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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Film Review | Sophie Scholl: The Final Days


Sophie's choice

by Thomas Delapa


Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) may be set in the last years of World War II Germany, but its gripping relevance transcends any time or place. At its core, this electrifying, Oscar-nominated drama turns on the age-old confrontation between moral conscience and unconscionable law.

Based on Nazi-era documents only recently released, Sophie Scholl is history stripped bare, distilling the tyrannical horrors of Hitler's Third Reich down to the case of one brave young woman. In early 1943, Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch) was arrested and charged with high treason for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at her Munich university.

As Sophie is interrogated by the Gestapo's Robert Mohr (Alexander Held), director Marc Rothemund lets his splendid leads take over. A good third of the film consists of a series of exchanges between Sophie and Mohr, played out with pinpoint dialectical precision. On one side of the desk is Sophie, an utterly cool embodiment of Hemingway's grace under pressure. Yet Mohr's counter punches also pack a wallop, ranging from cagey questions to furious accusation.

When I watched this film with an audience, a palpable hush was in the air, the product of great acting and a sense of gravity so uncommon in today's degraded movie-going experience. In the script and the stark visuals, Rothemund dares to invoke the austerely spiritual films of Carl Dreyer, particularly his masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc. As serenely played by Jentsch, Sophie is a heroine made radiant by the blinding truth of her moral convictions.

The doom inherent in Rothemund's title adds to the tragic tone. When the evidence against Sophie reaches a tipping point, she admits her crime and never looks back. A paternalist sympathy grows within Mohr, who offers Sophie leniency if she'll only name other members of her "White Rose" student underground. Between the interrogation sessions, Sophie finds solace with a fellow prisoner (Johanna Gastdorf) jailed for her communist beliefs.

All during Sophie's ordeal, we see a woman who fully realizes the gravity of her situation, yet she faces her inquisitors with an unflinching resolve. We're also graced with her private moments: A longing glance now and then to the bright windows that separate her from freedom; and when she gives in to a torrent of suppressed emotions. In this grim world, Sophie's red sweater is an emblem of her humanity and warmth.

Alternating between rhetorical peaks and quiet valleys, Rothemund transports us again during Sophie's trial. In a display of verbal fireworks, Sophie, her brother (Fabian Hinrichs) and another defendant are given their day in a kangaroo court presided over by a Nazi judge (Andre Hennicke). One by one, the trio is brought before the judge, who mocks and badgers them in a chilling elocutionary style that might as well come spewing from the mouth of Hitler or Goebbels.

This harrowing movie--now on DVD--reminds us of the sheer power of words, whether used as propaganda for warmongers or as fodder for peacemakers. At the risk of her own life and all her precious hopes and dreams, Sophie eloquently objects to Hitler's vision for a new world order.

A risk-taker on many levels, Rothemund suggests that Sophie's Christian beliefs are the direct source of her political ones. Yet in Sophie's theology, her prayers are to a God of love and truth, not war.

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(Originally published in Boulder Weekly [USA], 4/13/06)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Film Review | Shutter Island



Two flew over the cuckoo’s nest

by Thomas Delapa


“It was a dark and stormy night...”

Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s opening line is so infamously portentous, even Snoopy dug spoofing it.

But dog-eared clichés obviously didn’t stand in the way of Martin Scorsese in his direction of Shutter Island, a waterlogged psychological thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Be afraid, be very afraid. Just remember, it’s only a movie. And yeah, DiCaprio sees dead people.

Collaborating with his Aviator star for the fourth time, Scorsese battens down the hatches for a blustery and tempest-tossed B-movie overblown into 138-minute, A-movie scale. Up the coast from Cape Fear and a few miles from where he left us in The Departed, Scorsese and crew sail to the lunatic fringe of Boston harbor, where a maximum-security asylum ominously sits like Alcatraz for the criminally crazy. Fantasy Island it’s not.

Landing into the doom and gloom is DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels, a hard-nosed 1950s federal marshal, and his dutiful new partner (Mark Ruffalo). They’ve been assigned to the case of a missing axe murderer, who one night vanished from her cell “as if she evaporated.”

Cue the furious wind, sound the lightning, and bring on the blaring fog-horns. As soon as the pair set foot on the grounds of Ashcliffe Hospital, the night gets darker and the storms get stormier. Production designer Dante Ferretti pours it on, flaunting (and floating) every sort of Gothic convention and summoning up the ghosts of monster-horror-chiller movie past.

There’s no escape from Shutter Island, little buddy, nor from its mad grab bag of WWII-era historical buoys, including, but not limited to, Cold War government conspiracies, concentration-camp atrocities, Nazi lobotomies, brainwashed spooks and old-fashioned American mass murderers. It’s also drenched with arch film homages, from 1940s “B” film master Val Lewton to Sam Fuller’s 1963 loony-bin thriller Shock Corridor, and zigzagging all the back to 1920s German expressionism.

Call me crazy, but Scorsese’s script (from a book by Dennis Lehane) is so overstuffed and campy fantastic, it would send Freud himself back to the couch. It’s gimmicky, too, since it’s one of those thrillers that cheats by making unknowable—in retrospect—what’s real and what isn’t. Once on the island, Daniels is haunted by ghoulish visions of his dead wife (Michelle Williams)—as well as his horrific memories of liberating a German death camp. From the outset, he butts head with the hospital’s placid director (Ben Kingsley), who just has to be hiding something. If Kingsley isn’t suspicious enough, lurking in the shadows is a German doctor (Max Von Sydow) with a fondness for Mahler.

