Thursday, October 24, 2013

GLORIA (1980)

“I’d do anything for you, Jeri, but I can’t take [your children]. I hate kids. Espeically yours.”

Today John Cassavettes seems to be known as either one of two men: the Hollywood tough-guy actor of The Dirty Dozen, or the borderline-avant guarde creator of such challenging studies of the human condition as Mikey and Nicky and A Woman Under the Influence. While his highly-scripted movies seem improvisational thanks to his unique directing style, making them darlings of “serious” film scholars, they were so far from being considered commercially viable by Hollywood that they were almost considered a different species of thing all together. Therefore, in order to raise the funds for these personal explorations, Cassavettes took work when it was offered and even then he wasn’t always successful. Between 1977 and 1984, for example, Cassavettes attempted to finance a number of projects by accepting roles in such disparate films as Brian DePalma’s The Fury, an adaptation of Brian Clark’s euthenasia stage play Who’s Life is it Anyway?, and the inarguably trashy sub-B-monster movie The Incubus

In 1980, he wrote what he considered to be a simple pot-boiler for the sake of a direct studio sale. Originally intented for MGM’s meal ticket Ricky Schroeder, mob-moll-on-the-run-with-child screenplay Gloria ultimately wound up at Columbia Pictures. Having written the title role for his wife, Gena Rowlands, Columbia slouched toward the opportunity but only under the condition that Cassavettes also direct. Overnight, the director’s intended sell-off script became his responsibility. Even today, the resulting movie remains an odd duck in his filmography.

Jack Dawn (surprise appearance by Buck Henry) is a mob accountant whose off-hand remark to one of his cronies leads to the discovery that he’s been skimming from the outfit for years. With a price on their heads, the Dawn family is packing up to leave, hoping to be ahead of the button men coming for them—and if it weren’t for the cleaner’s unfamiliarity with the neighborhood, their grace period would have been even shorter—when their middle-aged neighbor, Gloria Swenson, runs out of coffee. Jeri Dawn begs her friend to take the kids with her and hide them, and the hard-nosed Gloria reluctantly agrees, leaving with six-year-old Phil (John Adames). Before he goes, Jack gives Phil a little book, referring to it as the Bible. “This is everything I know about everything in the world. It’s your future. Always be a man. Be tough. Don’t trust anybody.” Phil barely arrives at Gloria’s apartment before his parents’ window explodes out and his father’s voice vanishes from the phone. 

Stunned—and probably more in need of caffienne than before—Gloria is suddenly responsible for a whole other life. “What do I do with you? What do I do? You’re not my family. You’re the neighbor’s kid. You’re probably too young to understand about making a living, but I have a job. I have my own life. My cat…”

With neighbors and cops filing the hallway, Gloria manages to bully her way out of the building with Phil. The kid’s only way of dealing with the situation is to heed his father’s words and “be a man”. Overcompensating, he channels machismo by way of Harvey Keitel, alternately bossing Gloria around and clinging to her out of terror. “Look, I’m trying to tell you something,” he tells her at a flophouse hotel room that night, “You’re a good kid, Gloria. You ever been in love?” Later he gets stuck in a loop, trying to make sense of things. “I am the man! I am the man. You are not the man. You… you are a stupid person. A pig!” 

“You’re not the man,” she tells him calmly, tired beyond words. “You don’t listen. You don’t know anything. You’re driving me crazy.”

It occurs to Gloria just how bad things have become when she realizes that she knows the murderers. Having once been the girlfriend to boss Tony Tenzini, she did time for this relationship. She can’t go to the cops—the media has already painted her as Phil’s abductor—and she can’t go to the crooks. She doesn’t even like this kid, but makes her decision when a car rolls up to them on the street. “We’re not interested in you, Gloria. We just want the kid and his book.” Gloria responds by shooting at them. The car flips and she escapes with Phil on a bus, knowing that she’s in it completely now. 

This all seems like standard thriller material, maybe better suited for Sharon Stone (who starred in the 1999 remake) than the unconventional Rowlands. But it’s Rowlands who makes the journey worth taking. First and foremost, the utter absense of sentimentality raises this above the level of the average kid-com drama. Gloria remains conflicted throughout the film and on several occassions not only entertains the idea of leaving the kid to his own devices, but actually does so at one point. Her crisis of conscience isn’t played for laughs either. She doesn’t return to save him in a gruff-but-loveable way but in a genuine “what choice do I have?” fatalism. The men she’s dealing with aren’t big on the negotiations, so in many cases crisis resolution comes at the barrel of her gun. 

While Gloria is not nurturing, Phil isn’t all that lovable either. Masking his fear behind TV machismo, the little Puerto Rican kid acts like a stunted Freddy Prinze and is frequently obnoxious in a way that only real kids can be. (Fortunately he never sinks to the depths of, say, Shane’s Brandon deWilde, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his glass-shattering whine, lazy eye and Mortimer Snerd overbite. Adames’ performance, however, did earn him a Worst Supporting Actor Razzie award, tying with Sir Laurence Olivier’s whatever-he-was-doing in The Jazz Singer.) We believe his phony bravery and his laughably chauvenistic advances. Yeah, Gloria might pack a gun and talk tough, but she’s still a girl and needs a man. Right? TV says so! “He don’t know the score,” he says of a hotel manager who denies them one of the ritzy room. “He sees a dame like you and a guy like me. He don’t know.” It precisely because he doesn’t burst into wailing tears every few seconds—despite the fact that his whole family has been violently murdered—is what keeps us rooting for him. It’s probably what keeps Gloria from chucking him into traffic as well. 

Despite the winning formula, Columbia started to get cold feet as Gloria reached conclusion. Cassavettes was hardly a box office sure-thing like Friedkin or Scorcese and despite the gritty material, his camera spent more time on characters’ faces than on the gun play or set pieces. Cassvettes feared, and for good reason, that the studio might ultimately shelve the film. Fortunately, a well-timed retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art helped to change their mind. It also helped that its screening at the Venice Film Festival resulted in its tying with Louis Malle’s Atlantic City for the Golden Lion award. “It was television fare as a screenplay but handled by the actors to make it better. It’s an adult fairy-tale. And I never pretended it was anything else but fiction. I always thought I understood it. And I was bored because I knew the answer to that picture the minute we began. And that’s why I could never be wildly enthusiastic about the picture—because it’s so simple. Whereas Husbands is not simple, whereas A Woman Under the Influence is not simple, Opening Night is not simple. You have to think about those pictures.” Cassavetes on Cassavetes, By John Cassavetes 

Ironically, the same critics who’d savaged his previous movies for being too esoteric now praised Gloria for its mainstream appeal, while his supporters accused him of pandering to a “Hollywood” audience. “For once, his characters aren't all over the map in nonstop dialogue, as they were in Husbands, the talkathon he made in 1970 with Peter Falk, Gazzara and himself,” wrote RogerEbert. “Gloria is tough, sweet and goofy. […] Well, it's a cute idea for a movie, and maybe that's why they've had this particular idea so often. You start with tough-talking, streetwise gangster types, you hook them up with a little kid, you put them in fear of their lives, and then you milk the situation for poignancy, pathos, excitement, comedy and anything else that turns up. It's the basic situation of Little Miss Marker, the Damon Runyon story that has been filmed three times.” 

(Then there’s this from Jonathan Rosenbaum, who reminds me that film criticism is often, by its very nature, an exercise in masturbation: “According to some local scribes, this all takes place in Never Never Land, unlike such alleged True-Life Adventures as An Unmarried Woman, Manhattan, and Kramer vs. Kramer. I’d argue, on the contrary, that it’s merely a fantasy serving different class, race, and temperamental interests, which include separate definitions of what’s real or important. Recalling Godard’s equations of cinema and voyeurism. I often wonder if “taste” in film criticism is any more than a rationalization of unacknowledged erotic preferences. From this standpoint, Gloria gets me off in a way that middle-class chic never could.”)


