E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial [1982)

I’ve been unmercifully harsh on Steven Spielberg over the years.

But this is the first time I’ve written about one of his films.

And, of course, it doesn’t really matter what I think of this movie.

The director couldn’t care less what I think.

And that is fine.

But there is a more profound lesson in all of this.

This situation.

I know the psychology of it.

And I can trace the genesis.

So let me start by saying that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a good film.

Not great, but certainly good.

That is, of course, a statement of opinion.

That’s the nature of what I do.

As I wrote recently, I don’t like to belittle films.

In the end, it hurts me as much as anyone.

It’s simply a poisonous activity.

So I watched this blockbuster from my youth.

Tonight.

A film I hadn’t seen in a looong time.

It almost holds together as a great film.

But Spielberg seems to be the chess prodigy who can’t win a game.

He has the beginnings down.

That’s important.

And his middle game is decent.

But his final approach is a maudlin catastrophe.

Or, put another way, he gives the audience exactly what they want.

But put more precisely, he gives the audience what he THINKS they want.

There is a lot of guessing here.

The old formula ending in, “…you can’t please all of the people all the time.”

There is a lot of good filmmaking in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Some truly special scenes!

A great concept!

But some parts haven’t aged so well.

And it’s not just because the special effects seem dated.

At issue is the artfulness of Steven Spielberg.

My guess is that he’s just not a very artful fellow.

But I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

So we might say, in 1982 he was still not a mature filmmaker.

That is, I think, a relatively fair statement.

This was, of course, Spielberg’s second “space” film.

Indeed, perhaps this was the watered-down, family version of Close Encounters…

And I respect Spielberg for making a family film.

But there is something profoundly grating about his mise-en-scène.

It’s not a pandering of genuine naïveté.

It’s more of a director trying to get into your wallet.

And he did.

Almost $800 million (!) at the box office.

In 1982.

That’s about $2 billion today (inflation-adjusted).

Let me make it very simple.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial goes astray the first time the bike takes flight.

And completely goes off the rails when the BMX bandits flock to the friendly skies.

But what is most excruciating is the melodramatic “hospital” scene.

Makeshift.

Henry Thomas is really good in this film.

He’s from my hometown (for Christsakes!).

But an 11-year-old boy needs some direction when he’s in a $10 million movie.

He either got bad direction at certain points, or (even worse) no direction.

Sure.

I admire Spielberg for getting in the wallets so deftly.

But poetic pickpockets will be found out sooner or later.

And E.T…., as a whole, has not aged well.

Look…Spielberg is not a bad director.

I always insult Schindler’s List.

That’s because there are some serious problems with how Mr. Jaws took on the Holocaust.

As overwrought as it is, it’s still a popcorn affair.

We will get to it eventually.

But the dead deserve a poet.

The Holocaust is not blockbuster material.

And the daft pickpocket, no matter how good his intentions, will never recuse himself from such a haul.

But more specifically…

I’m sure Spielberg’s motives for making Schindler’s List were as pure as the driven snow.

Really.

I’m not being facetious.

But he was not prepared to make such a picture.

Indeed, the picture he made is not possible.

But that is a different matter for a different day.

The Terminal is a very fine film.

E.T. is a good one.

The most troubling part is that this was Spielberg’s seventh feature-length film.

That’s really not a promising sign.

But we will give him a fair chance.

The guy has immense talent.

It just seems that his puffed-up reputation is disproportionate to the largely mediocre films he’s made.

 

-PD

Caddyshack [1980)

I’m so happy to be bringing you an actual film review today.

Even though I’m under the weather.

Yes, the airborne molds here in San Antonio seem to have brought on a nasty head cold.

[And before that it was the mountain cedar pollen.  It seems my city is among the five worst in the U.S. for allergens!]

But nothing does the health quite as much good as a larf 🙂

And I must say, categorically, that Caddyshack is a masterpiece.

I suspected as much, but I never truly analyzed every bit of dialogue.

Till now.

And let me just start off by saying, the screenwriters responsible for this film deserve immense kudos.

First, Douglas Kenney.

If you go to the Caddyshack page on Wikipedia, you will notice that Mr. Kenney has no hypertext love for his name in the “informatics” box.

