in any Star Wars film, an actor has weighed and considered every word of a speech. Mace Windu has been the most frustrating Prequel character, because as solid as Samuel Jackson is, we never get a handle on Windu's personality, never learn one thing about him. He's so boring that when Mace and Palpy face off on a window ledge (since it's to turn into dark-parentage scene, the sucking void below surely echoes Luke and Vader's showdown in Empire), it's difficult to decide who we want to win. It's McDiarmid’s trilogy. Everyone else is just helping.

I’m taking a "don’t worry, it’s good" tone. Forget that. The best part? The very best part?! This motherfucker tells stories with pictures! No kidding. A montage of vignettes during the execution of Order 66, which eliminates the Jedi order, is economic and tasteful. When Aayla Secura falls, it’s ignoble, she can’t fight back, and you will cry with John Williams’ mournful score. Each of these little stories is unique and well-pitched. It is a Godfather II riff, surely, but here the emotional focus is opposite.

The most triumphant moment is of Padmé sitting in her living room as Anakin waits for his boss in the Jedi office conference room. With their marriage barely clinging together, a silent ocean of regrets, resentments and mistakes pressing against the fraying stitches, they look out over the orange Coruscant skyline. And nobody but John Williams says a word. George Lucas may not remember what it's like to fall in love. But he is all too astute at demonstrating relationships falling apart. It is chillingly beautiful, and ranks with the best of all moments in the Star Wars films.

And how about that living room! There is great production design going on here, neatly progressing from glossy Art Deco ‘30s nostalgia into ugly ‘70s kitsch. Haircuts, outfits and spaceships are all in prototype for the 20-years-later New Hope. Except for possibly Obi-Wan’s star cruiser, there aren’t any memorable ships in the first two prequels. Sith is loaded with handsome design...


The sets and costumes all look like this.

The very existence of General Grievous, leader of the Confederacy forces only serves to clog the confused story. That said, Grievous, is one of the designs as well-realized as an original trilogy character, with his ratty cape covering his bad posture, and grimy cowardice. The chase he gives Obi-Wan is thrilling and far more plot driven than the Jango Fett fight or Zam chase in Clones.

Likewise neat is the standout makeup job for Bruce Spence as scary-ass Tion Medon, on whose home planet Utapau, Greivous has holed-up. Utapau looks like landscaping for a 1975 zoo, and when Obi-Wan saddles up on a chirping bird-lizard to chase a four-armed coughing robot down a sinkhole waterfall… good God, just think about what you’re looking at. If the monsters in Clones were basically Wuzzles rejects, Obi’s steed, Boga steals scenes merely by behaving like a real animal. The imagination at work is startling, pulpy and gleeful like you have not seen since Jabba’s palace.


Obi-Wan and Boga: Prom King and Queen!

...That's kind of a problem though. Because George Lucas is a Kurosawa fan, not an Ozu fan, he’s not exactly a master of the uncluttered frame. Lucas' single-mindedness in design matters is evident in how he invents planets. Tatooine is all sand, Kamino is all ocean, Mustafar is all lava, Coruscant is a planet entirely covered by one huge city. So now that he’s able to pack a frame to the edges with stuff, most scenes turn into Jack Davis drawings. But when it really counts, he comes through with a clear, strong image. He always has (even Clones, which ends with a startling echo of Empire’s closing shot). In the grand finales, Owen staring off at the twin suns and Tarkin slinking away from Vader’s bad vibes as the Sith unite and gaze out the windshield, over the universe.

Revenge of the Sith is mysteriously the only prequel with attractive cinematography (digital... camera... need... new word for this?) throughout. Nothing can touch The Empire Strikes Back, easily the most sumptuously photographed fantasy film in history. But Sith may run third behind New Hope’s scruffy retro-funk. By comparison, Menace and Clones look shadow-less as a shopping mall, and Jedi… well, Jedi just looks like 1983.

It all comes down to the Mustafar duel, the only real Duel of the Fates in this trilogy, the reason the prequels exist, and a scene we’ve collectively imagined since childhood. I couldn’t cry for Anakin Skywalker at the point when he lay down by the river of fire. That was George Lucas’ fault. But when Obi-Wan wearily turns his back and staggers away, unable to kill or save his friend, and not wanting to be hurt by Anakin’s mistakes any more... that did it. That’s a feeling I know (and it’s how you feel about Star Wars sometimes). But there it is, at the heart of it all, a Real Live Feeling.

My favorite line in any Star Wars is what Yoda tells Luke about our bodies and spirits in The Empire Strikes Back. Beyond a lesson in Force metaphysics, Yoda is saying something about the primacy of great stories in our lives, and in this case, about movies, those stories made of light.

"Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter."

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Getting Drunk With SPIDER-MAN 3



SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007): What? Are you just going to sit there glowering all night?

CHRIS STANGL: Hm.

SM 3: Fine, have it your way.

CS: How much did it cost to make one of those CGI cinder-blocks that MJ uses to smack Venom in the climax?

SM 3: Low blow. You're buying me drinks just to insult me?

CS: I already dropped $20 on a ticket, Junior Mints and a coffee just to be insulted, Mr. Most Expensive Movie Ever!!!, and now I want to know how much one of those cinder blocks cost.

SM 3: Come on...

CS: Okay, okay, it is unfortunate that David Lynch has to distribute his own movies, while Sony will spend $300 million dollars on a ticky-tacky second-hand super-schlock; but honestly, I'm not suffering under the illusion that money would go to better use anyway. It's a cheap shot, and I sort of kind of apologize, or can overlook that. But whether any film should cost so much, on a pragmatic level, I admit, I'm not sure I care.

