" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Pop culture Christmas: into the Rankin/Bass ‘Animagic’ vortex


Singing elves. Dancing snowmen. The awkward beauties of stop-motion animation. Yuletides threatened by mad professors, insane dictators, giant buzzards, and Arab stereotypes. Welcome to the world of Rankin/Bass, a company that took the pop-culture Christmas ball and ran with it, creating a demented body of video work that will live forever . . . for better or worse.

We can sometimes measure our faithfulness to the sentiments of the season through our dedication to the ritual of watching holiday TV specials.

The best are just can’t-miss, hands-down good: “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Then there are eerie moments, like that kooky nutty 1977 Bing Crosby/David Bowie Christmas duet:



And the depthless horror that is “The Star Wars Holiday Special”:



But no one could crank out the Xmas kitsch quite like the minions of Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass. For more than two decades, their studio produced over a dozen animated Christmas specials, most of them filmed with puppets in painstaking stop-motion technique. Only Sid and Marty Krofft of “H.R. Pufnstuf” fame can claim a similar dominance over the injection of absolute weirdness into children’s minds.

The real heroes were the Japanese animators, under Tadahito Mochinaga and later at Topcraft, who developed into a powerful generation of anime artists, directors and producers.

Here are some highlights:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

The first and the best. I distinctly remember the first broadcast, and it blew me away. The attention to detail, the anything-goes leaps of logic, the weird mix of cultural references: it sets the pattern, both in form and tone, for all Rankin/Bass holiday specials to come.

Celebrity narrator: Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives). So memorable, he made it into “Elf”!



Song You Can’t Get out of Your Head: “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas”



Villain: The Abominable Snowman, and the worst blizzard in a century.

High points: a) Hermey the elf confesses his obsessive desire to become a dentist. B) Rudolph calling out, “Ready, Santa!” Gulp. Sob.

Huh?: Still wondering about strong yet sensitive Yukon Cornelius, and King Moonracer, the flying lion that rules over the Island of Misfit Toys. I’m still trying to work that last one out.



Lesson: Diversity. We must love and accept all our differently-abled reindeer.

Quote: “Nobody wants a Charlie-in-the-Box!”

After the relatively turgid and uncomfortably Christ-centered “The Little Drummer Boy” (1968), we move on to

Frosty the Snowman (1969)

Celebrity narrator: Jimmy Durante

Song You Can’t Get out of Your Head: The title song, silly!

Villain: Professor Hinkle, memorably portrayed by the inimitable and now forgotten Billy De Wolfe, a professional sissy of the type played by Charles Nelson Reilly and Franklin Pangborn.



High points: Frosty saves his friend Karen at the cost of his own conversion from a solid to a liquid state.

Huh?: Santa threatening to cut Professor Hinkle off from the present list if he doesn’t give Frosty his life-producing magic hat. Then makes him write 100 zillion apologies. This does not follow the precepts of “Love and Logic.”

Lesson: Don’t be a hater.

Quote: “Happy birthday!”

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)

Celebrity narrator: Fred Astaire

Song You Can’t Get out of Your Head: “Put One Foot in Front of the Other” (later recycled into the “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” special a year later)

Villain: Burgomeister Meisterburger! Ooo, he hatez dose toyzzz!



High points: Kris Kringle is a defiant elf-raised orphan who brings toys to children despite being ground down by The Man. He works under cover of darkness, an outlaw advocate of materialism, and winds up a political prisoner, Yuletide’s own Vaclav Havel. Plus, Jessica Claus is hot.

Huh?: The insane lengths the story goes to in order to explain every aspect of the Santa mythos are beyond compare. Red suit, beard, flying reindeer, magic feed corn – the scrotal fortitude of the writers is impressive.

Lesson: Nobody can mess with the inalienable right of children to have toys, especially with omnipotent omniscient Santa on their side. Dammit.

Quote: “Behave yourselves, because Santa can still look into his magic snowball and see just what you're up to.”

The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

Celebrity narrator: Shirley Booth

Songs You Can’t Get out of Your Head: “The Snow Miser Song” and “The Heat Miser Song”



Villain: Isn’t it Santa this time? He catches a cold, decides to take a break, and basically bails.

High points: Snow Miser and Heat Miser, of course

Huh?: It’s kind of like “Measure for Measure” – a leader leaves, creating a power vacuum that’s filled with bad bargains. Elves are making deals with Southern mayors, element-controlling spirits, and the like.

Lesson: Santa is too big to fail.

Quote: “Nobody cares a hoot and a holler for you or Christmas.”

And . . .it just starts to go steeply downhill from there. The Little Drummer Boy, Book II (1976) still has a rap that it contains anti-Arab stereotyping. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977), Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979), Pinocchio’s Christmas (1980), The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold (1981). All dredging up scraps of the old Animagic.

A few years later, it ground to a halt. Only the renaissance sparked by Will Vinton (the California Raisins), Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “Coraline”), and Nick Park (Wallace and Grommit) has restored the technique to mainstream use. No Rudolph, no “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Monday, December 21, 2009

Good Christmas music: Ars Nova's 'Yuletide'



This shameless commercial plug comes as the result of a good deed.

I have listened to and written about the Boulder, Colorado choral ensemble the Ars Nova Singers for longer than a decade. They have 10 recordings to their credit, and the latest is the recently released "Yuletide."

I am the most intolerant of Christmas music auditors, as my earlier "Pop culture Christmas: the perils of carols" story shows. When Ars Nova asked me to come to their one of their concerts this holiday time, I let them know I didn't have the ability to publicize their efforts widely.

In keeping with their kindness, which is as strong as their musicianship, they asked me over anyway, and sent me a copy of their new CD. Isn't that nice?

And it's quite good. Thomas Edward Morgan's choir has created a body of strong, diverse vocal work that ranges from early-music to contemporary pieces, many arranged by Morgan himself. "Yuletide" is no exception.

The 44 members of Ars Nova distinguish themselves with a cappella work that handles the complexities of Taverner and the smooth sweetness of Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time is Here" with equally luminous blend and tone. The 16 tracks included here complement their previous seasonal fare in 1993's "A Floweret Bright" and 2000's "Midwinter."

It's a privilege to hear this work. And it's not too late to get a copy. Go to www.arsnovasingers.org.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Pop culture Christmas: It's in the cards



You either celebrate Christmas or you endure it. There’s no in-between. It would take the composure of Shunryu Suzuki to pass indifferent to it.

It forces you to react. You must send greeting cards. Mustn’t you?

Let’s say you still do. You are compelled to send greeting cards, and post same as they arrive in that weird display rack in your kitchen.

In the Midwest growing up, forgetting someone on your Christmas card list, or not honoring some new acquaintance with a Yuletide greeting, was tantamount to a challenge to a duel. Entire branches and sub-tribes of dour Scandinavian Americans no longer communicate due to greeting-card grudges.

It is a competitive sport, an aesthetic challenge, and a spiritual conundrum. How many do you get? Do you have to go back and buy more? And what kind do you buy? Here’s look at some genres:

1. Religious



No matter how many time we mutter “Happy holidays,” it’s Christmas. Jesus is indeed the reason for the season, coupled with capitalism’s exploitation of peace and love for commercial purposes. America’s politically correct inhabit a zone of denial. For anyone in a minority, America is an intermittently tolerant Christian monoculture.

So, hey, why not get into it? Go for broke. If Mary’s baby was born to die, send a stern and pious Christmas card, or at least something with a mixed message, like this:



A crucifix covered in ornaments? Very Scorsese.

2. Chicken-hearted

This is the category into which you can throw everyone you’re not sure about – co-workers, acquaintances, and relatives you hate. Pick the most generic greeting you can find:



“Season’s greetings”! The ultimate copout.

3. Humor – Gentle

By far the most popular category. We self-consciously admit our ambivalence about the holiday by sending a vaguely funny and inoffensive card.



