Tuesday, March 31, 2020

PERFORMANCE 1970

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.

For as long as I can remember, I've been drawn to movies about the fluidity of identity. From the great grandmother of all identity crisis movies, Ingmar Berman’s Persona (1966), to mind-melding favorites that have intrigued and captured my imagination over the years: Secret Ceremony (1968), The Servant (1963), Images (1972), Obsession (1976), Single White Female (1992), 3 Women (1977), Vertigo (1958), Fedora (1978), Black Swan (2010)—the cinema of self-exploration has always held a weird fascination for me.

Perhaps it has to do with my childhood. After all, I did grow up during television's Golden Age of the polar-opposite-twin. That '60s pop-culture window when The Patty Duke Show (identical cousins!) spearheaded the trend for every sitcom coming down the pike to feature characters who are identical twins with yin/yang personalities: Bewitched, I Dream of JeannieThat GirlGilligan’s Island, etc. Prolonged exposure to that kinda stuff can't help but mess with a kid's head.
Alas, the less fun but more persuasive theory is that I'm drawn to movies about fragmented personality because the most impressionable years of my adolescence hit at precisely the same time America was in the deep throes of an ideological identity crisis. Responding to the Vietnam War, social injustice, and a veritable laundry list of grievances leveled at standard cultural norms, the nation trained a mirror on itself and began the process of deconstructing years of conformist conditioning.
With consciousness-expansion and self-exploration the rallying cries of the counterculture, young people challenged society's demand for individuals to always be in performance; constantly donning masks and role-playing in support of hollow, outdated concepts of so-called normalcy. Few films have captured the generational ethos of the "put-ons" (traditionalists adopting false personas to conform) vs. the "drop-outs" (bohemians withdrawing from society and rejecting convention) with the riveting visual extravagance of Performance.   
James Fox as Chas Devlin
Mick Jagger as Turner
Anita Pallenberg as Pherber
Michele Breton as Lucy
The hallucinatory brainchild of screenwriter Donald Cammell (Demon Seed) making his collaborative directing debut with cinematographer/co-director Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), Performance is set in the waning days of the Swinging London era, circa 1968. Albeit, a shadowy, considerably seamier Londontown than one might associate with Twiggy or Austin Powers. (Performance was completed in 1968, but distributing studio Warner Bros. was so appalled by the results, they shelved it until 1970).

Dandyish Chas Devlin (James Fox) is an enforcer for genial protection racketeer Mr. Flowers (Johnny Shannon). Chas' inherently sadistic nature makes him a man happy in his work, but when his equally-inherent arrogance and temper lead to the death of a rival partner, he winds up running afoul of both his gangland employer and the police. Assuming the unwittingly self-aware persona of a professional juggler named Johnny Dean, Chas takes refuge as a roomer in a dilapidated Notting Hill townhouse owned and occupied by a retired, reclusive rock star named Turner (Mick Jagger), and his two bisexual bedmates: longtime paramour Pherber (a Delphic Anita Pallenberg) and boyish hanger-on Lucy (16-year-old Michele Breton).
Predating Father Merrin's portentous arrival in The Exorcist (1973), Chas'  appearance at 81 Powis Square signals his entrance into another world. In fact, when he enters Turner's house, we never see him go through the door. One minute he's outside the door speaking through the intercom, the next he's standing in the entryway; as though passed through another dimension or beamed aboard an alien spacecraft.

Two (dis)similar men, tenant and landlord, both in hiding of sorts, under the same roof. One violent and aggressive, ever looking into mirrors and (too) quick to assert that he knows exactly who he is. The other, a nowhere man, an erudite “male, female man” creatively adrift after being abandoned by what he calls his inner demon. The uncurious Chas, certain he has landed in a madhouse ("It's a right pisshole. Longhairs, beatniks, fee-love, foreigners...you name it!"), simply wants to lay low while awaiting a fake passport and passage to America (Turner: "Place to go, isn't it, for gangsters?").

But for Turner, Chas holds a strange fascination. Recognizing a brethren showman and fellow mask-wearer behind the fastidious swagger (Chas is the Joan Crawford of mobsters), Turner endeavors to get into the gangster's head to find out why the turn-on of violence has always been life's crowd-pleasing, repeat engagement headliner compared to the turn-on of drugs, sex, and rock & roll.
Convergence

A psychedelic head-trip whose themes of fragmented identity and malleable reality illuminate every frame, Performance gives the appearance of being a hallucinogenic enigma, but it's a film that knows precisely what it wants to say, its path and vision clear as crystal. From its dizzying opening montage, Performance establishes itself as a bombardment to the senses and assault on reality.
Hitting the ground running, it volunteers nothing in the way of explanation, exposition, or exits as it sets about dismantling linear notions of personality and identity in a startling tapestry of images and ideas. And it goes about it at breakneck speed, fairly daring you to keep up.
Anthony Valentine as Joey Maddocks
Early drafts allude to a past sexual relationship as being the source of the
ambiguous acrimony between Chas the enforcer and Joey the bookie