SM 3: If you're playing fair, then, I'll buy the next round.

CS: I'm already relegating Spider-Man 3 to novelty gimmick-review and putting words in its mouth, so this one's on me. Garçon? Mai tai for me, cheap domestic brew for the lady.

BRUCE CAMPBELL AS A FRENCH WAITER: Oui!

SM 3: You don't have anything nice to say?

CS: Bryce Dallas Howard is pretty.

SM 3: That's it?

CS: She's... really really pretty?

SM 3: So you're happy?

CS: No, she's in the movie for five minutes. Face it, Tiger, you hit the jackpot on Howard, and then blew it.

SM 3: I'll bite, what's the matter?

CS: Gwen Stacy's the matter.

SM 3: Oh Jesus, you care about Marvel continuity now? Since when? I s'pose you're in a tizzy that Reed Richards didn't help Spidey out of that black suit.

CS: If it was going to be the movie Reed Richards, no, I'll take a pass on that one. No, I care about giving five minutes of screen time to Bryce Dallas Howard, when she could've been the female lead of an entire film. I care about giving the best actors in the film - and that's Howard, James Cromwell, Theresa Russell - nothing to do. And you know what? This is always a problem with adaptation. The defense of lazy screenwriters can no longer be that the film is its own entity and owes no tithe to the story that birthed it.

SM 3: A movie can't compress, and I'm sure anyone would agree, should not compress forty years of monthly comic continuity into a two hour story - or over three two-hour stories.

CS: I was kind of hoping you’d say that. Spider-Man 3, like most of the contemporary crop of superhero movies, treats the material it's adapting like crab legs, cracking the mythos apart to get at the Good Stuff. It may be a logical start, but when the structure has been shattered like that, it needs to be reconfigured to function as its own Erector set contraption. If you can’t fix it, there’s no excuse for breaking it.

SM 3: So what’s the complaint? Please tell me it’s not “too many villains.”

CS: Absolutely not. It's not an inherent problem for a story to have three baddies. It's just tricky and requires nimble, focused storytelling. The Marvel Universe is a teaming place, and it should feel like one, after all. No movie has captured that but the Destroy All Mutants! attack at the climax of the turgid and frustrating X-Men: The Last Stand (2006).

SM 3: Because everybody says Batman and Robin (1997) had too many villains.

CS: Batman and Robin has fewer villains than the infinitely more sprightly and pleasurable 1966 Batman movie, and no more than the mentally unstable Batman Returns (1994), no more, really, than killjoy Batman Begins (2005). Regardless of what one thinks of those pictures, there are four closely related stories, all with distinct approaches to Super Villain value-packing. Spidey 3 never finds an elegant way to introduce, integrate and dovetail the stories of all Peter Parker's new adversaries.

SM 3: Three counterpoints to this line of questioning, then. Arguably, the constructions of all those Batman movies are unsound, so are there triple-threat stories that work?

CS: Just last year, there were at least three diverse villains plus associated cronies and sea-monsters to worry the heroes of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, and it tells a spry, constantly inventive story in which those villains have dimension, their stories ultimately converging and driving one another. It's not a physical impossibility, but if it is such a struggle as Spider-Man 3, better not attempted at all.

SM 3: Secondly: the Sam Raimi Spider-Man franchise maintains far more fidelity to the source material than the Batman TV-show, or arguably any large-scale superhero adaptation ever. Why not cut some slack here?

CS: It's because Spider-Man 3 is the Most Expensive Move Ever Made that it should be held to high standards, and that it should have to answer for itself. It's because it tries to maintain, reference or swipe so much comics continuity which is both beloved and successful storytelling, that the rationale behind that choice and the degree of success to which it bears that out should be questioned. Attention and care should have been lavished on this project -- all three of these projects -- and were not.

SM 3: Thirdly, we need more booze.

CS: And on that, I concur.

SM 3: You're talking like comics continuity is holy writ. It's a stiff, unpliable and unfeasible way to attempt adaptation from a print medium.

CS: I realize it sounds that way. And when it comes to Harry Potter, or the upcoming Golden Compass movie, I admit: in that case I may be blinded by love for those books, and have difficulty accepting alterations from the source material as a matter of course. But I just want a story that works. This is a movie that has Dr. Curt Conners, cast with a character actor with no hope of becoming the Lizard simply because he's not an A-Lister, flatly declaring "I'm a physicist, not a biologist." If your idea of how to tell a Gwen Stacy story is to use her as a pawn in the Parker/Watson relationship, then you care about that character far less than a CGI cinder block.

SM 3: Gwen is a far less interesting person than MJ, and she's only there to die and make Peter sad.

CS: First point yes, second point: Gwen is Peter Parker's One True, and I'm not taking rebuttals.

SM 3: ...and that's why it's been that Watson girl all along, in the movies.

CS: Gotcha!: then why introduce Gwen at all, after you've killed Green Goblin? If your series is supposed to get more mature and complex (buzzword for this is, apparently, "darker") as it progresses, why not at least bring Spider-Man Chapter I to a dramatic crisis with Norman Osborn killing Gwen? Plus you can spin off your bullshit Punisher movie off the franchise.

SM 3: C'mon, man.

CS: Kidding! There's simply no need to drive a wedge between Peter and MJ. That's what the second movie was supposedly about. Speaking of nonsense stories, you wanna explain why Spidey loses his powers in Spider-Man 2?

SM 3: He stops believing in himself!