Wednesday, October 23, 2013


On a Disney vacation, the minute you disembark your plane you become a symbiotic part of the company—you’re their guest and your every wish is their command. Surrounded at all times by representatives of happiness, from the perpetually smiley staff to the galavanting costumed characters to the candy-coated facades, the parks especially defy cynicism. The Magic Kingdom was given the title “The Happiest Place on Earth” for a reason, and everyone involved works their asses off to ensure the perfect time for all.  Removed from the Disney spell, the fairy dust and magic, it’s tempting—and easy—to wonder about the company’s base motivations. Of course they want your money and of course they’ll exploit Third World workers to entice you to spend. Merchandise stores occupy a full third of the combined park space, tickets are expensive but come with the promise of luxury. If you stay on property, your credit card is tied to your room key, which also serves as your electronic identification and in return they promise you’ll become one of the priviledged, a member of the Disney Family. 
The darling of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival was the inarguably daring debut film of Randy Moore. Shot surreptitiously in both DisneyWorld and Disneyland, Escape From Tomorrow attempts to lift the family-friendly veil from the corporate juggernaut and expose the otherworldly insidiousness lurking behind the hyper-reality composed of all-encompassing artificiality. What demons are hidden behind all the happy animatronics? What horrors lie behind those doors marked “Cast Members Only”? That the Disney Corporation has gone and continues to go to great lengths to protect their intellectual property, grow their brand and consume other corporations only adds to the temptation to seek for alien motivation. Which is why the making of Escape From Tomorrow is as facinating and compelling as it is. The cast and crew went to great lengths to shoot a feature-length film undetected by the parks’ thousands of employees, surveillance and copyright lawyers. As Ain’t It Cool’s Drew McWeeny stated this film “should not exist”. At the very least, you’d expect the corporation to descend like a Biblical plague upon Moore and company for daring to infringe on its slightest copyright and suppress the film from public eyes for eternity. Yet, that isn’t what happened. Unfortunately, the finished film doesn’t compare to its making-of. The story behind the story makes a much better story.
The film opens with Jim White standing on his hotel room balcony, overlooking Disney’s vast Orlando property beyond. His boss fires him over the phone, but Jim is determined to have a perfect “last day” at the parks with his family, which includes his high-strung wife Emily and their two plot-device children, Elliot and Sarah. It’s quickly established that Jim and Emily’s marriage is already strained and that he feels alienated from his children. That Elliot’s introduction involves him locking his father on the balcony then scampering back to bed with his mother can be interpreted in a variety of ways, especially Freudian. From there on, Elliot’s only concern is to ride the Buzz Lightyear attraction. 
The incumbent stress that comes with a family vacation, with the additional tension of losing one’s job during the obsession to have fun—and, due to the cost of the trip, to have a superhuman amount of fun less the money seem wasted—already has Jim and the audience on edge. During the already-intolerable It’s a Small World ride, he begins hallucinating, demonic faces glare back at him from the multi-cultural puppets. Worse, he sees Elliot’s eyes change to solid black, hears Emily lean in and cheerfully delare, “I hate you”, while the ride goes on and on and on. 
Then we’re given a little insight into Jim. He becomes obsessed with two young, pseudo-Sapphic French teenaged girls (including one young enough to still wear braces). Slack-jawed, the Ugly American Father splits from the family unit and uses Elliot as an excuse to stalk the girls through the park. Elliot asks if his father thinks their pretty and he dodges the question. “’Pretty’ is open to interpretation.” When asked if he still finds his wife pretty, Jim responds with a rambling, absent-minded, “Oh, yeah, sure. Your mother’s beautiful. But not in the classic sense. More like an Emily Dickinson, bookish way.” 
On one hand, Jim is entranced with the Disney interpretation of beauty, with its eternally young princesses and their flowing gowns, compared to the beauty of youth of the two teenagers coming out of their awkward stages and embracing their inner nymphets. On the other hand, Jim comes off as enormously creepy almost to the point of criminality. For the next half hour or so, the audience stays with Jim and Elliot as they ride one popular trademark attraction after another as Jim fantasizes about being with the girls as they gush and coo over him. Later, after reuniting with the other half of the family, Emily berates him for neglecting fatherly things like forgetting to put sunscreen on the kids, falling into that stereotype meant to justify Jim’s childish desires for the younger girls. 
Jim’s Freudian desires become reality when he wakes from a seemingly hypnotic trance to find himself tied to a hotel bed, beneath a strange woman who begs him to find her “hidden Mickey”. She may have used her piece of garish costume jewelry to entrance him. She tells him that the actresses playing the princesses sell themselves for thousands of dollars to Asian businessmen. Later, at EPCOT, his drinking and side-tracked amour frustrated Emily to the point of slapping Sarah and storming off. The inebriated Jim loses Sarah and winds up getting tazed by cartoonishly-dressed security. After a five-second INTERMISSION title card, he awakes strapped to a chair beneath Spaceship Earth (the giant golf-ball mascot of EPCOT), while a scientist with an alternating French and German accent operates various SIEMANS’ brand panels (again, the corporate sponsor of the ride) to create a deco-sphere around Jim’s head, purging his imagination. “Almost as great as W.D. himself,” the mysterious man tells him. 
The rest of the film concerns itself with Jim’s now-insidious are-they-or-aren’t-they? halucinations. Combined with the disorienting geography of the parks, the claustrophobia of the crowds, the unwashed lower-class masses upstanding WASPs encounter (portrayed as an overweight Southerner with a neck collar and a rascal scooter whose loutish son pushes Sarah over), plus the warnings of the uber-contagious “cat flu” spreading through the park and you already have a recipe for paranoia. With the inherent surrealism of the park, all kinds of horrible mysteries should be expected. Does Disney work for alien overlords? Is it a front for Hell itself? Have the animatronic robots taken over, Westworld-style? Those are just examples of the roads not traveled in Escape from Tomorrow
Lest this become a criticism of a movie I’d have preferred to see, let me finish by saying that Escape From Tomorrow’s hints at horror have been compared to the works of Polanski and David Lynch, and that the human mind is capable of conjuring inexplicable terrors. Which is not only valid but removes any sort of narrative responsibility from the fiction. Keeping the unreal in Jim’s POV leaves interpretation up to the audience. Is there evil afoot beneath the Disney wholesomeness? Or is it base human need to find flaw in artificial perfection in the way that created stories of Mr. Rogers’ blood-soaked adventures as a sniper in Viet Nam? In this day and age, are things like imagination, wonder and “fairy dust” to be mistrusted and even disdained? Again, the filmmakers leave this responsibility of meaning to the viewer. 
Because Disney is such an unstoppable capitalistic engine, legendary for encompassing lawsuits, strict security and enforcing their own rules, hearing about a movie shot on their property without their knowledge instantly stokes the curiosity. It’s particularly enticing to the legions of Disney-bashers already on the side of the “common man” that fears Disney may have too much power, control or share of the free market. The natural expectation for Escape from Tomorrow is to view something heinously subversive, almost heretical, slinging mud upon the House of Mouse. Expectation is high for scab-picking and wound-poking. The mere suggestion of high-priced Disney hookers should be enough to extract glee, but actually going so far as to show glimpses of the sex inherent in the system! Delicious blasphemy, right? 
Moore’s audacity is the force driving the hype and excitement of Escape from Tomorrow. Scenes were blocked in hotel rooms days in advance prior to filming on park property. Consumer cameras were used to allow the filmmakers to blend in with the rest of the obsessively-filming crowd. Brilliantly, Moore used this compulsive sharing culture as a masquerade. Scripts were hidden on cell phones and the various “units” were organized via call and text. Even Moore himself has expressed shock at what infractions they were able to commit, from groups of people constantly cycling through the same line, having endless varations of the same conversation. The film production was, in fact, operating behind the very veil they were hoping to peel back, with Disney employees (almost) completely ignorant of their presence beyond visitation. 
Paranoia over Disney’s legendary undead cadre of copyright lawyers drove Moore to edit the film in South Korea and he was shocked that the heavily-sponsored Sundance would even accept the film. In fact, the film festival organizers used that paranoia to their advantage by only hinting at the subversion the creators pulled off. Fest attendees climbed over each other to see the movie that got one over on the Great and Powerful Disney Corporation. Heralded as “the ultimate guerrilla film”, Escape from Tomorrow was decreed an impossible feat. Everyone in the business was certain that the film would never see a wide release, that the Happiest Company on Earth would sue the producers into oblivion. In order to circumvent heavier expected fines, Moore removed the “It’s a Small World” earworm song from the track, replacing it with a similarly designed bit of old Hollywood treacle (and brilliantly composed by Abel Korzeniowski), and was careful not to use actual scenes from the animated epics playing on the constant background hum of monitors throughout the park. The beloved Disney characters—particularly Mickey Mouse—was used at an absolute minimum, and the costumed character’s appearance actually serves as a shock cut late in the film. And still, the majority of those who’d borne witness to the film feared worse than a lawsuit—that one day Disney would just blackbag Moore and company, disappearing them forever. 
So with all of this expectation, the eagerness to see the emperor uncloathed, it is impossible for the film to artistically succeed. The story is trite and Jim White is a shallow protagonist. Played by Roy Abramsohn, Jim is nearly impossible to like or sympathize with. Elena Schuber’s Emily is shrill, the kids are pretty much props to get Jim from one end of the park to another, and if they were a real family, you’d go out of your way to change tables at a restaurant if seated near them. Alison Lees-Taylor as the mysterious former-princess who hints at the various immoral activities seems to be having far more fun as a wanton cipher, but by the time the film revisits her and her “game” of stealing children, I was already looking at my watch. I’d been so prepared for shock and outrageousness, to see the triumph of the little indie filmmaker in the face of the corporate giant, that the film’s terrible pace and characterization were the only things that caught me off guard. 
After viewing, my magnificently-witty Facebook post was that the movie was like “the world’s greatest heist where after the thieves spent the loot on chewing gum”. I stand by that. Escape from Tomorrow was doomed to be disappointing, like any over-hyped movie will be, but my main surprise came at how banal the final assemblage was. None of the work and subversion and misdirection that went into the production is visible on screen. In fact, with how careful Moore was with the final product (the name “Disney” is only uttered onscreen once and gets audibly bleeped), the story could have taken place at any theme park. The magic and majesty and real life power of the parks have very little presence. Shooting the film in black and white, to overcome difficult color balancing and lighting requirements, gave the movie an old fashioned look and seems like a lost Wonderful World of Disney special, and indeed Moore does make good use of the iconic monuments, but he rarely integrates them into the story. It’s as if all the risk and chutzpah were unnecessary. The results could have been achieved as an all-greenscreen film. 
When all was said and done, Escape from Tomorrow received a handsome release package from Warner Brothers and is currently available as VOD. Meanwhile, Disney has adopted a cavalier attitude towards it, calling it "An independent surrealistic cult film surreptitiously filmed at Walt Disney World and Disneyland," on its online companion to the Disney A to Z: The Official Encyclopedia. Rather than add to any hype or, as many have suggested, purchasing the film and releasing it under the official banner, thus capitalizing from both Disney supporters and detractors, their official response seems to be more of a shrug. 
Nothing can be taken away from Moore and company: they went up against giants and got away with their scheme. They managed to overcome every obstacle from budget to police, but in the end, it was lack of imagination that scuttles Escape from Tomorrow. "As great as W.D. himself." Whatever his flaws, real or attributed, Uncle Walt's visions extended beyond shagging a pair of barely-legal French girls.
Should Disney decide to base a movie on the making of Escape from Tomorrow, I rather think I’ll be first in line. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