In these choppy but shallow waters, Scorsese tosses in a school of red herrings, each more lurid than the one before. Whatever 1950s social comment the film seems to be making, it’s yanked out of the picture by an undertow of gruesome sensationalism.

Over the course of Scorsese’s long, much-honored but schizoid career, he’s listed wildly between artful, deeply felt movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and pulpy commercial rust buckets like Cape Fear and The Departed. Despite (or because of) a crazy plot twist, you can find Shutter Island in the latter. In the final analysis, it’s all wet.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Leonard Cohen Says "Hallelujah" for a Famous Green Ogre

Movies can bring unexpected fame to unusual songs, making contemporary standards out of tunes too forceful for bland, timid commercial radio stations to ever play.

"O Brother, Where Art Thou's" use of newly recorded versions of mountain-music and traditional-folk tunes found a public hungry for the haunted sounds of "old, weird America," to use writer Greil Marcus' term, in an age of processed teen-pop and redundant rap-metal rock. The soundtrack, released late last year, became the nation's top-selling country album.

And it made a pop star of sorts out of the septuagenarian mountain-music veteran Ralph Stanley, whose chilling and mournful version of O Death was its highlight.

But this year has a surprise perhaps even greater - the turning of Leonard Cohen's deeply spiritual and sexually frank song Hallelujah into a youth- and family-friendly musical highlight of "Shrek."

At times dark and melancholy, yet also melodically and emotionally uplifting, Hallelujah, with its biblical references, is not a typical pop song. It's also on "Shrek's" best-selling soundtrack, nestling alongside such bouncy, snappy confections as Smash Mouth's All Star and Baha Men's Best Years of Our Lives.

Since Cohen first recorded Hallelujah in 1984, it has slowly become a favorite of both his fans and other singers such as Jeff Buckley and Bob Dylan, who have recorded or performed it in concert. But it was never anything close to a hit, nor a beneficiary of significant radio play. It just didn't seem to be connected to the youth-oriented nature of pop culture.

"Shrek," a computer-animated "fractured fairy tale" starring a misunderstood green ogre with bugle-shaped ears and his talking-donkey pal, has changed that. The Shrek CD, containing a version of Cohen's composition by the young balladeer Rufus Wainwright, has sold in excess of 500,000 copies so far.

The movie, which features a sonorous and achingly yearning version of the song by veteran singer John Cale, has grossed $267.2 million. Released on video and DVD on Oct. 30, Shrek immediately became the fastest-selling DVD ever - 2.5 million copies in its first week, according to Zap2it.com. And 4.5 million copies of the video were sold in that same time, too.

In the film, Hallelujah accompanies the movie's key scene, emotionally. The ogre Shrek has mistakenly concluded that Princess Fiona, with whom he is smitten, finds him ugly. So he abandons her and also gruffly abandons his loyal talking donkey. So she reluctantly decides to marry the vain Lord Farquaad, whom she dislikes.

Using cross-cutting to create parallel story construction as the (condensed) Cale version plays, directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson show Shrek moping in his barren and primitive shack while a regretful Princess Fiona is fitted with her wedding gown. And the lonely donkey rests by a brook, where he meets a forlorn dragon. The song begins:

"I heard there was a secret chord That David played, and it pleased the Lord But you don't really care for music, do you? It goes like this The fourth, the fifth The minor fall, the major lift The baffled king composing Hallelujah."

"The animators and filmmakers loved the song so much that they adapted that scene to fit it," said Marylata E. Jacob, DreamWorks Pictures' music supervisor, in a telephone interview. "We always knew we had to have a scene like that."

Shrek was designed to appeal to the whole family, not just for small children. But, according to Jacob, she didn't fear Hallelujah would be too difficult for kids. "I think people underestimate how smart children are," she said. "A lot of kids like 'All Star' because it's so familiar, others like 'Hallelujah' because it's so sophisticated."

Cohen, 67, is a Canadian poet who began composing and recording his own songs in the late-1960s.Though he has a droll sense of humor, his growly and rumblingly low voice combined with his minor-key melodies and sometimes-despairing view of world affairs and romantic intimacy have made him an acquired taste. In an online chat with fans after the release of his new Ten New Songs, Cohen said many have regarded him "as a morbid old depressive drone peddling suicide notes."

Still, some of his songs have become contemporary standards when recorded by others - Suzanne by Judy Collins, Bird on a Wire by Joe Cocker, Everybody Knows by Concrete Blonde. He is also knowledgeable and interested in several religions, having been raised Jewish in Catholic Montreal and later becoming a disciple of Zen Buddhism.

Hallelujah reflects those religious interests, as well as his ability to combine the sacred with the mysteriously erotic. He works at a painstakingly slow pace, taking years between albums. Even after recording Hallelujah in 1984, he continued to rework it. By 1988, when he recorded a live version for the Austin City Limits show (it appears on 1994's Cohen Live), new verses had replaced old to give the song an increased secular meaning.

But the final verse remained:
"I did my best; it wasn't much I couldn't feel, so I learned to touch I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you And even though it all went wrong I'll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my lips (tongue) but Hallelujah!"

Cohen's record company declined an interview request for this story. But his comments on Hallelujah can be found at websites. At a 1985 Warsaw concert, he said this: "I know that there is an eye that watches all of us. There is a judgment that weighs everything we do. And before this great force, which is greater than any government, I stand in awe and I kneel in respect. And it is to this great judgment that I dedicate this next song."