CS: Sorry, I musta missed that origin story where Peter Parker was bitten by a spider that really really believed in itself. This is the kind of sloppy story logic, disguised as "character-oriented" that plagues the Spider-Man movies. The script needs to pay off Harry Osborn's feud with Peter, the dramatic conflict at the heart of this trilogy. For all James Franco's protracted three-movie brooding, Spider-Man 3 seems to think it requires further exploration of why a maladjusted man might want to avenge his father's death. Witness as he hatches his ultimate revenge, a diabolical scheme to... break up a teenage couple who is having problems anyway! The movie seems to have its hands too full because the overstuffed plot-sausages never collapse into one edible string of links. Peter has, in the grand Marvel "superhero with problems" tradition, plenty of potentially meaty stuff to deal with, all of it botched. He's getting a swelled head over Spider-Man's loving public, the ace-in-sleeve for this plot, but where pride should go before the fall, here it's simply unresolved. Mary Jane's petty jealousy is supposed to be a character arc of some kind, but Pete's oblivious to this. His secret identity's job security evaporates with the arrival of Topher Grace as Eddie Brock, Jr, (here a Photoshop-happy photographer)... but this rival simply acts like an equally doofy tool, just an amoral doofy tool. Brock gets to smooch on Gwen, and gets riled by dark-Parker swiping his girl, but it's not like this is a more compelling sore-spot than having been caught in bad journalism habits by Spider-Man, as in the comics. 'Cause factoring in Harry pursuing Mary Jane by frying an omelet with her in a scene from '80s Cringy Romantic Comedy Bullshit Montage: The Movie, it's not so much a love-triangle, but a half-baked love-pentagram.

SM 3: Soap-operatics are the Marvel hallmark, and you know it. Also he's upset about avenging his uncle's death.

CS: Wait, are we talking about the first movie? Because that's the story of the first movie.

SM 3: No, it's also in Spider-Man 3.

CS 3: It certainly is. This isn't dramatic arc, it's a closed worry-path, a movie pacing in circles. Tobey Maguire has to shoulder the worst of these sins. He could be a fine Saturday matinee Peter Parker, lovable bug eyes, overbite and lisp playing push-pull with the limits of good-looking and total nerd. The character is a put-upon human being first, and a hero second; that's the masterstroke concept, and Sam Raimi gets that. The plot convolutions leave Maguire with no choice but to play Peter as such a dippy permanent adolescent that the above torments for the most part don't even register in his brain. Are Stan Lee's heroes as written for the page, as ultimately unplayable as King Leer? An emblem of Spider-Man 3 as good as any is James Cromwell as police captain George Stacy, staring up into the sky, watching his daughter about to plunge to the street, but not reacting at all to surely the most terrifying moment of his life. The bit players chomp and roll their eyes like horses, whether it's through the deadly-pap of Aunt May Life Advice monologues, or the dire, barn-broad, protracted comic relief sequences. Relief from what, exactly? It's a pity to squash it by mentioning it, but in the best joke, Gwen gives a speech before Spidey receives the key to NYC; "I'm here," she boasts, bursting with pride, "because I fell off a building and someone caught me!" There are about seven levels to that line, from sick joke to delightful, and Bryce Dallas Howard's bright, loopy sincerity sounds like a speech bubble is drawn around it.

SM 3: You're pretty well lubricated, you wanna wax poetic about Ms. Stacy some more while I go to the john?

Spider-Man 3 exits to go to the john.

CS: Bryce Dallas Howard naturally glows like a paper lantern, her delicate redhead skin barely diffusing that pale moony luminescence. Raimi can bleach her hair to white-blonde for the role, can shoot her in the flattest attempted four-color comics photography, as if trying to sap all the sparkle out of the woman, so we won't notice the woeful casting of lumpy Kirsten Dunst. But Raimi can't drain the character or the actress entirely, even if he doesn't know what to do with them. Howard's apple cheekbones and square jaw pop off the screen like bold Steve Ditko lines, eyes the blurry green of rolling Irish hills, and rosy complexion shine through the chalky makeup. Bryce Dallas Howard's wide, sculpted nose and lips are the only vivid shaping of space in Spider-Man 3's flat, undimensional New York City.

Spider-Man 3 returns from the john!

SM 3: So you have the hots for BDH.

CS: Yeah, maybe, but she's the only eye-satisfaction to be had. When she's striking poses on a copy machine with the city unfurled in a skyscraper picture window behind her, for a moment, we're looking at a Silver Age splash panel.

SM 3: So the "feel" is right?

CS: The feel is wrong throughout. The tone, the look, the heft and torque are wrong throughout. The side of the building is sheered away, and Gwen slides across the disrupted floor, dangling from a white telephone receiver cord, a simultaneous poor-taste homage to both 9/11 and "The Night Gwen Stacy Died". The movie toys with grandiose icons like this without earning them, without exploration, without understanding them.

SM 3: Those old stories are very silly, and it’s a hard line to walk between classic comics iconography and the emotional heft of serious storytelling.

CS: It’s an impossible line to walk. You have to pick a side. That Silver Age psychedelic fruit punch can't be bottled; the breezy craziness, real-life problems filtered through the wildest spur-of-the-moment giganticized fantasias, they don't lend themselves to streamlining and encapsulation for movies. These worlds don't adhere to the strictures of any other fantasy storytelling logic; they are overfilled with illogic, incompatible rules, the sense that anything goes because only the target audience is reading. The time may have come to accept that the fancy of 12-cent smilin', jolly adventure is necessarily crushed under the pressure of hundreds of millions of dollars.

SM3: So there's no way, you're saying, for a blockbuster Marvel movie to make you happy.