KILLER TONGUE (aka La lengua asesina, 1996)

Before she became network TV’s go-to dominatrix, Melinda “Mindy” Clarke gnawed her way into the hearts of horror fans as, aguably, cinema’s first sexy zombie, Julie, in Brian Yuzna’s Return of the Living Dead 3. The movie’s poster ghoul, “Julie”, was the ultimate gothy pierced princess and in 1993 her image graced the covers of countless horror magazines, the zombie equivalent of The IT Girl. Clarke followed this iconic role with appearances in other cult hits like Xena: Warrior Princess, Firefly, and the mainstream obsessional CSI (as Gus Grissom’s personal top, “Lady Heather”). 

But before becoming a genre darling, the actress-formerly-known-as-“Mindy” took a delightful side trip to Spain to star in the indescribably goofy La lengua asesina—better known to English speakers as Killer Tongue.

“I know now I should have listened to my mother. And I should have followed her ways. Stayed in our nice harmonious little town in Sombreroland. And become a straight and untroubled, well-respected Valium-bound husband-killer alcoholic. Then cook my head like a turkey in a gas oven on a beautiful Thanksgiving day. Just like she did. But now it’s too late. And anyway things don’t come that easy any more. It all started four years ago with a heist… and a kiss.”

After puling a bank job and betraying their accomplices (Chip and Frank, leaving them tied up with their lips glued together in a painful-to-remove kiss), Johnny and Candy split up to lie low. Johnny gets picked up by the cops—no doubt investigating his suspicious wearing of a gold lame` suit—while Candy gets she to a nunnery and raises giant multi-colored poodles while helping to run the sisters’ side business, God’s Gas & Diesel, a last chance out there in the desert.

Johnny has the ass-end of the deal, having to contend with the vicious Prison Director (Robert Englund appropriately eschewing subtlety) with a confusing message of submission tattooed on his knuckles. While it says “Fuck You”, prisoners are meant to read that as “Fuck Me”. Failure to communicate ensues. Also, he has to be constantly aware of the duplicit nature of his fellow inmates, particularly the Chief’s favorite, Mr. Wigs (Doug Bradley). 

Grown bitter over the intervening four years, Chip and Frank discover the whereabouts of Candy, but she’s already lammed out to rendesvous with Johnny, unaware of his incarceration. In a simple desert shack, Candy dons some domesticity and makes soup for her and her poodles. Just then, a bit of meteorite survives atmospheric entry and lands in their meal. One sip transforms her from a ‘50s housewife to a veiny creature in an armored exoskeleton, with back spines and kinky dark hair. The poodles transform into drag queens. Remi, Loca, Portia and, of course, Rudolph (inexplicably played by Jonathan Rhys Myers). “It’s us, your bitches. Remember? Little fluffy things?”

Before you can evoke the sacred name of Pedro Almodovar, Killer Tongue gets weird. –Er. Namely with the introduction of the titular character, Candy’s oral appendage that talks like Harvey Fierstein, grows to miles in length and can punch through solid objects without effort (including Chip, and then the porcelain tub beneath him, and the floor, and possibly the Earth’s crust). It desires human flesh and is terribly jealous of any mention of Johnny. It also comes with its own theme music.

Speaking of Johnny, he’s escaped into the desert with the Chief in pursuit. Somewhere along the line, he winds up handcuffed to the bumper of the vehicle, which he drags behind him, undeterred in his quest for Candy. 

While waiting for Johnny, Candy bides her time trying to rid herself of the evil alien tongue via iron and butcher knife. In response, the tongue tries to suffocate her by wrapping around her face, suspends her from the ceiling, and ultimately gets her pregnant. 

And if that doesn’t spell entertainment, I don’t know what does. 

Depending on your mood, Killer Tongue runs at a length of time equal to either 90 minutes or forever. Made with a very specific audience in mind, Killer Tongue is the definition of both “campy” and “wacky”. None of the outrageousness is presented with so much as a wink or a tongue-in-cheek. To the filmmakers, the world of Killer Tongue is how the real world should be, transpecies poodles and latex S&M outfits for all. You can’t accuse the cast of being over-the-top because there doesn’t seem to be a baseline. It starts at hysteria and ramps up from there. 

In attempting to short-hand a summary for it, I’ve compared it in turn to “John Waters’ Wild at Heart” and “David Cronenberg’s Raising Arizona.” But really, writer / director Alberto Sciamma has created a chimera that exists all on its own, without mate or even sibling. It actually feels like a ‘50s sitcom reinterpreted by aliens, a Meet the Hollowheads for telenova fans. 

It can’t really be said that the cast are playing their roles “straight”, though every character is presented without irony—in fact, this may be one of the least ironic films ever made. It’s definitely sincere in its insanity even when you can tell it’s lost all sense of a narrative thread in the third act. That being said, there are genuinely inspired bits of character utterly organic to the film’s reality. Clarke’s horror at her 90’ tongue has less to do with the consequences of being infected by an alien parasite and is more about her big plans being ruined for Johnny’s return. Englund’s vicious Prison Chief, for the best example, is as complex as a cartoon character can get. During the day, it’s his job to be foul, brutal and sadistic, beating up men left and right, putting them on dreaded “survey duty”. But at night he walks through the barracks with a simple smile on his face, tucking a blanket around Wig and comforting a wounded dove by making a nest for it out of his toupee. The Chief’s raison d’etre is to make Johnny screw up his probation, but it isn’t too long before you understand he’s doing that less out of sadism and more because he’ll miss the handsome lug when he goes. Englund doesn’t play this with a s

ense of homoeroticism either, but complicated affection. 