The song began taking on a life apart from Cohen's recordings when Dylan added it to a few live shows in the late 1980s, much to Cohen's pleasure. Then Cale, a singer-songwriter in his own right and original member of the Velvet Underground, recorded his stand-out version for a 1991 Cohen tribute album, I'm Your Fan. Cale's version also was used on the soundtrack of Julian Schnabel's 1996 film "Basquait."

On another Cohen tribute album, 1995's Tower of Song, Bono recorded a raplike Hallelujah. And this year, Canadian cabaret singer Patricia O'Callaghan recorded it for her album Real Emotional Girl. When she sang it before former President Clinton at a Toronto benefit, and he joined her onstage afterward for photos, it made headlines.

But perhaps the key version in furthering the song's "underground classic" status occurred in 1994, when Jeff Buckley recorded it for his debut full-length album, "Grace." His ethereal yet solemn rendition, sung in a voice that was truly hymnlike, has been called "moody, solitary, and sweet" by critics. It came to be identified with Buckley, who subsequently drowned at age 30.

Although his short career rendered him more a cult figure - and the son of a cult figure, the late singer-songwriter Tim Buckley - than a star, his version keeps attracting attention and winning fans. Entertainment Weekly has noted that, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America, VH-1 played it repeatedly. Wainwright - himself the son of two singer-songwriters, Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle - now has recorded the best-selling version. His is lovely and ruminative with a strong piano accompaniment.

"It's such an easy song to sing in that the melody is quite simple and straightforward," Wainwright said in a telephone interview. "The thing with that song and Leonard in general is the music never pummels the words. The melody is almost liturgical and conjures up religious feelings. When you listen to one of his songs, it's purifying."

For Shrek's help in making this song a recognizable contemporary standard, one can only say, Hallelujah!

By Steven Rosen
Steven Rosen's e-mail address is srosenone@aol.com.

(This story was first published in the Denver Post on Nov. 18, 2001. It has not been updated, except for adding the "Basquiat" information. Hearing k.d. lang's version at the Vancouver Olympics -- as well as seeing Cohen twice on tour last year -- made me believe it is still relevant.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Film Review | The Last Station


Moscow on the Thames & Hudson

by Thomas Delapa


Nearly 60 years ago, upstart film critic François Truffaut railed at what he derisively called the “tradition of quality” in French cinema. Literary-based, staid and lifeless, these were films that to Truffaut lacked “pulse.” The same ticket can be stamped for The Last Station, which goes off the tracks early and often.

Don’t let those Oscar nominations for Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer fool you. As the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, Plummer may have borrowed Charlton Heston’s Ten Commandments beard, but otherwise he’s no Slavic prophet. Mirren, meanwhile, plays Tolstoy’s nettlesome wife, Sofya, and seems to be channeling a train-load of literary baggage from Anna Karenina to the mad Ophelia.

In a consummately Russian story, Anglo-American accents lay siege like the White Russian army marching on 1918 Moscow. Not just Mirren and Plummer but James McAvoy (Atonement) and Paul Giamatti are featured in this melodramatic adaptation of Jay Parini’s 1990 novel. As Tolstoy’s surly communist disciple Chertkov, Giamatti is a one-man dictatorship of the proletariat.

The time is 1910 and the elderly Tolstoy is world-famous for War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He has his own devout, cult-like following--Tolstoyans--who reject private property and other bourgeois freedoms. In the battle for Tolstoy’s heart and writing royalties, writer/director Michael Hoffman (Restoration) pits Chertkov against Sofya, who’s desperately afraid she and her family will be edited out of Tolstoy’s will. Valentin (McAvoy), Tolstoy’s nervous new secretary, is caught in the middle of Hoffman’s mild and mannered Marxist dialectic.

There’s little doubt which side Hoffman is on in the war between fiery love and cold idealism. Giamatti’s Chertkov is a sneering, spying proto-Lenin who has a Rasputin-like grip on the weary old man. Despite Sofya’s insecurities and snide elitism, she’s devoted to her husband, even after their marriage derails in the last act.

Broad and soap-operatic, Mirren’s performance is the antithesis of the precise and nuanced work that won her (deservedly) the Oscar crown for The Queen. While Mirren overacts, McAvoy dithers and sneezes as Valentin, flashing those big blue eyes that have hoodwinked him into U.K. stardom. As the spry, free-spirited Masha, Valentin’s lover, only Kerry Condon escapes Hoffman’s train wreck.

The Last Station is handsome to look at, decorated in posh production design and the tree-lined vistas of Tolstoy’s estate (actually shot in Germany). But it’s formulaic in ways that make 1980s Merchant-Ivory films look like Russian avant-garde cinema. Reel in a few continental stars, toss in pretty pictures, a little sex and pseudo-literary cred, and you have a nouveau version of Truffaut’s tradition of quality. As a revolutionary alternative, Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and their comrades roiled the film world with the French New Wave in the 1960s. What can audiences hope for against today’s sea of art-film artifice?

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2/16/09

Monday, February 15, 2010

Honoring a Great Performance as a Country Singer

Everywhere you look these days, people are honoring the greatest movies of all time.

There are books, newspaper columns, video-store racks, film series and American Film Institute-sponsored television shows devoted to the task. This is, by and large, a good thing - especially if it encourages film revivals and restorations.

But beyond the canonical Great Movies are the "lost movies." They aren't the well-known masterpieces. They aren't perfect; sometimes they have flaws. And they have been forgotten and overlooked, often from the day they were released. But they are exciting, influential, risky and different - maybe too different - for their times.

Every now and then, I'd like to call attention to such deserving lost movies. And for the first, I've picked 1973's "Payday." It was released during an era brimming with challenging movies full of point-of-view and personality. Many became hits (and classics) - "The Godfather," "Chinatown," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Last Tango in Paris." But there were more good films than even the most curious and receptive of audiences could handle, and some fine ones fell by the wayside.

