Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Tale of Three M*A*S*Hes

M*A*S*H, for three seasons you were maybe the best thing on TV, ever. You ran for a zillion more, but hey, those three are benchmarks of what TV prime time comedy could be.

We never saw him leave, but at the dawn of season four, the mighty Trapper was gone. And so too the madcap anarchy, sex and booze hijinks. This was the second MASH of the three different MASHes of my clever title (the first being the film).  Thee third MASH, the longest one, had begun --changed no doubt by church group complaints initiating something called 'the family hour' meaning no risque stuff before 10 PM (which was my strictly enforced bedtime). There would be no quick sudden goodbyes now, no throng of people coming and going--doctors, nurses, orderlies--now they'd never miss a chance for Emmy-bidding sentiment, and the whole camp quickly boiled down to around eight people. I gave one of Hawkeye's steady nurse girlfriends the top photo because the way the nurses, once an array of steady girlfriends and solid supporters, all slipped away, and in came a liberal PC wholesomeness heralded by the arrival of family man B.J. Hunnicutt, and shortly thereafter, crotchety lovable family man Col. Henry Potter (Harry Morgan). Alda became just another eccentric nutball rather than a luminous star... less a playa than a perv, more likely to spy on girls in the shower then sleep with them.

I never noticed the difference in the reruns as a kid. I was too young to get all the sex references or to yet know the joy of booze. Coming back to the show now, via Netflix, I realize Alda-- who had stretched out and owned the entire first three seasons--and Wayne Rogers shared a superb crackerjack timing. Deadpan, assertive, quick-witted and very mischievous, they're so good, so on and create such a special comedic space that it takes awhile to even notice it's gone- with the 'family hour' conversion which if you're part of the generation of the era, you didn't notice because it all happened kind of currently with a national mood more like a slow slide from Weimar decadence all families united in drunk blockparty merriment to nuclear family survivalist slasher film paranoia.

But in revisiting the entire 255 episodes within a short three month period recently, I realize just how much I owe to it as far as my own style and persona, too - and how intertwined my own psyche, the natuonal pop culture landscape, and MASH itself are tied. I learned deadpan absurdity from Hawkeye: my association of true patriotism with the compulsion to continually subvert punctilious bureaucracy, my comedic timing (if any), and my love of the Marx Brothers (when I finally found them on local TV, their style seemed so familiar). With brilliant writing and one-liners bouncing off their foil, Frank Burns (Larry Linville), a wormy effeminate spoiled brat burlesque of military gung ho MacArthur-ism, I learned all the bad behaviors to avoid and how to blow them up in others. I'm still paying the price for thinking I can get away with that.

But there was also the movie... hmmm.

PS - Please forgive the length of my forthcoming post-season 3 MASH description. I kept it so, as I might mirror that of the show itself.  

 M*A*S*H #1 (1970 film)

I know this is an unforgivable cineaste sacrilege, but the first three seasons of M*A*S*H are funnier and overall cleverer--and much subtler--than Altman's original movie. Elliot Gould is a better Trapper in some ways but Sutherland has a lot of annoying little whistles and clicks and his vibe is far less exuberant and playful than Alda's. Sutherland's a great actor but he's never had leading man charisma. He's more skeezy, smarmy, and gauche, as evidenced in the bad taste left in our mouths from his puerile radio announcer PA broadcasting Burn's tryst with Hot Lips (all because of what? Burns made Bud Cort cry? Who hasn't!) and his pimping out of a nurse to help Painless, the suicidal dentist. These would be considered some truly creepy dick misogynist moves in today's PC climate. It might be more realistic to that most sexually free of eras than the TV series, but Altman encourages us to see these doctors' self-righteous medical muscle allows for privileged skylarking, how they're trading on their surgical skills as if some rich daddy's influence and money to get them out of any scrape with the law. Their odious frat boy dick moves are 'fun' in a depraved sort of underhanded altruism way but the only character who really deserved the shitty pranks was Frank and he's dispatched early. Otherwise the targets pretty broad. Hotlips is shamed in a shower expose for what, being haughty? Take her down a peg for being proud of her military career rather than just being a lapdog to Tom Skeirtt?

And how is Burns worse than the others? Ho-John, the Korean kid, for example, gets taught English via the bible by Duvall's Burns --but that's bad, as Christians are buzzkills --but if  Ho-John serves the 'cool' surgeons drinks and cleans the tent for pennies, that's good? Even an old reprobate like me has the urge to throw a yellow flag down over that kind of double standard snottiness. Don't read books, Ho-John, you not velly smart- you Ko-rean fellow, make good drink for white man!

Altman's film does rule the TV series in two areas: 1) sound design: overlapping dialogue and noisy outdoor recording making it feel much more vivid as far as an actual field hospital. And 2) it has the most OR blood, a lot of it. They'll talk about the blood in the TV show, and occasionally they'll get some arterial spray, but it's nothing like the film. These people are awash in blood, and the human body's interior is revealed in all its hideous glory.

