Thursday, April 2, 2015

What Kind of President is Francis Underwood?

Now in its third season, the Netflix juggernaut House of Cards now has the ruthless protagonist Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the White House. Spacey's fictional presidency begs comparison with the real ones - so here it goes.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45)  The shadow of FDR looms heavily on the modern presidency. A New York aristocrat who believed in the power of people and government, he envisioned a compassionate society based on economic justice. But don't be fooled, FDR also mastered the art of intrigue. On House of Cards, President Underwood launched his own quasi-New Deal program entitled "America Works." FDR and Underwood are both Machiavellian to the core and live by the following quote from The Prince, "The Lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves.  One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves."

Harry Truman (1945-53)  They share little in common, except a humble background and a belief in hard work. Although Truman never attended college, he was a voracious reader of history and biography. The knowledge served him well as President in the heady years after WWII. Truman would've seen right through Underwood's facade of integrity - for such figures often appear in history.

John F. Kennedy (1961-63) Coincidentally, Spacey once appeared as a Kennedyesque politician on the 80s TV show Crime Story.  JFK, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his history book Profiles in Courage, personified the cool intellectualism of the early 60s. In season 3, Francis invites a famous novelist named Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) to write a book about his "America Works" program. Underwood appreciates the power of the written word, but is too much the political animal to be considered an intellectual, symbolized by his passion for violent video games.

Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69)  Could Underwood be the bastard son of LBJ?  Both honed their political acumen in the House of Representatives through flattery, intelligence, even physical intimidation (Underwood keeps a portrait of LBJ in his office).  LBJ, like Underwood, came to power under dire circumstances and rumors of his complicity in the JFK assassination remains gospel among conspiracy theorists, an idea Oliver Stone suggested in JFK.  Robert Caro's masterful multi-volume biography of LBJ remains unmatched in its description of American politics, thus making the books an excellent companion piece to House of Cards.

Richard M. Nixon (1969-74)  As Howard Hunt observed in Oliver Stone's Nixon, "Richard Nixon is the darkness."  The same could be said of Underwood. While Watergate continues to loom over Nixon's place in history, even his harshest critics concede he changed the course of American foreign policy. Much of the fireworks in season 3 comes from Underwood's shaky relationship with the Putin-like Russian President.  His pursuit of personal diplomacy meets with mixed results at best; he desperately needs a Kissinger for guidance.

Gerald Ford (1974-77) The one president Francis doesn't want to emulate. Ford came to the presidency after Nixon's resignation, but lost his own bid for the presidency. Underwood recoils at the thought of being a footnote to history.

Jimmy Carter (1977-81)  Unfortunately, Carter's something of a pariah among the modern presidents. Carter's plainspoken honesty and unpretentious attitude seemed right for the Post-Watergate era, but his unassuming style quickly wore thin.  On July 15, 1979 in his "crisis of confidence" speech he actually took Americans to task for their consumerism.  A different era. Underwood and Carter do share a Southern heritage (Underwood prefers to downplay his white trash origins).

Ronald Reagan (1981-89)  Ronnie and Francis understand the power of rhetoric. When Underwood comes into conflict with his hired writer Yates, it resembles the debacle between Reagan and his official biographer Edmund Morris.  Morris, known for his erudite biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, grew so bored with his subject he wrote a fictional/post-modern interpretation of Reagan's life.  Yates favors a similar approach to writing about Underwood.

Bill Clinton (1993-2001) Spacey and Clinton are good friends. Do they discuss the show? Could it get awkward? The marriage of Francis and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) recalls the Clinton marriage in obvious ways.  The Underwood marriage almost manages to humanize the characters. And Wright's brave performance really anchors the series.  As President, Francis appoints her as UN ambassador as he prepares to make his own run for the presidency.