While the poodles are meant to enduce squeals of delight and/or derision, each of them having stepped from an episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, their love for Candy is both endearing and evocative of a pet’s love for its human. Even the tongue’s relationship with Candy has an edge of love and devotion, even though it’s technically an alien parasite relying on her to sustain its life. As for her and Johnny’s love, well that’s the sort of devotion you can only find in movies and Shirelles songs. 

Loud and colorful, with an infectious, possibly sexually-transmitted score by Spanish band Fangoria, Killer Tongue is the perfect movie for people who like this sort of thing. I say that smart-assedly, but sincerely. Killer Tongue is one of those cult-films-by-design that you’ll either love or hate. Take all of those cliches for what they’re worth. The only way to measure the film’s success is through personal opinion. I happened to really enjoy it the first time and my love hasn’t waned since. But, then again, I’m not you. As with most cult movies, enjoyment comes with some assembly required. 

Now, unlike most of the movies I yak about, Killer Tongue is not difficult to obtain and shows up on at least two different collections accompanying other wacky wonders like Jack Frost 2 (a killer snowman in the Bahamas!). However, the presentation varies. Try very hard to avoid a full screen version as you not only lose a lot of peripheral happiness, but it also comes with washed out color and a soft image, probably sourced from the original EP mode VHS released before the turn of the milennium. 

If you do manage to fall in love with this film as I have, might I recommend that, upon meeting Melinda Clarke, you refrain from asking her to lick you from across the room. 

Just… trust me on that. She isn’t into it.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


Apart from my deep dislike of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, my reputation as a film scholar is more often called into question due to my disdain for Italian cinema. It’s especially difficult to be taken seriously as a zombie enthusiast if you find it impossible to embrace the ouevre of Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato or any of the other alphabet soup masters of flesh-eating mayhem. While I am proud to say that among my favorite films you will find Argento’s Deep Red, Suspiria and Tenebrae, my opinion of the maestro’s later work diminishes. I like the visuals of Mario Bava, but the pacing and stories of his masterpieces I’ve often found to be wanting.

This terminal case of “meh” extends beyond the horror genre as well, for I’m loathe to sit through another Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, or, for the love of god, de Sica. Indeed, upon my third class-required viewing of The Bicycle Thief, I began to sympathise with Mussolini.

And please, don’t even get me started with the likes of Leone, Corbucci or Chef Boy-ar-dee. There aren’t enough hours in the day.

As with any rule, I have an exception, and that exception is Maurizio Nichetti. A one-man embodiment of the three Marx Brothers, Nichetti is an Italian Jacques Tati; a pop-eyed, mustachioed clown whose default expression seems to be innocent bewilderment. Nichetti was put on this Earth as reassurance that Italy has something to offer me in terms of its cinema, and seems to have the same problems with The Bicycle Thief as I do, as evinced in his satirical love-letter to Neo-Realism, the hilarious The Icicle Thief.

Unfortunately, as far as America goes, he’s no Roberto Benigni. I see that as a good thing, since the latter wore out his welcome six seconds into the 1997 Academy Awards ceremony, following America’s identity crisis upon embracing Life is Beautiful (The Day the Clown Cried without the good taste). Nichetti is virtually unknown in the Land of the Free, Home of the Bacon and that, my friends, is a cultural tragedy.

Even hardcore film geeks might have a difficult time identifying Nichetti. If his name rings any bells, it’s due to his “starring” role in the live action sections of animator Bruno Bozzetto’s Fantasia parody, Allegro Non Troppo (1976, which Nichetti cowrote). Famous for its extended sequence celebrating evolution, with life springing from a discarded Coca-Cola bottle set to Ravel’s Bolero, Allegro Non Troppo achieved some minor success in the U.S., but when initially released to Home Video, the film’s live-action sequences were excised, rendering Nichetti anonymous again. The majority of his filmography, including movies he wrote, directed and starred in, have never been released in the United States. While this might be great for us more-with-it-than-thou movie geeks, it’s a bit of a tragedy for the rest of the country’s film-goer-to-ers who’ve thusly been robbed.

Nichetti created his own iconic persona, a goofy, bushy everyman prone to misadventure —evoking, for shorthand sake, Chaplin, Groucho, Keaton and Mr. Bean—for his directorial debut, Ratataplan (1979). Playing variations of this role in a half-dozen other movies, he took the idea of human cartoon to its absurdly literal conclusion in the surprising and playful Volere volare.

Co-directed with animator and past collaborator Guido Manuli, Volere volare begins with Martina (Angela Finocchiaro from My Brother is an Only Child) lamenting to her friend Loredana (Mariella Valentini) that she doesn’t need a man in her life to be happy. Marriage is what’s expected, and she refuses to marry only for money. Which is all well and good for her to say since she’s surrounded by rich men. You see, she sees her career as that of a very specialized “social worker”, her job to understand people with personal eccentricities. For instance, one of her best clients is an elderly man with the (disturbing) voice of a toddler, who she bathes and rocks to sleep after his bottle. Then there are the “Architechts”, espresso-drinking twins who silently hang out at her home to watch her sleep, shower, dress for work and then lock up after she leaves. There’s a chef who likes to turn her naked body into elaborate deserts (“including a vat of melted chocolate; soon she's dressed in her sundae best.” Harrington, Washington Post, 1993), but can settle for casually spilling things on her when time is limited. She gets a workout from a married couple who take turns being dead, requiring her to assist the mourning partner left behind, make sure the body gets to the ambulance, etc. Things get difficult on those nights when the couple can’t decide who survived that night. While she refers to these quirks as “fetishes”, she’s never depicted doing anything sexual with her clients. Even the guy who likes her to sit on his photocopier only enjoys admiring the lacework on her underwear. Sex seems to be the furthest thing from their minds. (Thus, I think it’s inaccurate to echo my fellow critics in describing her as a “prostitute”.)

Nearby, Maurizio owns a film dubbing company with his brother. They split the work evenly: Maurizio provides the sound effects for old cartoons; Patrizio employs a lingerie-clad stable of mono-lingual actresses for the “specialty” audio of “art” movies. Spending his day either recording sound or searching for interesting noisemakers in hardware stores, Maurizio (called “Little Mustache” by his brother—“Ever since he grew one when he was three.”) manages to just miss meeting Martina on a number of occasions. But fortune won’t stay elusive for long.

One night, Maurizio frequently finds himself in the right place. When both of her “Necrophyles” decide to be dead, Martina finds herself needing an extra pair of hands to wrestle the loving bodies onto a parking lot gurney. Later that evening, he stumbles upon her again and accompanies her on another job, this time with a crazed cab driver who gets off on terrorizing her with his auto-acrobatics. Maurizio does panic better than she does. Finding himself stuck at her apartment—“Where do you live?” she asked. “Where you picked me up.”—he is assaulted by another of her clients who is contientious about stalking her and doesn’t like the competition. In a single night, Martina’s job has him strained, terrorized and assaulted. 

Much to her chagrin, she realizes later that her clients enjoyed the extra company. The thrill waning, Maurizio was just the extra shot in the arm their needs needed. Not wanting to risk losing her income, Martina attempts to hunt him down. The only trouble is, because of the multiple bicycle horns he keeps in his pockets in case of dubbing emergency, she only knows Maurizo by the nickname she’s given him: “Trumpetto”.

Meanwhile, Maurizo is experiencing his own job-related phenomenons. Each time he steps in front of his projector, one or more of the animated co-stars find their way into his pocket. At first, it’s just a simple turtle from a Fleischer Brothers cartoon, which manages to knock over stacks of film cans in its escape. Later, a flock of ducks defect from a Popeye short into the real world to cavort in the rain and get squished flat by cars. This condition becomes contagious, as he discovers on his first “date” with Martina at a swanky restaurant. A persistent itch on his hand reveals yellow cartoon gloves growing beneath his skin. Worse: the hands take on a life of their own—“animated” in all senses of the word—and fly off without him! Fortunately for him, Martina is too distracted by her spill-prone chef and his “accidents” that leave her covered with spaghetti.
The rest of the film follows this comedy of surreal errors to its logical absurdist conclusion: Martina finally finds the love of her life, just as he completes his transformation into a living—and very naked—cartoon character. (Which wasn’t that much of a stretch for Nichetti, being 75% cartoon anyway.) 
Gentle and uncomplicated, Volere volare makes no attept to explain Maurizio’s transformation, just as it sees no reason to explain Martina’s growing attraction to the odd little man. Just like love, human-to-cartoon evolution requires no deconstruction. And if you can allow that to satisfy your left-brain’s needs, that’s all that Volere volare asks of you. Without turning this into a discourse on economical-cultural dichotomy of comedy, the movie should seem unique to those raised on American sex comedies. The American-view blend of Night Shift with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? resulted in Ralph Bakshi’s raunchier Cool World, released just a year later. In contrast, once you become comfortable with the “non-exploitative European-style nudity” (to quote Richard Harrington’s Washington Post review), Volere volare is charming and utterly inoffensive. Even Patrizio’s stable of “actresses” and his blue movies are played for laughs, not titilation. Nichetti keeps the film’s heart in the clouds, rather than the gutter and avoids the cheap laugh in favor of the corny one. (Even more surprising considering that one of the film’s producers was Italy’s infamous prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, whose political career was overshadowed by his notorious “bunga-bunga parties”!)