Contrary to its reputation for being impenetrable and opaque, Performance's plot is really pretty straightforward in and of itself (slim, even); it's in the telling where things take a headlong turn into crazy. With duality as its defining thematic and visual motif, everything about the look and feel of Performance—from its fluid representation of time (past, present, and future intersect kaleidoscopically) to its recurring patterns of mirrors and twinning—is linked to the concept that everyone and everything has its shadow and light, yin and yang.
Peace & Love / Hate & Violence
The paradox of the '60s "All You Need Is Love" flower power hippie movement is that the '60s was also an extremely violent and socially turbulent decade. Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated three months before filming began on Performance. Here, a newspaper clipping referencing King's 1964 trip to Oslo, Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize has been posted on a headboard by one of Turner's previous tenants.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Performance is the Doublemint Gum of head movies. A double your pleasure, double your fun mind-fuck expedition to the axis points of male/female, sex/violence, queer/straight. Virtually everything in this film is the mirror image of something else; a reflection viewed through a fractured prism that turns in upon itself and back around again.
Performance’s most ingenious application of dualism is in having the film itself—paralleling the arc of its two lead characters—structured as two separate movies that ultimately converge into one.
The first film is a brutal gangster movie about a preening East End hoodlum. The second is something like a stoner’s homage to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd.; the recluse in this instance, a past-his-prime rock star (“He had three number ones, two number twos, and a number four!”) numbing himself with drugs and decadence. Their eventual convergence—a dive into the deep end of the magic realism pool—leads to the dreamscape collision of two separate worlds and the hallucinatory merging of two disparate men.

Memo from Turner
Making good on his desire to get into the head of his houseguest, the vampiric Turner assumes the dual role of mobster and rocker in Chas’ drug-fueled musical hallucination. A taunting ode to brutality, dominance, macho posturing, and their role in repressed queer desire. 

SHOOT
Chas and Ferber take aim. He with a gun, she with a movie camera.


"Who am I? Do you know who you are?"
Identity and image. The watcher and the watched. Throughout the film, characters suddenly appear to be looking directly at us, addressing us and challenging our presumptive certainty that we have the slightest idea who's who, what's what, or can discern reality from fantasy.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Though Performance was not successful in its initial release, it has since gained the reputation of being the film that defined an era. And in many ways, that’s true. While Hollywood depictions of the '60s and hippie culture invariably leaned towards the absurd (Skidoo -1968) or exploitative (Angel, Angel, Down We Go – 1969), Performance distinguishes itself through its matter-of-fact depiction of bohemian drop-out culture, casual drug use, and libertine sex. Further anchoring it to the era is its visual style, which is reflective of the underground and experimental films of the day.
The gender-fluidity that's now practically a prerequisite for pop music stardom was far from common back in the '60s. Even with the proliferation of long hair, gender representation in rock has always been assertively male and hetero. Jagger was among the first to mine the hip marketability of androgyny and bisexuality.

The life that Turner lives defines the epitome of the hippie ideal: no work; an independent income; a sprawling house overflowing with pillows, posters, and Moroccan accents; and nothing to do but spend the day screwing, getting high, listening to music, and reading Jorge Luis Borges.
But where Performance truly excels is in capturing the era's fascination with psychedelics and inner-exploration. The 1950s, with its emphasis on conformity and rigidly-defined gender roles, was the decade that professed to know all the answers. In direct contrast, the late-1960s was all about questions.
Dressed in a caricature costume of a gangster, Chas' self-identification with his work asserts brutality, aggression, and power as the provinces of maleness. Turner shakes up Chas' already wobbly self-certainty by proposing that when you change your drag, you change your perceptions. Identity-based labels like masculine, feminine, male, female, are but another form of discardable, reusable performance.    

PERFORMANCES
Actor James Fox is no stranger to identity-crisis dramas. He first gained notoriety for The Servant (1963), which was another film about mind games and power plays carried out in a sexually cryptic arena. From the first time I ever saw him (1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie), I’ve felt Fox radiated an appealingly ambiguous “Is he gay or just British” vibe that is put to good use in Performance. His finishing school take on an East End Cockney thug is as frightening as it is canny.
Johnny Shannon as gay crime boss Harry Flowers. Anthony Morton as gang member Dennis 

Making his film debut, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger may have frustrated Warner Bros. stockholders by making his official entrance into the film at roughly the 45-minute mark, but it’s the kind of delayed unveiling that bestows gravitas and narrative heft on a character before they utter a sound. Playing a man of mystery, Jagger gets to let his rock star mystique do most of the talking, bringing both erotic danger and a sort of touching melancholy to his role. I’m not sure if he’s very good or very well-used, but his Turner is perfection.
As the Black Queen/The Great Tyrant in Barbarella, Anita Pallenberg almost stole that film from Jane Fonda. And she nearly does the same with Performance. Hers is a captivating, devilish performance.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Being that I was 12-years-old in 1970, Performance’s scandalous reputation and gender-bending ad campaign were sufficient reasons for my parents to forbid me to see it during its original release. I was in my 20s when I saw it for the first time in a Los Angeles revival house.
What impressed me about Performance then is what I contend to this day; it is one of the rare examples of a genuinely startling film. Not shocking in terms of explicitness, but audacious in the uniqueness of its personal vision and so very unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And I gotta say, seeing it now on Blu-ray with the much-needed assist of subtitles is like discovering the film anew.
Truth and illusion. Masculinity redefined. Identity reassigned.