Barack Obama (2009-current) - President Obama is a big fan of House of Cards. How does the show reflect the contemporary political environment?  Of course there's polarization, a situation ripe for a charismatic sociopath like Underwood to achieve power.  And yet something about the presidency has diminished despite the media's attempt to frame every election as the most important one in history.  Presidents now devote much of their time to fundraising and wooing their corporate sponsors.  Perhaps therein lies the appeal of Underwood, no one owns him and he does what he wants, proof the show is pure fiction.

Darth Vader - Darth and President Underwood are known to be demanding of their subordinates and not above killing anyone who gets in their way.  If Underwood could apply the "force choke" on his cabinet, he'd do it in a heartbeat.  Nevertheless, House of Cards does provide a plausible scenario where a tyrant could come to power.  Will the constitution stop Francis Underwood?


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Book Review: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

Peter Biskind's chronicle of 1970s Hollywood Easy Riders, Raging Bulls remains a classic. It tells the story of the "movie brats" and their failed attempt to take over Hollywood. Few details are spared in an assortment of raw portraits of all the major players including Coppola, De Palma, Friedkin, Scorsese and many others.

Biskind paints a colorful picture of the era.  By the mid 60s, studios were still making big budget musicals with zero appeal to anyone under thirty.  The release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 marked a shift in the zeitgeist.  Directed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the film glamorized the Great Depression outlaws and made law enforcement officials the villains. Old guard critics voiced outrage at the film's violence. But young people identified with the anti-establishment message as well as the gritty realism.

Two years later Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider romanticized the 60s counterculture. The narrative of two hippies on a motorcycle odyssey across America accompanied by a rock and roll soundtrack took the anti-establishment message even further.  Hopper himself personified the era's contradictions: a fierce creative energy combined with a dangerous and sometimes drug fueled grandiosity, a grandiosity unique to the time period.  Here's a quote from Hopper shortly after Easy Rider:

I want to make movies about us.  We're a new kind of human being.  In a spiritual way, we may be the most creative generation in the last ten centuries.  We want to make little, personal, honest movies . . . The studio is a thing of the past (75).

Even more than Hopper, Francis Ford Coppola actually tried to destroy the studio system. In the late 1960s, Coppola created Zoetrope Studios in San Francisco, as an alternative to the Hollywood system, a place for experimental filmmakers to work (including his protege George Lucas).  Meanwhile, he kept a foot in the studio system as a screenwriter and occasional director.  In 1971, Paramount offered him the chance to adapt Mario Puzo's crime novel The Godfather.  And the rest is history. When The Godfather Part II earned him the Oscar, Coppola pursued his dream project, Apocalypse Now.

He spent three years making the film.  Shot on location in the Philippines, the production went way over budget with all sorts of behind the scenes conflict (as captured in the documentary Heart of Darkness). Biskind describes Coppola's descent into megalomania. One day during post-production he locked his editors in a screening room and pontificated for hours about his plans to revolutionize cinema.  Apocalypse Now left Coppola in deep debt and he spent the next decade as a director for hire, at one point he told a friend, "What are you worried about? I owe 50 million dollars!!"

Meanwhile George Lucas changed the film industry in 1977 with Star Wars.  Known for making experimental films at UCLA, Lucas won accolades for his innovative use of sound and editing. When his first feature THX-1138 flopped with audiences he followed it up with the nostalgic and popular American Graffiti. Then he wrote a space opera based on Flash Gordon serials. Quiet and introverted, Lucas barely survived the hectic shoot in London and the lengthy post-production process.  Against all odds, Star Wars broke box office records and became a cultural phenomenon.  Ever since then, studios threw their money at special effect extravaganzas.

Biskind saves most of his vitriol for Steven Spielberg, who's portrayed as a geeky opportunist interested in making money with special effects driven movies.  In the 1980s, Spielberg built an empire in Hollywood while his old buddies from the 70s languished in the new blockbuster driven system.    

Here I don't agree at all, in time Spielberg has proven himself a great director with a number of historically relevant including Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.  Any fan of Spielberg will recognize special effects only work well with a strong character driven story, Jaws being an example.