4. Snarky



OK, you just hate Christmas. You are a Christmatheist. We did our best over the years to defy the dominant paradigm. One year, we hand-made cards that, when opened, stated in calligraphy “Please join us in the violent overthrow of the United States government.” Another year a friend, with a few deft strokes of the pen, artfully turned a holiday cottage into the site of the Manson killings.

These are just suggestions.

5. Dirty



Do you know anyone who gets these? Have you ever seen them displayed anywhere beside a hobo’s shack or a submarine wardroom?

6. Just Ridiculous

This is absolutely the most disturbing e-card I could find:

http://www.americangreetings.com/ecards/display.pd?N=374980&prodnum=3094053

It’s not quite as hauntingly strange as another holiday hobby we used to indulge. We of course saved all our Christmas cards. I dug out family photo cards and mailed them off randomly to friends who would have no idea who they were. These unknown, grotesque clutches of people converted into shiny, convivial laminates are still being passed from hand to hand, God knows where now, landing on mantels where they are puzzled at for a few weeks.



“Who are these people? How do we know them?”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pop culture Christmas ADDENDUM: Two classics



It's in the air. The minute I shipped this, two other songs that cannot be ignored came to mind.

The first was just named the worst Christmas song of all time!



And the first part of this sequence is the unbearably lovable singing of Melvin Dummer (Paul Le Mat) and Howard Hughes (Jason Robards, Jr.) in Jonathan Demme's "Melvin and Howard."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pop culture Christmas: The perils of carols



Gosh, there’s nothing like hearing Christmas music in every store and on every street corner. It really puts me in the mood – to buy a high-powered rifle and start shooting into crowds from above.

The onslaught now starts as soon as the last trick-or-treater rings the bell on Halloween. We start cranking “Jingle Bells,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and the rest.

Over and over. Incessantly. Until I begin to poke absentmindedly at my eardrums with an awl.

Christmas music is too much of a good thing. Our frighteningly cheesy high school show choir used to hit the road during the holiday season, chirping holiday tunes at old folks’ homes, in shopping malls and even door to door.

But caroling’s kind of like sports, and sex. It’s fun to participate. Not watch. Not so much.

The categories of holiday music, in increasing order of annoyance, are as follows:

1. Sacred music

It’s almost always not in English, so you can pretend they’re singing whatever you like. Many times, under Christmas duress, my fellow baritones and I whispered filthy variants of our own back and forth while performing the good old Weihnachtsoratorium.

When not captivated by something on the order of Luigi Melanoma and the St. Cajetan Rejects doing “I Spumoni Contenti,” I can listen to stuff like Handel’s “Messiah” on perpetual repeat, no problem. My favorite chorus? “O We Like Sheep,” also the state anthem of Wyoming.



As a bonus, it makes you sleepy. Who doesn’t love falling asleep under the tree face down as the spilled eggnog begins to crust and stink in the shag carpet while the Robert Shaw Chorale belts out “Adeste Fideles”?

2. Hymns, carols and other semi-sacred fare

It doesn’t get much whiter than this. It’s not syncopated, it doesn’t swing, it’s melodic, harmonic, and nearly catatonic.



Now it starts to get dicey. In this case, we all know the words, and if we cannot get behind the whole Jesus-baby concept, it can be uncomfortable singing along.

Even though Xmas is all about love and hope and kindness, some of the songs still manage to twist the guilt-knife. “God rest ye merry gentlemen/Let nothing you dismay/Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day/To save us all from Satan’s power/When we had gone astray.” Ouch. In “O Holy Night,” we discover that “Long lay the world/In sin and error pining.” Well, thanks.

And there are some I’m still puzzling on. Isn’t the “The Holly and the Ivy” quite a metaphoric stretch? “I Saw Three Ships”? “Good King Wenceslas”? Not a clue.

You can still count me in for a few verses of “We three kings of Orient are/Trying to light a rubber cigar…” But don’t get me started on “The Little Drummer Boy” or “Do You Hear What I Hear?” These are my bĂȘte noires. Do not sing them, or I will hurt you.

3. Secular holiday songs

OK, here we enter a strictly undoctrinaire zone. This is all about Santa, and Rudolph, and Frosty, and that jazz. Getting’ stuff, and busy streets, and snow-covered lanes, and ornaments! Yay!



It seems that every songwriter saved his or her catchiest tunes to wed to holiday songs, and these ingrained melodies haunt us, throbbing in our skulls even during our August noons. At Yuletide, the saturation is total. The sugary avalanche floods our ears. It’s like being choked to death with licorice whips.

Some songs are great, and stand up on their own merits. Mel Torme and Bob Wells’ “The Christmas Song”



would sound great covered by Monk. “White Christmas” is a killer. But the rest – c’mon, it’s a racket.

None of America’s pop Christmas songs predate 1934. The image of Santa was standardized by illustrator Haddon Sundblom for the Coca-Cola Company in 1931. Hmmm.



Sense a pattern there? The 20th century’s commercialization of Christmas is a magic wave of capitalist ethos that still swells and sweeps the world. It needs a syrupy soundtrack.

4. Novelty songs

What were originally supposed to be relief from the season’s solemnities became nasty nuggets of noise themselves. “Jingle Bell” barking dogs, “Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer,” “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” any parody . . . stop, please. Just STOP.



5. Romantic holiday songs

Any song where you’re using Christmas as an excuse to get laid is just not right. “Let It Snow,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Merry Christmas Darling” – all pathetic attempts to get into someone’s pants. Take it from me, it usually doesn’t work. Also, it gives me horrible flashbacks about Andy Williams Christmas specials that are the mental equivalent of shingles.



6. Mindless mashups

Take “The Carol of the Bells.” Add “Sleigh Ride.” Add “March of the Wooden Soldiers.” Add every other song mentioned so far. Put a beat on it. Homogenize. Spray it liberally into every corner of reality.

Then book me a room at the clinic. Wake me when it’s Mardi Gras. Now THERE’S some good holiday music.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pop culture Christmas: ‘A Christmas Carol’ at CU



Bob Buckley (right) in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "A Christmas Carol." [Photo by Glenn Asakawa for CU Communications]

Everyone has made a Christmas album. Bob Dylan just did; would you like to listen to it? So has Richard Cheese. If I could find a backer, I would too. Let’s face it -- Christmas sells.

Musicians, singers, dancers, actors, and all the support staff that surround them count on this time of year for a big infusion of cash (some of it under the table, as I recall). Fortunately, each year we drag out and redress the old decorations, lights and common cultural property, of which there is precious little these days. We need our yearly dose of redemption, forgiveness and compassion. And we need people to make the magic for us.

The holidays justify that once-a-year visit to the theater, for the Nutcracker or the Messiah, for the adaptations of movies such as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” and “A Christmas Story,” and long enough now that snarky shows like “The SantaLand Diaries,” “Santa’s Big Red Sack,” and “Balls! A Holiday Spectacular,” all going down in the Denver metro area, here in the heartland. Or a place on its western rim.

“A Christmas Carol” is the gold standard. The 1843 Charles Dickens masterpiece is a story you couldn’t kill with a stick. It’s got everything! A comedy miser! Three ghosts (four, if you count Marley’s enchained wraith)! It converts easily into a musical! A bumbling clerk! A relentlessly pathetic disabled child!

Big bowls of steaming stuff. Victorian line dancing. Caroling. Time travel. Funny hats. “May you be happy in the life you have chosen!” After so many years of watching so many different productions, it all beings to blur together.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival trotted out yet another adaptation last week. In contrast to the high-MGM-period budget of the Denver Center’s version, this staging is simple and straightforward. Adapter and director Philip C. Sneed, CSF’s Producing Artistic Director, knows we know the story, and that you just need to get out of its way.

Using lighting cues, rolling props and actors in multiple roles, Sneed imaginatively guides us through Scrooge’s pilgrimage to self-awareness. You get the redemption. You get the forgiveness. You get the compassion.