CS: Scale back the budget about 70 percent. Accept the absurdity and let these stories, these characters be themselves. They're being constricted by the mean, watchful eyes of moneymen. Make more Ghost Riders.

SM3: WHAT?

CS: It's the only recent comics movie that embraced its premise, accepted that it is a movie about a flaming skull-head motorcyclist with supernatural powers. Ghost Rider is the best Marvel Comics movie. Every other attempt has been self-important, confused by the reputation that these stories are "classic", or that superheroes are a modern mythology. The perceived naiveté that studios and filmmakers attempt to filter out is the greatest asset of superhero books, birth to Bronze, and it doesn't do to replace it with a gimpy pseudo-sophistication. Steve Ditko drew like a drunk person. His preposterous anatomy and woozy, teetering bad perspective is more key to Spider-Man than making sure than making sure light reflects photorealistically off of costume fabric.

SM 3: Come on, there's all kinds of ridiculous, cornball philosophizing in those books, and nobody would buy it without drastic changes in the tenor of the whole story.

CS: Tobey Maguire’s brittle, unconvincing voice-overs, in which he repeats back to us those lessons we’ve learned from all this torpid drama, on the surface they remind us of Stan Lee’s omniscient narration boxes. The key to those goony text blocks of action play-by-play and enunciation of Today’s Moral, was the surfeit of exclamation points. As Sandman, Thomas Hayden Church, who has the marbled beef-slab face and subsurface malevolence of a '40s gangster movie heavy, is forced to cope with the hoariest invented backstory imaginable: he's doing crime stuff because he has a Sick Daughter. It's a pathetic, doughy attempt to humanize a character, then the movie shovels him into a green striped cartoon costume, and this drama plays out only by having him glance at a his kid's photo once in awhile. By the end, Spidey sends Sandman packing, apparently letting a little girl die rather than allow armored cars to be robbed. Don't get excited for a New York Ripper gut-punch ending, because the movie's forgotten about the dud Sandman motivation.

SM3: But in this story Sandman killed Uncle Ben, and Peter is now endangering a member of Sandman's family, and the new Goblin is avenging his dad. It ties in with the themes.

CS: Sandman killed Ben Parker like Joker killed Thomas Wayne. I plead for a superhero movie moratorium on incorporating your supervillain de jour into the origin story. It's a cheap, transparent ploy to add personal connection to a minor character. Sandman didn't kill Ben Parker. In this series, it's pathetic retconning - why would you need to revise continuity in a series conceived as a trilogy, anyway? - and it doesn't strengthen Peter's ethics quandary as a plot point: it weakens the internal conflict of having killed the carjacker, and the resolution with Sandman on the rooftop is an abstract "choice" for Peter anyhow. He can't defeat Sandman anyway, so there's no choice to make. I mean, there's no where to plug in a vacuum cleaner up there. Oh and for God's sake, an All-Movie Moratorium must be declared on anyone with internal conflict confronting themselves in a mirror.

SM 3: You've confronted yourself in a mirror, haven't you?

CS: Yeah. A lot. (hic) Many times.

SM 3: It's a visual way to express a very non-visual conflict.

CS: It's a yawning chasm of a cliché, and it makes me flash on Glen or Glenda. Speaking of which... amnesia? Really? This is a plot point, that Harry Osborn gets amnesia?

SM 3: What, it's unbelievable? It's a movie about a nerd with wall-climbing powers he got from a radioactive spi--

CS: Genetically engineered spider, asshole. No, it's not the credibility stretch, it's the hackney, contrived stretch. And amnesia, unlike an alien race of gooey symbiotes, is not an invented s.f./fantasy concept. It is unacceptable because it is a broad, dum-dum stroke in a movie that begs for its own gravitas at every other turn. Harry's amnesia, more damning than just an insulting cliché, is a cliché that doesn't serve a function. It doesn't deepen the character, in fact it wipes Harry's slate clean, so that we can't care about this new slap-happy personality-emptied dope wearing James Franco's face.

SM 3: The amnesia makes Harry to forget that he blames Peter for his father's death.

CS: To what ends?

SM 3: It reminds you that you like him?

CS: Then the first movie wasn't doing its job as a trilogy chapter. The point of exploring a villain's motivations is to deepen them as a character and make them more interesting. The amnesia plot prevents that purpose by definition, and amounts to an extended sidetrack from the passing of the Goblin mantle.

SM 3: Well see, Harry's a dark parallel of Peter, they're both driven by family tragedy, and in 3, they slowly switch places, Peter becoming nasty and Harry sunnier, and Mary Jane is the fulcrum between them. And Venom is the catalyst.

CS: Hm. Actually, that's kind of a clever structure... except you forgot: AMNESIA. It must be said. Venom doesn’t fit into this Silver Age Spidey movie, and he can’t be forced. It’s not a character to start with. Venom is a concept and a design for a character, but not actually a character. It's is a bad design anyway, all slimy vinyl and fangs, and no cohesion, like an R. Crumb nightmare woman built only of butts, breasts and legs. The black Spidey suit is a Hot Topic approximation of cool, and if it were an honest design would include a backwards baseball cap and an energy drink in the back pocket.

SM 3: Your preferences are showing.

CS: So I want The Lizard. So I want Stegron. People want Venom, and I accept that. One can only imagine that if you're a fan of the character, this is even more frustrating, because Venom is blatantly shoehorned in. Sorry pal, no Secret Wars movie, no Venom. The symbiote hitches a ride with the Blob and Peter happens to be standing nearby? That's your 300-million-dollar plot point? The hero happens to be nearby one major villain, though the story jumps through hoops to link him to the other two? I was half expecting Stephen King to wander through wearing overalls and holler "METEOR SHIT!"