"Payday" was one. It stars Rip Torn in probably his best role ever, as reprobate country singer Maury Dann. The film is directed succinctly by Daryl Duke and written by Don Carpenter. And its producers are Saul Zaentz, the owner of Fantasy Records who later made "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "The English Patient,"
and partner/music critic Ralph J. Gleason.

Torn once was considered as powerful and electrifying an actor as Jack Nicholson. In fact, he was scheduled to play the "Easy Rider" lawyer role that provided Nicholson with his breakthrough.

One wonders if Nicholson was first offered Torn's role in "Payday" as struggling, minor-league country singer Dann. Torn looks a little beefier and bulkier, a little more dangerous, than Nicholson, but they both exude the same kind of gleefully macho, killer-smile self-assuredness.

When "Payday" came out, country music was four-square and patriotic. It also wasn't as fashionable as it is now, when older and/or rootsier performers grow desperate trying to get airplay in a world of more polished, showbiz-schooled acts.

So this intensely critical portrait of Maury and his milieu seemed a stretch. (A very different kind of film, "This Is Spinal Tap," had problems getting audiences to believe its premise of aging metal bands playing well past their prime.)

It also seemed as if Bay area hipsters - Fantasy Records had been home to Lenny Bruce and Creedence Clearwater Revival; Gleason was associated with Rolling Stone magazine - were making fun of country.

Now, after a couple of generations of "outlaw" country singers and their rise and fall, as well as the growth in knowledge of Hank Williams' life, "Payday" seems extremely honest and true to its character.

And it is a devastating character study, following Maury for the last three days of his life. He plays a small-club date, visits his pill-addicted mom, goes hunting, suffers through a visit with a weaselly deejay, seduces a young woman in his car, violently breaks up with his older girlfriend Mayleen (Ahna Capri) to carry on with a younger one (Elayne Heilveil), fights with and fires a key band member, and kills a man who challenges him to a fight.

Yet he's also irresistible and bullishly charming in his slovenly, cocky, down-home way - he sits on the toilet with the door open to shock people. You also feel sympathy for his neediness and insecurity; he is dependent on his tough manager (Michael C. Gwynne) to help him negotiate life.

Writer Carpenter sees Maury as a guy still searching for his big hit (his latest LP is called "Payday"). I prefer to view him as a guy past his last hit, who doesn't yet know it. Or maybe he just can't admit it.

In a haunting and unforgettable scene reminiscent of Ed Harris' demise in "Pollock," he dies while speeding with an unwilling passenger in the back seat of his white Cadillac. It's a true death's-head vision - while warbling "She's Only a Country Girl" (a Shel Silverstein song), his eyes bulge and he gives out a short, quick gasp.

Watching "Payday" again recently, I tried to recall another character as compelling as Torn's Maury Dann, as repellent yet also alluring, as frightening yet also appealing, as sexy yet not conventionally handsome.

Then it hit me - Tony Soprano.

By Steven Rosen

(This originally ran in The Denver Post in 2001, before Torn's great performance in "Forty Shades of Blue.")

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Film Review | The Princess and the Frog



Warts and all

by Thomas Delapa

More than 60 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, Disney has finally leapfrogged into modern times, producing its first cartoon feature with a black heroine. But the royal question behind The Princess and the Frog isn’t “Why did it take so long?” Better to ask, “Why is it so colorlessly average?”

For their story, longtime Disney directors John Musker and Ron Clements go tres retro, reaching back to 1920s New Orleans for a Cajun twist on the Brothers Grimm. In their desire to play it safe, politically and otherwise, Musker and Clements set their fable in an animated universe long ago and seemingly far away. This is not New Orleans of Hurricane Katrina or Huey Long, but a jazzy Big Easy where every day might be Mardi Gras.

There’s nothing lean or facile about the historic prologue, which opens on a middle-class African-American family at home. The quaint, hand-drawn animation (itself a bold move in the Digital Age) immediately draws us into the world of young Tiana, who’s set her heart on one day owning her own restaurant.

Years later, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) has grown into a waitress, but she’s cooked up a plan to buy an old sugar mill and turn it into a fancy cafe. Sweet, doe-eyed and shapely in the tradition of snow-white Disney princesses, Tiana could easily pass as a chocolate-skinned version of the Little Mermaid or Aladdin’s Jasmine.

After the decades it took for Disney to create a black heroine, the grown Tiana weirdly disappears in a puff of smoke. Musker and Clements must figure that if one frog is good for a fairy tale, two are better. First she meets a talking frog called Naveen (Bruno Campos) who assures her that—yeah, right—he’s really a prince in need of a kiss. But that old line backfires when the sloppy smooch only makes over Tiana into a fish-out-of-water amphibian.

There’s a Darwinian difference between quaint and reactionary, and Disney hops between both, finally settling on a fairy tale that, at best, is fairly forgettable. The movie feels like it’s been uncorked from a Disney (or Warner Bros.) cartoon bottle, vintage 1950s, right down to its voodoo-practicing villain, Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a.k.a. the Shadow Man. A spindly Mephistopheles, Facilier has turned visiting Naveen into a frog as part of his slimy plot to take over New Orleans.

Not unlike the mixed-raced movies of old Hollywood, Disney tones down the color line, even to the point of making Naveen a light-skinned black from a foreign land. For the de rigueur stew of comic sidekicks, Musker and Clements toss in a mild blend, including a gap-toothed firefly, a trumpet-playing alligator and saggy Mama Odie, “voodoo queen of the bayou,” who brews up some godmotherly advice for Tiana. Randy Newman’s gumbo of songs uncomfortably leaps between jazz, blues, zydeco and gospel.