BONUS MATERIAL
When Chas' arrives at Turner's home, he notices on the stoop several bottles of milk, a box of mushrooms, and four Mars candy bars. This is a jokey reference to the notorious 1967 drug bust at the Redlands country estate of Rolling Stones' Keith Richards. The arrest made headlines (and later refuted) because, along with finding drugs, reports claim that when the police broke in, Jagger was seen eating a Mars bar out of the vagina of then-girlfriend Marianne Faithful.

Documenting Decadence and Debauchery
In the short film from 2016, actor James Fox and Performance producer Sandy Lieberson discuss photographer Cecil Beaton and his visit to the set in 1968. Watch it HERE.


Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2020

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

BOOMERANG 1992

Reversal of a Dog

Boomerang is one of my all-time favorite romantic comedies. Time has only rendered its already-remarkable cast of Black actors a once-in-a-lifetime assemblage, but the film to me is genuinely hilarious and its premise so irresistible, I’m surprised I haven't come across it before in a film.
A callous, commitment-phobic, career Casanova named Marcus Graham (dashing ad executive Eddie Murphy, ever on the lookout for perfection) faces a moment of reckoning and gets his comeuppance when he falls in love for the first time, only to find the tables have been turned. The woman who sweeps him off his feet is Jacqueline Broyer (the elegant Robin Givens), a confident, empty-flattery-immune executive (his new boss, in fact) possessed of comfortable self-acceptance and plenty of game of her own. A woman who, when it comes to artfully playing the field and displaying a mastery of the game of love-‘em-and-leave-‘em; proves in every way to be Marcus' match and “dog” doppelgänger.  
Eddie Murphy as Marcus Graham
Robin Givens as Jacqueline Broyer
Halle Berry as Angela "Agatha" Lewis
Grace Jones as Helen Strange (pronounced Strawn-J)
Eartha Kitt as Lady Eloise
I was immediately reminded of just why Boomerang’s premise so intrigued me when, in prepping this essay, my search for a laudatory, non-judgmental, non-pejorative term for the female equivalent of a Casanova or ladies’ man took me through Thesaurus Hell and back, only to discover there really isn't any. The appeal of the so-called charming womanizer has always been lost on be, yet the pop-cultural cult of the loveable lothario has left us with countless variations on admiration-laced labels like Romeo, playboy, and roué. But our culture’s rigid gender double-standards have no such allowances for women.
The only terms I came across for a woman who enjoys playing the field are ones defined by the male gaze (seductress, temptress), common vulgar epithets, or words subtly reflective of the fear of female sexuality (vamp, siren). I guess that leaves only the second-hand, non-partisan “playgirl.” 
Marcus, a serial girl-watcher, becomes the sexualized object of Jacqueline's gaze

I was too young for the golden age of the romantic comedy. The days of Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck...back when Hays Code censorship necessitated the emphasis on “romance” and chemistry in lieu of demonstrative expressions of sexual attraction. I did, however, grow up in the ‘60s: the era of the Kinsey Report, the sexual revolution, and the heyday of the noxious Playboy stereotype. Gentle romantic comedies morphed into crass sex farces in which men and women were combatants in tedious Battle of the Sexes roundelays centering on fuck-anything-that-moves bachelors out to trick superannuated virgins into bed before they could trick him into marriage.
Lela Rochon as Christie, a dog-lover who's also susceptible to the two-legged variety

Come the '70s the chase-the-secretary-around-the-desk ‘60s womanizer was reimagined as the free-love hippie hedonist (The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart -1970) or the self-appointed soldier on the frontlines of the sexual revolution (Shampoo - 1975). In the '80s, man-boys dominated the rom-coms landscape (Skin Deep -1989), a side-effect of lazy writers--stumped over how to align progressive sexual politics with antiquated sex comedy tropes--could only envision "liberated" woman as finger-wagging killjoys and surrogate mother figures before eventually eliminating them altogether.
 It's in this atmosphere the Bromance blossomed, and those paying attention recognized that the only real rom-coms being made were male-male and disguised as buddy movies: e.g., Eddie Murphy’s 48 Hrs (1982) and Lethal Weapon (1987).
Angela: "She's fantastic!  I mean, if I were a guy, I would probably be interested in Jacqueline"
The Good Girl vs Bad Girl Myth
Gender stereotypes mandate that women must always be perceived to be in competition. Angela and Jacqueline aren't rivals, nor are they the good girl vs the bad girl (the film ascribes no more moral failing to Jacqueline's behavior than it's also willing to ascribe to Marcus). Like Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie in Shampoo, it's more a case of two female friends who want different things from the same man.