SM 3: It's a metaphor for the dark side of --

CS: No, it's not a metaphor. As Giles once told Buffy, "I fear the subtext here is rapidly becoming text." It's not a metaphor, because it is made literal throughout. The symbiote literally amplifies Peter's egoism and self-centered tendencies in a story that was already about the deepening divide between lovers as one achieves professional success and the other fails. The venomization is a cheat, because it lets Peter off the hook for acting like a jerk, and it's a cheap story ploy, because he can go back to normal in a snap. On top of that, it's silly, because the symbiote doesn't force out the unpleasant aspects of Peter's personality, it inflicts him with a new asshole-persona: greedy, cruel, shallow. It's additionally not-frightening, because rather than enlarge Peter's flaws, the symbiote makes him dance like Urkel in a prolonged comedy setpiece. It's played for lowest-common-laugh-denominator, not drama.

SM 3: The jazz club scene ends with Peter using a date with Gwen to hurt Mary Jane.

CS: You mean the tango scene from Addam's Family Values?

SM 3: Well yeah.

CS: I don't know what to tell you. For all the scenes of Peter going dorkosexual, which are funny unto themselves, but embarrassing as they are supposed to depict a man in meltdown, why do we never see how the black suit affects Spider-Man while on duty? He smashes Eddie Brock's camera - which we're likely to endorse anyway - and that's it. But man, we need to talk about the validity of this metaphor in the first place. We need to talk about duality and Dark Sides. Because unless those simplistic, dangerous binaries are deconstructed, undermined, complicated: they aren't Grand Themes that add weight to a work by virtue of being mentioned, and if you're trying to tell us something about the human condition, it's nonsense. Spider-Man 3, we need to talk about what you are About. Because you seem to proudly, openly announce a lot of themes.

SM 3: You're not even going to complain about the Osborn family butler?

CS: No. If I learned one thing from Citizen Kane, it's that butlers know things they couldn't possibly know. Don't try to avoid this.

SM 3: With great power comes--

CS: Is that a question, or a statement?

SM 3: No, really: with great power comes great responsibility.

CS: Can we interrogate that slogan? Because Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3 have all been unwilling to actually complicate that supposedly core idea.

SM 3: Sure, as long as 1) we accept you're being a wiseass, and 2) I'm gonna need another drink.

CS: Proposal 1: "Great power", either in real world terms, and certainly in superhero terms, is not an experience most of us have. It's a means of enforcing the myth that Great Men are separate and burdened in ways the rest of us cannot understand. That's suspect by itself, but damages Peter Parker as an Everyman. Proposal 2: great power and responsibility aren't a bundled two-pack deal, but synonymous. Proposal 3: with every life comes great responsibility. I don't feel the film has a fundamental grasp of this more important notion, and just feels that people in power positions have it real tough.

SM 3: "Even one person can make a difference."

CS: Anyone can make a difference? Or people with great power can make a difference? No one in Spider-Man 3 who doesn't have superpowers makes a difference.

SM 3: Well, MJ throws a cinder block at Venom. Anyway, that's kind of tied to the other theme of how we always have a choice. Like to do good or evil.

CS: And this is supposed to be exemplified by Peter's forgiveness of Flint "Bill Baker" Marko? And/or Harry Osborn going all Han Solo and flying in for a last minute assist in the ending battle royale?

SM 3: This is a trick question, isn't it?

CS: Spider-Man can't beat Sandman. He talks Sandman into floating away because there's no choice left; it's clear that Peter has had a revelation about revenge and forgiveness, which is nice but the decision is made for him. Harry is repeatedly beaten, brain-damaged, facially mutilated by Spider-Man until he has no options but to stop fighting or die. Eddie Brock is covered with alien goop and it's frankly completely unclear how much of a choice anyone has in such a state. At the center of his dilemma, old Double-P is a nice guy at heart, and whether by guilt or sense of duty, obviously feels compelled to fight crime (and as the second movie indicates, when you're Spider-Man, trouble finds you); his biggest choice is essentially made for him. The options are always hardline right and wrong, as a Moral Tale, there's nothing to learn. No tale hoping to illustrate the importance of personal choices should hinge on so many accidents, or present characters with such black and white decisions. Raimi's tactic throughout the Spider-Man films is to make fun of the material he finds silly and quaint, but infuse it with grandiose, reverential announcements of easy moral maxims. In the process, he paints himself as a bigger square than Peter Parker.

SM 3: Oh, also, revenge is a poison.

CS: That it is. Boy, you're sure About a lot of stuff, Spider-Man 3.

SM 3: I'm about more stuff than Ghost Rider. Oh, woah, my spider-sense is telling me you've got a week's worth of transcription here.

CS: Uh, don't swing through traffic in this state. Take a cab.

SM 3: Limo's waiting outside. It's a stretch Hummer!

Exit Spider-Man 3

BRUCE CAMPBELL AS A FRENCH WAITER: Monsieur?

Chris looks at the bar tab.

CS: Sweet Christmas!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

We Have No Bananas: Joke Structure in CANDY STRIPERS (1978)

Exploding Kinetoscope : Work Safe as always!