Despite the ostensible ethnic breakthrough (and jumping box-office), beauty trumps race in any case, betraying Disney’s knee-jerk biases about romance and attractiveness. The more-than-skin-deep beauty of Tiana and Naveen is always royalty, especially opposite the deep-down ugliness of a fat, big-eared impostor who takes over Naveen’s Adonis body. For Tiana, her lifelong dream of opening a restaurant (Aunt Jemima would smile) still comes in second next to the crowning glory of true love, made even more magical since it’s a handsome prince who sweeps her off her svelte frog legs.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Film Review | Food, Inc.


Harvest of shame

by Thomas Delapa

America, land of good and plenty, was once a moveable feast. But take one bite out of Food, Inc.—now on DVD—and you’re likely to lose your lunch. Plop plop, fizz fizz. That’s the sound of your stomach on junk.

For those with a taste for muckraking exposés, documentarian Robert Kenner dishes out the dirt on the U.S. food industry, from bad seeds to hog heaven and beyond. If this movie doesn’t make you want to drop your burger and run for the border, nothing will.

Collaborating with best-selling authors Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Kenner takes a meat cleaver to the billion-dollar food industry, jumping--sometimes pell-mell--from bean growers and chicken ranchers to the local grocery store. The family farm is fast going the way of old MacDonald, devoured by over-mechanized, unsustainable factory farms serving up a diet that may be hazardous to your health.

For this pungent if one-sided polemic, Kenner rounds up the usual suspects in the corporate food chain, including burger king McDonald's, chicken giants Tyson and Perdue, and bio-chemical behemoth Monsanto. (Evidently ducking Kenner’s interview requests, industry representatives are conspicuously missing.) In one of the most un-finger-licking sights, thousands of teetering, super-fatted chickens--juiced up on hormones to grow big breasts--are crowded together like sardines while they await slaughter inside a poultry farm. Contrast this fowl concentration camp with the old-school philosophy of Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, who lets his livestock roam “free-range” style and feed on natural grass.

Ironically, American food today is more plentiful and cheaper than ever, but partially that’s due to the fat government subsidies paid to farmers to grow corn, the nation’s new cash crop. The main ingredient today in animal feed, corn has dubiously yielded a cornucopia of modern food filler and flavorings, starting with the ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup. In an outdated vestige of primal needs, we humans are hard-wired to consume sugars, salts and fats--the least healthy and most addictive ingredients in the U.S. diet. The bitter truth is that rates for obesity and diabetes have gone off the scale since we deserted home cooking for super-sized Happy Meals.

Kenner ladles on his points at times, and isn’t above stirring in a heaping portion of pathos. One episode features the crusade of a mother whose young son died from E. coli poisoning, evidently caught from a tainted hamburger. But the wider issues of the boy’s death--such as the Bush-era decline in USDA and FDA inspections--are impossible to ignore, particularly in light of last year's ad nauseam outbreaks of food-borne salmonella.

While you digest the unsavory ramifications of Food, Inc., you may be reminded of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle crossbred with the sci-fi terrors of Soylent Green. Kenner has a lot on his plate, too much in fact, but thankfully he also adds in a helping or two of hope, starting with the flowering of the organic movement. No kidding, if Americans want to eat right, they really will have to save the farm.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Did Hollywood Create Rock 'n' Roll?

Book Review:

"Rock Around the Clock:
The Record that Started the Rock Revolution"
By Jim Dawson
Backbeat Books
$16.95; softcover

Did Hollywood create rock 'n' roll?

That sounds like a strange, ridiculous and even offensive question to anyone who likes rock and all its musical derivations. After all, rock is fundamentally an indigenous, authentic American-heritage roots music.

It's proud of its realness - shaped by country, blues, jazz and folk and popularized by streetwise, outsider rebels like Elvis, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis. For American pop-culture lovers, that history of rock's creation has the same importance as the story behind the framing of the Constitution.

But is it correct? In "Rock Around the Clock," Jim Dawson argues persuasively that while those roots are real, the popularity of rock can be traced to one seismic cultural event - the inclusion of a Bill Haley and His Comets record called "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" on the soundtrack of the 1955 film "Blackboard Jungle."

That not only introduced rock to mainstream America but forever cemented its image as a fashionably dangerous youth music that followed its own rules. The use of the song in the movie gave juvenile rebelliousness a beat and made it hip. It was the first rock 'n' roll record to go to No. 1 in the United States.

Everything else, including the still-little-known Elvis, followed. Strangely, one of the few early rockers who was not a rebel was Haley himself. He was a chubby and affable Western-swing/cowboy-jive music-lover from Pennsylvania with a cute spit curl falling down his forehead. He was almost 30 when he recorded "Rock," quickly faded and died largely forgotten at age 55 in 1981. His song was revived in 1974 when the nostalgic TV series "Happy Days" used it as its theme.

The story of how all this happened is fascinating, as is the history of the underappreciated Haley and his recordings in general. And Dawson's detective work is thorough and concise; his writing has no-frills reportorial clarity. He previously wrote the well-researched "What Was the First Rock 'n' Roll Record?"

As he did in "First Rock 'n' Roll Record," Dawson proves adept and scholarly at tracing "Rock Around the Clock's" myriad influences back to recorded music's earliest days. He has a worthy subject for this approach, since Haley's hit was credited to a journeyman middle-aged tunesmith named Ray (Max) Freedman and a younger music publisher/promoter named James Myers.