As the 80s beckoned, excess and hubris brought down the new Hollywood.  Of course many other factors go into this, namely, another shift in the zeitgeist with the election of Ronald Reagan.  Audience tastes changed as well.  Movies were marketed for the mall going suburban masses.

The end finally came when Michael Cimino's historical epic Heaven's Gate nearly bankrupted United Artists.  From then on, directors lost their freedom and Hollywood, according to Biskind, reverted back to making crowd pleasing, but irrelevant junk.

Unfortunately, women are for the most part left out of the narrative, revealing deeply ingrained sexism of the time.  Few know Lucas's first wife Marcia edited many of the iconic films of the 70s such as Taxi Driver and Carrie, and that she literally saved Star Wars from being an incoherent mess.  After they divorced in 1983 no one hired her.  As a result, she's been mostly erased from the history.

Easy Rider, Raging Bulls never gets boring.  Although Biskind makes some dubious conclusions and indulges in mean spirited gossip, it will get you thinking about where movies have been and where they are going.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Book Review: Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt

Patton Oswalt's wistful new memoir, Silver Screen Fiend, revisits his days as a young comedian.  During the mid 90s, Oswalt emerged as a comedic voice on the L.A. scene. He also developed an obsession with watching movies. Oswalt splits the difference between how movies influenced and stifled his creativity, while also providing some insight into the 90s alternative comedy scene. Silver Screen Fiend wistfully recalls the wonder of experiencing great films and the challenge of finding one's own voice.

Oswalt confesses he always dreamed of being a film director so he set out to watch as many films as possible, sometimes going 3-4 nights a week, while holding down a day job at Mad TV.  At the legendary New Beverly theater in Los Angeles Oswalt viewed a Billy Wilder double feature, Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole and never looked back. Thus began four years of obsessive film going.

As his obsession grew he alienated friends, lost his job, and let his health suffer. Through it all he continued working as a stand up and gained some acting roles.  After four years of compulsive film going, Oswalt gained an insight:

Movies, to [a] majority of the planet, are an enhancement of life. The way a glass of wine enhances a dinner.  I'm the other way around.  I'm the kind of person who eats a few bites of food so that my stomach can handle the full bottle of wine I'm about to drink.

Another important moment arrived when, after four years of attending the New Beverly, Oswalt decided to start writing his own screenplays.  After watching the premiere of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Oswalt recalled spending hours with his friends discussing how much they hated what Lucas had done to Star Wars, after which he gained another epiphany: 

I [failed]  to see that the four hours of pontificating and connecting and correcting [Lucas's] work could be spent creating two or three pages of my own.

A useful insight for any critic: write your own stuff instead of tearing other's work apart. Since then Oswalt's career has taken off with a recurring role in The King of Queens and dramatic acting roles in Big Fan and Young Adult.

Oswalt shares many hilarious anecdotes about the comedy scene in the 90s.  A group of comeptitive comedians trying to distant themselves from mainstream comedy. Many notable comics make cameo appearances including Louis CK, Marc Maron, Andrew Dice Clay, and Bob Odenkirk.

Although we are still waiting for Patton to make his Citizen Kane, reading the book will make you want to seek out the great films and revisit the ones you love.

Oswalt, Patton.  Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film. New York: Scribner, 2015.  222 Pages

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Farewell Mr. Spock

Last week I was saddened to hear about the passing of Leonard Nimoy.  It's hard to imagine modern Science Fiction without him.  As Mr. Spock on Star Trek, Nimoy created one of the most memorable characters in television history. While William Shatner as Captain Kirk played the more traditional hero, Spock offered a different type of heroism: one based on using logic and reason to resolve conflict.

Star Trek aired on NBC from 1966-69 and Nimoy went on to revisit the role in seven feature films.  In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock sacrificed himself to save the USS Enterprise.  Of course, he returned in subsequent films, proving a great fictional character never really dies.

Nimoy also directed Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).  In the The Voyage Home, the crew traveled back in time to the 1980s, where Spock is perplexed by all the profanity he hears in the 20th century - and hilarity ensues.  Spock always got the best laughs.