And you get a study guide! Actually, it’s quite good – thank Amanda Holden, Melinda Scott and CU's Dr. Shirley Carnahan for that. We have all had to page through bad study guides. And we have all survived awful holiday fare. This production is by far at the good end of my lifetime “Christmas Carol” spectrum.

Bob Buckley is a nice Scrooge, and the ensemble includes some other faces from the CSF’s summer company as well. The minimalist approach works.

And they don’t make you sing or make wassail with them at the end or anything. That is good.

“A Christmas Carol” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in the University Theater on the CU-Boulder campus through Dec. 27. For tickets and information, please call 303-492-0554 or visit online at www.coloradoshakes.org.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Nice guys finish first: 'Hangover' writer speaks


(Originally published on dscriber.com on Sept. 18, 2009)

Life is good for Scott Moore. Well, life would be good for anyone who helped create the top-grossing R-rated comedy in film history. Yeah.

That's bigger than "Borat." Bigger than "There's Something About Mary." Bigger than "Animal House," for chrissake!

Scott Moore loves it.

"It's so great," he says via phone. He's getting ready to visit Boulder for a screening of his film, the summer's big smash hit "The Hangover," which he wrote with his long-time writing partner Jon Lucas, on Saturday, Sept. 19. He'll stick around for a Q-and-A session afterwards.

"It's both rewarding on a personal and a professional level, after nine years of doing lots of good work without seeing our names on it," he says.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Moore graduated from CU-Boulder in 1989, with a degree in economics. Huh?

"Actually, I started off with an engineering major," he says. "And it was very boring. One day in statics class, I realized that I was studying . . . concrete."

So he switched. Economics sounds fairly frivolous after that.

He took a lot of film classes, too. There was no film studies major at CU at the time, but the small size of the department was a boon for him, as it allowed him much more hands-on experience.

"If you wanted to write, you wrote," he said. "If you wanted to shoot, you shot. It was a lot of fun, very close-knit - it was a great place to learn about filmmaking."

He never really joined a comedy scene, either. "We'd rather write the jokes down and have someone else deliver them," he says. Right out of school, Moore went to work as a intern at Disney.

"I started by trying to be a producer, but that was no fun," he says. "It was a lot more fun to write," and he "scratched and clawed" his way into the business.

Along the way, he bumped into Jon Lucas.

"We were both working for one of the guys who was responsible for ‘Beverly Hills Cop," says Moore. "Each of us was writing on the side, with minimal success. We started working together, and we have such a great dynamic - it really paid off."

Soon the duo was known around town as go-to guys for punching up a script, performing uncredited rewrites on properties such as "Wedding Crashers," "27 Dresses," "Chicken Little" and "Mr. Woodcock."

"A pretty typical Hollywood writer's career is, when you're writing, you're writing on spec," he says. "But there always scripts in development out there - people are needed to rewrite and develop them further. Especially in the comedy world, people say, ‘This needs to be a little funnier.' So we did that, meanwhile always trying to pitch originals."

The genesis of "Hangover" came from the two thinking about the conventions of the "bachelor party" film genre.

"It's been done a lot," he says, "and a lot of them are terrible. The thing is, a party is fun to watch for about five minutes. Talking about it the next day is funnier, a lot funnier. Think about ‘Jaws' or horror movies, too - it's better if you don't see the monster. The audience can paint a picture in their heads of what happened that's more extreme than anything we could film.

"Most people can really relate to the next morning, too - ‘Oh God. I did that. Didn't I?' And we've all been that person looking on, saying, ‘I'm glad I'm not you!' Half-a-dozen people we know think it's based directly on their lives."

"Plus, we've always liked stupid detectives. We love ‘The Big Lebowski.' So we hit on the idea of amnesia as kind of a neat way to tell it."

A sequel is already in the works, although Moore and Lucas aren't in on it.

"(‘Hangover' director) Todd Phillips is great," Moore says. "He's a well-respected writer himself. He did some work on our script as filming progressed. He wants to push the characters forward, so they're going to start filming next fall, I think. Already he's got Scot Armstrong (Phillips' co-writer on ‘Old School') on it, and Jeremy Garelick (‘The Break-Up')."

Meanwhile, More and Lucas are on to the next challenge - what they term a "body-switching" comedy titled "Change Up."

Moore begins to talk about the body-switching subgenre. Even my movie-minutiae mind balks - "There is?" I blurt.

"There is a canon," he asserts. He starts reeling off titles: "Freaky Friday," "Face/Off."

"Actually, ‘Face/Off' is so good that at times you stop thinking about Travolta and Cage and really get into it," he says. (For completists, I will throw a list of titles at the end of this story.)

"A lot of them are cheesy," he says. "But when they're well done, they're entertaining. We're thinking about it in a really fun way - the two who switch are a married guy and a single guy. Jon and I are both married, and I think everyone who is married definitely thinks about being single again. There's that ‘I wish I had your life' thing. And the single guy is a total slacker, he sees the guy with a wife and kids and thinks, ‘What would that be like?'"

David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers") is attached to direct.

Moore's sitting pretty, and as I type this up, I think - hey, he didn't have to talk to me. He doesn't have a product to pimp, he's got no reason to give me his time. Plus it was 7 a.m. where he was when I called him. That's pretty cool. He's a nice guy.

I stick him with one more question: what was the unexplained chicken doing in the hotel room in "Hangover"?

"There is actually a reason the chicken is there," he admits. "I'm not I'm sure allowed to talk about it."

THE BODY-SWITCHING SUBGENRE

Flames (1917) Dir: Maurice Elvey
Turnabout (1940) Dir: Hal Roach
Vice Versa (1947) Dir: Peter Ustinov
Skazka O Poter yannom Vremi (1964) Dir: Alexander Ptushko
Freaky Friday (1976) Dir: Gary Nelson
Summer Switch (1984) Dir: Ken Kwapis
Like Father, Like Son (1987) Dir: Rod Daniel
Vice Versa (1988) Dir: Brian Gilbert
18 Again! (1988) Dir: Paul Flaherty
Dream a Little Dream (1989) Dir: Marc Rocco
Prelude to a Kiss (1992) Dir: Norman Rene
Freaky Friday (1995) Dir: Melanie Mayron
Face/Off (1997) Dir: John Woo
A Saintly Switch (1999) Dir: Peter Bogdanovich
The Hot Chick (2002) Dir: Tom Brady
Berzauberte Emma Oder Hilfe, Ich Bin Ein Junge (2002) Dir: Oliver Dommenget
It's a Boy Girl Thing (2006) Dir: Nick Hurran

Sunday, September 13, 2009

'Inglourious' cinema: an exhaustive guide to men-on-a-mission films




First published at Dscriber.com on Aug. 21, 2009

Let's go kill us some Nazis!

Quentin Tarentino's new film, "Inglourious Basterds," opened Friday. At 12:01 a.m., to be precise. I was there, in spirit at least, ready for action with the fanboys. (Remember, fanboys grow up to become aficionado-men.)

What is it about men-on-a-mission films that's so seductive? Is it the thrill of watching the execution of a cunning plan? The fascinations of watching specialists in death-dealing and espionage assemble? The barely-suppressed homosexual subtext?

All of the above. Aggression and male bonding go hand-in-hand, and men seeking escape relish a film full of violence and explosions, without those pesky female characters that slow things down with "relationships" and "dialogue" -- unless of course they are villainous seductresses or shapely allies.

Tarentino's affection for the subgenre is no secret. The men-on-a-mission subgenre is perilously close to the "caper/heist" subgenre -- one that the director already examined in "Reservoir Dogs" in 1992, and glancingly referenced with a feminist twist in "Pulp Fiction" -- Uma Thurman's character talks about the TV pilot "Fox Force Five."

Both categories deal primarily with codes of masculinity and honor, but in this case, the protagonists aren't criminals subverting a corrupt and vulnerable system, but a group of cynical pros and/or a "rag-tag bunch of misfits" that go above and beyond the call of duty -- in order to kick ass.