They were no Bacharach/David - Dawson isn't even sure they worked together. He does a remarkable job tracing the Byzantine way that the song got composed and then recorded - first by the obscure Sonny Dae & His Knights and then Haley.

Haley already had some pre-"Rock Around the Clock" pop success with his swinging combo sound on 1953's "Crazy Man, Crazy" and a 1954 cover of a now-standard rhythm-and-blues song, "Shake, Rattle and Roll." His sound was in place.

Dawson notes that composer Freedman started writing "Rock Around the Clock" with an eight-bar instrumental verse "whose minor key changes sound like klezmer music - not surprising, given that he was the son of Jewish immigrants." Freedman also appears to have borrowed the song's beat from a 1951 instrumental called "The Syncopated Clock," which was used as theme music for CBS's late-night programming.

Yet all this is only part of the story. Haley's rocked-up version was originally released as a B-side of a 45-rpm single in 1954 and then forgotten until "Blackboard Jungle" revived it. Based on a tough Evan Hunter book, the film was a controversial sensation. It starred Glenn Ford as a naive urban teacher battling violent delinquents for control of his school.

The credit for how director Richard Brooks came to use that song as the film's theme is shrouded in conflicting claims that Dawson airs. Rock, which didn't really exist yet, wasn't part of the film's story line, though the delinquents do hate jazz. But teens danced in movie-theater aisles when the song played over the film's opening credits. Soon after "Blackboard Jungle" was released on March 19, 1955, it birthed a hit record and a new youth battle cry in "One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock, rock!"

Dawson does an especially good job putting the film and song's impact in perspective vis-a-vis public fascination with juvenile delinquency. President Eisenhower had addressed the issue in his 1955 State of the Union address; the FBI had warned about its growth in a 1954 report.

More important, Method actors had discovered the delinquent - Marlon Brando's portrayal of a motorcycle rebel had been a sensation in 1954's "The Wild One" and a model for Vic Morrow's in "Blackboard."

And in a very interesting and thoroughly obscure fact that Dawson notes, James Dean -- whose "Rebel Without a Cause" came out after "Blackboard Jungle" -- had already appeared in a 1953 William Inge teleplay about a troubled kid out on bail for a marijuana charge, "Glory in the Flower." It starts with the show's host, the esteemed Alistair Cooke, walking onto the set, a café, and putting money in the jukebox. Haley's "Crazy Man, Crazy" plays, and Dean's character starts to jitterbug.

Dawson's book certainly shows how Hollywood - as much as if not more than Elvis - made rock popular.

By Steven Rosen
www.stevenrosenwriter.com
(This originally appeared in the Denver Post.)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Film Review | Funny People



Death Becomes Him

by Thomas Delapa


What can you say about a crass fortysomething comic who’s dying?

An excruciatingly unfunny requiem for a lightweight, Funny People is writer/director Judd Apatow’s moribund vehicle for Adam Sandler, rather cleverly cast as a doomed Hollywood comic. Nobody gets out alive in this semi-suicidal bomb, least of all the audience.

In the wake of such R-rated hits as The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Apatow turns to the grave, casting his one-time roommate as George Simmons, a comic-turned-actor who’s diagnosed with a terminal disease. George’s only hope is a crash diet of experimental drugs. Otherwise, it’s curtains for the millionaire star of Merman and My Best Friend is a Robot.

While George prepares for his final exit, Ira (Seth Rogen) is struggling to break in doing stand-up in L.A. comedy clubs. Once George catches Ira’s act, he implausibly takes him under his wing, hiring him as both writer and crony. It’s just the break that Ira’s been dreaming about, introducing him to the world of plush limos, free plasma TVs and jiggly groupies.

Apatow’s title, of course, is meant to be downed with several grains of salt. Within all those “funny people” we see on stage lies a pool of aggression and pain, no doubt simmering since the first time a hot girl gave them the brush-off. Whether George, Ira or Ira’s roommates (Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman), Apatow feeds us a steady stream of limp sex jokes typical of the cable-ready male comic today. Apatow’s one female jester (Aubrey Plaza), a bespectacled zombie with the sexual scruples of a tomcat, is no better.

Unless you’re entertained by potty-mouthed half-wits, Funny People will be a bitter pill to swallow. Apatow peoples the background with clubby cameos from the likes of Andy Dick and Sarah Silverman. Nor will many be amused by Apatow’s blindly nepotistic casting of his wife, Leslie Mann, and brood of cloying kids.

Even if you’re willing to roll with the oddball premise--spiked by a few random laughs by Rogen and Hill--the film begins a death spiral during George and Ira’s weekend trip to visit George’s married ex-girlfriend, played by Mann. Mann is a comedienne best taken in small doses (like her role as the nauseous lush in Virgin), but here Apatow’s uxorious featured treatment distills into box-office poison. As Mann’s obnoxious Aussie husband, Eric Bana will make no one believe he started his career doing stand-up.

Throughout this two-hour ordeal, the paunchy Sandler hardly stands out--whether impersonating a comic or a tragedienne At 44, the still-juvenile star of Billy Madison and Don’t Mess With the Zohan remains with us. It’s his public that needs a cure.

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Now Playing on Twitter and Facebook:


Film Truth Not Quite 24 Times a Second

Posts for Deeper Into Movies -- The Current (and Classic) Cinema by Thomas Delapa and Steven Rosen are now playing on both Facebook and Twitter (http://twitter.com/DeeperIn2Movies).

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Film Review | Inglourious Basterds



Basterd Art

by Thomas Delapa


However way you spell it, Inglourious Basterds does to the World War II movie what, Ja vol, Hitler did to Poland.

