Sunday, May 18, 2008

Semi-Great Dads of the 1970s #2: Kris Kristofferson in SEMI-TOUGH (1977)

Dad in this case can loosely encompass older brother and Cool Drunken Friend of Your Father (CDFYF) figures... for Kris Kristofferson is not exactly in responsible father mode as Burt Reynold's football teammate, recently EST-enlightened quarterback and DESIGN FOR LIVING-style menage-a-trois member in SEMI-TOUGH. But, he's still warm, tough and dependable.

I recently re-watched the film (after 20 years) and was shocked at how badly its blocked and paced. Sloppy stuff these redneckish Reynolds vehicles, the 1970s equivalent of our Adam Sandler/Judd Apatow "crank 'em while they're hot" sports/sex satires. The cool thing about SEMI-TOUGH is that it's made in 1977, so unlike the Apatow/Sandler age of Puritan inhibitions masked by potty talk bravado, people do actually have sex, lots of it, with no guilt or pregnancies. Hell, we even see Reynolds--then "the world's sexiest man"-- resign himself to the "large fan," (Mary Jo Catlett), by virtue of default. Burt's characters horny, used to bedding a random fan at hotel bars after games, and she's the only one left. Hell, he still gives her the full measure of his charm, and even some warmth.

Most dudes would just call it quits; Burt's ability to even want to keep the lights on while getting busy with her in his hotel room shows he's no diva; his sexual appetites have turned him more into a European style swinger, where they enjoy having sex more than bragging about it. Imagine if Adam Sandler ever shagged a girl less attractive than he was! Horrifying, but deserved; yet even as a monosyllabic glassy-eyed idiot manchild he scores off babes like Winona Ryder and Christina Applegate.

But mainly, sloppy sex comedy chaos or no, Kristofferson shines, allowed to radiate all his Christlike calm and country rock mellow. A beacon of 1970s suave, his character's been converted to a new age path shortly before the film begins; one of the largely forgotten 'encounter group' weekend intensive workshop fads of the 1970s-- EST. As a result, everything he does is... "perfect."

Which brings me to the key scene that gets Kristofferson the Semi-Great Dad #2 nomination: The party scene where T.J. Lambert (Brian Dennehy), the misogynistic creep linebacker has gone nuts and is holding some bikini-clad chick from the party over the second story balcony, threatening to drop her on the concrete below, no doubt for rebuffing his date rape advances. No one knows how to talk him down and get him to pull the girl back up, but Kristofferson does; he calmly climbs up onto the roof and goes to stand next to Dennehy and just looks at him with love shining in his Kristofferson-blue eyes. "If you want to drop her, if that's right for you, go ahead," he tells Dennehy. "Because you're perfect." Dennehy's oaf--so used to abuse and ugliness--is so moved, realizing someone finally thinks he's perfect, he pulls the girl up and is all friendly and apologetic to her --his first step free of the trap of misogyny/self-hatred, all just because of Kristofferson's perfect faith.

I can't imagine any actor of the era pulling this hat trick off as well as Kristofferson. In fact, I've talked more than one person off a ledge of one sort or another (in my LSD guru days) by imitating Kristofferson in this scene. He's just mellow and laconic enough to be able to say that sort of stuff without having to put hipster italics on it to keep from sounding corny or square.

But how can we condone a man who condones violence in others just because it's "their trip?" Well, see, a great dad has faith in his kid, and in his own ability as a father. He assumes the role of a benevolent authority figure, which is such a rarity these days we may even have forgotten what that means. It means "through me, thou art good." This is, ultimately, the true meaning of non-violent resistance, or "turning the other cheek." Even in the sense of actively engaging in combat this can still be practiced. One can bestow blessings on one's enemy even as one twists the knife into their heart (i.e. the German killing Adam Goldberg with a gentle shhhh in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN).

The "loving" violence concept was huge in the 1970s, especially, as I've noted before, in Burt Reynolds movies like SEMI-TOUGH, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, HOOPER, great shit like SLAPSHOT, BAD NEWS BEARS, etc. This was the age when Monday Night Football became bigger than any televised sport ever and the media was shocked by its Roman barbarity. The screens were alight with bloodless bar fights, where chairs break easy over heads, and people fly through storefront windows with the carefree abandon of a kid jumping into a summer lake. Everyone makes up outside in the parking lot, their macho fury soothed by the high only a mix of alcohol and sharp hits to the head can provide.

The 1970s dad was peaceful enough to understand the need for these sorts of outlets for his children and friends. In our more "enlightened" times kids aren't allowed to have realistic looking toy guns; no one is allowed to fight or have raunchy sex without the compulsive need to boast, overthink, drain the spontaneous joy out of it, and feel guilty afterwards. For all it's tossed-off clumsiness, SEMI-TOUGH is a rare document revealing that if only for a decade, Americans lived like Europeans do now.