[Correction, Kenney’s name under the heading “Writers” is not hypertext-enabled, but his name is linkable elsewhere on the page.]

The story of Mr. Kenney is sad.

The strangest part is, HE DOES indeed have a Wikipedia page!

So why no link to the Caddyshack page?

My guess is that this film (and its stakeholders) probably want to distance themselves from the late- Mr. Kenney.

And that’s the saddest part.

You see, Douglas Kenney died almost exactly a month after Caddyshack was released.

Apparently Mr. Kenney was depressed about the bad reviews Caddyshack had gotten.

It’s a tragic story.

But we’re here to celebrate this wonderful film!

And there are two more writers to credit.

Harold Ramis, who passed away in 2014, is also credited with writing our timeless work.

And finally, Brian Doyle-Murray (who is thankfully still with us).

These three writers crafted a great story.

But most importantly, they should be revered for the fantastic banter which they concocted.

In its own way, the script for Caddyshack deserves a prominent place next to Ernest Lehman’s North by Northwest.

But to pull off great lines, you need great actors.

And Caddyshack is chockfull of masterful performances.

But first let’s take a look at the socioeconomic aspects of this story.

The action is completely set at a posh golf course in Nebraska:  Bushwood Country Club.

While some of the allegorical caricatures are a bit crude (indeed, the whole film is gloriously crude), there is a nice message to this film.

Quite simply, it is the “haves” and the “have-nots”.

And the main, anarchist “have-nots” are the caddies.

Those lowly youngsters who schlep golf bags up and down green hills in lieu of golf carts.

It’s funny…

The manager of the Caddy Shack (actually played by writer Brian Doyle-Murray) holds the specter of replacement over the young caddies’ heads.

Shape up, or you’ll be replaced by golf carts.

[Or something to that effect]

I can hear the same strains echoing from my local McDonald’s (though I never go there).

You want fifteen dollars an hour?

Great.

Hello robots.

But these kids put up with a lot of shit.

And, though this film doesn’t get this in-depth, I feel for the youngsters who are out there working crappy jobs.

America is fucked up.

A cashier at a corner store shouldn’t be prevented from getting antibiotics for her infected tooth.

She shouldn’t have to miss work because we can’t figure out this problem.

I’m guessing she can’t afford the doctor’s visit.

Or the visit to a clinic.

But that’s pretty sad.

It’s like panhandling…

No one would dream of such an existence.

So we gotta be less cynical.

Yeah, panhandlers will try any trick in the book.

But in the final estimation, one must really feel sorry for anyone who has no better options than to spend their time begging (or, for that matter, hawking cigarettes for minimum wage at the Kwik-E-Mart).

But I digress…

The late- Ted Knight did a great job of playing the yuppie villain in this film.

You want to go to law school?  And your parents can’t afford it?

Well, the world needs ditch-diggers too.

It’s a bloody-jawdropping line from our three screenwriters!

Ted Knight plays Judge Smails.

Yes, a real piece of work he is!

The “good-old-boys” network.

Even up in Nebraska.

Perhaps a jab at Warren Buffett?

We know, of course, that Mr. Buffett was having a very convenient charity golf tournament the morning of 9/11 at Offutt Air Force Base.

And Offutt is the central node of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

And George W. Bush eventually made his way to Offutt on 9/11 (after stopping over at the second most important nuke site, Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, Louisiana).

And then there was the jet owned by Mr. Buffett that was conveniently in the air near Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.

And Ms. Anne Tatlock who would have normally been in her office at Fiduciary Trust Company in the World Trade Center, but was playing golf with Warren Buffett.

Fiduciary Trust lost 87 employees on the morning of 9/11 when Flight 175 slammed into the WTC.

But Tatlock was in Omaha.

Too crazy to be true?

And who were the other invitees at Buffett’s event?

Let’s return to comedy, shall we? 🙂

Chevy Chase is fantastic as Ty Webb in our film.

He has no editing mechanism.

Here is a guy so effortlessly-rich that he just says whatever is on his mind.

Remind you of anyone?