Cross The Dirty Dozen, Hogan’s Heroes and Spielberg’s Munich, and you’ll have some idea of Quentin Tarantino’s travesty of a Jewish-revenge fantasy. Like military intelligence, Basterds ranks as a first-class oxymoronic. Stress on the moronic.

In a 150-minute quagmire that unreels with the desperation of Dunkirk, Tarantino incinerates history, Hollywood and good taste in equal measure. Amid the gory carnage, veteran cinephiles will note dozens of smarty-pants salutes to vintage auteurs from Sergio Leone to Leni Riefenstahl. Tarantino’s film piracy makes the Asian DVD underground look like amateurs.

“I’m in the killin’ Natzi business,” drawls Tennessee-born Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) to his crack squad of Jewish-American commandos. In a mission the Mossad could only dream about, Raine orders that each Basterd take 100 Nazi scalps, Apache-style, in a death march across the French countryside. In double time, the Basterds’ legend reaches Berlin, where a bellowing Hitler (Martin Wuttke) goes ballistic, especially when he hears of the bat-wielding exploits of the “Bear Jew” (Eli Roth).

Tarantino rewrites history with all the skill with which he rewrites himself. This blood-spattered spoof is all over the map, sloppily mixing tones and subplots while seemingly stuck together with spit--minus the polish. Leaving Pitt and his men to their scalp-hunting party, we’re volleyed to and from the exploits of Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), whose Jewish family was murdered by Nazis when she was a girl. Now she’s the owner of a Paris cinema, hiding her true identity behind the curtains. (In one of Tarantino’s self-congratulatory pats, Shosanna proudly declares that “we respect directors in this country”--no doubt a backslap to France’s baffling treatment of him as an American Godard.)

The deeper we advance into Tarantino’s uber-semitic farce, the further we retreat from any beachheads of reality. Scenes rumble on endlessly while characters are ground into comic-book cutouts, including an SS colonel (Christoph Waltz) whose suave, strudel-eating menace finally melts down in a blitz of maniacal overacting. Recycling the plot trick he first unleashed with Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino contrives a series of interminable dialogue scenes that toss characters in pressure-cooker predicaments. But without any sense of real danger or reality, the scenes are drawn-out duds.

All the messy story lines are slapped together in a finale that climaxes in a fantastic plot to blow up Hitler and the German high command during the premiere of a propaganda film recreating the exploits of a fatherland war hero (Daniel Bruhl). Tarantino’s farcial final solution is the director at both his silliest and most grandiose. Not only does he give his Jews the chance to mow down Nazis (think Carrie with a machine gun), he childishly seems to believe in the glorious power of cinema to wipe out evil on the order of Nazi Germany.

During the screening I attended, someone incredulously deadpanned “So that’s the way it happened” during the Basterds’ cockamamie triumph of the will. The screwball offspring of a boy who refuses to grow up, Inglourious Basterds deserves some kind of medal, if only for its stunning campaign against intelligence on nearly every front.

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Friday, February 5, 2010

Film Review | Precious


Semi-Precious

by Thomas Delapa

She’s not Beyonce. Nor is she Oprah, Michelle Obama or even Whoopi Goldberg. At age 16, Claireece “Precious” Jones is poor, fat, very black and not beautiful. Life is cheap in Precious’ squalid 1987 Harlem neighborhood, and even her own mother treats here like common dirt.

There’s little surface glitter in the overly titled Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, but this low-budget indie shines nonetheless, grabbing the major awards at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It may be a breakthrough of sorts, at least in the brave illumination of its ghastly facets of black-on-black crime.

These are characters truly seen through a glass darkly. At her cramped, dismal flat--decorated with circa-1950s wallpaper that seems to crawl--Precious is nearly a slave to her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), who spends her days smoking, eating and watching TV game shows. A monster in her cave, Mary showers Precious with abuse, both verbal and physical, constantly cutting her down to size. Far worse, Precious has been the victim of unspeakable sexual acts. Not only is the teen already a mother, but she’s pregnant with another child.

In such a grim setting, director Lee Daniels crafts his gem with tools both cinematic and literary. It’s a rare balancing act, and Daniels is at odds to keep from slipping. Throughout the film, we hear Precious’ street-speak interior monologue—often sharp and lyrical, but at times a fractious distraction. Walking alone, Precious talks about how she sees herself as “ugly, black grease to be washed away,” and how her mother told her she wished she had aborted her.

Yet in Precious’ colorful fantasies, she’s a living dreamgirl. She imagines herself living happily ever after with her math teacher, winning a dance contest or, most poignantly, looking at herself in a looking-glass while a beautiful white Alice confidently looks back. As valuable as Precious’ subjective life is to the story, Daniel gilds the lily, burnishing the realism with gaudy flourishes.

At her lowest point (and maybe the audience’s too), Precious is thrown a lifeline, namely an alternative school where she comes under the care of the pretty and supremely dedicated Ms. Rain (Paula Patton). “Everybody is good at something,” declares Ms. Rain, a simple mantra that may well be the antidote to the years of toxic abuse that Precious has endured.

In the title role, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is plenty good enough. Though sullen and beaten down, Precious sees herself as a diamond in the rough, an independent young woman trying to break out. But it’s Mo’nique--primarily a stand-up comic--who ferociously gives the film its hard bite. There’s nothing holy about this Mary--except as a holy terror. Less can be said about pop diva Mariah Carey, doing temp work as Precious’ stoic social worker. De-glitterized, Carey takes to her plain-Jane role as well as Nicole Kidman took to mopping duty in The Human Stain.

