Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Music Man as Muse

The Music ManImage via Wikipedia
When The Music Man hit the screen in the 1960s, I was still a teenager. Fancying myself too sophisticated for such corny fare, I was reticent to see it. But my girlfriends all wanted to go together and make an afternoon of it. So I put down one of the fantasy books I was so fond of reading at the time, I made like a sheep and followed.

As I suspected, the movie was corny. I hadn't yet matured enough to see the subtle layers the movie contained. In fact, I think I just attained that level of maturity last week. For some reason, suddenly I started to connect the dots between The Music Man's con man and things I see happening on the Internet. That's a funny parallel to draw, I realize, but go with me here for a moment.

As I thought about The Music Man, he became my muse for a personal investigation of the dark side of humanity. I thought about the fact that at the heart of any con -- on-screen or off -- is the promise of benefit for the person being conned. Otherwise, why would ordinarily smart people allow themselves to get sucked in to such tales? In the case of Robert Preston's character Professor Harold Hill, the town was in need -- a need he created.

"Ladies and gentlemen, either you are closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge, or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community!" said Professor Hill.

"Not in our town! We have to do something!" cried the newly terrified populace.

Although Hill set off a few alarm bells that told the townspeople to beware of him, people ultimately wanted to believe him. The trouble he warned against consisted of nothing more than a table, two sticks and some billiard balls, but that was all it took. You don't have to know all the details of the high stakes poker game he was playing with the people of River City to predict the outcome. The unfortunate bottom line is that people will believe just about anything if they think it will bring them something they lack -- even if that lack is only a figment of their imaginations. And that's exactly how acceptance of Hill's non-existent marching band took root in River City.

You could say the same process applies to the many scams on the Internet, most notably the endless flood of e-mails that promise a better life in exchange for the recipient's life savings. Of course, the proposition isn't presented that way. According to these often poorly written e-mails, all you have to do is trust a stranger who comes bearing gifts. But hey, there's plenty of easy money in it for you, so why not? And if a Nigerian princess just happens wants to want you (out of all the people on the planet) to help her deposed father move a few million dollars out of the country, why shouldn't you help? More to the point, why shouldn't you benefit? As soon as you ask that last question, they have you. And just in case it's not clear, you will never benefit.

These charlatans don't wear band uniforms or march boldly down the street, but when you open your eyes to what they're doing, it's just about that obvious. Yet it's surprising how many people buy into these scams. Maybe it's because some of these con artists have refined their pitch so well, they know just how to hit people's hot buttons. My favorite example of this was an e-mail that mentioned that they were working "in the name of Jesus Christ." Although the rationalization for that divine connection was flimsy, I'll bet a whole bunch of people fell for it anyway.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this but I do think it' s interesting that people often fare better in fiction than in real life. The people of River City were actually better off by the time Harold Hill was done with them. I only wish the people who lost their life savings to that Nigerian princess experienced such happy endings.
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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Marty Redux

Cover of "Marty (1954)"Cover of Marty (1954)

I started this blog with the combined goal of discussing movies and purging any hidden bits of my childhood dysfunction. Discussing movies and my memories of seeing them for the first time turned out to be the easy part. The purging is another story entirely. I'm not under the illusion that people actually want to read about how my semi-twisted upbringing affected my life. But in this case, it's part and parcel of my experience of Marty.

You might have noticed there was a long absence after my last post. I wore myself out doing the tourist thing with out-of-own company for almost two weeks, and then caught an aggressive summer cold. After lying around in bed at home for what seemed like months (but was really only a few days), I decided I needed a change of scenery. So I ensconced myself in the reclining chair in the living room. I gathered the essentials on the table next to me: a box of Kleenex, Tiger Balm to rub under my nose to help me breathe better and a cup of herbal tea. Then I flipped on the TV and found that Marty was set to begin in a few minutes.

Ever since I wrote about Marty on May 1, I had the nagging feeling I had been a little harsh in my assessment of it. For whatever my faults might be, I like to think I'm fair. So I decided to give Marty another try.

The beginning of the movie was as I remembered it: the interactions between the men in the coffee shop felt like they were based on bad beat poetry. I felt pretty smug that the assessment I had made all those years ago was correct. But being in a weakened state with little initiative to search for something else, I continued to watch anyway. And I'm glad I did, because suddenly the movie took a turn and I started to enjoy it. The way people interacted in the dance hall was actually fascinating to me and the romantic chemistry between the two main characters (played by Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair) was palpable.

As I watched, I steeled myself for the nagging mother to come onto the screen. The woman who appeared instead was actually a kind woman who was just concerned about her son and overly manipulated by her nagging sister. (The sister, Marty's aunt, is the stuff of which nightmares are made.)