The roots of the movement spring from several sources. First, there are the patriotic, propagandistic World War II-era dramas such as "Thirty Seconds over Tokyo" (1943, Dir: Delmer Davies), "Sahara" (1943, Dir: Zoltan Korda) and "Objective Burma!" (1945, Dir: Raoul Walsh) that outlined heroic struggles against the enemies of freedom, emphasizing bravery, teamwork and sacrifice.



Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" from 1954 is another key development. Its tale of compassionate mercenaries who aid a poor village in repelling bandits inspired John Sturges' classic Western adaptation, 1960's "The Magnificent Seven" -- which cleaned up at the box office and spawned three increasingly inept sequels of its own.



The third stream of influence issues straight from Howard Hawks, the Golden Age directing genius who was notably a "man's man" and promulgated the tight-lipped tough-guy buddy ethos in films such as "Only Angels Have Wings" (1936). Disgusted by Fred Zinneman's 1952 "High Noon," in which Gary Cooper seeks help from townsfolk who won't lift a finger to help him face a bad man out for revenge. Hawks determined to make his own statement.

According to Grant Tracey in Images Journal, "Hawks disliked the film intensely and felt that Cooper acted inappropriately: a professional never asks amateurs for help, a professional is 'good enough' to do the job himself, or with the aid of fellow right-thinking professionals."

Hawks' "Rio Bravo" (1959) does precisely that, with John Wayne's sheriff scorning offers of assistance from "amateurs" against the bad guys. The film proved so successful that it spawned two Hawks-helmed remakes: "El Dorado" in 1966 and "Rio Lobo" in 1970.



Then came Alistair MacLean. The prolific Scottish thriller novelist wrote the template for the men-on-a-mission saga with "The Guns of Navarone" in 1957. Its adaptation onto celluloid four years later under the direction of J. Lee Thompson put all the elements together, triggering an avalanche of similar projects, most set during World War II.



So raise your glass to the following selections. For better or worse, they typify the film fantasy of a violent job well done:

Operation Crossbow (1965) Dir: Michael Anderson. With George Peppard, Tom Courtenay, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Paul Henreid. Those damned Germans are building rockets in Peenemunde -- they've got to be stopped!

Bad Guy: Anthony Quayle.

Babe: Sophia Loren.

Quote: "If you can just get inside that research site, then you will have made great leaps and bounds towards the target."



The Heroes of Telemark (1965) Dir: Anthony Mann. With Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris, Michael Redgrave. Those damned Germans are making "heavy water," essential for atom-bomb production, in Norway -- they've got to be stopped!

Bad Guy: Anton Diffring (one of the all-time great Evil Nazis).

Babe: Ulla Jacobsson.

Quote: "Don't you ever make the mistake by underrating the Germans. By any means."



The Professionals (1966) Dir: Richard Brooks. With Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Ralph Bellamy. When Mexican bandits kidnap a rancher's wife, a team of experts are sent south to get her back.

Bad Guy: Jack Palance.

Babe: Claudia Cardinale.

Quote: "So what else is on your mind besides hundred-proof women, 90-proof whiskey, and 14-carat gold?"

The Dirty Dozen (1967) Dir: Robert Aldrich. With Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas, Richard Jaeckel, George Kennedy, Clint Walker, Trini Lopez. Twelve condemned Army criminals are given the chance for a pardon if they survive a secret mission to parachute behind enemy lines and kill most of the German High Command.

Bad Guy: Robert Ryan (and he's supposed to be on our side!)

Babe: Dora Reisser.

Quote: "Killin' generals could get to be a habit with me."



Where Eagles Dare (1968) Dir: Brian G. Hutton. With Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Michael Hordern. In another MacLean adaptation, commandos must parachute behind enemy lines to rescue an American general -- or is he?

Bad Guy: Derren Nesbitt (and isn't that Anton Diffring back there?)

Babes: Mary Ure, Ingrid Pitt.

Quote: "Broadsword calling Danny Boy, Broadsword calling Danny Boy, over."



Ice Station Zebra (1968) Dir: John Sturges. With Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, Patrick McGoohan. ANOTHER MacLean adaptation, this one set during the Cold War. A submarine mission to rescue injured scientists at the North Pole is a cover for the retrieval of a spy satellite.

Bad Guy: Alf Kjellin as Col. Ostrovsky.

Babe: Not one woman in the entire film.

Quote: "The incident is close-ed."

Play Dirty (1968) Dir: Andre de Toth. With Michael Caine, Nigel Davenport, Nigel Green, Harry Andrews. Leery petroleum exec must join British mission to destroy German oil supplies in North Africa.

Bad Guy: Richard Harris, who got fired from the production early on.

Babe: Vivian Pickles as "German Nurse."

Quote: "Sometimes you need to learn that playing by the rules gets you nowhere."



The Devil's Brigade (1968) Dir: Andrew McLaglen. With William Holden, Cliff Robertson, Vince Edwards, Claude Akins, Richard Jaeckel, Harry Carey Jr., Carroll O'Connor, Michael Rennie, Dana Andrews. Americans and Canadians gotta get along in order to take impregnable Nazi fortress in Italy.

Bad Guy: Paul Busch.

Babe: Gretchen Wyler.

Quote: "Faith moves mountains. It doesn't take them."



Five for Hell (1969) Dir: Giancarlo Parolini (as Frank Kramer). With . . . um, never mind. Nutty G.I.s have to steal secret plans from Nazis -- behind enemy lines, of course.
Bad Guy: Klaus Kinski.

Babe: Margaret Lee.

Quote: "Certo, Fraulein."



Kelly's Heroes (1970) Dir: Brian G. Hutton. With Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland, Carroll O'Connor, Harry Dean Stanton, Gavin MacLeod, Stuart Margolin. The perfect, one-time-only intersection of mission film, caper flick and dark counterculture comedy -- complete with hippie tank unit. Watch for the spaghetti-western parody sequence at the end.

Bad Guy: Karl-Otto Alberty.

Babe: None visible.

Quote: "We got our own ammunition, it's filled with paint. When we fire it, it makes... pretty pictures."



Too Late the Hero (1970) Dir: Robert Aldrich. With Cliff Robertson, Michael Caine, Denholm Elliott, Ian Bannen, Harry Andrews. An attempt to recreate the success of "Dirty Dozen" with the Japanese instead of the Germans as the target.

Bad Guy: Ken Takakura.

Babe: Nope, sorry.

Quote: "Sometimes I feel like I should just give up the ghost and be done with it!"



Raid on Rommel (1971) Dir: Henry Hathaway. With Richard Burton and not much else. Commando raid on Tobruk goes awry, and officer must utilize misfit medical unit instead.
Bad Guy: Wolfgang Preiss.

Babe: Danielle De Metz.

Quote: "I don't care whether you pay her off in lollipops or cut out her tongue with a dull knife. She's your responsibility."



The Eagle Has Landed (1976) Dir: John Sturges. With Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Anthony Quayle, Jean Marsh. This time, it's the Germans who play dress-up and try foolhardy attempt to kidnap Winston Churchill.

Bad Guy: Donald Pleasance -- as Heinrich Himmler!

Babe: Jenny Agutter.

Quote: "My God, you're a German!"



Inglorious Bastards (1978) Dir: Enzo G. Castellani. With Bo Svenson, Fred Williams, Ian Bannen. The inspiration for Tarentino is an awful low-budget "Dirty Dozen" knockoff, complete with bad miniature work and naked machine-gun-toting SS women.

Bad Guys: Numerous, and constantly leaping about in death throes.

Babe: Debra Berger.

Quote: "How's it going there, Colonel?" repeated 8,000 times as said officer tries to steal gizmo from V-2 prototype.



The Wild Geese (1978) Dir: Andrew McLaglen. With Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Roger Moore, Hardy Kruger. Mercenaries must rescue imprisoned African leader -- their job becomes much tougher when they are betrayed.

Bad Guy: Stewart Granger (and he's supposed to be on their side! Sounds familiar?)