And if that pointed-allusion to our PEOTUS isn’t pithy enough, we then have Rodney Dangerfield’s ostentatious character:  a realtor!

Remember, in 1978 (two years before Caddyshack) the villain of Superman (Lex Luthor) was also a realtor.

It’s an interesting meme.

Indeed, the word “meme” was coined just two years before THAT (in Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene).

So perhaps it was just the Zeitgeist, but our writers had latched onto something with the realtor trope.

However, as stated, the villain of Caddyshack is the venal Judge Smails.

Rodney Dangerfield (who was magnificent in this film) is very much an anti-villain:  the enemy of our enemy.

Dangerfield’s character Al Czervik may be nouveau riche, but he has many redeeming qualities.

To reel in one of my favorite memes, he puts the disruptive in “disruptive innovation” (thank you Clay Christensen).

I mean, really…you gotta hand it to a guy with Budweiser on tap in his golf bag 🙂

But perhaps the most important character is Carl (played to genius proportions by Bill Murray).

Carl is the slack-jawed “assistant [head?] greenskeeper” whose internal monologue is just audible enough to guide us through this film.

Every film critic should identify with Carl (except, of course, the “successful” ones).

Here’s a guy who basically lives in the toolshed.

I mean, the scene where Chevy Chase “plays through” is just classic!

Carl eventually does a little housekeeping with a leaf blower (presaging the eccentric roots of Beck Hansen [whose dust-choking start was still a ways off in 1980]).

But Carl really makes this film tick.

He is the Fanfare for the Common Man.

And there are Bronx cheers in place of the timpani!

[Did somebody sit on a duck?]

Sarah Holcomb probably doesn’t get much credit for her role in this film, but she should.

Ms. Holcomb was born on September 11, 1958.

This was her last film (according to Wikipedia).

While her Irish accent is a bit grating (because, I am guessing, it is merely a plot device), she is a joyful presence in this film.

Ah, but Cindy Morgan really steals the show as Lacey Underall.

And she’s not just a pretty face!

Her acting (and chemistry with Chevy Chase) is really remarkable.

Plus, she has the best line of the film:

“BULLFIGHTS ON ACID.”

God, I love that line…

Which takes us back to our writers.

These guys were really something!

But I haven’t even mentioned the auteur of our film.

It was, indeed, one of the three writers:  Harold Ramis.

Sure, there are cheap stunts (actually, $8 mil. worth…in 1980!).

But they almost all work beautifully.

For instance, the Jaws spoof with the Baby Ruth in the swimming pool 🙂

I mean, God…what a concept!

And even little touches…like Ted Knight hacking through the bathroom door with a golf club instead of an axe (à la The Shining).

The Shining, incidentally, was released about two months before Caddyshack.

[Jaws hailed from 1975 and Jaws 2 had dropped in 1978.]

It’s hard to say to what extent Bill Murray and Chevy Chase improvised in this film.

The same goes for Rodney Dangerfield.

These were/are comedic geniuses.

So no doubt a good bit of credit for the final product goes to these three gentlemen.

But Harold Ramis pulled it all together.

And so, dear friends, if you haven’t seen this film, then you absolutely must.

It’s not Gone With the Wind, but it’s a very significant milestone in the development of cinema.

-PD

Chronique d’un été [1961)

Capture capture capture.

Always capture the emotion of what you’ve just seen.

You have to take a piss?

It can wait.

[ok, sometimes it can’t]

But here it must wait.

Because Chronicle of a Summer is beyond the level of masterpiece.

For so long, I wanted to see a film of Jean Rouch.

Et voilà…ici!

Joined by another genius = Edgar Morin.

Where Nuit et brouillard fails, Chronique d’un été succeeds.

The reality (yes) of the Holocaust is in Marceline.

Marceline who does not want to sleep with an African.

Marceline with the concentration camp tattoo.

Marceline and her memories of her dear papa.

In this moment, the Holocaust becomes true.

We believe it…because it is not the same bullshit propaganda we have heard a million times.

Propaganda meant to amplify a truth can actually succeed (fail) in negating a truth.

Such is with the Holocaust.

It is where Spielberg fails with Schindler’s List.

It’s the Titanic of Holocaust historiography.

Titanic might be a good film (I believe it is), but it is certainly not cinema.

It is popcorn viewing.

That’s what Spielberg (of Jaws) did with the Jews.

He knew no other way.

He made a pop song out of Berg’s Violin Concerto.

Not even that.

Worse.

But Rouch (rouxsch) and Morin (more on, not moron) do the opposite.

Here we see all the techniques which would dominate the work of Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s.

And Godard has admitted the debt to Rouch.

Ethnography.

What is that?

Ethnic and graphs?

Might be some false cognation in there.

But yes:  this is a film from the social sciences.

Morin, the sociologist.

Rouch, the anthropologist (always mentioned as an “ethnographic filmmaker”).

It you want to see a film that doesn’t suck, see this one.

It has everything.

But it is not forced.

It is Paris, but it is also Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Belgian Congo, colonial Algeria, jungles, leaves over the “sex” [genitals]).

Yet, all of this is merely talked about.

We are taken there by dialogue.  Language.

Immigrants.  Africans.

High and low.

A Renault factory.  Saint-Tropez.

Up and down.

Youth happy because the sun is shining and they are young.

Elderly who have lost their spouses or siblings.

Down and up.

Immigrants from Italy.  Depression.  REAL FUCKING DEPRESSION.

But beauty.  La bohème.  Attic apartments.

Bullfighting.  Rock climbing.  Bananas.

Fruit and //furniture forgeries.

Cooked books.  Accounting irregularities.

Leisure.  The revolution of doing nothing. [or at least something surreal]

You can’t just buy one book and expect to have it tell you “how the French think”.

No, my friends…

You must work at it.

You must study for years.  Study a culture.

And that’s what I’ve done with the French.  Because I love them.

 

-PD

 

SNL Season 1 Episode 4 [1975)

Ah, the great Nordic beauty Candice Bergen.

The first female host in SNL history (four episodes in).

This is quite a good episode.

But we start off with the first wholehearted attempt at Gerald Ford klutz (clumsy) humor with Chevy Chase.

Yes, before there was the fumbling, bumbling, broken banjo known as George W. Bush, there was Gerald Ford.

The humor had been leaning this way since the start of the season.

And finally Chevy got to do a proper piece (the start to the show, no less).

We also get the Landshark skit in this era of Spielberg-induced panic.

We must remember that Jaws had come out that summer (a few months prior to this show).

But the overwhelming star of this episode was undoubtedly Andy Kaufman (again).

It is the Foreign Man character (which was parlayed into his Taxi success as Latka).

Andy is a revelation here.  Yes, you need to be a little sick in the head to do comedy like Andy Kaufman.

The whole point, I think, was in how much he could get away with.

It was the game.

How far could he push it.

And so Foreign Man almost starts crying.  It is a miracle moment in television.

All great practical jokers (foremost among them Orson Welles) had this ability to suspend disbelief, but Kaufman was doing it live…out on a limb.

An excursion on a wobbly rail (to quote Cecil Taylor).

And so Candice  was right when she introduced Andy as a genius.

Goddamn…

What could follow that?!?

Well, sadly Esther Phillips starts off with a fast number.

Esther was the musical guest.

A fine singing voice, but the most annoying, lingering vibrato I’ve ever heard…like a WWI fighter plane…a machine-gun at the end of every phrase.

She was, no doubt, imitating the Billie Holiday of Lady in Satin (that last, great album of drugged-out soul).

But the problem is that the Billie Holiday vibrato doesn’t work on fast songs.

Yet, Esther uses it anyway.

And so Esther’s first number comes off as a head-tilting performance art oddity equal to Andy Kaufman (only I don’t think she knew it).

But all sins are forgiven later when Esther does a ballad.

Ahh…that’s the right repertoire.

Albert Brooks regresses to the mean with his film in this episode (a mashup of possible bullpen shows for NBC…including the awful-in-all-ways Black Vet).

All in all, this is a fine show.  Aykroyd is great.  Belushi is great.

In fact, the most touching scene is a talk between Gilda Radner and Candice Bergen about femininity/feminism.

Gilda Radner was such a beautiful person…such soul!

What a show!!!

 

-PD