The 1990s represented a boom era in Black Cinema. The start of the decade saw the release of films like To Sleep With Anger, Boyz in the Hood, Mo’ Better Blues, New Jack City, and A Rage In Harlem and had me harkening back to the Black Film Explosion of the ‘70s--when, regardless of content or quality, the press insisted on labeling every single film with a Black cast “Blaxploitation.”. Amongst so many heavy dramas and youth-centric comedies (I was then 35, the wrong demographic for the Hudlin Brothers’ first film, 1990s House Party) Boomerang provided some much-needed old-style sophistication, glamour, romance, and escapism.
Geoffrey Holder as "Nasty" Nelson
Originally (and Clumsily) titled Playboy Falls into LoveBoomerang came along at just the right time for me. I’d long ago made peace with rom-coms being “all hetero, all the time” (a treaty I’ve since broken), but this didn’t extend to their “all white couples, all the time” take on romance. Black couples in romantic comedies were conspicuous by their absence. When Boomerang came along, For Love of Ivy (1968) and Claudine (1974) were the only rom-coms on my favorites list that were about Black couples. It’s as though Hollywood’s narrow-end-of-the-telescope insistence on filtering everything through a white narrative lens had reduced the entirety of Black experience to stories about race-based trauma. I imagined industry green-lighters found it inconceivable that Black people could laugh, meet cute, fall in love, break up, reconcile, and live happily ever after.
Marcus has a hard time wrapping his mind around the fact that the "model" he was just hitting on is actually the company's new Chief of Marketing. The job he thought was assured to him after sleeping with the company's figurehead, Lady Eloise (Eartha Kitt).

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I’ve always felt the title Boomerang only half refers to the karmic reversal Marcus Graham’s love life undergoes in the course of the film. Boomerang is also a fair description of what lies in store for unsuspecting rom-com audiences confronted with the familiar tropes of the genre (aka clichés) subverted along lines of gender, race, and class.
I respond to Boomerang as I do the ‘70s comedies of Mel Brooks—it’s the ensemble contributions of the talented cast that makes the film so funny, rather than any particular performance. (Although I could look at an edit reel of all of Grace Jones’ scenes and be in heaven. She’s that terrific.)
Martin Lawrence as Tyler, David Alan Grier as Gerard
Lawrence’s relentlessly “woke” character is essentially Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, seeing Antisemitism in everything (“No, not ‘did you eat,’ but ‘Jew eat?’ You get it? Jew eat!” )

Mel Brooks breathed new life into classic film genres like the western (Blazing Saddles) and the horror film (Young Frankenstein) by infusing them with a contemporary, scatological comic sensibility. 
What's so hilarious and also emblematic of Hollywood’s Black representation myopia is that all Boomerang needed to do to revitalize (and in many instances, restructure) situations, characters, and narrative devices we’ve seen before in a million romantic comedies was simply depict Black people living their lives. To present Black experience, humanized, with all the diverse shades of funny, vulnerable, intelligent, ambitious, sensitive, shallow, sexy, outrageous, glamorous, and yes, raunchy.
Bebe Drake and the late John Witherspoon are comedy gold as 
Mrs. & Mr. Jackson, Gerard's country-ass parents 

In trying to think of other "a taste of his own medicine" comedies, all I was able to come up with were Some Like It Hot (1959), in which two skirt-chasing musicians wear skits themselves and learn what it's like to be on the receiving end of lecherous male advances; and Goodbye Charlie (1964) which has a womanizer reincarnated as woman and having to fend off men like him(her)self.
Leaving behind such farcical extremes, Boomerang is essentially a sex comedy of manners that has fun skewering traditional gender roles, double standards, and rom-com conventions.

Now the plot gets thick. Mr. Unplayable’s about to catch the short end of the stick. *
Waiting by the Phone
Taken for Granted
Woman on Top 
Seduced and Abandoned
It’s kinda like a boomerang; what you put out comes back to ya, it’s the same old thing. *
       *lyrics to the 1995 rap song "What Comes Around Goes Around" by Kid Sensation 


PERFORMANCES
To anyone familiar with my taste in films, it should come as no surprise when I assert that the women are the chief attraction and saving graces of Boomerang...especially Grace Jones. They are all so dynamic, charming, and have such presence, they soften out the rough edges of the often problematic Eddie Murphy (in an almost completely reactive role, he's actually quite likable). To have Grace Jones, Robin Givens, Halle Berry, Eartha Kitt, Tisha Campbell, and Lena Rochon all in the same movie is some kind of Essence magazine glam wish come true. They are the film's most valuable players, so good that I found myself wishing the guys would all fade into the background and Boomerang morph into a hip update of Valley of the Dolls with Eartha Kitt as Helen Lawson, Halle Berry as Neely, Robin Givens as Anne, and Lena Rochon as Jennifer. Grace Jones could play any role she wanted.
"My role involved taking off my knickers in public, rubbing them in people's faces, chasing the pants off Eddie, and saying the word 'pussy' a lot with an accent that is from nowhere on Earth. ...I have no idea why they thought of me for the role."
Grace Jones being cheeky in her 2015 memoir I'll Never Write My Memoirs


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
On television recently I saw Oscar-winning screen icon Cicely Tyson relate a story about doing promotion for her 1972 film Sounder and having a white member of the press tell her that the film (about a Black family of sharecroppers in 1933 Louisiana) forced him to confront bigotry within himself because he had a hard time accepting the son in the story (Robert Hooks) calling his father (Paul Winfield) “Daddy.”
Yes, a Black character displaying basic, unremarkable humanity was enough to strain credibility for this man. And while I’m certain this story will leave some people feeling all warm and fuzzy because a Black film led a white man to recognize his prejudices, Tyson recognized it for what it was; a sign of the vast chasm existing between the reality of Black life and white culture’s perception of it. The phenomenon is so common it's been given a name--the Racial Empathy Gap, citing the difficulty white audiences often have in relating to Black characters in films. Cicely Tyson went on to say “That’s when I realized I could not afford the luxury of being an actress. There were some issues that I wanted to address. That I would use my career as my platform.”  
Black film - White Gaze Microaggressions
In 1992 this scene in a men's clothing store where a sales clerk assumes Marcus and his friends are unable to afford the merchandise was criticized for being a burlesque of racism. With the proliferation of cell phones, we now know the scene was subtle compared to the reality.