So here's to Kristofferson, the mighty. Hell, he is such the man that he even manages to make his biker rapist character in BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA sympathetic. God DAMN. His is the mix of charisma and humility that tempers all judgment against him. Here's the kind of a man that you could get in a knockdown fight with but then you'd go get a beer together afterwards and know he was your friend for life. Kristofferson, in short, is the ideal 1970s older brother, which is why he's only a "Semi-Great" 70s dad, but any stretch of the cinematic imagination... perfect.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

That creepy JOSHUA (2007)

A much neglected horror classic in the making which I was recently turned onto is JOSHUA (2007), a creepy tale of Manhattan piano prodigy dealing with the arrival of a baby sister. Cinema is full of "catchable" killers, but JOSHUA tells a tale of a murderer so maddeningly ahead of the curve that even the audience can never be sure just quite what happened even after the credits roll. If that sounds like a drag to you then don't turn around two minutes later and tell me you like 1970s cinema, because you don't. In fact, you don't know shit.

It's a sad commentary on our times that this film wasn't promoted and embraced as the 21st century version of ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), which it closely resembles. The critics generally liked it, but it came and went with little fanfare. (The icky and much-panned 2006 OMEN remake on the other hand grossed 54 million).

I'd chalk part of it up to the dangerously misguided post-1980s sanctification of all children as saints and angels (if they have clean urine and good genes, that is) but I've already done that, in my piece on GODSEND (2004).

Okay, here is a rehash: Not since the Spielberg "ET" model of Elliot-style sweetness supplanted little Damien (THE 1976 OMEN) has cinema dealt realistically with the moral ambiguity of childhood. In the late 1960s and 1970s there were open-eyed auteurs who saw the problem of child deification coming, and the result was box office bonanzas like ROSEMARY, EXORCIST and AUDREY ROSE (1977), followed by a spew of demonic child imitations. Today the demon children run things, and films like GODSEND, THE GOOD SON (1993), BIRTH (2004) and now JOSHUA are ignored, misunderstood, "demonized," or else championed by the few of us outside the bubble. This sort of "real" thriller drama is more cerebral and sociological than the MTV-editing and whiplash gore that's the current trend of disposable WB-casted horror remakes like the 2006 OMEN. That may be part of its problem; the other part may be the title - JOSHUA? It sounds like a lifetime drama about muscular dystrophy. There's about eight films with JOSHUA in the title, including JOSHUA: THEN AND NOW, starring James Woods, which you would never think from the banal title is actually a pretty good picture.

Anyway, back to our 2007 Sundance horror movie JOSHUA: Vera Famiga plays a mom battling postpartum depression and the horrific fall-out of having a son that just may be the most dangerously sociopathic genius ever, or maybe not. Maybe she's just crazy, and maybe there's child abuse actually happening in the family. Maybe there's some quiet little genius orchestrating half the catastrophes that ever happen in all family life....

Vera Farmiga is a new favorite actress of mine; take what she can do with a full-blooded part like this and then contrast with her under-written role in THE DEPARTED (2006), a role she still nails with much sexually wide-eyed alacrity. Sam Rockwell is also great as the dad, and the climax occurs in front of my favorite spot in all of New York City, the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park! I used to go there and just hate on all the little bastards climbing all over that thing, while I tried to meditate in front of it (with the giant Alice my personal savior/Buddha). Thank God someone else felt my pain, even if he did have to go to Sundance to do it.

In ROSEMARY'S BABY, part of the fun was the bizarre paranoia of it all -- was Mia Farrow just hormonal about all that tannis root nonsense? Even though you knew she wasn't, you could still enjoy the film from the point of view that maybe, just maybe, she was. There's a similar element to that at work in JOSHUA, and if you're not content to enjoy the hour or so of off-kilter family snapshots that precede the eventual mild horror outbursts, then you probably wont dig the rest of it, and you probably didn't love ROSEMARY'S BABY. If you've seen ROSEMARY'S BABY as many times as I have, then you will love JOSHUA, and I should also point you towards the very similar and even creepier Nicole Kidman vehicle, BIRTH (2004)

Like BIRTH, JOSHUA is the sort of film that offers a strange, keenly observed slice of upper-echelon metropolitan life wherein things you may think about to happen either are or are not happening, and then, suddenly, the net closes around your neck and you realize this little bastard has you. It may take a few hours or days after you view it (maybe the critics who had to rush to make a same night deadline in their review didn't have time to "sit with it") but the chilling realizations are there... they reach out of the celluloid like a pair of clutching hands, grabbing and shaking you with uncertainty as you drift off to sleep; if you could be this wrong about a movie, imagine how wrong you could be about all the other people in your life?

Special thanks to Kim Morgan for recommending this film to me. Read her own magnificent salute to insane children here and remember: don't trust anyone under 30... or over!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Drunkards of Borneo (1931/2008)

Ladies and gentleman! May I present my uber-gonzo/metatextual commentary on Cornell's ROSE HOBART (1936) and EAST OF BORNEO (1931) and cinema, and love, and the bible? It's not very long, and it's called DRUNKARDS OF BORNEO!

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