The adult film shares a key structural element with the musical, the slasher film, and action films. These genres work toward setpieces of their particular raison d'être, respectively sex scenes, songs, murder and action sequences. Adult films as a dominant genre, like musicals and action films, are defined by the form of their content, their format free of iconography, story requirements, tone and stock characters and situations. Additionally, the genre is reception-based, and like the children's film or the women's picture, partially identifiable and bound by requirement and agreement to fulfill certain expectations of its audience; of course the family film makes implicit promise about what boundaries will not be transgressed, while the adult film requires nothing more than the presence of explicit unsimulated sexual activity. From this perspective, there are ways adult film affords a storyteller less latitude than story-identified genres like whodunnits and disaster films. This all seems self-evident, but my purpose is to consider a few of the problems and possibilities dealt to the creative personnel by this generic conundrum. On one hand, the required moments of spectacle in format defined genres make them particularly rigid: if there aren't musical numbers, it's not a musical, and if there isn't graphic sex, isn't an adult film. On the other hand, they are the genres most ripe with possibility for blending with plot-oriented or iconography-based genres. Like solid crystal vases delivered with no flowers, the format genres are not only open forms for any content, but require such bolstering for their completion. Narrative adult films are necessarily blended genre films.

And so we consider the case of Candy Stripers, directed by AVN Hall of Famer Bob Chinn, who made at least eight other features in 1978, including the loony Hot & Saucy Pizza Girls. Like Pizza Girls, Candy Stripers is a zany workplace comedy... and more specifically, a common '70s scenario about service industry businesses whose female staff ends up getting horizontal with the clientelle. This sounds pretty specific, but Candy Stripers is of a family with Hot Rackets (1979) and Taxi Girls (1979). However, while Pizza Girls goes a bit higgledy-piggledy by incorporating parodic noir and slasher elements, Candy Stripers is a model of the antiauthoritarian workplace comedy, albeit skeletal and pornographic.

Ideally, filmmakers may accept the preordained sequences of spectacle as dramatic highlights around which to build a story. That story may be clarifying justification for the threaded-together string of songs/sex scenes/car chases. Those sequences may be treated as if suspended in a rarified space, and a story must be unobtrusively shoehorned around them. The road-marker requirements of the genre may be treated as an obstacle course in which the pleasure is navigating a successful course between bright orange cones ("how can I justify the next song/orgy/explosion?"). This is not to imply a qualitative judgement of these approaches: they're all potentially valid ways to get the job of story-making done. The only Bad Choice is if the writer, director, performers, should ever feel they are slogging through the boring parts to get to the fun stuff, lest the audience feel the same way.

Behind the Janitor Closet Door: The Outrageous Beneath the Mundane

The most difficult trick is to build in these genres without rendering either those Main Attraction scenes as tangential, as interludes to the other, or narrative roadblocks. In short: it is a tougher job to make a porn movie in which the story doesn't stop for the sex. That may be common sense, but while there are no limits to the stories one can tell with a dozen sexual encounters as natural plot points, it is a dire problem for the porn comedy. A choice has to be made between stopping the jokes for several minutes, or sabotaging the audience's expected pleasure by shooting funny sex scenes. Where soft-core satirist Russ Meyer and hardcore Golden Age maestro Alex de Renzy ultimately make anti-erotica by turning their sex scenes into outrageous jokes, in Candy Stripers, Bob Chinn and screenwriter Dean Rogers instead heighten the conventions of the bawdy farce to give purpose and shape to their porn movie... and vice versa.

The central strategy for incorporating hardcore sequences into the narrative of Candy Stripers is that in the abstract the plot is identical to a mainstream sex comedy. It is the last day of work for Sharon (Nancy Hoffman, also in de Renzy'sPretty Peaches that year, and the similar Taxi Girls the next), who, with her party girl pals Pam (Amber Hunt) and Cindy (Chris Cassidy, billed as Montana), is employed as a candy striper at the local hospital. The medical facility is entirely staffed and in service of perfectly healthy young swingers, all of whom have no duties or recuperation to do besides getting hot and heavy in mix-n-match combinations. The only wet blanket is tight-ass 'Striper supervisor Sarge (Sharon Thorpe), who has a full time job just keeping her staff out of the patients' beds. The impending excitement of a farewell party for Sharon, the possibility of romance during an after-shift date between Pam and Dr. George (Joey Silvera, billed as Joey Nassivera), and the constant cat-and-mouse games with Sarge provide the thrust of the narrative; the farce premise itself, and all the major story threads are centered on sexuality to begin with, so they are natural fit.

Candy Stripers' master-joke structure is the reveal that beneath the surface of all daily-grind mundaneness bubbles a constant, irrepressible outrageous spirit. Usually that takes the form of sex but it is repeated in permutations great and small throughout. That is the promise of the premise, which turns a sterile, stultifying hospital environment into a flesh carnival. That is the fantasy of the Candy Stripers, who act like they're in a hospital room to deliver magazines, and help patients pee into specimen jars, but end up wrecking the sheets. The film's opening scene announces this pattern, as Cindy chats blithely on the phone in bed before work, even as the hideous blankets part to reveal George preoccupied with other matters.

The bulk of the sex scenes begin with various patients stuck in the doldrums of hospital life, until the Candy Stripers arrive. But the film also uses its resources for punchy cutaway sight gags which aren't atypical jokes in themselves, but can be be executed in a less coy, more outrageous manner. As in M*A*S*H the rudeness of the humor is an asset in a comedy about rebellion in a stultifying environment. So when Sarge stalks through the halls, hunting Sharon for morning role call, it's a sure bet that behind the janitor supply closet door, Sharon's on her knees in front of Dr. Bishop (Richard Pacheco). Complete with wacky music and Dutch angles, these gags are delivered like a Three's Company scene in which rather than "this is not what it looks like!", it really was what it looked like.