The usual unfortunate caveat exists here, however. Unlike the better-distributed Allegro Non Troppo, Volere volare is difficult to come by and doesn’t seem to have gotten an international DVD release. The VHS image is dark and grainy, working against the movie’s intrinsic breezy charm. But perhaps, if we all get together and clap our goofy gloved hands together, maybe we can all will a DVD into existence. Or, at least, keep Tinkerbell alive long enough to make us one out of fairy dust. (Sorry, it’s a sexy cartoon fairy tale; I couldn’t resist.)
For added pleasure, please visit Nichetti’s website.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Once upon a time, we didn’t have 24-hour news coverage. As a society, we weren’t bombarded with images of atrocity. But even with the Internet it takes a bit of work to find unedited footage of real death. When Osama bin Laden, arguably America’s greatest villain, was shot and killed by Navy SEALS in 2011, images of his corpse were with held from the public, deemed “too gruesome” and leading to even more theories of conspiracy and government malfeasance. In a way, the post-9/11 culture was denied emotional closure after years of living under outside and domestic terrorism. Contrast that with the horrific execution video of journalist Daniel Pearl by Al-Qaeda operatives, which horrified (and fascinated) all who viewed it, even in its jittery form. As has been stated by countless psychologists, we’re a culture both attracted to and repelled by violence. We are addicted to gazing into the abyss.

In 1981, Leonard Schrader, brother of filmmaker Paul Schrader (whose films are far from pacifist), wrote The Killing of America for the Japanese market. Uncomfortably lumped in with the sensationalistic so-called “mondo” movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Killing of America is a deadly serious look at the rise of gun violence in the country. As a catalyst, it starts its analysis with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, repeating a tight close-up of the infamous Zapruder footage so familiar to us now from Oliver Stone’s JFK. During the images of the aftermath, the funeral procession and the iconically uncomfortable prompting of John Jr. to salute the body of his father, we are presented with a montage of Wild West Shows, the attempted assassinations of Ronald Reagan, Jim Brady, George Wallace. On a regular afternoon, police gun down “sidewalk sniper” Sam Brown at point-blank range. As he collapses to the sidewalk the narration tells us, “America is the only industrialized country with the murder rate of countries at civil war like Cambodia and Nicaragua. An attempted murder every 3 minutes. A murder every 20 minutes.” It leaves us with a statistic of 20,000 murders a year by 1980. (Today, according to some sources, that number has grown to 100,000 deaths by gunshot annually.)

Following RFK’s assassination from the gun of Palestinian fanatic Sirhan Sirhan—“He looked like a saint. I wish that Son of a Gun were alive today. So I wouldn’t be here. […] I’m not mentally ill, sir, but I’m not perfect either.”—Charles Whitman’s sniper rampage in ’66, it’s posited that these incidents gave rise to a “new kind of killer,” and a surge of “the random murder of strangers.” At no point does the camera shy away from the true-life tragedy captured by news cameras. The viewer sees blood spurting and bodies dropping in a way that belies all the cinematic heroic bloodshed we’ve been conditioned against. The raw, grainy imagery screams “reality” in a way that the crispness of modern-day reality does not. Maybe it’s the impact of history, but there’s an element of The Killing of America that doesn’t offer a release. The footage is, to use the coveted marketing phrase, “shocking”. 

Chuck Riley’s narration drags us through twenty years of violence, touching on the familiar like John Wayne Gacy and the chilling off-handed confessions of Ed Kemper, who threw darts at his mother’s severed head, “I did it in my society.”—the less-familiar like “Mondays are so boring” child-killer Brenda Spencer, through events obscure but no less hideous. James Hoskins’ unhinged 1980 take-over of a TV station following his murder of his girlfriend; bystander Richard Townsend forced to rob a bank at gun point; mortgage broker Richard Hall taken hostage in his own office by bartender Anthony Karitzis, who wired a shotgun to the back of Hall’s head and marched him through Manhattan for three days. “I hope that this doesn’t go off, I’m having too much fun.” The birth of the murderer as cause celebre. 

As the film progresses, it stretches the causation of “more guns equal more lunatics” that the right constantly accuses the left of using erroneously, but it’s hard to argue when heads are bursting undramatically before your eyes. Following Whitman’s rampage, the practice of ordering guns and rifles through the mail was suspended, which, the movie posits, resulted in the skyrocketing of private gun ownership. During the 1980 candle light vigil for John Lennon which caps the documentary—the only footage I personally witnessed in my lifetime—over the inevitable soundtrack of “Imagine”, the narration tells us, “While you watched this movie, five people were murdered. One was the random killing of a stranger.”

While history supports that gun violence did taper off during the mid-80s and through the ‘90s, thanks in part to the Brady Bill, following 9/11 it’s difficult to dispute that gun violence has once again been on the rise, and in a manner that the documentary could not have foreseen, despite all of its portents. The tragedies in Sandy Hook, in Columbine, in Aurora, Colorado, would seem to indicate that we’ve returned to the cycle of violence so persuasive through the ‘60s and ‘70s, making Killing of America all the more relevant today. 

Since 1981, we’ve grown accustomed to sensationalistic reporting and biased, agenda-driven “enternewsment”. Which makes the hindsight viewing of Killing of America so much more powerful. Modern eyes may take a few minutes to adjust because the film is presented without irony, without self-reflection. It states its case that America has grown increasingly dangerous because of political disillusionment, special interest groups and the decline of mental health care. Today this message is still espoused, but it’s tinged with barely-related self-righteous outrage from both sides of the political divide, the dialogue almost as violent as the misanthropic gunfire. Just as today, America had as many voices shouting for the right to own murder weapons versus those who shout for the complete eradication of firearms. Neither side is any more willing to discuss the problem now than they ever were. 

As Vonnegut would say, “And so it goes.”

The Killing of America was released on a special edition DVD through Exploited. It may be difficult to find, but a good starting point is

Thursday, July 18, 2013


I really wanted to start this piece off with “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear!”. But every other critic in the world has already done that recently, mostly to set up their savaging of 2013’s The Lone Ranger reboot starring Johnny Depp as a “Sorta-Tonto”.

So I’m not gonna do that. Instead, I will present to you the Lone Ranger’s creed:

"I believe that to have a friend,
a man must be one.

That all men are created equal
and that everyone has within himself
the power to make this a better world.

That God put the firewood there
but that every man
must gather and light it himself.

In being prepared
physically, mentally, and morally
to fight when necessary
for that which is right.

That a man should make the most
of what equipment he has.

That 'This government,
of the people, by the people
and for the people'
shall live always.

That men should live by
the rule of what is best
for the greatest number.

That sooner or later...
we must settle with the world
and make payment for what we have taken.

That all things change but truth,
and that truth alone, lives on forever.

In my Creator, my country, my fellow man." 
 (NPR, “The Lone Ranger: Justice from Outside the Law” by Fran Striker. January 14, 2008)

Please, athiest friends, put your fists down, the Lone Ranger is making a point here. This is strictly a deist creed. I think it would be very difficult to argue against this creed, even in this cyni-hip day and age. This is the American Exceptionalism everyone likes to talk about but few aspire to, this is the antithesis of “Nothing personal, it’s just business” which lurks invisible on our money like a fnord. Like Doc Savage’s similar speech, it’s meant to be something aspiration. Something our young men and women were meant to grow up with—if you can’t do good, at least do no harm.
It’s very easy to look at these proto-pop culture ideals askance and find them dismissable because for the last two decades Americans have stopped believing in heroes. Perfectly understandable, of course. But we live in a culture of anti-heroism, people who do good because it’s in their best interest. A modern prototypical hero that comes to my mind is John McClain, played by Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies. He started as a regular guy who did the right thing because he was the only one who could. He was constantly frightened, stressed out, but brave five seconds longer than most other good people would be. (That’s the way it started, anyway, and the “real” John McClain is still in there despite the character assassination of A Good Day to Die Hard.) Certainly McClain is a distillation of our “classic” heroes, but passed through the emotionally-fried filter of the ‘70s and ‘80s. McClain aside, who do we aspire to be in our post-9/11 world when our most recent heroes can’t even bear to be seen in public with white hats? 

The Lone Ranger first rode into culture in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, where radio was really the only thing that was free. WXYZ (Detroit) radio station owner, George W. Trendle, and writer Fran Striker, conceived of the masked man and his “trusted Indian companion” as a window into an even simpler time. At a time when Wall Street had failed the entire country, once a week, The Lone Ranger looked out for the interests of the “little people”. He wore a mask for the same reason as Batman—to strike fear in the hearts of superstitious and usually uneducated criminals, generally men made mean by the world or, mostly, out of simple stupid greed. He wore a white hat, rode a “firey white horse”, shot silver bullets, looked out for the oppressed and his best friend, a member of the Potawatomi (which would make him, in Texas, very far south of his tribe’s normal territory, I believe, but what do I know?) who was constantly the target of simple-minded racism and prejudice. The Lone Ranger never killed. He shot guns out of villains’ hands and treated every arrest as a teachable moment. Throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s—and then again throughout the ‘50s once the characters transitioned to television—little boys (and tomboy girls) wore official and unofficial domino masks, the General Mills-sponsored premium rings and deputy badges, having devoured boxes of Cheerios to amount the boxtops needed. They named their bikes and broomstick horses and announced their comings and goings with “Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!” This is all a matter of cultural record. 

On the radio, he is most associated with the throaty voice of Brace Beemer. On television, he and Tonto were brought to vivid life by Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, the best-remembered depictions of the characters. (There was an awkward season where the Ranger was played by John Hart and, for some reason, those were the episodes most often in syndication when I was growing up, mixed with the fifth season which was the only one in color.) 

After a couple of full-length television movies starring Moore and Silverheels, the world was suddenly empty of the duo from 1956 until the early ‘80s. There was an animated show on CBS between ’66 and ’68 that thrust the Ranger and Tonto into a steampunk reality and suffered from a bizarre and arty stylistic design. When I was growing up, a few of these would sneak in with the Filmation The Lone Ranger and Tarzan Adventure Hour. But growing up with parents who’d grown up with The Lone Ranger, I was well-versed in the masked man by the time 1980 rolled around, bringing to audiences a new introduction to the stalwart heroes: William A. Fraker’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger

With a screenplay credited to no less than five writers (Ivan Goff, Michael Kane, Ben Roberts, William Roberts, Gerald B. Derloshon (as Jerry Derloshon), and a rumored three or four more brought on during shooting, not even to mention bafflingly uncredited George MacDonald Frasier), this was meant to be the new Lone Ranger for a new generation, for the kids that knew only Scooby-Doo and Johnny Quest and especially Star Wars, the post-moon-shot generation who seemed to be looking more to the heavens than to the west. It was meant to launch the career of a carefully-chosen “It Boy” wonderfully-named Klinton Spillsbury in the title role, white hat and mask. Tonto underwent the most radical transformation. Gone was the halting pidgen English he’d been known for (which drove genuine Native American actor Jay Silverheels crazy). As portrayed by the handsome Yaqui actor Michael Horse, Tonto had no trouble with the “white man’s tongue”—neither did any other Indian character for that matter—and far from the “stereotype servant” the hippies had dismissed him to be in the late ‘60s, Horse’s Tonto was fully The Lone Ranger’s partner (even though Moore and Silverheels made this pretty clear already, but political correctness has deep roots). It was to be the difinitive re-establishment of the characters’ origins. Toys, tie-ins and, especially, costume accessories had been prepared more than a year in anticipation of the premiere. Indeed, seven year-old me was not the only kid in the theater wearing that scratchy plastic domino mask put out by Gabriel Toys.

The Legend of the Lone Ranger faithfully recreated the “second” origin of the title character (he was much more vaguely drawn in the early episodes of the radio show) and goes even further, starting with a ten-year-old John Reid rescuing a same-aged Tonto from a group of masked vigilantes. Hiding the young brave in a culvert, John hears the men proclaim that the Reid family was probably harboring the filthy savage and arrives just in time to watch his father bloodily gunned down, his mother dragged around the ranch from behind a horse (and then shot) and see his entire home burned to the ground. Tonto takes the young John back to his tribe where he learns the ways of the (now) Comanche. (Let’s set the history of the Comanche aside for a minute and try to forget just what a bloodthirsty group they were—towards whites and anyone else that happened to be standing where they wanted to walk.) Before long, John’s older brother Dan finds him and sends him back East “to learn”. Before bidding his new family farewell, John and Tonto become blood brothers and Tonto gives him a silver amulet, declaring him to be forever “kemosabe” aka “Trusted Friend”. 

A decade later, adult learned lawyer John Reid is on a stagecoach traveling to Texas. On the stage he meets the lovely Amy Stryker and behaves chivolrously. When the stage is suddenly attacked by men wearing burlap hoods who want the postal bag containing land deeds, John is one of the first to act. (This sequence contains a number of really great practical stunts, including stuntman Terry Leonard performing an undercrawl beneath the horses’ post and the coach itself—a tribute to Yakima Canutt’s stunt originated in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), and nearly identical to a stunt he would further recreate in a little movie later that year: Raiders of the Lost Ark.) Reining in the horses, John and the other passengers manage to subdue two of the bandits—John convinces the others not to simply kill them but to bring them back to Del Rio for lawful justice. 

John to a Deputy as he delivers the bandits: “Will you require a deposition?”
Deputy: “I dunno. You got one you wanna get rid of?”

Now, as Merle Haggard tells us during his narration, “Del Rio was a town with a gun in its back”, under seige by the villainously mad former Union Captain Butch (for “Butcher”) Cavendish and his behooded gang. We are also told that the sheriff is crooked and on Butch’s take (since he’s played by Matt Clark, we already know something is up) and that the half-dozen Texas Rangers, led by John’s bro Dan, have their hands full. After the malicious murdering of Amy’s newspaperman uncle (over a disparaging editorial of Cavendish), John joins the posse to run the gang down, deputized along the way. 

One of Dan’s friends and trusted men, guy by the name of Collins, leads the men into a box canyon, rides ahead and betrays them. Cavendish’s gang swarm over the hills above and blow the Rangers to pieces with Henry rifles, plummeting dynamite wagons and a friggin’ gatling gun! This sequence is also rife with terrific stunts including some blood-curdling high falls (during which one seasoned Ranger quips, “It ain’t the bullet that kills ya, it’s the fall!”). Butch, himself a sharpshooter, personally puts down Dan with four shots then shoots John in the head.
Miraculously, John is only grazed by the lead and is therefore still alive when Tonto happens by and finds him. After converting a cave into a sweatlodge to heal his friend, Tonto once again brings John Reid back to the Comanche, who are at this point pretty damned sick of white guys (and everyone else since the Spanish arrived in 1706) and broken treaties. Still, John is kemosabe and Tonto will always care for his friend. A few weeks of mending, which includes rescuing a wild albino horse from a deep ditch and then riding it to a standstill (which in itself is a pretty exciting sequence), John has made up his mind. He digs a sixth grave alongside the others in Bryant’s Gap and chooses the way of the spirit warrior. As staged in the film, we see John, his back to the camera, pledging his duty to his dead brother, sketching out his plan to go back to the world disguised but still wearing his badge. Spillsbury stands, places his large-brimmed white hat on his head and turns into his close-up, face bisected by a black leather mask. And then the William Tell Overture kicks in!

(I’m going to return to this famous piece of Rossini music in a minute, but everyone in America has heard it. They may not know what it’s called or who William Tell was aside from the apple-on-the-head thing, but everyone knows that the William Tell Overture is the Lone Ranger’s theme song. And it’s one of the most exciting pieces of music ever written.)

With the origin over, finally, at the 56:00 minute mark, The Legend of the Lone Ranger finally kicks to life. John and Tonto and Silver and Scout (Tonto’s horse; “Victor” is John’s nephew’s horse. Everybody knows that.) thunder across the plains. They discover that Butch’s big evil scheme is to hijack a train car containing the President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. The “why” of this has something to do with Cavendish’s court martial and his plans toward enacting his own form of Manifest Destiny but, really, who cares? The President is in danger!

Following a rousing introduction to the town—the people have decided that Tonto is somehow to blame for something terrible and aim to hang him—The Lone Ranger shoots the rope of Tonto’s noose before the long drop, shoots the guns out of the hands of damned near everybody, rescues his buddy and then off they are again to stop Cavendish from doing that voodoo Cavendish does so well. Which is not to imply that he performs any voodoo in this movie. 

The last twenty minutes of The Legend of the Lone Ranger are knock-down, drag out, good old fashioned excitement and adventure. Dams explode, the Cavalry rides in, John and Butch face off for the first and last time. Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill join General Custer on the rescue (they were on the same train so they felt obligated)! Everything magical about the old west comes to brilliant chaotic life, beautiflly captured by Laszlo Kovacs’ photography and all set to that famous music of maestro Gioachino Rossini. By the end, justice has been delivered, peace restored, and The Lone Ranger, sadly leaving Amy Stryker behind thinking John Reid dead, bellows “Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!” and off go the Ranger and Tonto into the sunset. President Grant, fingering a silver bullet, wonders aloud, “Who is that Masked Man?” Merle Haggard wraps things up and the credits roll. 

Between 1980 and the film’s release in ’81, The Legend of the Lone Ranger was frought with problems, as one can tell from the platoon of screenwriters kicking the thing into place. Production delays were considerable and the film’s new star, fresh out of a brief stint at Brigham Young University, was, to put it mildly, a bit of an asshole. Reportedly hard to get along with, Spillsbury picked fights with both cast and crew and was quite the social carouser off-set. (Andy Warhol reported in his Diaries (published in 1989) that during his interview with the actor, Spillsbury was drunk and rambling about his unrequited crushes on Dennis Christopher and Bud Cort, in Warhol’s words, “blowing his whole image”. 

Worse still—if not worse than anything else in the history of ever—Universal Pictures gave their blessing to producer and Lone Ranger TV producer/character rights-owner, a millionaire robber baron named Jack Wrather, to “sue the mask off” Clayton Moore. Moore, who had, in his own words, “fallen in love” with the character, frequently wore his costume and mask to events, charities, and childrens’ hospital wards. More than once he broke up altercations with strangers on the streets. The man was The Lone Ranger and a hero in his own right. Yet neither Wrather nor the studio wanted to give anyone the impression that the then 65-year-old actor was reprising his part in the film (or would have anything to do with it at all). So they got a court order to stop Moore from making any public appearances wearing the mask. Moore fought back and in the meantime adopted a pair of dark Foster Grant sunglasses, only slightly altering the costume. Public response was a disaster. Moore was one miracle short of sainthood in the eyes of the people and they held this grudge against the movie. 

Meanwhile, with their drunken jerk of a star making a drunken jerk of himself, Universal opted to distance themselves from Spillsbury and brought in James Keach to redub all of Spillsbury’s dialogue. Keach—whose sole “good” performance to date (as opposed to his brother, Stacy, and his career of genius) was as Jesse James in The Long Riders, but let’s face it, he had a lot of support in that film—turned in a dazzling performance that rivaled Harrison Ford’s original Blade Runner narration in terms of excitement. The dubbing is poor and even now sounds like John Reid’s voice floats somewhere else while interacting with the other characters. 

Now combine all of that with an over-burdened and sluggish—and surprisingly violent and bloody—first hour and what you wind up with is box office cyanide. To paraphrase the great Yogi Berra, “If people don’t wanna go to [a movie], you can’t stop ‘em.” Despite some really cool action figures (which I still have), the costumes, the lunch boxes, the Underoos (remember those?), The Legend of the Lone Ranger landed with a thud, with a worldwide gross of only $12M against an $18M not-insubstantial budget for the time. After a brief summer run and a take-home of three Golden Raspberry Awards, the movie revived zombie like on HBO and home video for a while, but left behind a legacy with a bad aftertaste, still ridiculed to this day. 

But something magical happened in July, 2013. Having acquired the rights to The Lone Ranger and all characters, Disney decided way back in 2007 that they would redo The Lone Ranger for the even newer post-millennial generation. Their ace-in-the-hole was box-office busting Johnny Depp, who would “rescue” Tonto from the disgraceful role of step’n fetchit “sidekick” (as he described the faithful Indian companion over and over again despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, pidgen English notwithstanding). Depp, on a career high due to his inarguably brilliant creation of “Captain Jack Sparrow” that led the Pirates of the Carribbean franchise to monumental riches, was proclaimed to be unable to do no wrong. 

In between 2007 and 2013, however, Depp grew abjectly weirder in his role choices, actually infusing weird where weird wasn’t there originally. His Willy Wonka creeped out virtually everyone who witnessed the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory train wreck; his Barnabas Collins (which was, in my opinion, speaking as a non-fan of the original series) enraged Dark Shadows fans (especially after the passing of original Barnabas Jonathan Frid just prior to the release of Tim Burton’s newest flop reboot). In between those Burton-Depp pairings came also a less-than-successful (but nonetheless brilliant) Sweeney Todd, the ill-advised Alice in Wonderland, and the grudgingly-accepted Pirates: On Stranger Tides, mothers began to whisper Depp’s name to their children in order to get them to eat their vegetables. By the time the first stills of the masked man’s latest incarnation were released, the only thing people could focus on was that Depp’s Tonto, for whatever reason, wore a dead crow on his head. 

Almost a year before its release, the Gore Verbinski-directed The Lone Ranger was declared to be a future flop of John Carter-esque proportions. Unlike the much-maligned John Carter, however, this might not have been the declaration of bloodthirsty critics eager to see the fall of Disney. If you’ll allow me further digression, the latest Lone Ranger film does, indeed, place The Legend of the Lone Ranger in a better light, though it does bear resemblance to its most recent past incarnation.

First and foremost, Depp and Verbinski’s Lone Ranger also features a bloated script, this time from Pirates scribes Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, with some last-minute rescuing by Revolutionary Road writer Justin Haythe, who managed to expunge the former’s script of its pre-occupation with werewolves. As John Reid, Armie Hammer has far more charisma than the Hasselhoff-esque Spillsbury (though the bar was already pretty low), but this story is told by an elderly Tonto to a young Lone Ranger admirer, from the confines of an exhibit in a traveling circus, circa 1930. Tonto’s version of the story prevails and allows for comic asides, gags, and cartoon logic. We’re not supposed to take it literally when, for example, he and Reid are hurled from a moving train and tumble for a couple of miles amidst iron and wood train track debris and are spared being crushed by the inertia-defying engine by a happily-placed wheel rod that impales itself between the two of them. That neither of them have been atomized or even bruised by this adventure is because of the spritely and saggy old Tonto’s imagination. Which also allows for other leaps of logic. 

Not to mention several Princess Bride moments where the kid, speaking for the audience, exasperatedly accuses Tonto of “telling it wrong”. For in this version, gone is the childhood bond, the reaching out of races, the “trusted brother”. In This Tonto’s memory, John is a pale comparison to his heroic brother Dan. In This Tonto’s translation, “kemosabe” means “Wrong Brother”. In Depp’s Tonto’s telling, it is still the Indian (and still Comanche, though a tribal exile) that nurses the young Reid back to health following the even more violent ambush at Bryant’s Gap. It’s still Butch Cavendish that’s the bad guy—only this time he’s no dignified mad military man but rather the greasiest outlaw this side of Lonesome Dove’s Blue Duck, with a cruelly scarred face, committing the sadistic of cutting out and eating Dan Reid’s heart while the Ranger lies dying. He’s also responsible, along with the movie’s “secret” obvious villain, of massacring a younger Tonto’s tribe after brought there at the edge of death by none-other than Tonto. 

Let’s pause to let that sink in. A young Comanche brave finds two dying white guys in Texas, during the midst of a seemingly endless Comanche War, and instead of building bonfires in their crotches, he brings them back to the rest of his Comanche settlement, replete with adult male Comanches taking a brief respite from murdering whites, Mexicans, Spanish and other tribes. And instead of hollowing out the skulls of these two white dopes for use in ersatz hockey games, the tribal elders not only nurse the clowns to life, but are unaware that Tonto has led the men to a silver mine in exchange for a tin watch (echoing, of course, the idea that Indians are attracted to shiny things in exchange for land—when the  Indians themselves were laughing at the very notion of “selling” land and believed to be getting the better end of the deal—“Hey, I just “sold” some morons that entire island over there. No, that one. What’d Drunken Buffalo call it? ‘Manhattan’. Yeah, that one. They gave me some shiny rocks in exchange. It was the strangest conversation I’ve ever had!”). And THEN we’re supposed to believe that these two white guys, not even smart enough to pack water for lengthy trips into the desert although they remembered to bring their heavy black leather duster coats, massacred an entire Comanche encampment by themselves, leaving only Tonto alive. Not exactly the Sand Creek Massacre involving mostly women and children, these idiots were up against healthy male Comanches who, even in 1854, knew what rifles were and possessed them! But, anyway, back to senile Tonto’s story. 

To combat all the universally negative reaction to the bird-hat, the screenwriters turned it into a motif during production. The bird on his head may or may not be a spirit animal. He feeds it grain just in case. In fact, he gives grain to everyone he meets, sort of like “Aloha” means both “hello” and “goodbye” and “what time is it?” The Lone Ranger is pretty much a bumbling dunce in Tonto’s eyes and while he’s certainly no step’n fetchit, this poor, half-crazed-with-guilt Tonto still hasn’t grasped the use of personal pronouns, prepositional phrases or linking verbs and sounds even worse than Jay Silverheels—and it wasn’t Jay’s choice to talk that way to begin with. I found less problem with his constantly wearing “war paint” (as the media consistently harped on) because Tonto’s mind is trapped between Earth and Spirit, and seems more like Hopi medicine mask than anything else (and I don’t really know that much jack about American Indians). 

Now, once you get past all of the above. One you get into whatever hole Verbinski and Depp have dug for themselves, it becomes more or less a groove. But there’s still the sluggish nature of the origin story. It takes just as long for John to don his mask and dig the extra grave. Tonto has practically no respect of or confidence in Reid and only hangs out with him because the white spirit horse keeps telling him to. (The horse(s) playing Silver—as in The Legend of, a combination of geldings and mares—is marvelous and actually has more chemistry with Depp than Hammer does during the endless second act.) Let’s set aside, again, the idea that many tribes considered albino horses to be extremely bad luck and usually avoided them because, c’mon, what’s The Lone Ranger without Silver? 

As opposed to Christopher Lloyd’s Cavendish (and let’s not underestimate the disconnect we kids of the ‘70s had seeing Taxi’s Reverend Jim ordering two of his own men executed), William Fichtner is depraved both outside and in, as a visual shortcut for evil, mainly because Cavendish the character is mostly wasted and forgotten by the third act, relegated to third-banana in the villain line-up. 

Where The Legend of  triumphs over Lone Ranger is in two areas: first, the former plays the story straight. It trusted the audience to accept the adventure as it stands. Verbinski and Disney had no such confidence in todays attention-deficit moviegoers, so, in spite of many clever moments, the gags and jokes flow even more egregiously than in any of the Pirates films, yet still injects some, quite frankly, shocking amounts of bloody violence. Verbinski borrowed more heavily from Leone and Peckinpah than Fraker, and Fraker had Reid’s parents murdered in front of him. 

Second, when Spillsbury’s Reid first dons his mask, turns into his close up and reveals himself to be THE Lone Ranger, The William Tell Overture erupts from the soundtrack. 56 minutes in, that score covers the movie like a blanket of awesome. 2013’s Lone Ranger waits until almost 95 minutes before finally unleashing that famous score. In both instances, the music transforms the films. The music, those famous galloping trumpets, gives both movies permission to be what they are. No matter how impossible the task or ridiculous the stunt (or even, in the recent case, how stunningly clumsy the CGI), The William Tell Overture paves over the improbable. By the time it appears in 2013’s Lone Ranger, the film has already devolved into a Bugs Bunny cartoon, with its crossing runaway trains, magical leaps and outstanding marksmanship. But it doesn’t matter. Because “the song” is playing. 

The Legend of the Lone Ranger doesn’t become so until the music starts. As integral as Tonto, silver bullets and the mask, it’s that music that announces that The Lone Ranger has arrived. At this point I’d like to posit that The William Tell Overture is part of both our cultural and physical DNA. My five-year-old neice, while still growing up under the “yesteryear” eye of my father, knows what that music means, even if she wasn’t immediately clear who the Lone Ranger was. More than anything, The William Tell electrifies the American bloodstream. It more than brings out the seven-year-old kid in all of us, it erases cynicism to a very large and instant degree. NSA, IRS, CIA, Republicans, Democrats, foreign wars, lousy economy—it’ll all be okay because, right now, The Lone Ranger is here, and he’s telling us we can do something about all this too. The William Tell delivers unto all of us a white hat and a black mask, tells us to earn friends by being friends, that a bullet-to-the-head is not the way to bring in the bad guy and that John McClain was correct in adopting as his catch phrase “Yippie-Ki-Yay”. In fact, as fellow journalist Mike Haushalter told me at the screening we attended, if that music had played over the endless trailers, the 2013 Lone Ranger would not have bombed on its opening weekend. That music draws Americans to it like iron filings to a magnet, and just as naturally. 

It’s been 80 years since that music first thundered into living rooms from the tinny speakers of torso-sized radios and economically the world isn’t much different. We still mistrust our governmental officials, determined to put us all into Hoover camps and keep the poor ground under the heels of corporate progress. Once again, Bankers put their own interests ahead of the greater good and went unpunished for it. 

In 1981, the economy was climbing out of a recession, we were still more or less at war with others, only in this case, Middle Easterners and not Comanches (just like today). And in all three cases, we needed The Lone Ranger. But after the ‘60s, we had lost faith in the Masked Man. He wasn’t enough to stop the march of distruction and poverty. Neither the ’81 Lone Ranger nor the 2013 incarnation were conceived and executed in the seeming purity of the man from the ‘30s or ‘50s. “American Exceptionalism” doesn’t mean what it used to. We’re no better or worse-off than we were when the two men first rode, but heroes have come to be redefined. 

Fraker made an admirable stab at reintroducing the archetypical hero. By ’81 we had Luke Skywalker instead of Popeye Doyle and the former was easier for the seven-year-olds to swallow. But we also had Indiana Jones and he seemed to stand a little taller than our masked man. At least we had Indiana Jones. Our heroes today seem to be heroes in spite of themselves. As of right now, the number one movie at the box office is the animated Despicable Me 2, about a man who, despite his greatest desires, sucks as a supervillain so becomes a hero. Even Superman flies with a heavy conscience. There are quotes around Truth, Justice and, especially, The American Way, where there didn’t use to be. It’s nothing to mourn; culture changes. Times change. 

Both recent Lone Rangers failed for different reasons. The former because greed wished to replace the original, the man who embodied the character, with a shinier, younger version. The latter because the shinier star can no longer hear the word “no” because it’s never uttered in his direction. Depp’s Tonto isn’t offensive but it is disingenuous, no matter how much or how little Choctaw or Cherokee his blood possesses, he made the decision for whatever reason to deliver halting sentences and give us all the bird. Michael Horse rewarded Jay Silverheels. Johnny Depp couldn’t bear to be off-center of attention. Neither Fraker nor Verbinski could see that The Lone Ranger isn’t about grand sweeping change. John Reid’s story is not an epic. It’s about one man—in this case, two—overcoming cultural prejudices and making tiny changes by showing others how they, too, can affect the world in a positive way. There’s no need for apologies for the Lone Ranger or Tonto of yesteryear, no matter how “quaint” they seem to be now. What they symbolized is what mattered. The absence of irony and cynicism. Still, in the end, 2013’s Lone Ranger gets John Reid as right in the end as he’s ever been. He does not take a life. He does not succumb to the vigilante justice that constantly befell his best friend. Right to the end both Spillsbury’s and Hammer’s John Reid stayed pure to the notion of justice. Sinking to the level of the villain may be emotionally satisfying, but is it moral? Of course not. But decades of Charlie Bronson Death Wish clones have continued to give us the easy way out. Neither Reid nor Tonto ever made the easy decisions and that is what made them heroes. 

And it isn’t wrong or old fashioned to think that way, so long as you have The William Tell Overture playing in your ears. 

No William Tell Overture, no box office.