Babe: Rosalind Lloyd.

Quote: "Good luck to you, you Godless murderers."



Force 10 from Navarone (1978) Dir: Guy Hamilton. With Robert Shaw, Harrison Ford, Edward Fox, Carl Weathers. The "Navarone" gang are back together, fighting the Germans in Yugoslavia.

Bad Guy: Franco Nero.

Babe: Barbara Bach.

Quote: "You're Nicolai . . . you're the man who blew us in Greece!"



The Dogs of War (1980) Dir: John Irvin. With Christopher Walken, Tom Berenger, Colin Blakely. Mercenaries are paid to depose African dictator so that a pro-West one can take his place.

Bad Guy: Illario Bisi-Pedro.

Babe: JoBeth Williams

Quote: "Everybody comes with me, goes home."



Attack Force Z (1982) Dir: Tim Burstall. With John Phillip Law, Sam Neill, Mel Gibson. Aussie commandos must rescue plane-crash victims from Japanese -- as well as defector with secret that could end the war.

Babe: Sylvia Chang.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) Dir: Steven Spielberg. With Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon. D-Day squad must find and bring home the last surviving brother of fallen soldiers.

Bad Guy: Joerg Stadler.

Babe: Nah.

Quote: "James, earn this . . . earn it."

Black Hawk Down (2001) Dir: Ridley Scott. With Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Sam Shepard. Somalia, 1993. A plan to kidnap warlord's lieutenants leads to a disastrous firefight in Mogadishu.

Bad Guy: The entire population of Mogadishu, evidently.

Babe: Nix.

Quote: "Nobody asks to be a hero, it just sometimes turns out that way."

Monday, August 24, 2009

It came from outer space: UFO symposium convenes



When it comes to whether or not you believe in UFOs, it seems open-mindedness makes the difference. But then there are those who get all up in your face to insist that UFOs, piloted by aliens, are here and watching us. You'd get uppity too if you were kidnapped to outer space, probed by cold alien equipment and then returned home with no scars to show for your ordeal other than the hidden mental kind that are only exacerbated by the fact that nobody will listen.

As the 40th International UFO Symposium lands in Denver, Colorado today, those people will finally find themselves surrounded by plenty of believing faces -- maybe even alien spies.

The event, presented by the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) at the Marriott Denver Tech Center, runs through August 9. It is, in the words of its organizers, "an annual gathering of some of the top speakers in their respective fields presenting evidence and research concerning new UFO sightings in the U.S. and Canada, the scientific search for extraterrestrial life, UFO photo analysis, and why we still struggle with full disclosure on this highly controversial subject."

So... are they nuts? It's the first question everyone who knows I'm working on the story asks me. It's underlying everything I read, pro and con, and the questions I ask James P. Carrion, MUFON's International Director.

"We're actually skeptics ourselves," he says. Carrion is a computer expert from Bellvue, Colorado who has been involved with MUFON since 1996, and has served in his present position there for three years. "What we are not is skeptical leaning toward debunking. Too many people dismiss it outright because it doesn't fit their outlook. We want people to take the time to listen and examine the evidence."

The mission statement of MUFON declares that its purpose is "the scientific study of UFOs for the benefit of humanity." The symposium's schedule of events includes seminars on such topics as "MUFON's 10 Step Investigation Process in Detail," "Pseudoscience of Anti-Ufology," and "Politics, Religion and Human Nature: Roadblocks on the Path to Disclosure." (Please note that the symposium is not free - see MUFON's Web site for details.)

Carrion says, "We are a public service, non-profit scientific research organization. We do quality research - we are a very professional organization." The symposium will place an emphasis this year on what is refers to as "the dawn of a new era in UFO research," according to Carrion, including new evidence, new investigation techniques, and the release of formerly classified documents that will bolster the group's databases.

An evangelical tinge seems to color the activities of ufologists. Decades of disbelief and derision have shaped the attitudes of those who assert that the proof of extraterrestrial visits to Earth is there for those whose eyes aren't closed to the possibility.

Take, for instance, the story of John Putnam. He was an author living in Sand Rock, Arizona who spent his evenings engaged in amateur astronomy. In June of 1953, he and his girlfriend, schoolteacher Ellen Fields, were stargazing when they witnessed what they thought was a large meteor strike in the nearby mountains.

The next day, the two hired a helicopter from the local airport to investigate the area where the object fell.

They found a large crater, and Putnam scrambled excitedly to the bottom of it. There he found what he later described as "a huge ball rammed into the side of the crater," which was buried under a rockslide shortly afterwards.

Putnam's story was disbelieved by local residents. The town newspaper ran a story with the headline, "STAR GAZER SEES MARTIANS!" A university professor Putnam convinced to examine the site declined to dig into the crater for evidence.

If this report of a UFO encounter sounds familiar, it's because it's the plot of the 1953 film, "It Came from Outer Space," written by famed science-fiction author Ray Bradbury.

You see the problem? Popular culture has already hijacked the tropes of brave scientific pioneers and the disbelieving mob. Like Bradbury's protagonist, ufologists are treated by mainstream society as prophets without honor. They are asserting what is popularly assumed to be impossible, and stand outside consensual realities.

Does it make them frauds? Not if they are sincere. There is comfort in the idea of the Unknown taking an interest in little old anthropocentric us. Famed psychiatrist Carl Jung published a book in 1959, "Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky," in which he writes, "Something is seen, but one doesn't know what. It is difficult, if not impossible, to form any correct idea of these objects because they behave not like bodies but like weightless thoughts."

But delusion takes many forms. In "It Came from Outer Space," Putnam says angrily to the professor, "I don't know what's odd and what isn't anymore. But I do know I expected you do be more open to the idea than the others. You're a man of science! ... Not witchcraft, Dr. Snell! Imagination! Willingness to believe that there's lots of things we don't know anything about!"

If it's the rest of humanity that's enchanted into disbelief, then the ufologists are braver than we can imagine. Thinking beyond the possible, looking over the edge of reality, is terrifying and thrilling at the same time. There's a sense of righteousness, too, associated with the certainty of knowing a supposedly suppressed truth - an undercurrent of thought that claims that governments and religious organizations are putting the lid on disclosing UFO information for fear that it would release their control of the public.

And is my biased perception springing from my conditioning - namely, "It Came from Outer Space"? "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"? "Contact"?

At one point in the film, Putnam says, "Can I prove it? Even to myself?" More famously, French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace said, "The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportional to its strangeness."

Meantime, MUFON sets up its exhibits and prepares for the advent of the faithful and the curious.

"MUFON continues to provide the best evidence for Unconventional Flying Objects," its press release states. "These respected speakers will provide well researched information on the scientific study of UFOs that will help you to decide for yourself."

It's like pulling teeth: eight remarkable dentists





In honor of National Tooth Fairy Day on Aug. 22, a salute to those brave men and women who work inside your mouth for a living:

Nobody likes the dentist, and it seems that dentists aren't too thrilled about their careers, either. Packed away in a periodontal purgatory among the gauze, Novocain needles, drills and other detritus of the profession are dreams, moments of glory and just plain strangeness that come to light only sporadically.

CORPSE AS BILLBOARD

London dentist Martin van Butchell was remarkable not only for his personal sense of style - on the street, he dressed all in white, rode a pony painted with purple spots, and wielded in his hand a large bone attached to his wrist by a string.

He also had a way with the ladies, if they were dead. Evidently, van Butchell's marriage contract stated he could hang on to certain properties as long as his wife Mary "remained above ground."

When she died on Jan. 14, 1775, he had her embalmed by two of the leading surgeons of the day. Clad in a lace gown, equipped with glass eyes, and kept in a case with a glass lid, Mary presided over Martin's waiting room for years, serving as a gruesome draw for inquisitive potential patients.

Van Butchell's display of his dead wife as an advertising tool lasted until a new Mrs. van B entered the scene and demanded the removal of her predecessor. Mary was taken in by the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, which housed her until her remains were destroyed in a German bombing raid during World War II. She had been on display for 167 years.
WHAT'S UP, DOC?