Put your tongue in your mouth, "Hawkeye"
But looking at it today, Altman's film is unremittingly dreary --the ground is always freshly misty and rained on; the sun never shines; there's no real linear plot; the Painless episode and the football segment both drag on way too long, both beat the dead horse until it's a pulpy red mound. The Painless episode for example: here are the doctors poised like the last supper but in surgical costumes, a little obvious a comparison but one the men and their messiah complex clearly felt was warranted, and why not? For the big football game it's like okay we get it, here are doctors shouting kill kill kill and tackling each other, cheating with Mickey Finn shots in the ass during tackles, and so forth. (Hippocrates wherefore art thou?). The name Spear Chucker is somehow not racist because he's a surgeon. Or something. OK, Robert- we get the irony. Now move on to something else instead of repeating the joke ad nausea over a repetitive Sousa marches until our fingers twitch towards the stop button. We did like how some scenes are little more than overlapping shards, slow zooms up on some random bit part player doing nothing but listening (to cover Altman's overlapping dialogue). That's not bad in itself, but if that's all there is it's a problem. Scenes that either go too long or too short leave no cumulative effect other than annoyance. Call it profound, but it's also just sloppy.

But on the plus: the evolution of a few side characters depicted in a cool background scenes: Bud Cort goes from wild-eyed quick-to-cry innocent intern, accused of killing a patient by Frank Burns and 'dumb enough to believe him' -to ending as a smooth lover boy, all while never leaving the periphery of the frame; Major "Hotlips" O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) goes from uptight military ritual loving stick-in-the-mud, to a chill girlfriend of Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt), one of the cooler doctors (his character doesn't last into the TV series - just as the "O" is dropped from Margaret's last name). The moral is: as soon as you learn to laugh when you're pranked, instead of fuming in indignant outrage and running to the colonel, then you are no longer an outsider. That's not really a moral though, just dehumanizing. Rapists think the same thing sometimes. Welcome to the fraternity, Sheryl!

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

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

A classic example of the great dichotomy between these first three seasons and the latter million can be found in the episode where the boys smear chloroform on Trapper's boxing gloves to win a match against a rival camp's champ. This kind of underhanded behavior is hardly exemplary--even if the match is grossly unfair (the other guy's a heavyweight, Trapper's a middleweight at best--but the writer clearly didn't know about these things) and yet we're expected to boo Burns and Houlihan when they sneak in a bottle of regular water in place of the chloroform, which is actually the honest thing to do. Geniously subversive, but without needing to make it a big satire on American jingoism set to Sousa ala Altman. In later seasons if anyone did such a thing it would result in a huge crisis of conscience, a public shaming, a patient homilie from Colonel Potter, and so forth.

Best of all, in this second MASH nurses were allowed more than a single episode for their romances. Time and again a spark would form, and the nurse would linger awhile, only to be shipped out by vindictive Margaret, as they were rotated along (perhaps to stop them from getting pregnant?) If not, Hawkeye sometimes had to break it off with them if they wanted to get married, and so forth. This was always neither a condemnation of either side, no one was 'slut-shamed' ever on the show, it was just mined for comedy and truth rather than what would come after season three, sentiment and pathos.

But season three ended. The easygoing Colonel Blake was rotated home, and his helicopter was shot down--it was a spur of the moment thing at the very end of the final episode. Added in the very last scene of the last episode of the series, it proved an eerie omen. More than just a season ender, it was a rip in the time continuum, a harsh reminder of 'what really counts' in ways for example, that new Amy Schumer movie, Trainwreck (2015) turns out be. I guess in MASH it works in the context, for as I well know, the sudden death of a loved one sends even the staunchest swingers rushing home to their families, seeking some footing on what was suddenly a very unstable fun house floor. As we learned when season four commenced, nothing would be the same again.

The eighties would not hear of it.

M*A*S*H #3 (1974-1983)

Thanks largely to the frank examinations of prevailing racist, sexist, homophobic dogma of middle America and the working class via the continual battle between the liberal Meathead and Sally Struthers vs. the implacable Archie Bunker in the show in the slot right before M*A*S*HAll in the Family, the major networks bowed to morality group pressure to institute 'the Family Hour' in 1974, which enforced a more gentle, morally conservative approach to content, at least until 10PM (M*A*S*H came on at 8:30). The unheralded (contract negotiation-based) departure of Hawkeye's partner in womanizing, Trapper John (he left sans tearful goodbye as he expected to return next season); Blake's death and tearful exit, and (behind the scenes) co-creator Larry Gelbart's, all heralded the arrival of the Family Hour in a shower of blood. The loss of two of the show's extramaritally libidinal characters led to a drastic drop in premarital sex on the show, for now Hawkeye had no wingman for comparing score cards with, so that whole aspect--so prominent in the first three seasons--was replaced by sentimental blarney worthy of John Ford: sing-a-longs, prayer and dewey gazes. The bland 'sensitive' doctor and devoted Mill Valley, CA family man BJ Hunnicutt replaced Trapper. The wizened paternal Col. Potter came in as the new CO, and the show quickly became like a freshly neutered dog.