Since I had made reference in my last review to the "nagging mother" and how I didn't need to watch her on the screen because I could find that in my own living room while growing up, I was quite surprised that this character wasn't who I thought she was. Because of the disparity between my perception of that character and the reality, I added a sick feeling in my stomach to the runny nose, sore throat and headache I already had when I sat down to watch the movie.

I had projected my own mother onto this poor woman. Marty's mom was actually a good-hearted sort who really loved her child. Hmm. My mother loved us, too, in the only way she knew how. But she didn't convey any of the warmth of Marty's mother.

Who cares? you might be asking. The significance probably only applies to me, but I thought it was fascinating that the image I carry inside of my mother had warped my perception so much. My stomach ache came from questioning just exactly how many other things I had projected onto dear old Mom. And I wonder if I'll ever even know the answer to that.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Rear Window

Rear WindowImage via Wikipedia
I was nine or 10 when my parents took my sister Ruth and me to see Rear Window. We didn't usually get invitations to their movie dates, so we were thrilled.

I remember it being easy to insert myself into Hitchcock's world, which looked a lot like my own. In retrospect, it was quite an accomplishment that it felt real, because that world actually existed on an indoor set. I'm sure it took a lot of money to make it feel real, because it was the largest set Paramount Studios had ever built at up to that time. I heard it took 1,000 arc lights to get it bright enough to simulate sunshine for the daytime scenes.

Not only did that apartment complex in Rear Window look a little like our neighborhood, but my sister and I had a collection of doll houses fashioned out of shoe boxes that we grouped together with a center "courtyard" much like the one Jimmy Stewart's character L.B Jefferies saw out his window. A voyeur (a fancy term for nosy) even as a little girl, I liked the idea that my dolls could watch over each other and I could watch them. I felt a kindred spirit with Jimmy Stewart every time he picked up those binoculars to look in on his fellow apartment dwellers. Trust me; had we been able to afford binoculars and I could have watched without getting caught, I definitely would have used them L.B. Jefferies-style on our neighbors.

I also could relate to that apartment where Jefferies was incarcerated by a broken leg, because like him, we didn't have air conditioning. I still remember how hot I felt watching the movie, even though we were in an air-conditioned theater. When he wiped his sweat, so did I.

Although I was engrossed in both the visceral experience and the story, I have to admit I caught myself daydreaming more than once about having a wardrobe like Grace Kelly's character, Lisa Fremont. Few women were as elegant and well-proportioned as her, so even as a little girl I envied that her clothes fit her as if she were born right into them. (I guess I was aware of such things because my grandmother was a seamstress.)

The future Princess Grace wore the type of clothes I only saw in movies. At that young age, the closest thing we had to elegant fashions were the plain matching velvet dresses my grandmother made for my sister and me for Hanukkah. Although it would have never been discussed, I think my mother also felt a twinge of envy at Grace Kelly's wardrobe. This is an odd thing to remember, but I recall my mother touching the collar of her worn but serviceable dress more than once during the movie. Now that I'm a grown woman, I wonder if she wasn't just a little self-conscious of that lace collar that probably fell apart sometime after the next few washings.

But my memories of Rear Window's don't just center on fashion and temperature; I remember my sister and I actually sat on the edges of our seats, especially at the end. I think she even grabbed my hand at one point. Raymond Burr made a great bad guy, so I wasn't the only one who squirmed in my seat as Lisa tried to elude him.

"Be careful!," I remember saying over and over to Lisa and L.B., under my breath. My mother would have ordinarily chastised me for talking in the theater, but she was too wrapped up in her own reaction to even hear me. My father too was absorbed in the story. In this way, Rear Window was a family affair. We sat there, bound together in fear -- and the eventual triumph when we found out everything was all right at the end.

For almost two hours, Hitchcock held my family in the palm of his hand. Never mind that life outside the theater was less than perfect. For the time we were allowed to peer into that world, Rear Window was a roller coaster ride that I remember as pure magic. And it's great to see movies like Rear Window for sale on DVD, so now I can watch any old time I want!

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008


EraserheadImage via WikipediaLike Ring of Bright Water, I saw Eraserhead when I was already grown up. In fact, my son Alan was a teenager. If it weren't for him, I would have just paid heed to Eraserhead movie reviews and never would have seen such a strange and -- I guess the best word is icky -- movie.

When Alan was in high school, we moved to a new neighborhood. This meant he had to go to a new school. Eventually, after a few months he became friends with some boys who used to take the bus on Saturday nights to see midnight movies such as Pink Flamingos by John Waters and the Neil Young movie, Rust Never Sleeps. And they were all very proud that each had logged at least 15 viewings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

I met all these boys when they came over to the house after school to bum cold bottles of RC Cola from our basement refrigerator. I also managed to speak to at least one parent of each boy. Maybe I was being controlling, but Alan grew up in an insular neighborhood where everyone knew each other. In our old neighborhood, I took his safety for granted. Now that he was in new surrounds, I placed a few phone calls to make sure I knew who he was associating with. Trusting blindly seemed like I would just be accepting the equivalent of poker odds when it came to my son's well-being. It's not that I didn't trust Alan; it was them I didn't trust.

I was reasonably sure these kids were more interested in movies than the marijuana I had heard was passed around the audience during these midnight shows. But increasingly I couldn't put my head on my pillow at night for wondering what exactly happened at these late-night showings. So, one Saturday I wrangled an invitation.

Now that might seem weird to you. But Alan and I had a special relationship. He never doubted who was the boss (or at least that I was one of them; his father was the other), but we also had a kind of friendship. So he only hesitated about 30 seconds before he said, "Yeah, I guess that would be okay," referring to my joining them for a screening of Eraserhead.

"But I'm warning you; it's weird."

"Weirder than your Aunt Minna's new face lift? Those gathers of skin at the side of her face are pretty hard to look at."

"No, I guess not," Alan said.

"Okay then. What time do we go?"

To make my presence more welcome for the other boys, I volunteered to drive our Riviera to the theater. After only a few minutes of obvious horror that I was accompanying them, they seemed to relax. By the time we got into the theater, they almost forgot I was there.

After I got my Junior Mints and bought the boys a box of candy each (which further endeared me to them), we opened the door that led to the formerly plush but now fading theater. To my surprise, a thick billow of smoke engulfed me and I started to cough. Once I caught my breath, I began the sniff test to see if the smoke was from cigarettes or marijuana. I wasn't a big expert on the difference between the two, but I figured if the air didn't smell like cigarettes, I could assume something else was being smoked. But it smelled like cigarettes to me, so I breathed a sigh of relief -- at least as much of one as I could with my head trapped in a cloud of fumes.

As we waited for the movie to begin, there were all kinds of weird characters walking around. I assumed they were dressed for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, even though I'm not even sure it was playing that night. One late-night freak show was as good as the next to some of these people, I guessed. Anyway, after listening to the audience hoot and howl at trailers for other strange movies, Eraserhead began.

I have to say, I had never seen anything that creepy coming from a movie screen before -- or since. Bleeding miniature chickens at the dinner table, a deformed premature baby that made hideous noises, industrial wreckage and a lot of other dark images just rolled forth, one after another. It was the kind of stuff that makes you wince involuntarily. Or at least that was my reaction. The boys, on the other hand, giggled and made cat-calls with every new freakish scene. It's a good thing this movie was pre-video camera and those impressionable boys had no aspirations to become filmmakers. I certainly wouldn't have wanted them to learn how to make a video by studying David Lynch's technique.

As the movie went along, I found myself watching the boys more than the movie. It was funny to see them cringe and laugh at the same time. This was like pulling the wings off flies to them, without the animal torture. There was obviously a perverse pleasure in it. I watched them just long enough to reassure myself that they were only there for the freak show; not to play with drugs. Their wide eyes, total attention on the screen and sniggering told me I had nothing to worry about. That left me free to excuse myself and go to the lobby.

There was a similar freak show going on out there, but no one was bleeding or screaming; there were just teenagers trying to find their individuality by dressing as characters from Rocky Horror. Ironic really, but harmless. Being a non-teenager, though, it wore thin quickly for me. I heard "Damn it, Janet!" so many times in the space of a half-hour, I was delighted when the boys poured out of the theater and into the lobby so I could go home.

If you'd like to see what the Eraserhead fuss is all about, there's a video below of director David Lynch talking about the movie, along with some sample scenes. Good luck.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Ring of Bright Water

Unlike many of the other movies I write about, I actually saw Ring of Bright Water when I was already grown up and married.

It's not a movie most people remember, probably because it rose and fell within the Saturday morning kid's B-movie circuit. That's where I saw it. Back in the days when the movie was making the rounds, I used to trade turns taking my son Alan and his friends to the double-feature at our local theater on Saturday mornings. I only had to do this once every four weeks or so, because it was a big group of kids and the other mothers took their turns the rest of the time.