Although Nimoy never quite shook off the "Spock" persona, he appeared in many other roles on film and television.  He wrote two autobiographies, I am not Spock and I am Spock, both about his life in and out of Star Trek. From 1976-82, Nimoy hosted the cult TV series, In Search Of, a documentary dedicated to investigating all sorts of mysteries.  

Nimoy delivered a memorable performance in Phillip Kaufman's 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As a devious self-help guru who proselytized a bland "I'm ok, you're ok" type message, Nimoy created a memorable villain.

Few actors have left such a distinct mark on the cultural memory.  He will be greatly missed. Live long and prosper.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

In Search of . . . DVD Review

From 1976-198 In Search of ran on syndication, a half hour TV documentary exploring various mysteries involving "strange phenomena."  With Leonard Nimoy as host, each show featured expert talking heads, eyewitness testimonies, and even reenactments.  For what it lacked in production value, it did something television should do more of - stimulate the viewer's curiosity.

Many of the shows were unintentionally hilarious. Their "investigation" of the Bermuda Triangle hinged upon an obvious prank call to a radio station.  Many episodes also dealt with ancient civilizations, conspiracy theories surrounding historical conundrums, or New Age trends like talking to plants.  The most informative ones speculated on the future of science and foresaw the coming of cloning and stem cell research.  

Some of the subject matter dates itself.  Remember the coming ice age?  A Killer Bee Invasion from Mexico?  I believe they also predicted a fire ant invasion.  Thankfully we are not having snowstorms in July or living in domes to escape the bees!  NOT YET ANYWAY!!

In Search Of is not only a splendid time capsule of its era, but a forerunner of the future shows like The X Files and the ever popular late night radio show Coast to Coast AM (night owls know what I'm talking about). In its own unique way, In Search of played a crucial role in inventing an entirely new genre of popular culture.

Leonard Nimoy made for the perfect host.  Who better than Mr. Spock guide you through all the strange mysteries?   His calm and detached narration brought calming effect to the program.  

Episodes often weaved between real science with pseudo-science. Each show made it clear the producers were only suggesting solutions, not definitive answers.  Many of the topics still recur on mystery/documentary shows such as UFO's, ancient prophecy, and crypto-biology.  For a sort of cult history of the late 70s and early 80s, In Search of provides plenty of intriguing subject matter.

Thankfully, the show never took itself too seriously.  Usually In Search of gave equal time to believers and skeptics alike.  At the end of the day it was great fun.  Also, there's nothing like the theme music, such sounds could only emanate from 1977.

A brief revival appeared in 2002 on the Sci-Fi channel with Mitch Pileggi as host, those episodes are included in DVD package as well.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Twilight/Maine Circa Early 70s