I liked BJ more than Trapper as a kid; I found him less threatening, more like a fun male babysitter rather than an older brother's cool van-driving friend who lets you sip from his beer at the ball game. But now, after my own decadent arc has dragged me into an older demographic, BJ seems hopelessly square, full of tired pranks that prefigure the sanitized monkeyshines of Jim in The Office, with a family that he stays loyal to back home, giving him a firm moral high ground, so when Hawkeye sleeps with a currently married ex-flame, well, BJ is not one to tell other people what's right and wrong (he says), but he sure will lay a sad-eyed guilt trip from ninety paces. Pictures of BJ's baby daughter and letters from Peg his wife (and Potter's wife Mildred - we come to know their names painfully well) are invoked so often they become characters without us ever seeing them. Obvious episodic messages like "war is hell" and "Koreans are people too" take center stage over psychoanalytical anarchy. Hawkeye's still a prankster: "hardly military issue but he's a damn good surgeon" notes Potter. But he becomes also an emotionally sophisticated sage to the naif Radar: "people die, Radar. Even bunnies or little wide-eyed cherub soldiers." So you know, now he has to live up to Radar's corn-fed ideals.

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

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

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

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

By season five, all that's left is drinking, but then, too, the drunkenness falls away.

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

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

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

But then, as season six gets to the halfway point, the show finds a way to be mature as well as mawkish: a second wind 'we hooked up and lets talk about it and still be friends' 70s sensitivity arises. There's a sudden refusal to just ignore or condemn the peccadilloes that were just lusty fun in the Gelbart era. People started to hook up, at all ages and attractive levels, without feeling like they had to get married or write their spouses and now they don't do so, but that doesn't make those times invalid, or those feeling 'sinful.'  We can see the bridge between the unbridled free love late sixties and the AIDS-scarred sexual brake slam that must come with the early condom 80s. And it's a sign that M*A*S*H is evolving that it can stop on the bridge and take a reflective pee over the side. Hawkeye hits a superior officer but before he can be brought up on charges, the offended officer is wounded and Hawkeye saves him; amphetamine, which my pharmacist dad assured me flows wild and free amongst doctors (those famous 24 hour shifts would be impossible without them) makes an appearance towards the end of season six in 'a very special episode' where Charles abuses them. Why the hell does their supply include a big bottle of them if Winchester's the only one who ever takes them? Very special episode! Let it go. The kind of forgiveness and validation the characters express suddenly applies to itself - from us. Our desire to condemn this new less ribald 'third' incarnation fades, even as its saints come tumbling down: Hawkeye's nonstop joking is growing obnoxious; Charles' villainy manifests itself overtly but never organically BJ's early puppy-super ego vibe begins to dissipate as he finds his own way (a little bit) into a complicated character: a hypocrite who preaches California peace but lashes out, physically, at anyone who suggests he might have a sprained wrist.

If you stick with these later seasons through thick and then, of course, the show changes, evolves, illustrates a profound humanism. It had the ear of the world, a huge ratings share, and it uses it for good. The laugh track--even the 'soft' laugh they used--vanished for the entirety of season eight, which in my opinion made the show suffer mainly due to the writing and comedic rhythms not eliminating the empty pauses after punchlines. Comedians not used to sitcoms tend to go for longer stories where they don't pause for punch line laughs at all, not until they get the audience slowly warmed up to where they want them. That's only natural, but it took MASH awhile to find the right balance: what they call 'single camera' sitcoms, like The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Rec were only born in the last decade.

It's awkward for awhile, sans laughs, but then - once again - they found their way. By season nine the awkward pauses so ingrained in comedy shows have closed like sutures; now jokes overlap and build through mounting craziness; And even if gradually the writing becomes very 'whose Emmy is it anyway?" off-Broadway monologue-ing, we can't really fault them for wanting to get victory laps in while they can. And we love it when they occasionally reference past events from past episodes, sometimes even changing the memory, as memories do change... all in ways not common with 'stand alone' episode formats.

As the show began to stretch far longer than the war itself, or any doctor's tour of duty, winter after winter, summer after summer, the show became almost existential, as if there would never come a time when it wouldn't be war in Korea. So real life spilled over into the margins, and souls grew - what else could they do? Hawkeye was allowed to have his character weaknesses: always needing to be the center of attention, hyper-competitive, self-righteous --we see these unpleasant characteristics manifest again and again as the years drag on. BJ could get very violent, a mean drunk, and overly emotional and not apply the same rules of empathy to himself as he does others (like that old WC Fields joke where he's about to strike his child citing"no little brat's going to tell me I don't love her.") They all did their best to save lives, but sometimes even risking the lives of those around them, as when their self-righteous worry over enemy wounded's safety allows for a vicious North Korean guerrilla female in their post-op to almost kill the other patients and even try to kill those who help her, several times over, and not only do the doctors refuse to stop helping her, they bite the hand of anyone who tries to restrain her --in this case a South Korean officer (Mako) planning to take her away for interrogation. Even so, they don't admit they're wrong--even after she spits on them for being fools. But the audience is certainly allowed to agree with her, and to perhaps understand that the very same compulsive compassion that makes good doctors can have brutal collateral damage on those around.

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

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

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

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

They get excited by a new gadget called a Polaroid camera and it becomes a "shutterbug episode" with Potter reminiscing over pics he took of Mildred. And then there's regular occurrences of camp thieves. The whole camp (all eight of them) get excited over a newspaper! Ir's the 'mail episode' or the competition over who gets to use the camera. But it's stolen! A whole series of unfortunate coincidences hook Klinger into the clink (that kind of humor).

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 21, 2015

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

Do they still do that thing of growing mustached for prostate cancer awareness in November? My sober anniversary month, November 17th, is always stained with the rainy teardrops of shaking and quaking; it's the usual marker between my manic and depressive phases, such as they are. Rough times, man. October is my favorite month, November my least. But what is Heaven if not Hell finally accepted? The flaming beard of the sage is as a nest for the bird of wisdom. Rant against cigarettes and condomless sex still the cows come home, o Safety-First Clydes. Gives a flying fuck doth the sage? No sir. He accepts his pile of Hell fully it so it morphs into a slice of heaven. Or as Kristofferson put it:
"I ain't sayin' I beat the devil, but I drank his beer for nothing.Then I stole his song." 
In November all I do is sit around and watch World War Two documentaries and Vin Diesel (he's our century's John Wayne and don't make me prove it), Tennessee Williams movies, James Coburn, John Huston, Voight, Reynolds and the man with the best beard of all, Kris Kristofferson. (1) See, the man Kristofferson is from a different time. His beard is a different breed from the quirky hipster's. It's all there in the movies of the 70s when country songwriters could still be men. In the movies today the good old boys can only play extremes of the type, so they're either twitchy meth dealers who abuse their wives and children or serious, hard working sober Christians in flannel who just want to teach the son of the hot single mom how to fish, whittle, and tune a guitar before he has to ride into the sunset or take one last shady job to pay for the boy's operation. There is no middle ground today. There is no man who is both reveler and decent guy, spiritual seeker and hedonist, not a cliche'd everyman but a dude who's genuinely free, able to drink and smoke without the score or subtext condemning him. That's why LEBOWSKI would be nowhere without Sam Elliot to supply the narration and Saspirilla drinkin'. The sanctification of the country hombre, old Sam's the link we need. We'd never see the straight line woven along from Bogart's Marlowe to Gould's Marlowe to Bridges' dude to Phoenix's Doc. All we got now is Adam goddamn Sandler and his saintly manchild contingents.

Back before that manchild thing, back in the 70s, if you wanted to tell a story about a raunchy team in the flyovers you could make them hard drinking, brawling, smoking ten year-olds or coaches who'd just as soon call the game off and pass out than snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Those were real men! Even the twelve year-olds. I blame insurance companies, nanny state hyper-parenting, and academic overreach. It takes longer than ever to grow up.

And so it makes sense, it being November, to honor the facial hair not of the co-op hipsters that haunt the coffee houses of Williamsburg, for they'll never be a step away from dyin', or as Kristofferson says in the great and underseen Alan Rudolph film SONGWRITER:

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

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

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

"The "loving fight" concept was huge in the 1970s, especially, as I've noted before, in Burt Reynolds movies like SEMI-TOUGH. This was the age of bloodless bar fights, where chairs break easy over heads, and people fly through storefront windows with the carefree abandon of a kid jumping into a summer lake. Everyone makes up outside in the parking lot, their macho fury soothed with some good old fisticuffs in the grand drunken John Ford tradition. And SEMI-TOUGH has the coolest two guys and a girl group bond since DESIGN FOR LIVING. It's a trick that we've forgotten in the manchild 80s thanks to George Lucas, who's jedi Luke refuses to fight his father, even though fighting with fathers is a great way to train and get in shape. Didn't Lucas ever see SWORD OF DOOM? Killing can be an art devoid of passion or hate. John Ford knew it, and Reynolds and Kristofferson know it. Because they're perfect.

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


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

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

Sunday, November 15, 2015

An Acidemic Nic Cage Reader

In the 1968 head trip masterpiece PERFORMANCE there's a famous line spoken by Mick Jagger as Turner, a musician trying to get his mojo back by tripping with a bi sadist gangster."The only performance that truly makes it," he says "is the one that achieves madness."

Turner, know that a man who embodies this adage has finally come! It's Nic!