And indeed, it has been the eternal legacy of Black artists in film to take up the mantle and use their artistic careers as platforms to combat Black invisibility and present the world with images of dignity to counter generations of racist dehumanization. But as author Toni Morrison so eloquently wrote and spoke about, the constant need to frame Black life in ways understandable, acceptable, and appeasing to white audiences not only seriously restrict the free, authentic expression of Black experience, but in the end only reinforces the false dominance of the white perspective.
Spike Lee's pioneering films broadened the scope of what Black films looked like, paving the way for the Hudlin Brothers' Black business world setting of Boomerang (which in real-life inspired the creation of the Marcus Graham Project - a nonprofit dedicated to inclusion in the fields of advertising and marketing).
Father of the Black Film explosion of the 1970s, legendary filmmaker
Melvin Van Peebles appears as a commercial editor
One of the things I don’t think Boomerang gets enough credit for is being a Black film that doesn’t center and prioritize whiteness. Unapologetically uninterested in the white gaze, Boomerang is set in a Black corporate world so alien and underrepresented on the screen that it strained credibility for many white viewers at the time (the only way some could process it at all was to convince themselves it was a fantasy). Boomerang is Black representation funny, funky, sexy, loving, and outrageous enough to be comfortable in its own skin and forego concerns of respectability politics signifiers, uplift roadmaps, or cultural identification signposts.
Director Reginald Hudlin (l.) and producer Warrington Hudlin appear as a couple
of street hustlers soliciting Marcus outside of the Apollo Theater. 
Based on a story idea by Eddie Murphy, Boomerang's screenplay is credited to SNL alumni and longtime Murphy collaborators Barry Blaustein & David Sheffield. In the 2003 book Why We Make Movies: Black Filmmakers Talk About the Magic of Cinema by George Alexander, producer Warrington Hudlin called the duo: "Two white writers who are on Hollywood welfare rolls who just keep getting money with no talent." Labeling the original screenplay "worthless," Hudlin credits the film's Black perspective as emanating from Murphy's original story and the widely-encouraged improvisational skills of the cast. 


It was nothing short of exhilarating for me to see myself and people I recognized in the film’s casual intersection of buppies & homies; hip-hop and R &B; urban sophisticates and “country” relatives; women in charge & sex-positivity feminism; Afrocentrism and Dolemite-level raunch.
I saw Boomerang on opening day July, 1st, 1992 with a friend of mine (now, ex-friend) who found the film profoundly insulting because she felt the absence of white characters in the film was an act of intentional hostility on the part of the filmmakers. Mind you, this was a white friend with whom I’d watched innumerable classic and contemporary movies with all-white casts with nary a peep out of her. Exposure to just ONE film with a prioritized Black gaze was enough to send her off the rails.
Tisha Campbell as Yvonne
Boomerang is killingly funny and ranks high on my absolute favorites chart, but it’s far from being a perfect film. I love how prominently women feature in the narrative and I’ve not one complaint with how they are characterized or depicted in the film (but I say that with the awareness that the almost 30-year-old film is the collaborative work of men, and that as a male myself, I am hardly the last word on the subject). But I personally could do without Eddie Murphy’s incessant need to assert his well-documented—since apologized for—homophobia (Good Lord…the man can’t even let a Frenchman platonically kiss him on the cheek!), and the scenes between Marcus and his buddies grow more cringe-worthy with each passing year (they trigger a lifetime’s memories of suffering the toxic byplay of barbershop talk).
Chris Rock as corporate gossip, Bony T
What lingers with me and what makes me understand how Boomerang has grown into a classic and cult favorite is that it’s a glimmering time capsule of Black culture, highlighting a vast selection of amazing Black artists. As a film, it’s a little piece of comic brilliance that shows its age in some respects, but largely reveals how ahead of the curve it was in defining its point of view and depicting a side of Black life rarely seen on movie screens. The rare entertainment that succeeds in actually being entertaining, I champion Boomerang for its humor, its heart, it's raunchy outrageousness, and especially for its refreshing vision of romance and Black lives lived in a glossy, stylishly old-fashioned Hollywood landscape.
And I Will Give U My Heart


BONUS MATERIAL

With eight weeks in the #1 spot on the R&B charts, the Boomerang soundtrack was a massive hit, with singles flooding the radio airwaves of 1992. To this day my personal fave track remains Grace Jones' "7 Day Weekend," A song that only appears instrumentally in the movie and for which Jones expressed little fondness for in her memoirs, citing too little creative input.

Boomerang introduced me to the magnificent work of African-American artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988). The above piece "Jammin ' at the Savoy" -1980, is featured in the scene where Angela teaches a children's art class.

Boomerang spawned a 2019 spin-off TV series produced by Halle Berry and written by Lena Waithe for BET. The show (as of this writing, entering its 2nd season) takes place in modern-day Atlanta, and has the adult daughter of Eddie Murphy & Halle Berry running her own advertising agency while being romantically pursued by the son of Robin Givens' character. The reversal of the premise has Marcus and Angela's daughter as the one afraid of commitment, while Jacqueline's son is the one looking to settle down.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, February 13, 2020

THE APPLE 1980

The BIG Science Fiction Romantic Rock Opera of the 80's
                                                                           Movie poster tagline

It comes as a bit of a surprise to me when I realize that after so many years heralding the relative merits of often inarguably awful movies (and we're talking MAJOR bombs, mind you); this piece on Cannon Films’ dystopian glam-rock musical The Apple will be my first hate-watch movie post.

What do I mean by hate-watch? Well, when it comes to bad movies, whether unabashed camp-fests like Girls Town, Kitten With a Whip, and The Oscar, or pedigreed stinkers like Audrey Hepburn's Bloodline or Barbra Streisand's A Star is Born; there’s not a single terrible film I’ve disparaged and poked fun at on these pages for which I don’t also harbor simultaneous feelings of affection. Even if said affection is only gratitude to those films for all the hours of fun they've given me at their expense.
Call it an affinity, call it a connection…but if I'm going to watch a movie for the sole purpose of laughing at its ineptitude and wrongheadedness, I have to feel at least a tiny bit of a soft spot for it in my heart. Otherwise, the experience feels joyless and bordering on mean-spirited.
I call it hate-watching when I'm masochistically drawn to and intentionally watch a movie that. for whatever reason, I already know I don't like all that much. What I'm after in doing so is hard to parse out, but I'm gonna guess self-flagellation, schadenfreude, and misanthropy play into it.
Well, all of the above and more are to be found in schlockmeister director Menahem Golan's notorious 1980 musical misfire, The Apple.
"First you sell it, THEN you make it. That's marketing!"
A line delivered in the film by Shake, Mr. Boogalow's personal assistant, but also the credo of Cannon Films under the auspices of the producing/directing team of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. There's a very good chance this trade ad began appearing (cobbed from the wishful-thinking likeness of John Travolta's 1978 Time Magazine cover) long before a screenplay was written or a dime of funding secured for this $8-10 million miscalculation

The Apple, if known of at all, is widely considered to be one of the worst musicals ever made. A credential it exhaustively earns and defends in every sequin-encrusted, spandex encased frame. But movies dismissed by the masses invariably end up as prime candidates for cult adoration, and The Apple is no exception (although it took some 24 years to bring that about). Today, The Apple is enthusiastically embraced for the very things that, in 1980, brought the World Premiere audience at the Montreal Film Festival to its feet in a chorus of boos. When its very limited American release yielded a groundswell of less-demonstrative, no less unfavorable critical response, The Apple swiftly disappeared. The film's you've-got-to-see-it-to-believe-it glittering awfulness becoming the stuff of myth.
In spite of my fondness for cinema dogs and movie turkeys (fittingly, The Apple's L.A. release was a week before Thanksgiving), I failed to catch The Apple during its initial theatrical release. Not because I missed it... I just had no interest in seeing it. Which seems grossly out of character for a guy who dotes on disco, is mad for musicals, and who ordinarily can't get enough of craptacular cinema. 
Catherine Mary Stewart as Bibi Phillips
George Gilmour as Alphie
Vladek Sheybal as Mr. Boogalow
Grace Kennedy as Pandi
Allan Love as Dandi
Ray Shell as Shake

The Apple is a pseudo-Biblical Faust allegory set in a hyper-futuristic vision of America 1994 that occasionally betrays itself as actually being 1979 Berlin. Taking major liberties with the Book of Genesis, the film presents us with an unreasonable facsimile of Adam and Eve hailing from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (a beige, folksinging duo with the Teletubby names of Alphie & Bibi) tempted by fame and lured into the Mephistophelian clutches of one Mr. Boogalow, the head of an entertainment megacorporation known by the acronym BIM (Boogalow’s International Music).

But much like Disney or The Kardashians, BIM has very little actual interest in entertainment itself. It's primarily in the business of mind-control and the deployment of its far-reaching pop culture tentacles for the purpose of global domination. Mr. Boogalow's fiendish plan--as far as I could make out, anyway---has something to do with weakening the will of the people through the forced exposure to tacky, Vegas-style glitter-rock-cum-disco revues performed by substandard talent. Enter Alphie & Bibi. 
The Bland Leading The Bland
Flavorless heterosexual folk music in a Eurovision-style face-off against spicy, gay disco 
 

Boogalow schemes to hornswoggle the naive, soporific duo into a restrictive recording contract, replacing his current BIM Stars Dandi (Allan Love) and Pandi (Grace Kennedy). After the high-minded Alphie has a premonition of disaster (the film’s premiere, no doubt) he refuses to sign with Boogalow but is unsuccessful in persuading the soft-headed... I mean, soft-hearted Bibi to do the same. So, while Alphie beats as hasty a retreat as his extraordinarily tight pants will allow, Bibi signs away her soul for stardom, a crimped hair makeover, and a pair of perilously high, pointy-toed thigh boots.  
I've Seen the Future and it's Starburst Filter Lenses
The Apple frequently looks as though it were shot by a film school student given
an assortment pack of camera filter lenses they're dead-set on making use of 

Leap ahead an indeterminate amount of years (or is it days?): a despondent Alphie is learning that sanctimonious soft-rock doesn’t sell; Bibi has become a literal howling success (“Speeeeed!”); and “America” has fallen under the despotic, fascist sway of BIM and Mr. Boogalow. Beset by state-mandated dancing, compulsory mylar sticker-wearing, and the micromanaging of individual behavior, the country has been transformed into a soul-killing, dystopian glitterscape oddly reminiscent of some six months I spent back in the mid-‘90s working for Richard Simmons.
The National BIM Hour of Exercise

But in 1994 the power of love proves stronger than bad music, so it isn’t long before Bibi starts questioning her fashion choices and Alphie embarks on a quest to rescue his lady love from the evils of multiethnic nonbinary pansexuality. It's at this point that, for reasons known only to the drug suppliers of The Apple's creative team, Alphie and Bibi’s musical odyssey takes an abruptly ecclesiastical turn, complete with superannuated hippies, rapid-growth offspring, and a celestial visitation that made me think Janis Joplin was way ahead of her time when she asked God to buy her that Mercedes Benz.
BIM pop stars Dandi & Pandi (the one dressed like Ami Stewart)
Seriously, what's with these names?
Adding further to The Apple's compendium of crazy: undistinguished songs, a pop-up-out-of-nowhere character named Mr. Topps: dance numbers performed with all the precision and technique of a Dolly Dinkle dance recital; future BAFTA-winning actress Miriam Margolyes as a chicken soup-wielding Jewish stereotype; and costumes and sets that evoke memories of the Dolly Parton quote “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”
Yes, every descriptive detail pertaining to The Apple confirms its reputation as a Grade-A, four-star disasterpiece.
BIM Headquarters
Alphie forgets to check his package at the door

Following the success of Tommy (1975), Grease (1978), and 1977’s Saturday Night Fever (not a musical, but its #1 soundtrack album revolutionized the movie marketing tie-in), studios everywhere rushed musicals into production. The megabudget flops of The Wiz (1978) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) signaled a potential shift in public tastes, but by then the soundtrack-driven musical juggernaut was underway.

1980 alone saw the release of FameThe Blues Brothers, Can’t Stop the Music, Xanadu, Coal Miner's Daughter, The Jazz Singer, and Popeye. Hit hardest were Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu, two high-profile musicals that went into production at the height of disco-mania and hoped to capture its white-hot, up-to-the-minute urgency. Of course, by the time they hit the screens both movies looked hopelessly dated and old-fashioned. The Apple (which would have had its work cut out for it no matter what the cultural climate), was originally slated for Easter release, which would have given it the jump on most of the year's other youth-oriented musicals. Alas, The Apple arrived at the very tail-end of the year, by which time movie musical oversaturation and public impatience with disco, legwarmers, shiny fabrics, and glitter had reached the point of no return.
image courtesy of Shock Cinema Magazine
Harbinger of Doom: The Apple opened in Los Angeles on November 21st, 1980 at the Paramount Theater on Hollywood Blvd. The same theater where Can't Stop the Music flopped so resoundingly just six months earlier. This newspaper ad promotes the opening day soundtrack giveaway that is said to have resulted in less-than-thrilled patrons hurling the LPs at the screen like Frisbees.


Although I wasn’t all that crazy about its dull poster art and no-name cast, the main reason I didn’t want to see The Apple had to do with my familiarity with Cannon Films. Even before its purchase by Golan-Globus, the studio had a longstanding reputation as a purveyor of low-budget schlock. And not the good kind. Later, when I read the flood of terrible reviews The Apple received, it crossed my mind that perhaps I'd missed out on one of those once-in-a-lifetime "I was there!" experiences of the sort cherished by folks who saw the original theatrical releases of legendary fiascoes like The Swarm or Lost Horizon. But mostly I just felt like I'd dodged a bullet.
I finally got around to seeing The Apple some 25 years after its release, not long after it had resurfaced on the midnight movie circuit and emerged a surprise cult hit. But the circumstances surrounding my watching The Apple for the first time were not the most advantageous for a film this off-the-rails: I was in bed with a particularly nasty bout of the flu when my partner surprised me with a DVD copy of The Apple to cheer me up.

Maybe it was my very real flu-induced fever colliding with the movie’s fever-dream weirdness, but The Apple not only failed to cheer me up, it genuinely made me sick.

I got a headache from trying to make out if the endlessly-repeated chant in the opening number is “BIM’s on the way,” “BIM’s the only way,”BIM all the way” or whatever the fuck.

The jewels glued to Shake’s front teeth looked less like glitter rock bling than grossly neglectful dental health, so that kinda turned my stomach.
My fluey stomach synced with the film's clumsy choreography and started turning sympathy flips.

The script was so rushed, chaotic, and nonsensical it created the disorienting impression that I had been dozing off at intervals, missing pertinent plot points. (I hadn't.)

This is a musical that clocks in at only 90 minutes. That's fast!  (A butchering, finance-based decision for squeezing in more screenings per day). So why did it feel as long as Hello, Dolly!?

Did my feeling so lousy at the time ultimately influence my first impression of The Apple? Yes. Was The Apple still pretty lousy without any help from me? Oh, most definitely. 
What's it all about, Alphie?
I hope you like George Gilmour's expression here, 'cause it's the only one he's got 

That should have been the end of my having anything more to do with The Apple. And it was. That is, until Christmas 2019 saw the release of a film that threatened to unseat The Apple as The Worst Musical Ever Made: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats
The critical drubbing those CGI kitties received got me to thinking of how it had been 15 years since I last saw The Apple, sparking the nagging question of whether I had really seen the film at all, what with feeling so terrible at the time. So, with the added inducement of a recent Blu-ray release, I decided to give The Apple one more try.
I have to admit, it was a considerably better experience. 
The passing of 40 years has been kinder to The Apple than perhaps it deserves. It’s just as silly as it ever was, but much of what I once found annoying has been softened a bit through the distancing filter of time. 

I still think the music is pretty terrible, but the songs “BIM,” “Showbizness,” and especially “Speed” actually make me smile (OK, laugh out loud). They may be tacky, but they are also a lot of fun. In fact, the first half of The Apple is its the most enjoyable, the second half is bogged down by one too many lugubrious ballads.
The musical number "Coming", staged as Pandi's choreographed date-rape of a drugged Alphie,
is not only hilariously crass, but takes bad taste to Springtime for Hitler levels

None of the performances gave me a headache the way they did the first time around, although from the start I thought Grace Kennedy was a little too good for this film (her discomfort in that "Coming" number is palpable) and would have made a wonderful Lucy in the Sky in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band---a case of going from the frying pan into the fire, I know. And I discovered it's really not possible to dislike Catherine Mary Stewart, coming across as she does like the spunky, well-intentioned understudy shoved at the last moment into the star role.

What emerged clearer on second viewing is just how good Vladek Sheybal is. Playing a character saddled with a name no two individuals in the film ever pronounces the same way twice, Sheybal is the only actor in the film to hit the right tone of over-the-top without the effort showing. He reminds me of Karen Black when she began appearing in all those low-rent horror movies. She "got" and understood the weird...she didn't need to strike attitudes.
Vladek Sheybal appeared in the films Casino Royale, From Russia With Love,
and Ken Russell's Women in Love and The Boy Friend

I enjoyed The Apple more on second viewing, but finding out that I didn't loathe the film isn't the same as saying that I actually like it. I'm afraid I still don't.
And just why that is, boils down to this: I wouldn't like a John Waters movie in which Donny and Marie triumphed over Divine and Mink Stole. Nor would I like an Auntie Mame in which the Aryans from Darian scare away the free-thinking bohemians.
Playing Alphie's cliche-a-minute Jewish landlady, Miriam Margolyes' character doesn't
have a name, but her performance is so full of ham she should be labeled not kosher

I like my cult movies subversive. Mainstream films always have people who look like Bibi and Alphie triumphing over the forces of evil (i.e., anyone who doesn't look like Bibi and Alphie). What I like about underground films and cult favorites like the films of Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, John Waters movies...The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Lord Love a Duck, Xanadu, and Rock and Roll High School--is their anarchic attack on the status quo: they celebrate the misfits.
They advocate for the outsiders, the socially shunned, and the ones society brands "different," "strange," and makes no room for. In these films, the power balance is upended and the underdogs of the world...those who don't fit into heteronormative boxes and non-inclusive social structure...are celebrated for their beauty and uniqueness.
In The Apple, Alphie's rejection of Boogalow's world feels as rooted in homophobia as much as in professional distrust. When I watch Rocky Horror, I relate to Dr. Frank N. Furter and his "unconventional conventionists," not Brad and Janet (who, even as the vapid hero and heroine, are still written with more complexity than Alphie and Bibi).
The Age of Aquarius
Menahem Golan takes a page out of An American Hippie in Israel 
The Apple, for all its outrageousness and rock & roll posturing, has always struck me as being staunchly middle of the road and conformist in its worldview; like one of those preachy faith-based films celebrities with faltering careers gravitate to these days.
Anti-fascist, anti-corporate, anti-consumerist, to be sure, but it never sat well with me the way all of the interesting, queer, and iconoclastic people in The Apple are chiefly associated with subtextual negatives (degeneracy, depravity, evil, fascism), while the white-bread hero and heroine are symbols of innocence and good.
Much in the way Can't Stop the Music has never been an all-time cult fave for me because of the self-repudiation inherent in its closeted take on The Village People, as much as I'm glad I've finally come to find some things in this loopy movie to enjoy, in the end I know I can't get past the mixed signals at the core of The Apple.
Apparently, Hell is like Chippendales on a Friday Night


BONUS MATERIAL
Before they were Dandi & Pandi, Allan Love (he got the "L" out before the film) and Grace Kennedy had professional recording careers. Love, who was most recently in the restaurant business, can be seen in a 1978 musical video HERE. Kennedy, who had her own BBC variety show for several years, pays homage to that other 1980 musical flop Can't Stop the Music HERE
Before he was Alphie, Scottish singer George Gilmour
(center, hands folded over his famous camel-toe area) fronted the band The Bo-Weavles.
Ray Shell went on to have an extensive career in theater. Seen here (in considerably less makeup than Shake) he originated the role of Rusty in the 1984 London production of Starlight Express. He's also a producer, director, and author (among others, a book on director Spike Lee).
The Apple's lyricist George S. Clinton (l.) and composer Kobi Recht (r.) appear throughout the film as
different characters. Co-lyricist Iris Recht appears as the receptionist in the "Showbizness" number.


Copyright © Ken Anderson