Remember when you could drive into any old American town and find a tavern with character.  Those places where cigarette smoke oozed out of the walls and almost hypnotized you.  Nowadays every suburban dystopia has the “sport bar,” typically frequented by yuppies who scarf down chicken wings and guzzle beer as they endlessly discuss . . . sports.  Such establishments have all the appeal of a concentration camp. Thank God I lived through the 1970s before the Molochs of consumerism devoured everything of value.
Autumn evenings in Maine behoove one to get drunk and pontificate late into the night on obscure subjects.  My kind of place.
As I drove into a small town somewhere around Bangor, I noticed a watering hole on the corner with neon sign blinking WERE TOWARD ETERNITY.  Inside a collage of tables with four chairs and a bar.  Pall Malls dominated the air.   Like most taverns in New England the walls were covered with Red Sox memorabilia and snapshots of Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski.  Pictures of writers everywhere.  American literature pulsated from the anxious New England mind - Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Longfellow, Dickinson - those exotic temperaments of the WASP persuasion.  A quote from Emerson, hung on the wall in gothic script, “All life is an experiment.  The more experiments you make the better.”  My kind of place.
I grabbed a stool beside two young men with long hair and coke bottle glasses.  They were having an intense discussion about Night of the Living Dead.  
. . . .”Romero made the film of the 60s man.  Social breakdown.  People literally eating each other to death - having their babies for breakfast - that’s where it’s going man!”
His friend replied, “Whatever you say Steve.  You need to slow down on the ale buddy.  I'm going home.”
“Come on man, it‘s Friday night.”
“Your better get home to your wife Steve.”
“Don’t worry, she likes her alone time.”
I sat down beside the boisterous guy, “Sounds like you're a horror fan?”
He looked at me with amusement, “That’s right, we got nothing better to do up here. The isolation can induce a little madness now and then.”
He offered his hand, "Steve King, nice to meet you man."
"Good to meet you. I'm Henry."
“So Henry, what are you doing in Maine if I may ask?”
“I’m scouting some locations for a movie.  But I love coming here, I’m from Boston, but live in L.A. now. I'm scouting locations, mostly of old haunted houses for a movie. I love being here - feels like home."
His face lit up, 'That's really cool man!"
“Let me buy you a beer. What do you do for a living?”
“I teach High School English."
“What's that like?"
“Well, the kids are cool for the most part.  But the hours suck and the job takes up all my time.  Man, it’s hard to find the time to write!”
“So, you want to write horror?”
"It's my favorite genre, some of the best writing of the 20th century came from horror- Shirley Jackson, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury - those are the writers I admire."
"What drew you to horror?"
A darkness came across his face: “Goes back to my childhood.  One day I saw a kid get run over by a train.”
He flashed  a deadpan look directly into my eye and then laughed.
“Just joking, if I ever get famous that’s what I’m going to tell people.  Because if you write horror, they always want to know what fucked you up as a kid.”
I laughed as well.  We watched the World Series with some interest, the A’s and the Reds.  Catfish Hunter threw a masterpiece that night.  He went on about his college experience with the professors.
“- No seriously man, in college they throw all that serious literature at you.  The professors have fascist tendencies when it comes to what counts as literature.  No respect for pop culture.   But it’s the wave of the future man - Psycho proved it.”
“Right, Hitchcock took a pulpy novel and made it into high art.”
The bartender came over and I ordered another round.  
I could tell he liked an audience; he possessed an infectious enthusiasm.  “We’re a pop culture nation now.  The professors don’t get that.  The generation that grew up on television is now coming of age.”
“Harlan Ellison thinks we're going down the tubes.  We’re all slaves to the Glass Teat.”
“Maybe, maybe not. I'm more optimistic.”
I replied, “As times get crazier will get more popular.  People love the idea of paying for their scares.”
“I suppose so man, that's a good point.”
The jukebox played “96 Tears” by ? And the Mysterians.
“So, who are you going to vote for - Nixon or McGovern?”
“Let me tell you something man, I used to be as conservative as they come.  Hell, I drove into college with a Goldwater sticker on my car’s bumper.  I changed - I went to the barricades in 1968 and got gassed by the Chicago PD.”
“So, McGovern, I presume.”
“You got it, he's the last decent man in politics.”
I agreed, “Nixon’s taking us to a dark place - the time seems perfect for someone like him.”
“I know man. America is built on corruption, but we're in a whole new thing now. Calling it corruption is way too easy, it's something worse than corruption. We don't have a vocabulary for it yet - whatever "they" are up to.  That‘s what I want my fiction to explore.  But hey man, it’s a beautiful fall night. Why go there?"
‘You’re right, but back to your point about pop culture.  I think some of the answers might be in the White Album."
Intrigued, he asked,“I hear you man, but how so?”
“Think about the mayhem in the music and all the mayhem it created.”
“You’re referring to the Manson family.”
“Not just that - any type of art which inspires a bunch of crazies must have something to it.”
Now on beer #8 at least, he looked at me thoughtfully: “It is something.  All the influence they had - there's something biblical about them."
We continued drinking as we watched the A's beat the Reds. Everyone started to clear out.
"Need a ride?"
"That would be great!"
Before getting into the car I asked him, “Before you go home - want to experience something truly frightening.”
He chuckled, “Come on, how could you frighten me?"
“Come with me. I can make it happen.”
“Where did the train hit the kid?”
“Are you serious, I was messing with you.”
“Sure you were.”
I perceived a fear in the young man’s eyes, he looked at me as if I was otherworldly.
“Ok man, I'll show you."
About three miles outside of town on country road we pulled off the road, “Come on man, this is where it’s at.  We’re gonna have to walk the rest of the way.”
The night had turned cold.  I could see my own breath.  The trees grew thicker; the moonlight glowed.  We arrived at a clearing in the woods and railroad tracks loomed in the distance.
“Are those tracks still in service?”  I asked.
“Nope they stopped a few years ago.  Some claim they hear them - phantom engines I suppose.”
“Is this where it happened?”
He shivered as he spoke, “To the best of my knowledge.  This is it.  I was maybe six or seven years old. We were just here playing hide and go seek in the woods.  Suddenly, there was a horrible bang and then a silence. I caught a glimpse of the remains.  It was awful.”
He paused and continued to speak in a lower tone:  
“The image of something alive and vibrant transforming into something inhuman and ghastly remains the ultimate horror we cannot escape."
I stood there in silence with him, lost in the past. Finally, he spoke like Nicholson in The Last Detail,  “Well, there man, you’ve seen it.  Let's get the fuck out of here!”
Before I answered a sudden gust of howling wind and the unmistakable sound of a train whistle. Then an animal like scream, possibly what a banshee sounds like.
We hurried back to the car.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Crime Story: Epic 1980s Televison

Winter's the right time to revisit Crime Story, a time capsule of 1980s TV.  Before Michael Mann became a big time Hollywood director of movies like The Insider and Heat, he created two iconic TV shows during the 80s, the wildly popular Miami Vice and the lesser known Cult series Crime Story. While Crime Story never quite transcended the limitations of network TV, its pulpy, neo-noir style, propelled by Del Shannon's "Runaway," had atmosphere and style.

Starring Dennis Farina (Mike Torello), a real life Chicago police officer turned actor, as captain of the Chicago PD organized crime unit. Imagine a Popeye Doyle with a heart and moral compass.  Set in 1963, Torello and his crew are in an all out battle for the streets of Chicago with organized crime, personified by Ray Luca (Anthony Denison).  Luca began the show as a low level operator who had a meteoric rise into the upper echelon of a major crime syndicate setting its sights on Las Vegas.  Denison brought a silent menace and a comical wit to Luca.  John Santucci added comic relief as Luca's sidekick Paulie. 

Midway through season one the scene shifted to Las Vegas as  leaders of the organized crime syndicate have chosen Luca as their point man in taking over Las Vegas.  Torello and his crew follow in pursuit. The new setting allowed the story to go in more interesting directions exploring the military-industrial complex of the American West.  The political and social forces of the Cold War often obstructed Torello's quest for justice.

Unfortunately, Crime Story began to falter during the second season.  Too many stand alone episodes about the culture of Las Vegas stole the focus from the Torello-Luca conflict. A lack of character development and lack of compelling female characters both hindered the show as well.

Despite its limitations, there are many reasons to revisit Crime Story.  The look and feel of the show channeled the mid- 60s.  The music, fashion, dialogue, and cultural references all exude a cool authenticity  Also, Crime Story proved a showcase for up and coming actors including Julia Roberts, Gary Sinise, and Kevin Spacey to just mention a few. Andrew Dice Clay appeared in several episodes as Luca's partner in crime.  Joseph Wiseman, who played the original Bond villain Dr. No, is brilliant as the elder syndicate leader who mentors Luca. 

Many have credited Crime Story as an influence over serial shows like The Wire and Homeland.  Mann envisioned an epic story designed to unfold like a novel over several years. Unfortunately Crime Story arrived too early, yet left its own mark etched in neon lights and jukebox music.