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

(Nov. 30, 2009)

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

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

(January 7, 2010)

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

(August 3, 2012)

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

(June 8th, 2011)

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

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

There are some plusses to DRIVE ANGRY: in one scene Cage is shooting bad guys while sitting up, wearing shades, having sex with a naked waitress and holding a bottle of whiskey all at the same time. He shoots the bad guys without spilling a drop, even taking a swig between bullets. Damn! The copious humiliated naked women parts however taint the film with that smell of new leather misogyny. Amber Heard, Nic's gal Friday has a lot of moxy and fighting skill but does that really make up for her objectification? She all but grinds herself on the hood ornament like a frat pledge's dorm room poster. And don't she and that waitress have mothers, too? Where's the ghost moms roaring back from the grave to punch old Nic for treating their daughters like shit? (MORE)

(Bright Lights, January 29th, 2010)

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

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

(August 20, 2010)

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

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

Cher's chemistry with Nicolas Cage sizzles like butter and garlic. Cage was a relative unknown at the time but brings such mushmouth ferocity to lines like "Gimme da knife so I can cut my froat!" and "I'm going to take you to da bed" that we all would have fallen off a cliff for him if he asked. Between this and Raising Arizona (also 1987) and The Vampire's Kiss (1988), Cage's effect on us was akin to what Brando's must have been 30 years before: an infectious mix of madness, sexual heat, wit, beauty, and ferocity, 
all unleashed at the right time to electrify an entire generation.

Interestingly, all three of these early Cages are dark comedies, though Jewison's is only dark literally, i.e. clothed a beautiful palette of black fabrics, red roses, and silvery nights, overflowing with dark color and un-cliche'd character, climaxing in a family breakfast where all grievances are aired, love declared, and Olympia Dukakis steals the film with little more than a series exasperated but resigned sighs. Forget Scorsese, it was this film that made me proud to be dating overlapping Italian-American chicks (whilst at SU), their dark mothering oomph compensating for their tendency to wear way too much make-up and perfume when they 'dressed up' to meet your parents.

"As Red, a woodsman (aka lumberjack, for the chainsaw hath replaced yon axe), Cage starts out soft and intimate, but then gets mad, walks with his gut out, his butt lit, his eyes covered with shades instead of goggles when he uses his home forge, probably a good drinking buddy, guzzling his shower vodka in his underwear and pouring it over his open wounds, howling in a way that's new for the actor--not nasal and hysterical but deep, tragic and genuinely scary, riding a demonic ATV through the wild north woods in the dead of night, and fighting chainsaw duels, burning churches, doing every drug in sight, crushing skulls, losing his shit over a demon ripping his favorite shirt, saying wild shit like "a psychotic drowns where a mystic swims" and telling super-cool Bill Duke he needs his crossbow back because he's hunting "Jesus freaks" (spoilers why); oh my god- he's tremendous! (full)

Friday, November 06, 2015

Takin' it Bond by Bond

November is the second cruelest month, after April: all my autumnal October ghoulish cheer slides down like a Bond villain off a continental shelf during an underwater chase scene. Glug glug. Down he goes to the depths, just as glug glug this was the month of my bottom alcoholically (in 1998) it was also the month Cassandra and Gabrielle (two Bond girls if there were real life versions) brought over ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE on a Friday Night just like this one, and saved my drunken life, for year longer...

Bond was there. Bond is here. SPECTRE. Dig, the ALIEN 3 of Bond movies is here, written by someone who clearly has only contempt for the series, for film, and for the realities behind the effective range of snub-nose firearms.

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

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

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

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

In THUNDERBALL (1965) it takes about five minutes of real cinematic time to throw a camouflage net over one lousy sunken NATO bomber. It used to bore my senseless, but--now that I'm an adult lost in a world of whiplash editing--I love the slowness. Also, on HD widescreen, now you can see the whole plane. See, what I like is that SPECTRE was never about world domination or destruction, they were about stealing code machines from embassies and foiling relatively un-apocalyptic sabotage-blackmail schemes to save the British government a few million pounds. As for Connery's Bond, whether elbowing a fire alarm at a health spa without breaking his stride down the hall, turning some painful spine-stretching into a chance to blackmail his masseuse for sex (but then massaging her with a mink glove), he's as ruthless and predatory as he is in the books, which I love, and he's got a great opposite side spy to contend with, a woman who--like him--is smart, ruthless, charismatic, deadly, and uses sex freely and often in her work. And, on HD, the beds these spies work on are stretched out to the full widescreen so we can savor their ornate frames framing the screen and exposing our agog minds to the wonders of Mad Men-era decor. Their sex is just as much a part of the cold war spy game as the killing and cameras and the subtext never judges any of the amoral, hedonistic ruthlessness.

My first memories of Bond as a child are the very kinky edges like Largo applying scientific hot and cold to the naked heaving back of kept woman Domino [Claudine Auger]). I grew out of my S&M phase during my liberal arts feminist indoctrination, but I'm glad we have a record of before such PC buzzkilling took hold. Though it came out in the 60s, to me, this is vintage Bond via TV in the 70s: Bond in a wet suit, shooting at a shark or a bad guy with his harpoon gun while a hot girl with a cute mole lounged in the white sand at his side. And seeing it-all via network TV with my dad around the same time Spy Who Loved Me played in theaters (my parents not taking me to see it, saying I was too young, even though it was PG and far less dirty than the TV screenings of Thunderball, not that I understood the entendres). Then, in the 80s, when sexual harassment was becoming a thing, we rented all the Bonds from the newly opened video stores at the mall and saw them over and over, as reminders of the power we were once going to inherit as men, allegedly, but now never would, for with awareness comes compassion. Though forced on us via the very media we sought refuge in, we couldn't unlearn sensitivity, and lost forever the callous indifference that allows for the heedless exploitation of others in good conscience. But we still have Connery, forever.

Innocence is the last refuge of the debauched.

(expanded 11/15)

The idea to make George Lazenby's first appearance the same one where he gets married and then cries is a bit of a misstep, makes him seem a weak version, like he can't handle the gaffe, but closer examination makes you realize he's damn good, easily the second best, and had he been allowed to continue, who knows? Instead casual fans jeered, confusing vulnerability and disguise for weakness and Brit stodginess. But maybe it was just the first time an actor up to the call was in the lead role? Imagining Connery being vulnerable or actually changing his swagger when undercover is laughable. Criticizing Lazenby for having the range isn't really fair. Blame Salzman and Broccoli for trying to change a working, beloved formula, like if Michael Myers started talking, or Groucho Marx decided to do a serious dramatic role. 

 It's the only Bond to deal with the issue of post-hypnotic suggestion and mind control (sleeper agents, recalling MK-Ultra Monarch's "angels of death", not to mention Dr. Goldfoot's bikini machina). And even cooler, the  whole second half of the film is one long winding chase down the Alps, as the villains pursuing him--relentless and intelligent--are never far behind. The skiing is phenomenal (the echoes of Leni Riefenstahl's alpine silents surely intentional). Lazenby is a bit of a cypher in spots--critics ragged on him for being such a blank slate--but that works for a spy, and Lazenby is a strong enough actor to be very subtle -- he shows real emotion underneath the cold mannequin blanket (Connery was the opposite, but those broader strokes were easier to see on the small screen). 

For example when Lazenby's Bond goes undercover as a snobby genealogist sent up to Telly Savalas' high-in-the-Alps stronghold, Lazenby's Bond puts on a posh droning bore professor demeanor that on closer viewing is a dead-on impression of his contact at the Genealogy Dept., one so vivid casual viewers think that's the Bond Lazenby has envisioned. When Blofeldt finally unmasks him, we see Bond become very relaxed, even bemused, as his uptight bookish persona drops,. And then, progressively more exhausted and scared when he has such a hard time escaping Stavros' men--even in the packed Swiss streets and rink-- when Diana Rigg skates over to where he's sitting, trying to hide,  relief floods across his face, quickly turning to adoration in a way that truly surprises him. She's there when it counts, and his kisses on her cheek as she delivers some top notch evasive driving aren't his usual brusque propositions but signs of how much he adores her. It's not like his usual cavalier élan but genuinely fondness, it's a very real affection, completely different than what we're used to. Then, at bedtime in the barn, there's the worried look in his eye when he realizes he's madly in love with this girl in ways he wasn't with anyone before; it scares him almost as bad as when he was ratlled by the man in the crazy white bear suit at the Piz Gloria rink earlier that night. This man who never flinches in the face of death, flinches when deeper feelings overwhelm him, but has the courage to stick with them. At the end, after the wedding, he breaks his usual reserve very beautifully. See it again and check out his eyes when he says a wordless goodbye to Moneypenny after throwing her the bouquet. He's like a genuinely hopeful child, warm and alive; Moneypenny recognizes it and the true extent of their bond is made clear. Lois Maxwell's relation to Lazenby's Bond isn't just the usual flirting, both actors make it deeper than anything with Connery or Moore. 

Lazenby's still Bondian, tough, resourceful, brave, but those tears at the end are earned. And Kojak's a funny Blofeldt (I always crack up when he starts his mind control tape with "You remember when you first came here? How you hated chiggens?") And Joanna Lumley is one of the sleeper agent beauties and the great Italian actor Gabriele Ferzetti (L'Aventura) is perfect as his new Italian 'demolitions' mogul father-in-law, Ilse Stepatt comes off like Divine crossed with a German shepherd.

(expanded 11/15)

This is where Moore's Bond first shows his kid-friendly slapstick side, and needs a villain to give him a lifetime of free passes. I mean, rilly... this rich killer constructs an elaborate funhouse just to chase Bond through, all so he can kill him with a golden gun? Why does he have a wax statue of Bond in there before even meeting him? What kind of a spy worth a damn is so famous a killer on a remote island can fashion a perfect statue of him. In other words, this plays like a long episode of FANTASY ISLAND rather than a real Bond movie and not just because of Hervé Villechaize. Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) is the titular man, an ex carnival sharpshooter and ex-KGB assassin with a superfluous third nipple who charges a million a hit. But "who would pay a million dollars to have me killed?" Moore's Bond wonders. He then calculates to M that his situation might improve if he finds Scaramanga first, before Scaramanga shoots him. Brilliant deduction, OO7. At any rate, now on HD widescreen, Scaramanga's expressionist funhouse shooting range and island paradise--built in and around natural cave formations like a combination miniature golf course and manmade waterfall--is awfully gorgeous, but the idea he'd consider Bond a famous secret agent is idiotic - secret agents don't have publicity agents - that's the point. You never find out what they did until they write their books years after retiring, and even then have to change a lot around. This movie acts like he's a movie star. There's dumb bits of comic relief like the return of the fat sheriff from the last film, shouting at the HK locals, calling them "a bunch pointy heads in PIE-jamas" and showing no real need to be in the film except to provide highlarity (a fight scene in a belly dancer's dressing room is similarly just window dressing). Thai boxing and karate demonstrations paint a portrait of Asian culture as sweaty, brutish and quick, overcrowded, with humidity condensed on every surface. Bond girl (and supposed British field agent) Good Night (Britt Eckland) shouts confidential information in public places and bemoans Bond's womanizing like she's trying to be ditzy-era Goldie Hawn, marking her truly offensive in her incompetence the harder she tries to be irresistible/ We wouldn't see Good Night's like again until Cameron Diaz showed up in KNIGHT AND DAY (See: Terms of Endangerment).

Good thing then that she's safely ensconced in a script that relies on dumb TV plot luck instead of ingenuity: "I could have shot you down when you landed, that would have been ridiculously easy," notes Scaramanga. Yeah right. Thing is, Connery wouldn't have relied on the villain's sportsmanship, and certainly wouldn't be such a smarmy scold about not returning it. Connery's Bond admitted he was a killer, and was callous and confident enough to get away with cold blooded execution. Moore's Bond seems to think he's goddamned Pope Pious, dropping awkward sex talk like he's squinting at a Penthouse bar napkin and playing fair and self-righteous every step of the way.

(expanded 11/15)

Bond seems very old and tired, suddenly, like he should be home watering his garden, not being spun around in a G-force simulator or pretending he could punch Jaws in the mouth and not shatter his wrist. The girls he meets and seduces seem like Valium-zonked call girls paid to pretend he's a spy, tagging behind as he romps around his mansion, uncovering little clues his butler sets up the night before, like an Easter egg hunt. It's rated G, so Bond doesn't even carry his own gun, Drax has to supply him with hunting rifles and lasers as needed. He doesn't even drink or smoke. Not even tea. He'd rather quip and try to stand up straight. He does. 

THE SPY WHO LOVED ME had been such a huge hit, so popular, the underwater sports car thing so cool, so of its time, thrilling parents and kids alike, so perfectly in tune with the shark-obsessed vibe of JAWS and gadget vibe of STAR WARS, that for the follow-up they made the mistake of trying to deliver more of the same instead of doing something new. Now instead of a car that becomes a submarine the becomes a gondola that becomes a comical parade float. Richard Kiel returns as Jaws, gets a Pippi Longstocking girlfriend with braces, and becomes a good guy by the end.

The biggest crime, so rare in any Bond movie, is that the filmmakers and Moore presume our love and laughter without bothering to really earn it, Dr. Goodhead is a painfully sophomoric and snarky name that makes Pussy Galore seem the height of feminist class, and Drax is a dreadfully dull villain, barely an afterthought, oversize head and negative charisma. The girls wear dowdy old peasant blouses, the sort that make girls in the 70s sometimes resemble sister wives from old Mormon scrapbooks, or else (much sexier) LOGAN'S RUN and ZARDOZ cast-offs and. When not seducing Bond, they stand around in readiness like the prostitutes in EYES WIDE SHUT prior to their mind control trigger activation ceremony, remodeled into a WESTWORLD for guys with British spy fantasies (or TIME MACHINE eloi). Dumb sight gags abound and repeat: an old coughing Italian man at the Venice cafe sees a floating coffin and throws his cigarette away; the password to get into the secret lab is the notes from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. That's two just off the top of my head.

On the plus side: the sets are great, Drax's big compound is like a post-modern architecture version of Times Square times a Mayan temple, and the cars and rooms are all flawless and cavernous (or really good models - and if you can't tell which is which, that's a compliment to both). And there's one legitimate great moment: a slow Carnivale clown stalk that in its weird shambling silence recalls the previous year's HALLOWEEN! And  I dig the go-for-broke presumption the US has space suit-wearing laser fighting platoons ready to go at a moment's notice against amok capitalists playing Noah of the cosmos as if that happens all the time and we just don't hear about it.

At least the 70s were almost over, and all the variety show schtick that resurged from its watery Vaudeville grave would descend once more into the abyss. With cable there would no longer be a need to appeal to the elderly, children, and everyone in- between all in the same TV hour. But it's still the 70s here and it's rated G. And so we have the sort of movie where we get a tour through a priceless antique glass exhibit and know in a few scenes it's gonna be trashed in a brawl--why else is there even a 'glass exhibit'? It's like a delivery boy trying to cross the street with a stack of boxes during the running of the bulls when he could easily just stay in a doorway 'til they pass. And bouncy music plays after every lame innuendo to the point you expect Harvey Korman to pop out of a trap door and say "Whaaaaaaa?!"

Which brings me to Sophie Marceau, sweet... sweet Sophie. She's got the sense of nymphonic entitlement we need for a Bond girl. When her Elektra lounges in gold-trimmed Middle Eastern richness, she not only breaks the Vogue Kazakhstan fantasia mold, she breaks its American and British neighbors. Being French surely helps; look at the way she rocks that leather skirt at right? You could die in awe. As King, she acts like she grew up in luxury, truly comfy with the finer things designed for and by the big money French which the petit Bourgeois of America pretend suits them. By contrast Tomorrow Never Dies' Terri Hatcher, who looks like she'll start stealing the designer shot glasses as soon as Bond steps into the hotel bathroom. Marceau is Bond's equal, maybe even his superior, both in machinations and using sex to manipulate and get information, and in confidence, ease in her own skin, sense of non-abrasive authority, and sheer coolness -- little bits of business, like her use of playful ice cubes from the champagne bucket when in bed with both Bond and her terrorist Carlyle, for example, carries a sense of spontaneous improv like Brando in The Missouri Breaks and Last Tango in Paris.

Representing the Americans in World is the much more age-inappropriate Denise Richards as an atomic physicist named Christmas Jones (one of the best pieces of stunt casting in the history of cinema). One look at her marching around an abandoned Russian missile silo in sexy khaki shorts and all your worries slip away. Richard's not a great actress but she doesn't need to be, maybe even shouldn't be. Like all the best Bond beauties she acts from her hips, sexual the more she tries not to be (the way a better actress like Halle Berry can't). And as was the style in the Brosnan Bonds, there are plenty of truly bad girls, including the opening assassin in the fiery balloon and boat chase. Only TOMORROW avoids them, rather to its downfall. WORLD makes up for it, in fact there's a stretch where it seems MI6 is a true matirarchy--as Dench's M, Miss and Dr. "Warmflash" (Serena Scott Thomas)--all debrief Bond and make their own snarky comments as to his stamina and 'touching dedication.' Bond is actually outnumbered! That's pretty great, and a shame we've already slid so far back.

The best Bond movies are ageless the more they grow antiquated, but SKYFALL has so raised the bar that it's tough to go back to the lewd double entendre smirking and embarrassed pun groaning of the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan eras (which the more discreet Timothy Dalton avoided). That's why the very 90s capsule-ish THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH has always been unusual for me. One, because it has two of my favorite Bond girls, for opposite reasons; two, because for all that, it's still not satisfying--it's made at the end of the 90s and is like a tentative swimmer dipping a toe across the centennial Cocteau traversable mirror, no longer afraid of strong, cool, confident, qualified professional women, but unable to let go of 90s things like venetian blinds, Goldie's teeth, post-ecstasy depression, and sexual disillusionment

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

The difference is, McMurray knew Stanwyck was evil and was frightened by how much it turned him on. He knew better but just watched as if from afar as he ruined his life by scorching himself in her sultry flame. Brosnan's Bond of course is the opposite; he always has to have the upper hand, at least in his  mind, to be either a paternal lover or a cold judge and executioner when she's found to be playing him just as he's played so so so many. What is is Eddie G. said in LITTLE CESAR, that you can dish it out but can't take it no more? 

(1/07 -Bright Lights)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Acidemic 11/08)

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

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

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

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

(Bright Lights - 11/08)

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

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

Sexual chessboard spy games would become taboo with the dawn of “political correctness” Bond, where sex must be harnessed to confessions of love with moistened eyes or at least some amount of mutual respect, but seen today, this sort of grudge-f*cking is fresh and totally tantalizing (Connery's Bond especially never misses a chance). Why shouldn’t male spies be active in the web of counter-seduction, rather than moping around passively like Claude Rains in Notorious or John Gilbert in Mata Hari? That stuff is for chumps! The East German Stasi had a whole program of handsome undercover spies seducing lonely NATO secretaries. Sean Connery’s Bond knows full well that the best intel is won between the sheets, and he’s just the man to go after it, letting his target think she’s playing him for a sucker all the while. Call it sexism all you like, but I would argue, in hindsight, Bond shows Miss Taro real equality; she’s treated like a spy among spies, and not some precious third wave princess who must be showered in jewels and pampered royally just to get it on already.
FINAL LINK: We've gotten into the spirit of the thing by having a lot of 'ahem' girls up in these pics and descrips. Bond seems to breed Mad Men era sexism like a virus... but maybe I can prove I'm sensitive via this double book review of HAMMER GLAMOR (there was bit of bleed over between Hammer and Bond girls, both coming from the same country and studio) and a book called FEMME FATALE - back in Bright Lights 

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