Running Gag Reflex: Character Development and Repeating Patterns

Nurse Allen (Lauren Black) and Nurse Reynolds (Mimi Morgan) don't seem to have any duties besides hanging out at the counter; they banter about patients and gossip about staff, until the chit-chat scene is abruptly punctured by a reveal of the source of Nurse Allen's good mood: Sharon, arguably the dumbest, inarguably the horniest of the Candy Stripers, is concealed beneath the nurse's station desk and between Nurse Allen's legs.

The gag is repeated pretty much verbatim several scenes later, but with the nurses switched. The structure is the same as the closet gag, with Sharon's eager-beavering hidden from Sarge's view behind the hospital's professional veneer; Sarge ponders where the girl could be, but declares "Sharon will do anything with anyone at any time." The audience, staff and patients all see this confirmed - mere inches under Sarge's pointy nose - but as Sarge sneers with disgust, the expression on the nurse's face makes it clear that Sharon's hospitality is a virtue, and Sarge's bedside manner is making her miserable.

Delayed Climax: Tantric Banana Humor

Pity poor Mrs. Rogers, a lonlely lady patient portrayed by effervescent Exploding Kinetoscope favorite Phaedra Grant! For she misses her absent husband, who sends naught but a fruit basket to wish her well. If we think we can see where this is headed, we are correct - except those doubters who may not think Candy Stripers will "go there". Indeed, just as Mrs. Rogers (did the screenwriter name this character after himself? Or his wife? Or mother?), lies in wait for physical gratification, her storyline is Candy Stripers's most prolonged joke of delayed payoffs. The Rogers fruit basket sits on the nurse station counter in an earlier scene, awaiting both delivery, and the opportunity to be the subject of suggestive remarks from the nurse's about how nice the bananas look... and double-entendre-oblivious banana-ogling from Sarge. At last 'Striper Cindy delivers the phallic fruit (and Cassidy nearly knocks the phone off the table in the process), while depressed Mrs. Rogers laments that it will be her only company... But from the second they appear, the bananas are the target of nothing but dirty jokes.

Eventually, after enough scenes that we may have forgotten the lure of produce, Mrs. Rogers is about to finally Peel Slowly And See... only to be disrupted by Sarge, asking if she may sample some of the fruit. Mrs. Rogers concedes, mostly to get Sarge out of her room, as she's frozen under the sheet, banana split. Sarge ignores protests not to take the last banana, and clearly has no designs on the banana but to eat it. The Sarge will not sample the forbidden fruit.

Yet more trials for the Chiquita lady, as Cindy returns to her room... to administer a sponge bath. Already driven to desperation, already the butt of Candy Stripers' delayed joke climax, Mrs. Rogers' terrified face-off with Cindy is a highlight of the film's situational comedy, while mainstream films might, oh, say, play the scene as a joke about being caught having sex with food. The shock-comedy of hardcore banana-love is the starting point for Candy Stripers' comedy, and there is ample time to recover from the image - multiple scenes worth of time - and the tender payoff, as Cindy takes pity on Mrs. Rogers, is something more than a punchline.

And for those unsold on Ms. Grant, check out her how she channels her fear and embarrassment into fake anger and indignation when Cindy wants to pull back the sheet, even though she's the one with the Cavendish cultivar between her legs.

Convergance: Come Together

Several of Candy Stripers' running gags coalesce in the moment at left. Sharon is out of sight, happily going down on Nurse Allen, as opposing-force Sarge stands center and fully visible, kvetching about her girls, even as they exercise their talent in making people happy. The fruit basket watches impassively from the countertop.


Archetype De(con)struction: Broads, Acting

Sharon confronts her nemesis in the final showdown. When Sarge storms into O.R. to break up the late night, illegal goodbye party, in big, color-bursting close up, Sharon asks her ex-boss: "Were you always such a prude?!" While Candy Stripers depicts the 'Stripers cheering up patients in before-during-and-after vignettes, their ultimate challenge has been before them the entire time. Can Sarge be saved?

It is the comic sourpuss' eternal function to either be destroyed, or kicked into reversed. Witness Grumpy in Snow White, Eddie Valient in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice, the entire town in Pollyanna; confronted with so much Eros, Thanatos can't beat 'em, and thus joins 'em. Weeping "a prude?! Is that what you all think of me?!" Sarge chugs down a glass of booze that looks suspiciously like water, tears off her glasses and lets down her hair. It may be the predictable cardboard-villain arc for any obviously pretty woman forced into ugly character glasses and hairpins, but Candy Stripers toys with this expectation as only a porn movie can: Sharon Thorpe doesn't appear nude or in sex scenes until the climactic all-cast orgy.

Elsewhere and intercut, back at Pam's pad, her hopes for a nice date with George are dashed when he strips immediately on entering the bedroom. She expresses sadness for a moment - "I expected something more romantic", she says, and he responds by dimming the lights. But she beds down with him anyhow. Pam and George's unromantic tryst is the only sex scene in Candy Stripers that involves disappointment; the pathos comes from reversal of all the patterns the comedy has been built on. On Pam and George's date, it is the Candy Striper whose needs require tending to, but there is no one there for her, and so in the search for the spirit of romance, Pam finds the serviceable but mundane.

Paying off the joke personas that define their characters, the Candy Stripers (with assist by the patients) commit the grand finale of the orgy by ravishing Sarge on the operating table; the girls' healing positive energy makes Sarge's transformation complete. Both mirroring George's emotional uselessness in Pam's bed, and confirming that the 'Stripers are the true healers of character in the piece, Dr. Bishop is reduced to a slobbering, giggling moron who sits in a wheelchair gawking at the ladies and drunkenly making out with an oxygen tank cradled in his arms. All he can do is gawk at the women, alternately laughing and crying (I do not exaggerate to make a point here!), one of the final sterile facades of Candy Stripers to crack and reveal the outrageous beneath.