On this particular Saturday morning, it was deadly hot outside. Our small window air conditioner at home succeeded in cooling the apartment enough for us to sleep at night, but when the sun was beating down on the wall of windows in our living room, you could forget about cooling the place down. So instead of test-driving the new Shark steam mop I had bought the day before from a door-to-door salesman, I opted instead for a box of Junior Mints and two hours in blissfully cold theater air conditioning.

I have to say, I was initially more interested in listening to the silly ramblings of Alan's friends as they questioned the significance of the Beatles lyrics for Yellow Submarine (he was always much more sensible than any of those kids) and to counting the mints as I popped them into my mouth (I love numbers). But this movie eventually sucked me in -- so much so that I still had candy left in the all-but-forgotten Junior Mints box in my lap once the movie was over.

Although it probably seems contradictory because of what I just wrote, I can't remember much about the movie. That's pretty unusual for me, because my memory is near-photographic. What I do remember is the reaction of a teenage girl who was sitting next to us.

In the grand tradition of animal films, some manor of peril befell Mij, the real-life otter that starred in the movie. As a result, he disappeared. Later, the teenage girl mistook another otter for the perky and lovable Mij, whom I'm pretty sure was dead by that time in the movie. When this new otter appeared, the overly exuberant teenage girl obviously was thrown off by the fact that all otters look the same. So, with no warning, she threw her popcorn in the air and screamed, "It's Mij!" at the top of her voice.

That about scared me into incontinence, as the movie had my rapt attention. But after I and everyone else got over the shock of her reaction, we started to laugh. When one group of people would stop laughing, another would start. As a result, the bittersweet ending was drowned out by giggling that continued even while the end credits rolled.

So there's my Ring of Bright Water story. I really don't know whether to recommend the movie or not. The kids seemed to like it and talked about it for weeks afterward, so that's saying something. And the way I figure it, the movie has more than one live otter and it's set in rural Scotland; how bad could it be?

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Birds

200px}}Image via Wikipedia
What better title could they have come up with for this scary movie than the simple and elegant "The Birds"?

The birds, indeed. They scared me half to death. I'm sure that's why my date (my first ever!) took me to see it. He knew the fear factor would ensure that I would clutch his arm all night long. And I did.

When I saw the movie years later on television, the passage of time, the smaller screen and the fact that I was no longer on my first date with a boy made me see the film with new eyes. It was still scary, but it also had laughs I didn't see before. But I don't think the laughs were intended by Hitchcock; they came from sloppy editing and direction, not because the scriptwriter had written them in.

My favorite bit of editing strangeness came when the character of Melanie, played ably by Melanie Griffith's mother Tippi Hedren, was watching the gas station fire. I'm not sure what Hitchcock was going for, but there were several quick cuts of Hedren in states of frozen and very phony-looking terror. It looked like Hitchcock said, "okay, now look scared," and didn't tell her where to focus her eyes or what she was supposed to be looking at. The results are comical, in an uncomfortable sort of way.

But that's a niggling point, because the definitely movie succeeds at scaring. Apparently it frightened Tippi too. After shooting the final scene in which she was attacked by the birds, she said it was "the worst week of my life." I guess it must have been because they shut down the set for a week to allow her to recuperate. It's interesting and a little ironic that she's such a strong animal activist now. Maybe her experience on the film caused her to want to keep a closer eye on the animal kingdom -- just in case.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Blob

The BlobImage via Wikipedia

I was a teenager when The Blob was released in theaters. My girlfriends acted like they weren't afraid when the movie started, but by the end one of them was crying and the other two were holding onto each other for dear life. As a sensible girl, I was terrified right from the start.

This movie personified my fears at the time because teenagers tried to warn everyone that the blob was coming to get them, but no one would listen. It was remarkably like living in my house. My sister and I were to be seen and not heard, so I could relate when Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut ran around to no avail, trying to get people to pay attention to the fact that they were about to be eaten.

Many years later, long after I realized it's just a movie!, I read that the blob was actually made out of a weather balloon or colored silicone gel, depending on the shot. Ha! Very scary. I also read that it was originally supposed to be called either The Glob or The Glob That Girdled the Globe but someone else already had the title The Glob locked up. It's a good thing too. I can't imagine it being called anything other than The Blob.

Here are a few other trivia items about The Blob:

* Steve McQueen was billed as "Steven McQueen" for the last time in his career. He was originally signed to make two other pictures for The Blob's producers, but he was so hard to work with during filming, they gave him the boot.

* McQueen was offered his choice of $2,500 or 10 percent of the profits. He took the $2,500 because he had no idea the movie would gross over $4 million. That was a good money making opportunity down the drain.

* The strange title song, which is oddly serene for a horror picture, was written by none other than Burt Bacharach. You can actually buy it on the CD, Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection.
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