John Henry Holliday was a promising, highly educated dentist from Georgia when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 22. He was given only a few months to live, and he moved in the summer of 1873 to Dallas (it was then thought that the dry climate of the American Southwest was beneficial to the tubercular).

His constant cough frightened away his patients, and Holliday began gambling. He soon realized it was more profitable than pulling teeth.

By 1878, after several scrapes with the law, "Doc" Holliday stopped practicing his vocation entirely and became a professional gambler and gunman. He would participate in the famous "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" in 1881, survive it - and die peacefully in Glenwood Springs, Colorado in 1887.

AN EMPRESS RESCUED

Thomas W. Evans' migration to Paris in 1847 made him the confidant of royalty and an unacknowledged shaper of history.

His services became valued by Second Republic President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who seized power and named himself Emperor Napoleon III in 1852. During the Civil War, Evans was sent by Napoleon on a confidential diplomatic mission to determine the probable outcome of the war, as England had recognized the Confederacy and was urging France to do the same. Evans met with Lincoln and Grant, and his report staved off Gallic support for the Rebel cause.

On Sept. 2, 1870, Napoleon and his forces were crushed by the Prussian Army at the Battle of Sedan. Two days later, he was deposed. His wife, the Empress Eugenie, was threatened by mobs in front of the palace at the Tulieries. She fled with her friend Madame Lebreton to Dr. Evans' residence, at 43, Bois de Boulogne.

The next day, the two were smuggled out of the city disguised as two feeble patients of the doctor, dressed in Mrs. Evans' clothing.

Eventually, Evans and his charges successfully made their way to England, where Eugenie was reunited with her exiled husband. When Evans eventually retired and returned to America, he had accumulated over 200 honors bestowed on him by various European powers.

WINE WITHOUT THE BUZZ

Thomas Bramwell Welch immigrated to America with his family when he was nine, in 1834. A devout Methodist and abolitionist, as a young man he was part of the Underground Railroad that smuggled escaped slaves to Canada.

He was ordained as a minister at the age of 19. After losing his voice, he retrained himself as a physician, specializing in dentistry.

He was also a teetotaler. Concerned that wine's integral part in Christian communion made the ritual unsuitable for alcoholics ("an ugly episode of overindulgence" by a visiting minister to his home was a key event), he sought to perfect an unfermented grape juice as a substitute. In 1869, he discovered a way of pasteurizing it so that it remained non-alcoholic.

Oddly, churches and other customers didn't take to "Dr. Welch's Unfermented Wine" right away. 21 years later, until the leadership of his son Charles, Welch's grape juice became a national sensation.

WINNER BY A KNOCKOUT

Before nitrous oxide and ether were discovered as anesthetics, they were put to a time-honored use: as a way for medical students to get wasted. This took place at "parties" during which participants inhaled the substances and went about blithely and merrily injuring themselves, with no memories of having done so later.

In January, 1842, one such student, William A. Clarke, was home on break in Rochester, New York in January, 1842. There he used ether on the sister of one of his classmates, painlessly extracting her rotten tooth.

When Clarke later informed one of his instructors of his success, he was told that the lack of pain was probably due to "the hysterical reaction of women to pain." He dropped his experiments with the chemical.

In December 1844, traveling dentist Horace Wells, fascinated by the antics of citizens under the influence at a nitrous oxide demonstration in Hartford, Connecticut, used that gas on himself to have a molar removed without discomfort. Soon he was advertising his "painless dentistry," but a demonstration of his new technique in 1845 at Massachusetts General Hospital failed, leaving him open to ridicule.

One observer at Wells' unsuccessful demonstration was a former business partner of his, Dr. William Thomas Green Morton. He sought a stronger chemical agent for inducing unconsciousness and consulted his chemistry professor, Charles T. Jackson, who suggested ether.

On Sept. 30, 1846, Morton successfully used ether to remove a molar from his partner in practice. 16 days later, a successful public demonstration of ether at Massachusetts General made Morton famous.

Morton, Wells, and Jackson fought viciously for the title of Discoverer of Anesthesia, bringing the battle all the way to the U.S. Congress. Only the deaths of all concerned ended the controversy:

Morton died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1868; Jackson, who also claimed to have invented the telegraph and cellulose nitrate ("guncotton"), went insane in 1873 and died in an asylum seven years later.

Wells became addicted to chloroform, and ended up committing suicide in 1848 while incarcerated in Tombs Prison in New York for throwing acid on two prostitutes- slitting his femoral artery (after inhaling chloroform, of course).

A SHOCKING CONCLUSION

On Aug. 7, 1881, a drunken dock worker named George L. Smith visited the Brush Electric Light Company in Buffalo, New York. Eager to feel the reported tingling effects of proximity to an electric generator, he put his hands on it - and was promptly electrocuted.

The news of his death reached Buffalo dentist Alfred P. Southwick, who had a bright idea: electricity as a painless, more humane form of taking life than any previously conceived. After months of experiments on unwanted animals donated by the local SPCA, Southwick began to petition government officials to replace hanging with electrocution. (A chair was decided on in part due to Southwick's accustomed use of one with his dental patients.)

The New York legislature put such a law into effect on Jan 1, 1889. On Aug. 6, 1890, William Kemmler was the first man scheduled to "fry." The first attempt left Kemmler groaning as the smell of burning flesh filled the air. The supposedly painless procedure took two tries and eight long minutes.

Thomas Edison, reading a report later, cited "bungling"; George Westinghouse said, "They could have done it better with an axe."

To these observations, Southwick defiantly replied, "A party of ladies could sit in a room where an execution of this kind was going on and not see anything repulsive whatsoever. No sir, I do not consider that this will be the last execution by electricity."

He was right. Although its use has largely been abandoned worldwide, six U.S. states still allow its use.

WEST TAMED - ON PAPER

Zane Grey made the safe choice, at first. Despite his prowess on the baseball diamond - he was a star on the University of Pennsylvania team, and dreamed of a career in the majors - he followed his father into the profession of dentistry.

The year 1897 found him practicing in a tiny office at 117 W. 21st St. in Manhattan, a then-poor, immigrant-crammed neighborhood. He punctuated his dreary work week with periodic camping trips upstate; there his met his future wife Dolly. Her small inheritance and encouragement, along with conversations with his mother about his ancestors' pioneer adventures (among other things, they found Zanesville, Ohio) led him to begin writing magazine articles and novels about outdoor life and adventure in his office after hours.

After years, the effort began to pay off. Finally, he decided to escape the city, quit his profession and try writing full-time. On Sept. 27, 1904, he closed on a property in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania. Settling there, he began a prolific and profitable career as a writer of Westerns, including the classic "Riders of the Purple Sage."

THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE

Ben L. Salomon was a 26-year-old dentist from Los Angeles when he was drafted in the fall of 1940. He had attained the rank of infantry sergeant in 1942 when he was ordered to become an officer in the Dental Corps.

In May, 1943, Lieutenant Salomon was assigned to the 105th Infantry Regiment as its dental officer. On June 15, 1944, the regiment was part of the invasion of the Japanese-held island of Saipan. On June 22, Salomon, newly promoted to captain, took over for the surgeon for the Regiment's 2nd Battalion, who had been wounded in a mortar attack.

By July 7, the Japanese forces had been reduced by 90 percent, to a total of 3,000. The commanding general, Saito, ordered a last desperate mass suicide attack on the American lines - the largest in history of the war in the Pacific.

Salomon was operating an aid station 50 yards behind the lines when the attack commenced. His position was soon overwhelmed, as he fought off seven attacking Japanese soldiers while tending to the wounded. Finally, he ordered all who could retreat while he covered their escape.