In the final scene, the nurses are back at their station, the outward pretense of normalcy restored to the hospital. Sharon's replacement (played by one-timer Bron White) reports for duty, clueless and apparently straightlaced. The nurses eye the new girl skeptically as she sashays off down the corridor and drops her binder. But Candy Stripers reconfigures its primary joke premise in meaningful ways up to the end, new punchline, new girl. In the last frames, the girl in the freshly pressed uniform flips up her skirt for the simple hell of it, and the credits roll on a screen-filling freeze frame of her butt.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Vampira Slinks Slowly!


Here are new gigantic scans of the entire 1954 LIFE magazine photo feature on L.A.'s KABC-TV superstar, Emmy-nominated horror host and All-Time #1 Monster Kid pin-up: Vampira! Click them AT YOUR OWN DOOM-RISK!

On page 107, we get a behind-the-spleens peek at how television is made, and a glimpse of a real-live KABC-TV camera. The article text seems to capture how strange and amazing the Vampira show must have been. She provided the basic 101 Skeleton Puns template for other local television horror host characters. But I don't know of any others who traded in brazen eroticism or genuine otherworldly creepiness. In the White Zombie (1932) episode the reporter witnesses, she materializes out of a billowing mist, floats to the camera looking like a sex-demon, screams into the lens... then starts telling vaudeville Halloween jokes. This is how all people should behave.

LIFE attempts to break the spell by calling out Maila Syrjäniemi's birth name and natural blond hair color, but has to concede she is genuinely weird enough to have come up with the routine.

Irrelevant note: Vampira was 31 when the article was published, which means I am running out of time to do something with my life as cool as Vampira before turning 31.

The Sun Dial is the secret!: say what you will about mounting Cold War terror and racial tension... The 1950s was the period of most adorable typography in American advertising history! I leave in this movie-culture relevant Bell & Howell camera ad, because that woman in the upper left? Look how ecstatic she is about making her own movies. Cinemania has rendered her completely helpless!

Rollo, Don't Make Cobwebs on the Furniture!: Vampira rests her bones on a fainting couch that an enterprising furniture manufacturer should repro. Is there any reason to think it might be in a warehouse on the property of former KABC-TV lot, Prospect Studios? Is there any reason not to break into said warehouse?

Fetching as her Mona Lisa Leer is, keen as it may be to see the detail on the headstone-inspired lounger... I can't help but wonder if LIFE and cropped the top photo from a full-moon view of Vampira's corpus delicti.

* * * * *

There's an extraneous Zippo ad on page 109. It illustrates the kind of man who uses Zippos: dads, private eyes, and golfers in pleated slacks. In 1954, it cost $8.50 to get a Zippo with a picture of a leaping trout or an Irish setter on it!

* * * * *

These are the pictures designed to drive Horror-wood residents nuts! Some of my favorite passages in Rudolph Grey's required-reading Edward Wood, Jr. bio Nightmare of Ecstasy are Maila Nurmi spinning yarns about hanging out after work in late-late night Los Angeles with Criswell, eating Swedish meatballs cooked by Mae West. The neighborhood around the studio is empty, quiet and lonely at night, and must have been even more-so in the '50s, and Nurmi must have been in her, er, unnatural environment.

By the by, it's possible to take a brief and very cool Plan 9-alumni walking tour, from the old KABC-TV studios, down the road a pace past the original Monogram soundstage at Sunset and Fountain, where Bela Lugosi made nine beloved and/or lamented films, depending on who you're drinking with. At the Hollywood/Sunset intersection, Mr. Wood had his first office. The diehard will want to continue down to the Santa Monica and Wilton area, for between Gold Diggers (located at 5632 Santa Monica Blvd.), the grossest strip joint in the charted universe, and the Harvey Hotel, should one peer into the gated alley, stands the remains of Quality Picture Studios. In that hallway-sized soundstage, for $200, Vampira made her sort-of-in-character film debut; and if oral history is to be believed, the director would pop into Gold Diggers for drinks. If anyone harasses you while standing in the dark alley next to a strip club, just tell them you're a film historian.

The middle photograph A) hilariously illustrates how much old duffers at the bus stop hate Vampira, and B) is remarkably captioned. Would any contemporary celebrity be happy with a caption declaring them "HAUGHTY"?! It wasn't just the fetish fashion or the camp and cleave: Vampira's resolute confidence is inspirational.

The sharp-eyed will note that Vampira is being chauffeured past the Security Trust and Savings building, at 6381-85 Hollywood Blvd at Cahuenga (built in 1921). Here's a giant photo of the building from the L.A. Dept. of Planning.

The top photo, of Vampira tooling around the neighborhood in a rented Packard, looking either regal or irritated, is priceless. On her show, late at night, shrouded in the mist of the shabby studio set, Vampira was in her own world, a dark star in a city of blinding sunlight. This photo encapsulates the dizzy contradiction of the Night Mayor of Los Angeles.

Things We Learned!

-This article reminds us all of a pressing issue in our world, which is the lack of an acceptable DVD of Fog Island (1945). We will be petitioning Criterion's Eclipse label for a "Late PRC Thrillers" box set.

-LIFE Magazine is hard to scan!

-It is rumored that the KABC archive contains scraps of Vampira footage, probably the three-minute promo clip we will see in Vampira: The Movie. In the meantime, this clip (likely from the same source) is all that is to be had online: