Monday, February 11, 2019

A SIMPLE PLAN 1998

“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” Mary Wollstonecraft -1790

The plot of A Simple Plan initiates with the simplest of premises and most relatable of fantasies: found wealth. Three men hunting in the snowy woods of Minnesota happen upon a downed private plane in whose wreckage is discovered a dead pilot and a bag containing $4.4 million in cash. Reasoning that no one is likely to lose that kind of money without someone eventually coming to look for it, Hank (Bill Paxton), the most level headed and intelligent of the trio, suggests they alert the authorities and hope for a reward. But motivated by chronic unemployment and an inability to fully grasp all that’s at stake, the remaining two discoverers: Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), Hank’s slow-witted older brother, and Lou Brent Briscoe), Jacob’s equally slow-on-the-uptake best friend--argue that such a sizable cash sum MUST mean the money is drug-related and therefore less likely to be reported as lost or missing; and so vote instead to keep the money and split it three ways. 
Bad Omen
The violent act of a fox attacking a henhouse sets into motion a series of events which bear the stamp of good luck, but the film's recurring visual motif of crows signals something entirely different

Hank, outnumbered, already an accomplice, and swayed by circumstances of his own—his job is dead-end and his expectant wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda) is due any day—agrees not to report the money on the proviso it remains in his possession and they do nothing until enough time has passed to assure no one is looking for it.
Sounds simple enough. 
The bad luck crow motif materializes in Hank and Sarah's home

But in this contemporary morality tale, if good fortune opens the door by awarding these men “The American dream in a goddamn gym bag,” then the trio’s fatal flaw proves to be their failing to heed the dark omen augured by such a stroke of good luck coming at the cost of someone’s life (the anonymous pilot). Once the deal to keep the money is struck, the group (which now has come to include Hank’s wife, Sarah, exhibiting heretofore-untapped reservoirs of resourcefulness and guile) is soon beset by a veritable Pandora’s Box of disasters born of bad judgement, greed, mistrust, and betrayal.
Bill Paxton as Hank Mitchell
Bridget Fonda as Sarah Mitchell
Billy Bob Thornton as Jacob Mitchell
Brent Briscoe as Lou Chambers 

Combine the intricate plotting of Alfred Hitchcock with the psychological complexity of Claude Chabrol, and you’ve got an idea of how deftly A Simple Plan mines both the suspense and moral ambiguity in a group of otherwise decent people entering into a hastily-conceived plot to stealth away a fortune in ill-gotten gains. But as much as the film’s plot makes for a roller-coaster thrill ride of unforeseen obstacles and grievous, sometimes fatal, errors in judgment; it’s the complicated, contradictory impulses of its characters—their individual personalities, motivations, and interrelationships—that give the film its most memorable jolts of knots-in-the-stomach intensity.

Merging elements of plot-driven genres like the crime thriller, the heist film, and the murder mystery, A Simple Plan’s unique perspective distinguishes itself in never feeling as though the machinations of plot and genre are the forces moving the characters along. Everything that happens—even those events furthest beyond the scope of the expected—feel like the organic, inevitable consequence of the combustible, putting-out-fire-with-gasoline interactions and personalities of individuals forced by circumstance into an unlikely, unlucky alliance.
Three on a Match

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I’m not overly familiar with the work of director Sam Raimi. Fans of the director will cite his series of Evil Dead cult films, but of the director’s to-date 15 feature film releases, I’ve only seen The Gift (2000) and Spiderman (2002); two films I can’t for the moment recall a single detail about, other than Spiderman’s upside-down kiss (which is pretty cool) and that staring thing Tobey Maguire does. My sense is that I’ve either been missing out on a lot, or A Simple Plan represents Raimi at his best. The only thing that stops me from calling it a perfect suspense thriller is that I don’t believe in perfect. I can’t find fault in any aspect of it.      
Happy New Year
I saw A Simple Plan when it was released on DVD in 1999 not long after Billy Bob Thornton lost that year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar (the film’s sole acting nod) to James Coburn in Affliction. Drawn to the film because of the raves I’d heard about Thornton and his physical transformation, I was instantly caught up by the overall (I hate to overuse that word) simplicity of the premise and how, by giving the story the affecting intimacy of a character study, resulted in something so fresh and unexpected. Raimi builds suspense like a master (to often unbearable levels) overlaying small-town details in character and setting with a well-sustained tone of enveloping dread and tragedy. Contributing significantly to the latter is the how keenly a sense of atmosphere is established, and how evocatively the bleakness of winter in a small, rural town is conveyed.
Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Paxton, and Brent Briscoe
I credit Raimi with giving his film a look representative of what its nearing middle-age characters’ lives must feel like: constrained, hemmed-in, and as anchored as the figures in a snow globe. As Sarah brutally lays out in a scene of clear-eyed, the die is cast when it comes to what possibilities life holds for these average, unexceptional people.
Many scenes begin with shots of vast, icy stillness or crow’s-eye-views of limitless banks of snow and nothingness that make you shiver just looking at them. Even at the very start of the film, when the streets are adorned with Christmas decorations, and Hank walks with a lightness we’ll never see again; at no time is the snow made to appear picturesque or poetic. From the frosted windows, slate-gray skies, and characters swathed in layers and layers of insulated clothing (even indoors); the weather is presented as another character in the story: severe, isolating, and suffocating of life.
Gary Cole as Neil Baxter

PERFORMANCES
Credit must be given to first-time screenwriter Scott B. Smith who, in adapting his first novel (which, ironically enough, started out life as a screenplay and earned him an Oscar-nomination, to boot), writes with an economy that suggests he has lived with these characters a long time. Paring down his 1993 novel to the bare bones of its suspense-thriller structure, Smith writes in a visual, non-static style that is ever on the move. The riveting narrative flows easily from plot twist to plot twist, never once feeling contrived or labored. Best of all, he manages to do so while keeping the film’s central focus on the disintegrating relationships between the characters and the telling ways they respond to having their theoretical (superficial?) morality tested by a real-life moral dilemma.
Without the benefit of much in the way of backstory, Smith’s characters, whether in moments of monstrous callousness or pitiable despair, are granted a level of humanity lacking in the novel. A grace attributable to the truly outstanding performances of the film’s cast.

Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton (who appeared together in 1992’s One False Move) share a symbiotic anti-chemistry as the brothers with nothing in common “…except maybe our last name.” The late Bill Paxton, whose settled-in boyishness lends his Hank the look of a self-disappointed fair-haired child, is all agitated exasperation and impatience in his scenes with Thornton. College-educated and preppy fastidious next to the town’s hayseed casual, one senses Hank enjoys feeling like the civilized big fish in a little pond. Paxton taps into the seeds of dissatisfaction lying just the below surface. It's no mistake he was so often cast as likeable characters, for he radiated an openness and accessibility. But he was also such a talented, dimensional actor.
Sarah Discovers the Source of the Money 
Personal fave Bridget Fonda (Single White Female), exuding almost Shakespearean-levels of steeliness, proves to be as much of a surprise and dramatic force to be reckoned with as Thornton. From the moment her character is introduced we’re made aware of how smart she is, but as the promise of “what can be” comes to poison her tolerance for “what is,” she morphs into a domestic underworld mastermind…like Carroll Baker running that all-lady hit squad out of her kitchen in Andy Warhol’s BAD.

Brent Briscoe as the oafish Lou is a Master Class lesson in how to play a stock character with dimension and detail. Pouring a lifespan’s worth of resentment in the way he unfailingly refers to Hank as “Mr. Accountant,” Briscoe has a pivotal drunk scene that calls for whiplash shifts from jocularity, betrayal, heartsickness, desperation, and rage. It’s a stunning bit of character work.
Billy Bob Thornton pulls off something similar, but on a much more heroic scale, with his brilliant turn as Jacob. True, it’s become an Oscar-bait cliché for an actor to deglamorize, adopt intellectual disabilities, or lose themselves under pounds of prosthetics, but to draw such a parallel here would seriously dishonor Thornton’s remarkable portrayal. In showing us the man behind the loser’s countenance, Thornton sidesteps the easy pathos, revealing Jacob to be one of the least self-deluded characters in the film, and one wholly lacking in self-pity. One of A Simple Plan’s many twists is the upending of the expectation that the relationship of these polar-opposite brothers might bear a trace of a George and Lennie Of Mice and Men dynamic. Far from it. In a particularly uncomfortable scene (exceptionally well-played by Paxton), the casually supercilious Hank learns that Jacob not only mocks him behind his back, but regards him with a level of disdain that borders on contempt.



THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I think one of the major reasons I love movies about “plans gone awry” is because I’m a control freak and lifelong non-joiner who goes out of his way to avoid groups, teams, and collaborations of any kind. These movies confirm my worst fears. My favorites: Silent Partner (1978), Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, (2007), What Became of Jack and Jill? (1972), Jackie Brown (1997), The Killing (1956), Fargo (1996), and Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)—all have in common the human error factor (misunderstandings, temperament, trust issues) and that magical interactive phenomenon wherein the filmmaker manipulates the viewer’s identification-with/sympathy-for its protagonists.
"Did you tell him about the plane?"
A major thrill to had in watching A Simple Plan is getting caught up in the yo-yo pull of being initially drawn to one character, only to be confronted with something unsavory and suddenly having your sympathies shifted elsewhere. The trick of making the viewer complicit in a crime is nothing new (Hitchcock’s Psycho); but the quality of performances in A Simple Plan adds so much depth to the characters that you’re apt to find yourself wrung out and in an emotional heap by the film’s crushing conclusion.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The first words spoken in A Simple Plan belong to Hank, recounting in voiceover something his late father (a simple farmer who lost his land to debt) once said to him about what it takes for a man to be happy: “A wife he loves, a decent job, friends and neighbors who like and respect him.”  Hank, in carving out a life for himself substantially more advantaged than that of his parents, has attained all of these. Sure, his wife helps make ends meet by working at the library, and his accounting job at the local feed mill offers little chance for advancement; but with a wife he loves, a nice home, and a baby on the way, Hank has attained a humble share of the American Dream.
But alas, built into the American Dream is a paradox: a reverence for achievement, ambition, and accumulation that’s at fundamental cross-purposes with being content with what one has. I mean our culture has devised names for people who are happy in their lot…we call them slackers and underachievers. However, few equally disparaging words exist for those who devote their time to amassing obscene levels of wealth they could never spend in several lifetimes.
Therefore, like many in this country who have been taught that having more is always preferable to having enough; Hank can’t conceive of happiness as a place in the present, only an idealized destination point on the horizon of some nebulous “future.”
A Simple Plan’s brutal and poignant subtext touches upon the moral distinction between need and want, and the kind of ethical questions voters never seem to ask themselves when making choices for personal financial security that will detrimentally impact the lives of the most marginalized and vulnerable. When is the cost of personal happiness too high a price to pay?


As each news day brings with it increasingly disheartening evidence of America’s rapidly disintegrating moral compass; as absurd and corrupt “leaders” normalize justification and deception while distorting the values of truth and honesty in the interest of money and power; I’m afraid A Simple Plan already reveals itself to be a bit of a timepiece in suggesting that the loss of one’s humanity is a loss of considerable significance.



BONUS MATERIAL
Mr. Schmitt, a disgruntled customer accusing Hank of faulty bookkeeping, was played by John Paxton, the 77-year-old father of Bill Paxton. John Paxton died in 2011.



Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, January 31, 2019

STEPPENWOLF 1974

Price of Admission is Your Mind

I read Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf when I was 15-years-old. The year was 1972 and my family had moved across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Berkeley; a college town still so enmeshed in hippie-era philosophical exploration and the quest for spiritual enlightenment that Steppenwolf and Hesse’s Siddhartha were practically required-by-law reading in order to cross the border. Self-reflection of the sort encouraged by these novels was a big part of the appropriately-labeled “Me Decade,” Tom Wolfe's name for the era of mass navel-gazing and introspection that coincided with my adolescence. 

For emotionally untethered teens such as I, adrift in a sea of inner conflicts and uncertain certainties (when our limited experience of the world convinces us that the truth of our feelings is the actual truth), J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was held up as the go-to novel of adolescent angst. Several of my classmates found something they could connect to Holden Caulfield’s privileged-class bellyaching, but I came away with a strong dislike for the novel, finding nothing in it remotely relatable to me or my experience.
As was my custom in those days, I went to the local library to check out books I that knew were adapted into films I was too young to see. In 1972 Siddhartha had been made into a film whose provocative poster, R-rating, and arthouse cachet had captured my imagination; so, knowing nothing of the novel beforehand, I read the book and found the exotic chronicle of the trials and travails of its spiritually-disenchanted hero, if not exactly relatable, most certainly flattering of my Catholic School image of myself. My unexpected enthusiasm for Siddhartha led me to read Steppenwolf not long thereafter. And what a mind-blower it turned out to be!  At age 15, I won’t say I saw myself AS Harry Haller, the misanthropic and melancholy 49-year-old man/wolf protagonist of Hesse’s Jungian rumination on the dual nature of man, but I will say that I most certainly saw a great deal of myself IN Harry Haller.
Max von Sydow as Harry Haller
Max von Sydow as Harry Haller
Dominique Sanda as Hermine
Dominique Sanda as Hermine
Pierre Clementi as Pablo
Pierre Clementi as Pablo
Carla Romanelli as Maria
Carla Romanelli as Maria
Set in Basel, Switzerland in the 1920s, German author Harry Haller is the self-proclaimed Steppenwolf of the title. A bourgeois intellectual and pacifist suffering from gout, loneliness, and a lingering post-war malaise occasioning his physical abandonment of his nationalist homeland and his spiritual dissociation from mankind, he is...both inside and out, a stranger in a strange land. A divorcé, Harry reads a great deal, drinks to excess, treats his pain with morphine, and spends entirely too much time living in his head. His soul seeks the peace and tranquility of self-realization, things he’s long-believed believed attainable by living the life of an intellectual ascetic; but an indistinct restiveness within only results in his feeling a keener sense of his isolation and self-estrangement.

Part of this is due to Harry’s fault-finding dissatisfaction with the world around him. For he is a man who holds the achievements of the dead in high regard—the lofty spirituality in the compositions of Mozart, the idealist principles in the literature of Goethe—while disparaging the modern, jazz-age distractions of the day (automobiles, gramophones, dancing) as idle and worthless as those who pursue them.
Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf - 1974
The other side of Harry's discontent is rooted in his lifelong belief that he is preternaturally a subhuman creature separate and apart from others. A creature of contrasting dual personality…neither wholly a man nor fully a beast…that exists as a primitive animal masked by the thin veneer of a cultured human.

Harry’s conformist side—nurtured and validated by bourgeois society—is ever at war with his wild, rebellious side, a side which has been vigorously suppressed since childhood. All would fine if Harry were content to walk the centrist tightrope preferred by his peers, but in finding himself emotionally drawn to the hedonist while simultaneously intellectually drawn to the spiritualist, within his soul Harry is unable to make peace with his conflicting sybarite compulsions and pious sensibilities.
For Madmen Only
Tractate on The Steppenwolf
Czechoslovakian artist Jaroslav Bradac contributed surreal cutout
art and animation reminiscent of Terry Gilliam (Monty Python)

Much in way the depressed spirit will long for the release of sleep, Harry’s beleaguered soul has come to idealize the possibility of suicide. Unfortunately, the notion of irrevocable escape by his own hand (in his 50th year, via “an accident while shaving”) only makes the pain of life easier to accept, not easier to endure.
Beset by dark, brooding feelings of dread, Harry aimlessly roams the desolate streets, seeking occasional solace on the stairs of neighbors’ homes—like an animal too wild to be allowed indoors, too domesticated to survive on its own in the wilds. In this middle world he sits, comforted by the clean steps, polished doors, perfumed window boxes, and warmth emanating from behind the closed doors; resigned to remaining alone and apart from the interactions of humans…a wolf residing on the steps...a Steppenwolf.
But just when it seems as though Harry has reached the point of seeing or feeling little else other than the pain of his own existence, spiritual deliverance materializes in the form of an enigmatic courtesan named Hermine. Hermine first introduces him to a razor (“You don’t have to use it, you know”); followed by an antithetical option to his thirst for rebellion (“Obedience is like sex: nothing like it if you’ve been without it too long”); ending with a mocking castigation of his presumptuous world-weariness (“You’ve got a lot of nerve saying you’ve tasted life to the bottom and found nothing in it. You haven’t even found the easy, fun part yet!”).
Alfred Bailou as  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Alfred Bailou as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 
Allowing himself to be taken under the wing of this mysterious stranger who knows more about him than he's ever dared explore within himself, Harry embarks—through means both medicinal and metaphysical—upon a trippy, existential Magical Mystery Tour of spiritual discovery and soul realignment. A journey back to the eternal "home" of the self where beckons the unification of the physical and the spiritual.
Helen Hesse as Frau Hefte
Helen Hesse, Hermann Hesse's granddaughter appears as Frau Hefte 

To recognize Steppenwolf as a film that clearly bears the stamp of the ‘70s is to be grateful that Herman Hesse’s illusive philosophical tome was adapted in the era when cinema freely embraced its inner weird. Fred Haines’ directorial vision (he also penned the screenplay) manages to be every bit as structurally bizarre as its source material, and makes no effort to simplify Hesse’s inscrutable prose or make the speeches sound less pedagogic. A film inherently meditative and somber, it is not without wit, is extremely gentle with its characters, and ultimately proves to be both optimistic and joyous.

It’s a boon to a film like this that the ‘70s were also a time when movies felt free to pace themselves; developing character and employing editing methods to manipulate the concept of time (fractured and stream of consciousness, in this instance) for dramatic effect. Lastly, the look of Steppenwolf—so in step with the nostalgia trends of the day—atmospherically evokes the look and feel of the 1920s in tableaus stylized and shimmering in one moment, dark and distorted the next. 
Not a film without its flaws, Steppenwolf is nonetheless a faithful adaptation true to the tone of a sometimes-difficult book.
Pablo, a jazz musician bandleader and drug dealer, appraises Harry "He is very beautiful." 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM 
Steppenwolf may have had the distinction of being a film adaptation of a classic 1927 novel written by a Nobel Prize-winning author, but in the pop-cultural zeitgeist of the ‘70s it felt as though it was at least the 900th movie released in the still-young decade about a nonconformist male in search of himself. Concerned as it was with such then-popular counterculture themes as self-actualization (the EST movement was still in its infancy), spirituality, drug use, mind expansion, free love (boy, that phrase sounds antiquated), and visuals reflecting the psychedelic states of mind-expansion; Steppenwolf was perhaps more in step with the youth-centric films of 1969 to 1971. Which means we would likely have had to endure a Steppenwolf starring Elliott Gould or Richard Benjamin.
Henry Haller enters the Magic Theater
The first and only directing effort of screenwriter Fred Haines (Ulysses – 1967) and apparently a labor of love, Steppenwolf was released in December of 1974. And although I wanted to see it badly, in terms of publicity overload, Christmas '74 was so dominated in my mind by the debuts of both The Towering Inferno and The Godfather Part II , the modestly-budgeted Steppenwolf  slipped past my radar. I didn't manage to see it until well after its initial run, practically waiting for it to fall into my when it was booked at the movie theater where I ushered on weekends. I wound up seeing it 5 or 6 times during its run.
A critic once observed that the character of Henry Haller seemed psychologically stalled at 14; the age he first caught sight of, but failed to speak to, his first love, Rosa Kreisler. I'm sure this was meant as a criticism of the perhaps superficial conflicts at the center of Haller's existential crisis, but it was an insight that clarified to me why, at 15, I found myself so relating to a character nearing 50. I was 17 by the time the film came out, and I was thrilled to discover that Steppenwolf still spoke so eloquently to the questions that continued to fuel my adolescent angst. Everything I had found so beautiful and moving about the novel was vividly rendered on the screen. I responded to it then as I do now, for I don't really think the elemental quest to find out who we are and what we want to be really change all that much as we age.
Like Hesse’s Magic Theater itself, Steppenwolf is not for everyone. Full of bizarre images and curious rhythms, it’s a strange film in ways that suggest it is indeed intended "For Madmen Only." But there’s something so gentle about it…something so affecting in its reaffirmation of the redemptive power of laughter and the importance of not taking life or oneself so seriously. I found it to be a truly splendid film and positively enchanting.
Pablo and Hermine require Harry to confront and extinguish his
concept of personality before entering the Magic Theater 

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Steppenwolf did well in San Francisco where its then-vanguard imagery and visual effects made it a favorite of the college crowd (euphemism for young people who got stoned at the screenings). In addition to the many fantasy interludes and dream-logic lapses throughout the narrative (in one naturalistic scene a bicyclist is viewed moving in reverse in the background) the 15-minute Magic Theater sequence presents a surreal reinforcement of the philosophical themes of Hesse's novel pertaining to identity, the psyche, and the spirit.
Harry enters the Magic Theater
Life's Options
 Jaroslav Bradac
The Metaphysical Struggle of Modern Man
The Magic Theater of the Mind
The Fragments of Harry's Personality

PERFORMANCES
Possessed of a Mona Lisa smile and an ethereal sensuality, Dominique Sanda’s enigmatic beauty graced many a European arthouse film in the’70s (The Conformist, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, 1900). Often cast as an unattainable dream girl or sphinxlike woman of mystery, the French-born actress has the gift of always looking as though she knows a great deal more than she’s willing to disclose. Steppenwolf was the first time I ever saw Sanda in a film, and in an instant, she won me over as the most ideal Hermine imaginable.

In a role requiring her to be more of a presence than a person, the actress’ years as a model prove an asset in bringing to Hermine a striking, vaguely androgynous bearing in her stillness (at times she resembles Mark Lester in Oliver!) that is at once open and yet impenetrable. Her intelligent, questioning eyes express wit and wisdom, her marvelous voice and sometimes unusual vocal inflections only contributing to her overall otherworldly allure. (Like a great many European films with international casts, Steppenwolf relies quite a bit on dubbing.)
Hermine and Maria

As mesmerizing an entity as Dominique Sanda’s Hermine is for me (she has the same enlivening effect on me as she does Harry and the film in general), it is Max von Sydow’s agonized Steppenwolf who ultimately makes the film work. The Ingmar Bergman stalwart (11 films total) gives one of my favorite of his many outstanding screen performances as Hesse's alter-ego in this film. Anyone reading Hesse’s novel is bound to picture Harry Haller differently, but I can’t think of an actor better suited to play the range of compulsions and conflicts raging war within Hesse’s straining-against-optimism hero.
Max von Sydow, who was forty-four at the time, uses his rangy elegance and gentle, expressive eyes to create empathy for his character. A factor that prevents Haller’s internal and largely self-inflicted despair from ever coming across as self-centered.  
Steppenwolf - 1974

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
When Steppenwolf came into my life, like a great many teenagers, I carried around an image of myself as being too smart and too sensitive for this world. Perceived by others as a kid who “kept to himself”; inside me, there was no real “self” to keep to…being painfully shy, I merely felt isolated and apart. These feelings were intensified by my home life (the only boy in a household of women with a loving but old-fashioned dad); burgeoning self-awareness (onset puberty as a gay teen); my environment (a Black male in an all-white neighborhood); a spiritual crisis (a Catholic school kid, growing ever more disillusioned with organized religion); and the times in which I lived (I never knew a U.S. that wasn’t at war, and it was Nixon’s second term, to boot). 
Hermine introduces Harry to the joys of contemporary culture 

As a way of dealing with my shyness, I read a great deal, often gravitating to works by Black authors that fed my rage and abhorrence of injustice. Even more often I was caught off guard by the works of white authors who engaged in the erasure of my existence and/or experience. Out of instinct more than intent, films became my own personal Magic Theater of self-examination and discovery. A means by which my mind could be surrendered all the better to explore what lay within my soul.
And it is there I discovered the frivolous joy of good/bad films. My life changed the moment I realized absolute truth and beauty could be found as authentically in the sight of Jane Fonda doing a zero-gravity striptease as could be found in the haunting image of a medieval knight playing chess with the specter of Death. It taught me that life is simultaneously sacred and profane, crass and the astute, nightmarish and glorious...and none of it is to be taken too seriously.
Movies taught my adolescent self to lighten up, and in accord, open up. In the end, this is what saved me. 
Laughing with the Immortals
Learning to laugh with the Immortals

For Madmen Only
Steppenwolf - 1974
"As a body, everyone is alone. As a soul, never."

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, January 21, 2019

SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND 1978

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band  movie - 1980
The saying goes that no one starts out intending to make a bad film; which sounds fine in theory, but the reality is more in line with: no one starts out intending to make a flop. All one has to do is look at the lazy output of an Adam Sandler, Kevin James, or Rob Schneider to be convinced that none of these guys cares a whit about whether or not their films are any good, only that a significant number of the moviegoers remain apathetic and undiscerning enough to bankroll the next filmed vacation disguised as a movie.
Hollywood has done a remarkable job of getting the public to embrace its own business-based aesthetics standards. Especially the standard which deems boxoffice performance to be the accurate and unequivocal determiner of a motion picture's overall quality.

When you have a business that defines a "good" film as one that's raked in a lot of money, then you get filmmakers using "moneymaking-potential" as the inspiration for every creative decision. And just as there is a subtle, yet significant, difference between someone embarking on an acting career with the ambition of being a great actor vs. someone embarking on an acting career with the ambition of being a famous star; a movie that sets out with the intention of being a good movie is not (necessarily) coming from the same creative mindset as one that sets out to be the next blockbuster boxoffice success. 

Which brings us to Robert Stigwood's $18-million boondoggle, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Peter Frampton as Billy Shears
Peter Frampton as Billy Shears
Sir Barry Gibb as Mark Henderson
Sir Barry Gibb as Mark Henderson
Robin Gibb as Dave Henderson
Robin Gibb as Dave Henderson
Maurice Gibb as Bob Henderson
Maurice Gibb as Bob Henderson
Dianne Steinberg as Lucy
Dianne Steinberg as Lucy
Sandy Farina as Strawberry Fields
Sandy Farina as Strawberry Fields
In early 1978, Robert “Midas Touch” Stigwood was the man who could do no wrong. Producer of the hits Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy, Saturday Night Fever, and Grease, Stigwood (via his lucrative RSO enterprise) had his hand in theater, film, recording, and personal management. His track record of success was such that when he decided to reconfigure his flop 1974 Off-Broadway Beatles-themed musical Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road (starring Ted Neeley of JC Superstar and Alaina Reed of TV’s 227) into a feature film rock-opera along the lines of Ken Russell’s Tommy, no one was going to tell him it might not be such a good idea.
Donald Pleasence as B. D. "Big Deal" Hoffler
...or Brockhurst, if you go by the film's credits and bubble gum cards 
While it certainly could be argued that with Sgt Pepper, Stigwood was ahead of his time in presenting what amounts to being the first jukebox musical (Abba’s Mamma Mia! was a good two decades to come); in this instance, the uniqueness of the film’s structure proved considerably less problematic than its execution.
George Burns as Mr. Kite
George Burns as Mr. Kite
To illustrate: take the Las Vegas-y kitsch and celebrity clusterfuck lineups of ‘70s variety shows like Sonny & Cher, Donny & Marie and The Captain & Tennille (they were all the same, weren’t they?); top with a pop music trio projecting all the charm-free blandness of The Hudson Brothers forced into an oil-and-water collaboration with a soloist radiating a screen presence not matched in dynamism since Helen Reddy appeared as a nun in Airport 1975.
Drench in a garish, cocaine-color-palette reminiscent of a Sid & Marty Krofft kiddie show; blend in diluted, American Bandstand-friendly arrangements of a catalogue of 29 Beatles songs culled from their most innovative albums: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Rubber Soul, Magical Mystery Tour, Revolver, Abbey Road. Ultimately mold into an inchoate fantasy-adventure told entirely in song; tack on superfluous narration so soporific it makes Don Kirshner sound caffeinated by comparison, and voilà-- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Movie.
Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees
"A Splendid Time is Guaranteed for All!"
This lyric from "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" was used as the film's
promotional tagline and later came to bite the film on the ass

Set in the fictional town of Heartland, USA, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (hereafter referred to as SPLHCB) is a musical fable about a wholesome boy band and their magical musical instruments (regrettably, Freddy the Flute fails to make an appearance) that somehow play a role in keeping the town peaceful and happy. Conflict, such as it is, disrupts the band’s bucolic braying when the boys are whisked away to Los Angles by oily music producer B.D. Hoffler (Donald Pleasence) and corrupted by the temptations of sex, drugs, and money. The group’s departure allows an organization called F.V.B. (Future Villain Band, played by Aerosmith) to steal the magical musical instruments, which in turn hastens the decline of Heartland, now taken over by an overacting real estate agent named Mr. Mustard (gay British comic Frankie Howerd, who makes Tommy Steele and Zero Mostel look laid-back). The rest of the film is devoted to the Heartland boyband's efforts to retrieve the instruments and save their home town.
Paul Nicholas as Dougie Shears
Paul Nicholas as Dougie Shears
Thrown into the mix are Strawberry Fields as a love interest (Sandy Farina, a kind of discount-bin Ronee Blakley); pop group Lucy and the Diamonds as seductive sirens (newcomer and just-as-fast newgoner Dianne Steinberg and that ’70 R&B girls group you forgot to forget, Stargard); a double-crossing band manager (Paul Nicholas, who sort of made a career of playing creeps); a magical weathervane (Billy Preston as the apotheosis of the Magical Negro trope); a pair of curvaceous  female robots called The Computerettes (yep, you read that right); and sundry “guest villains.”
Even by ‘70s standards, this was some weird shit.
Frankie Howerd as Mean Mr. Mustard
Frankie Howerd as Mean Mr. Mustard
But, as Ken Russell spectacularly proved in bringing The Who’s equally bonkers Tommy (1975) to the screen; a hallucinatory rock-opera with no spoken dialogue and a preposterous plot can be made to work. Provided it’s done with some talent and ingenuity. Alas, with SPLHCB, little of either in evidence.
 OK, that’s not really fair. I suppose it does take a special kind of talent to make a film as cheap-looking as this with a budget more than three times that of Russell’s film. Likewise, I’m sure it took considerable ingenuity to rally enthusiasm around the final cast when what was originally on the table was Olivia Newton-John as Strawberry Fields, Donna Summer as Lucy, Mick Jagger as Future Villain, Bob Hope as Mr. Kite, and Doris Day and Rock Hudson as Mr. and Mrs. Fields.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - 1978
The logo of fictional record magnate B.D. Hoffler (r.) spoofs the logo of the Robert 
Stigwood Organization (which is a good luck Japanese toy cow called an akabeko)

I’ve a hunch that Stigwood had the same kind of micromanaging hand in this film’s production as Allan Carr had on the similarly-calamitous Can’t Stop the Music two years later (you don’t hand over a $20m-million production to Rhoda’s mother because she’s experienced, you do it so you can control her) because SPLHCB the film is so undistinguished in execution and so indifferently shot, I’m at a serious loss to know what director Michael Schultz (Cooley High, Car Wash), brought to the mix. The film has the look of a Kaptain Kool & the Kongs TV special.
Steve Martin as Dr. Maxwell Edison
Steve Martin as Dr. Maxwell Edison
In virtually every aspect surrounding the development of SPLHCB...both in front of and behind the camera...you'll find an incestuous network of mutually-advantageous business deals and cross-promotions (Stigwood managed the Manager of the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton's manager was given an executive producer credit, record label distribution deals affected choice of artists signed, etc.). Deals that have everything to do with assembling the most marketable commercial elements, but precious little to do with entertainment, acquiring the best talent for the job, or (perish the thought) simply making a decent movie.
Lucy and the Diamonds in "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978)
The backup members of Lucy and the Diamonds are the all-but-forgotten R&B group Stargard, who sang the theme song to Michael Schultz's previous film Which Way Is Up? and, most importantly, were artists signed to the Universal Studios-connected MCA records. 


THE STUFF OF DREAMS   
In fashioning a musical with no spoken dialogue but extensive voice-over narration, SPLHCB is something of an unhappy-alliance hybrid of sung-through musicals like Evita, Hamilton, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Jesus Christ Superstar, and jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia! (ABBA), The Boy From Oz (Peter Allen), and—ironically enough—the 1998 stage production of Saturday Night Fever, which combined songs from the Bee Gees catalogue with songs from the film’s soundtrack.
Earth Wind & Fire had a #1 Soul Charts hit with their version of "Got to Get You Into My Life" 
The stringing together of unconnected Beatles songs to form a narrative is a dicey endeavor at best (something accomplished with considerable charm in the 1968 animated feature film Yellow Submarine). But to attempt to do so without expressive actors able to convey complex emotions (Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed in Tommy), or forceful musical personalities who grow more vividly “present” and alive in performance mode (Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger come to mind) is a fool’s errand. Certainly, one that music journalist turned first-time screenwriter Henry Edwards wasn’t able to overcome in fashioning the story for SPLHCB.

Strawberry Filed's funeral in "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978)
Understandable given the era, but in the 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine the Beatles songs were presented in ways which emphasized their metaphorical and allegorical properties. Too often the literal-minded approach employed by Sgt. Pepper leads to moments of unintentional humor. Like when a coffin is hoisted unsteadily on the narrow shoulders of our heroes to the accompaniment of "Boy, you're gonna carry that weight a long time." 

The classic, Candide-like structure of The Who’s Tommy was perfectly suited to Roger Daltrey’s blank-slate countenance, presenting him as a relatable everyman beset by harrowing encounters with bizarre characters on his journey to spiritual enlightenment. SPLHCB takes a plot straight out of an episode of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (replace the stolen Sgt. Pepper instruments with a mooseberry bush) but gives us heroes too bland to identify with, a low-stakes adventure hard to care about, and villains who shoot for outrageous and funny, only to land at embarrassing and hammy.
Alice Cooper as Father Sun, nee Marvin Sunk
This leaves all the film’s heavy-lifting to the Beatles tunes themselves, which are a pretty amazing lot. I can see why this film has become a favorite of little kids, preteens, and those born long after the days of Beatle-mania/idolization. The songs are really good and well—if not memorably—performed (George Martin, producer of all but one of the Beatles’ original records, was the film’s musical director).
Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina) comforts Billy Shears (Peter Frampton) in "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978)
The night I saw it, laughter greeted this scene where Strawberry Fields sings to Billy about taking him down 'cause she's going to...well, herself. Then proceeds to elaborate, not making one whit of sense.

PERFORMANCES
Anyone who’s ever seen the Gibb brothers appear together on a talk show knows how self-deprecating and engagingly funny they can be. On one such program, when asked to come up with Spice Girl-type names for themselves, they answered: Beardy Bee Gee, Teethy Bee Gee, and Baldy Bee Gee. Every time I ever saw them on TV, they came across as relaxed, quick to laugh, and likeable. None of these are in evidence in SPLHCB. Uncomfortable and self-conscious appearing, the obvious constriction of their too-tight costuming seems to transfer to their performances. Granted, none of them are really given characters to play, but Schultz never finds a way to bring out the natural charm and relaxed rapport of the brothers. Even their vocal performances sound hemmed-in.
Barry Gibb wardrobe malfunction in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - 1978
Positively Ripping
Gibb is bustin' out all over in this shot reminding us that wearing those form-fitting
disco shirts of the '70s (fine for dancing The Hustle) came at a risk
Frampton mostly looks uncomfortable and looks as though he wishes Andy Gibb would step in at any moment and take his place. (He never really recovers from how he’s introduced in the film: wearing a pink shirt under a stark-white, tapered overalls embroidered with a big red flower and the name “Billy” …he looks like the world’s tallest, lankiest toddler.) Of course, I do love the scene where he’s supposed to be distraught and tears stream down his face from his temples and forehead.
Paul Nicholas as Dougie Shears and Dianne Steinberg as Lucy plot their getaway with Heartland's cash
Dianne Steinberg and Paul Nicholas make a fun pair of double-crossers, too bad the 
over-busy script never gives their villainy an opportunity to take root.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM 
As much as it pains me to admit it, there was a time I really loved this movie (I still do, but I’m speaking of a time when I actually enjoyed it unironically). In my defense, SPLHCB was released a mere four weeks after I’d moved to LA and I was still heady with the degree of hoopla Tinseltown could unleash when promoting a movie. The publicity push for SPLHCB was positively enormous, and it was hard not to get swept up in the circus-like atmosphere. It the summer of 1978, disco was king, the Bee Gees were riding high on the phenomenon that was Saturday Night Fever (it opened a mere six-months earlier), Frampton was all over the radio, and Steve Martin as THE up and coming comic sensation.
A Sunset Strip billboard for Sgt. Pepper overlooks Tower Records
(also visible is ad for a Steve Martin comedy album and for the band KISS,
an early casting consideration for the Future Villain Band in SPLHCB
I saw the film the day it opened at the Pacific Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. I actually had to stand in line to get in, and the audience was so hyped they laughed readily and even applauded for Billy Preston’s number.  
Billy Preston as Sergeant Pepper
Billy Preston as Sergeant Pepper
Having grown up in a household with a dyed-in-the-wool Beatle maniac (my older sister), I loved the music, but didn't revere it to the degree that I had a problem with other artists having a crack at it. To this day Sandy Farina's rendition of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" is my absolute favorite cover of the song, and I thought Aerosmith's version of "Come Together" was a major improvement on the original.
Steven Tyler and Aerosmith as FVB - Future Villain Band
Steven Tyler and Aerosmith as Future Villain Band
The theater was full that first day, but by the time I saw the film for the 3rd time that summer, the house was nearly empty. As the years have gone by, the new-kid-in-town veil has lifted from my eyes, leaving me aghast that I once found this largely clumsy enterprise in shameless commerce so entertaining. Happily, its plentiful cons have since morphed into pros, rendering SPLHCB so-bad-it's-good status in perpetuity.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - 1978
Careers and reputations were decimated by the film's flop reception, but by all accounts
the cocaine flowed freely, so at least I hope everyone involved enjoyed a splendid time.


BONUS MATERIAL
Filmmaker Michael Schultz was Robert Stigwood's first choice to direct the Grease. When hired for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Schultz became the first African-American to direct a big-budget musical. His feature film career took a hit when SPLHCB flopped so tremendously (taking several other careers with it) but he continues to work in television, and in 1991 Schultz was inducted into The Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.


Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - 1978
One of two prop trumpets created for the film by Dominic Calicchio is housed at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, SD. An eBay auction purchase donated by Allan R Jones. (Image: SFTrips.com)

Dianne Steinberg and Sandy Farina Album Covers
Dianne Steinberg in 1977 and Sandy Farina in 1980 each recorded
an album that charted for years in remainder bins 

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - 1978
Standing 6'3'' and made of plaster over a fiberglass frame,
 the Sgt. Pepper weathervane was sold at auction for $1,265 in 2012.  
SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND       1978
Your patience for making it to the end is rewarded by a WTF? cluster of  "stars" from all walks of the '70s entertainment industry spectrum gathered to recreate the cover of the Sgt. Pepper Album. 
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