The battle ended two days later. The 1st and 2nd Battalions were nearly decimated. When survivors returned to the aid station, they found Salomon's body behind a machine gun. The bodies of 98 enemy soldiers lay piled in front of him -- so many that he had been forced to pull his weapon back four times to obtain a clear field of fire. There were 76 bullet holes in Salomon's body.

After decades of persistent effort on the part of Salomon's comrades, Salomon was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously on May 1, 2002.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

CULTURAMA: 'Complete (Abridged)' a triple-decker hoot at CSF


From left to right: Stephen Weitz, Geoffrey Kent and Matt Mueller in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)." (Photo by Casey A. Cass for CU Communications)

If laughs are needed anywhere, it’s at a Shakespeare festival. “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” is an idea whose time has come.

Oh, wait, it was created in 1987.

Well, it’s an idea . . . let’s see . . . an idea. Yes. It is. A good idea!

And where better than to stage it at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival!

Oh, wait, they put it on there last year.

Well, good job bringing it back!

As long as there’s been Bardolatry, there has been Bardophobia. Shakespeare is our sacred monster, and he provokes as much fear as awe. And much more sheer boredom.

Even the most ardent, arrogant iambic-pentameter-spouting smarty-pants gets tired of the Canon in his or her face from time to time. We have all toiled through mind-numbing English courses on Shakespeare, endured productions of his work so horrible that they warped space and made clocks run backward.

“Complete (Abridged)” is a cure for this condition. It’s a hilarious, breakneck dash through all 37 plays (OK, some merit only a mention) (and is it 38? Did he really write them? No time press on) staged by three fine clowns, Geoffrey Kent, Stephen Weitz and Matthew Mueller. That each is handling a role or roles in other CSF productions – hey, Stephen’s only playing Hamlet – is a testament to Rebecca Ramaly’s direction, their energy and the power of creative scheduling.

The Reduced Shakespeare Comedy started out at California Renaissance Faires in 1981, outclassing by a wide margin anything else that ever came out of a Renaissance Faire. Daniel Singer, Jess Borgeson and Adam Long condensed “Hamlet,” then gradually added “Romeo and Juliet” – then got greedy and dumped the rest in as well.

Years of touring and tweaking led to “overnight” success, and the brave adumbrators have since moved on to distill the Bible, American history, the Great Books, and so forth for a paying public.

The results are a riot. Whether you are the apotheosis of the cognoscenti or completely troglodytic, you will enjoy this show. The players tell you all you need to know (such as: Shakespeare invaded Poland in 1939?) and then illustrate their points with brio, a dash of insouciance and a big slice of ham.

And, to paraphrase Bobby Terrance, it’s the ham of truth. Like any cultural monument, Shakespeare needs the pigeon poop power-hosed off him from time to time. It’s centuries past the time a fresh conception of what Shakespeare was about existed. In many ways, we know him through a distorted, dirty lens. The buffoons of “Complete” pull out the funhouse mirrors instead. They have no agenda; they don’t care about analysis, criticism, or comment. They want us to have fun. They succeed.

Even the program’s funny. Make sure to read their section before the lights go down.

Kent’s clueless confidence, Weitz’s staggeringly long takes, and Mueller’s loony string of female roles (and antic vomiting sprees) mix with rapid-fire comic combat, puns, drag and more to keep things hopping. (There are a few jokes for the older set, so young children might feel left out of the fun at times, unless they are already dating and getting high.)

That being said, “Complete (Abridged)” IS fun, guaranteed. Go see it!

“The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged)” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder through Aug. 15. Ticket prices range from $14 to $54 each; however, there are discounts for multi-show purchases, CU students, staff and faculty; and those under 18. For more info, please visit www.coloradoshakes.org or call 303-492-0554.

CULTURAMA: ‘Two Gents’ fails to satisfy at CSF



Jamie Ann Romero as Julia and Karyn Casl as Lucetta in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona." (Photo by Kira Horvath for CU Communications)

OK, there are these two guys from Verona . . .

Not an inspiring opening. OK, guys, “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is, by critical consensus, Shakespeare’s first play. As such, it doesn’t rate very highly on the Bardometer.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of the play suffers from a desperate sense of shame. Sure, “Two Gentlemen” . . . well . . . the script kinda stinks. In his introduction to the play in the Oxford edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, Stanley Wells even admits that “the play has succeeded best when subjected to adaptation.”

So the team for “Two Gents,” led by director Tom Markus, constructed conceptual scaffolding for it. Beyond that, they built an entire play about doing the play around it. With extraneous characters, loads of extra dialogue, and digressions that involve limericks, the hokey-pokey, insights, and such.

It’s a late rehearsal of a CSF production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” (Bruce Bergner’s set works well.) The actors are in a mix of costume pieces and street clothes. The production’s haughty English director outlines his concept, the actors grumble, drink, and talk on their cell phones. These scenes are interspersed with those from the play. The result is not so enjoyable.

Now, I don’t mind anyone monkeying with Shakespeare. Not any more. I have seen “The Tempest” in outer space, “King Lear” as a Western, “Titus Andronicus! The Musical,” a Desert Storm “Julius Caesar.” I have seen 10-minute, and 8-hour, “Hamlet”s. Adapt away.

But make it work. CSF’s “Two Gents” doesn’t work because a) it doesn’t trust the material and b) it gives us something worse in supplement to it. A good try, but let’s move on.

Everyone does their best with what they’ve given to work with. Actually, the “Two Gentleman” scenes are fine, with moments of comic invention and pathos. Despite the constant interruptions, Matt Mueller makes something out of Proteus, and Jamie Ann Romero proves as adept comically as Julia as she did dramatically as Ophelia in the concurrently-running CSF “Hamlet.”

Alexandra C. Lewis is a perfect figure of grace as Silvia, Sam Sandoe has some fun as her father, the duke of Milan . . . and of course who doesn’t love those kooky outlaws.

Listen: we’re Shakespeare fans, we’re tough, we can take it. Let’s face it, not every word out of him was of the highest caliber. But hey! This is a Shakespeare festival and sometimes you just have to suck it up and do it.

For instance, I’m sure we’ll have to run into “King John” again someday. Just don’t bring him in at the end, when he’s dying, on a surfboard or a giant French fry or anything like that. Unless it works.

“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder through Aug. 9. Ticket prices range from $14 to $54 each; however, there are discounts for multi-show purchases, CU students, staff and faculty; and those under 18. For more info, please visit www.coloradoshakes.org or call 303-492-0554.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

CULTURAMA: Tenderness and tragedy -- "To Kill a Mockingbird" at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival


Sam Gregory as Atticus Finch and Ellie Schwartz as Scout in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "To Kill a Mockingbird." (Photo by Glenn Asakawa for CU Communications)

One definition of a classic is something that rewards repeated encounters with new meanings.

Such is Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Its first-person evocation of a childhood in the American South, its gripping tale of prejudice, courage and empathy, struck a chord with readers immediately.

Since then, its impact has never diminished. The 1962 Oscar-winning film adaptation is itself a deeply affecting work. The book is taught in our schools, and sometimes it’s banned in our libraries (use of the ‘n’ word and frank talk about rape cited as reasons).

It should be no surprise that the Colorado Shakespeare Festival might see it as a fit work to stage. The current production, under the direction of the incredibly gifted Jane Page, is strong and compelling, a classic in every sense of the word.

Firstly, the story itself is brilliant – compelling and insightful. Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of the play, first staged in London in 1988, is a skillful translation of the work’s essence.

Over her career, Page has demonstrated her ability to summon the best out of both the materials and the ensemble at hand, on and backstage. This “Mockingbird” is no different. The pace and tone fit the piece perfectly, and the cast seems sprung from its pages.

Once again, Andrea Bechert’s set design gets the job done with elegant efficiency, and Kevin Brainerd’s costumes and Victor En Yu Tan’s lighting collaborate admirably with Page’s intentions.

The production frames the tale as a memory play, narrated by the now-grown Jean Louise Finch (played gracefully here by Tammy Meneghini). In truth, the story is so familiar to most that it could be played on a bare stage. The actors are key here, and a particular difficulty is finding the right child actors to play the young Jean Louise – the scruffy, feisty “Scout” – and her older brother Jem.

Fortunately, Ellie Schwartz and Connor Schearrer are great as Scout and Jem, respectively. Alex Rosenthal does similarly as their temporary neighbor and friend, Dill. The three children refract the events of Scout’s remembered 1935 summer in their tiny, dusty Alabama town through their personalities, and the actors let those lights shine through.

The most daunting role of all, of course, is that of Atticus Finch, the children’s father. A principled, modest hero who takes on the hopeless case of a black man charged with the rape of a white woman, the role is tough enough to begin with.

Then, consider that every actor who takes on the role must contend with the enormous shadow cast by Gregory Peck’s indelible portrayal in the film. It’s difficult to cast that interpretation out of your mind and make the role your own.

Sam Gregory, who also essays a great Leonato in CSF’s current production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” is an exemplary Atticus. He takes an impossibly good character and gives him humanity. The same is true for Doug Bynum as Tom Robinson, the condemned man who faces no chance of acquittal from the all-white jury judging him.

Other standouts include Steven Patterson as the conflicted sheriff Heck Tate, Kristen Adele’s Calpurnia, Michael Kane in the small but crucial role of “Boo” Radley, and Chip Persons and Emily Schmidt-Beuchat as Robinson’s accusers, the dastardly Ewells.

One of the big beefs with “Mockingbird” is that its characters are flat and, morally, black and white, and there’s some truth to that. But part of that comes from the unequivocal gaze of its child narrator. Part of it comes from the fact that “Mockingbird” is something of a fable, a morality play.

But Harper Lee imbued it with a magical, unforgettable quality, and it is with us now, for better or for worse. I think we are the better for it. Thanks to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, that vision lives onstage as well.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder through Aug. 5. Ticket prices range from $14 to $54 each; however, there are discounts for multi-show purchases, CU students, staff and faculty; and those under 18. For more info, please visit www.coloradoshakes.org or call 303-492-0554.

Monday, July 20, 2009

OLDFANGLED: Buffalo Bill's unquiet grave


(An expanded version of an article originally published in 5280 magazine in 2007.)

“Buffalo Bill’s
defunct
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
Jesus
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death”

e.e. cummings

Ninety-two years after his burial on the top of Lookout Mountain, does the spirit of Buffalo Bill still rest unquietly?

William F. Cody lived many lives in one. He was a Pony Express rider, trapper, prospector, Civil War soldier, Army scout, Indian fighter and, of course, buffalo hunter. What distinguished him from his frontier contemporaries such as Will Bill Hickock was his flair for self-promotion.

“He was known as the most handsome man in America, and was the best-known American in the world,” says prominent Denver historian Thomas J. Noel.

Beginning in 1872 with stage appearances in adaptations of the dime novels that brought him national fame, Cody established himself as the archetype of the bold plainsman, complete with fringed buckskin jacket, flowing locks and signature goatee.

Remarkably, he also set in stone the popular vision of the American West. Having hatched the idea of an “Old Glory Blow-Out” in his home town of North Platte, Nebraska on July 4, 1882, which is often cited as the origin of the rodeo, Cody (with the able assistance of manager Nate Salsbury and pioneering press agent John M. Burke) created Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.

From 1883 to 1913, it traveled the world, crafting out of a collection of riding, roping and sharpshooting exhibitions and a band of cowboys, Native Americans, and vaqueros a “national entertainment” that appealed to all classes and ages alike, and delivered the legend of Manifest Destiny as a historical pageant. “Re-enactments” of the Pony Express, Indian attacks, stagecoach robberies, and even Custer’s Last Stand kept crowds that ranged from, literally, the crowned heads of Europe to throngs of orphans, enthralled. Packaged as living memories of a disappearing era, it taught two generations ways of thinking about the West that are still passed along in the media today. “Pahaska” (the Sioux name for Bill, meaning “Long Hair”) was one of the first international celebrities.

It’s ironic, then, that the frontier scout whose reputation as a pathfinder was justly unparalleled should find himself so far from home. In 1907, Cody’s will dictated that he be buried near his namesake town of Cody, Wyoming. However, as the years passed, so did Cody’s business acumen. The debt-ridden showman had placed himself in the power of the unscrupulous co-owner of the Denver Post, Henry Tammen, who auctioned off the assets of the Wild West show in Denver in 1913, and used Cody’s indebtedness to him to force him to act as master of ceremonies for his Sells-Floto Circus from 1914 on.

By the time the 70-year-old Cody died in the home of his sister at 2932 Lafayette St. on Jan. 9, 1917, of uremic poisoning brought on by kidney failure, his will was no longer his own.

It has long been rumored that Tammen, with the aid of a $10,000 bribe to Cody’s estranged widow Louisa, conspired to have him interred against his wishes in Colorado, the better to profit from the late scout’s corporeal presence. Both Cody and North Platte clamored for the right to bury him.

“Everybody realized that it would be great tourist attraction,” says Noel.

Cody’s funeral was held in Denver on a freezing Jan. 15, 1917, with thousands filing past his body in state at the capitol building. His body was then placed in the Olinger Mortuary at 2600 16th St., supposedly under armed guard, for six months, while the authorities waited for the dirt roads that led up the mountain west of Golden to become passable. (The body was re-embalmed six more times.)

On June 3, 1917, a motorcade ferried what was estimated as between 7,000 and 20,000 mourners to the summit of the peak to pay final homage to the “knight of the saddle,” as News correspondent Meredith Davis floridly referred to him. The widow ordered the casket opened, and poems, songs and trumpet fanfares stirred the summer air as attendees filed past the coffin for a final glimpse of their hero. At 3 p.m., the coffin was lowered into the concrete-lined vault; a photograph shows the words “BURGLAR PROOF GRAVE VAULT” embossed on its side.

Just to make sure, several tons of concrete, reinforced with iron rails, eventually topped the gravesite. The undertaker is said to have stated that grave robbers “would have to blow the top off Lookout Mountain” to get at the body. In fact, when his wife Louisa died in 1921, it proved impossible to dig down to his level – so they buried her on top of him, sealing them both in with more concrete.

Meanwhile, Cody’s adopted son and Wild West sharpshooter Johnny Baker proposed in 1920 that the city of Denver allow him to construct a building adjacent to the grave to house Buffalo Bill memorabilia, as well as “the sale of the Colonel’s books, postcards, photographic views, candies, and light refreshments.” The deal was struck, and the “Pahaska Tepee” was built.

Still, the controversy wasn’t over. Serious calls for the repatriation of Cody’s corpse continued as late as 1948, once prompting the National Guard to drive a tank up Lariat Trail Road to stand guard over Bill’s remains.

The museum/gift shop’s rag-tag assemblage was presided over by Baker until 1931, and by his widow until 1956. The city took over the site, and a freestanding museum building was finally completed nearby in 1979. Today, it is presided over by director Steve Friesen, who in 12 years has crafted a more interesting and even-handed display of Cody’s life and legacy than visitors have ever before enjoyed.

“Every once in a while somebody up in Wyoming gets a wild hair going,” he says of disgruntlement over Buffalo Bill’s final resting place. As recently as last year, he states, consultants in Cody recommended a renewed effort to disinter the pioneer.

“They said, ‘You need to get Buffalo Bill’s body here,’” he chuckles, and goes on to characterize the repositories of Buffalo Billiana as sharing “a good-natured rivalry.”

So Buffalo Bill still sleeps ‘neath Colorado skies, trapped under the wife he avoided in life, catching the pitched pennies tossed on his tomb for luck by travelers, still a moneymaker through the auspices of the nearby gift shop, still a showman in death.

“It’s pretty up there,” Louisa Cody reported her husband saying of Lookout Mountain shortly before his death.

Tom Noel chimes in with a wry quote from Voltaire -- “History is a pack of tricks the living play upon the dead.”