Ironically, the more flash Daniels adds, the less the film sparkles. Yet whatever one’s shade, the righteous, self-reliant message of Precious is worth its weight in gold.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Film Review | The Blind Side


Eyes on the Prize

by Thomas Delapa

There’s nothing like a frisky underdog sports movie to get American audiences to fetch their pom-poms and popcorn.

In the well-trod tradition of Rocky, Rudy, Hoosiers and Remember the Titans, The Blind Side takes to the field, scoring dramatic points with its true story of a young man who rose from the ghetto to fame and fortune on the gridiron.

Based on a nonfiction bestseller by Michael Lewis, The Blind Side has come out of nowhere to blitz the U.S. box-office. For a discontented nation in the grips of several seasons of recession, this is a movie that has one eye on fact and the other fixed on feel-good formula.

Writer/director John Lee Hancock’s gentle-giant of a hero is Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a.k.a. ‘Big Mike,” a burly, black 17-year-old. A virtual orphan, Mike has spent his youth in a string of Memphis foster homes. His mother is an addict. If this story were just a tall and big tale, he’d be visited one night by his fairy godmother. Instead, the withdrawn teen miraculously meets Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), a wealthy, willful--and white--mother of two who has a soft spot for strays. She invites him to stay with her family for the night.

Were it not for the fact-based script, you’d think you were seeing things when Leigh Anne unflinchingly takes this black stranger into her lavish home and treats him like a long-lost son. After all, this is the Deep South in a racially divided city where Martin Luther King was assassinated 40 years ago. What trumps race, at least for Leigh Anne, is an unspoken sense of Christian charity. It’s largely that same motive that prompts the local gentry to permit Mike to enroll in their elite, lily-white Christian academy.

With the Obama revolution, The Blind Side’s timing is fortuitous, if not foresightful, in eyeing the evolving racial relations in the U.S. Hancock’s most observant scene has nothing to do with football. On that first night Mike sleeps on the Tuohys’ couch, he sits and marvels at the warm, well-appointed living room, finally seeing how the other half lives. On the coffee table is a book of Normal Rockwell illustrations; on its cover is the artist’s iconic portrait of the all-American WASP family at Thanksgiving dinner.

But these subtle strokes--backed by Bullock’s brassy steel-magnolia theatrics--face the odds in Hancock’s game plan, primarily his myopic commercialism and wobbly plotting. He passes the ball off to Leigh Anne’s hip-hoppy young son (Jae Head) for cloying comedy that deflates the weightier tones. By the time Mike gets around to playing football for his high school, Hitchcock fumbles again. At Mike’s first game, Hancock calls one corny trick play after another, running the game like a Mason-Dixon Marx Brothers gag.

On one side of The Blind Side is a winning story, touching and even inspiring. But it’s also penalized by a stolid, Steel Curtain-worthy performance by newcomer Quinton Aaron. Whatever the personality of the real Michael Oher, Aaron makes the Rock of Gibraltar look like a Method actor on steroids.

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Remembering "Zabriskie Point" 40 Years On

By Steven Rosen

There are many questions to ask concerning “Zabriskie Point.” “What’s the point of it, exactly?” “How did it get made?” How much money did it lose?” (About $6 million.) “What was Antonioni’s reputation up to this point – and after?” “How dusty did all those naked people get?” “Who did the great music?” “Did they really blow up the house?”

Good questions, all. And we’ll get to them, plus whatever else about the film you want to discuss. But, first, because “Zabriskie Point” is the inaugural selection of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Reel Art series, I wanted to address a few ways that it compares with what was going on in the other visual arts of its time. And after.

First, it is pure cinema in communicating through a visual language – Michelangelo Antonioni, the director, is using film as a canvas to present what interests him about his subject matter, America. Like an abstract painter, he internalizes – he is not beholden to anyone else’s expectations of how narrative “realism” should unfold.

And it shares an aesthetic with Minimalism: In those widescreen shots of a small plane in the blue sky, or an old car cruising a desert highway, it’s looking for beauty unencumbered by decoration or “prettiness.” That’s similar to what Donald Judd or Carl Andre were doing with sculpture, or how California “light and space” artists like Robert Irwin and Larry Bell worked. And the film shares with Earthworks artists, especially Michael Heizer and James Turrell, a love for finding reward in the harsh and remote, sun-baked Western landscape.

Antonioni also uses some very artistic still-photography techniques in the film’s editing – the montage of advertising signs in L.A.; the use of freeze-frame and close-up in the exploding house. Here, we see everything from Look magazine to a raw chicken free-floating in space in slo-mo. Even Wonder bread.

In its scenes of cluttered, sprawling L.A., “Zabriskie Point” seems one with, say, some of Ed Ruscha’s projects documenting Sunset Blvd. buildings, or the photography of Robert Adams who pessimistically observes the suburbanization of the West. There’s a show coming here in February, “Starburst: Color Photography of the 1970s,” where you’ll see work by still photographers interested in similar subject matter – William Eggleston, although he’s a Southerner, Richard Misrach, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld.

One other thing – Andy Warhol has said the massive billboards of L.A. helped inspire his Pop Art. He loved them. Antonioni, it’s pretty clear, doesn’t. To him, they represent the capitalist wasteland that is America. And nobody would call “Zabriskie Point” a pop film – although I suspect the studio, the venerable MGM, was hoping it would get one.

Antonioni, after all, was coming off a tremendous success for MGM with “Blow-Up,” which had been released in 1966 and was a sexy, provocative, visually spectacular existential mystery set in post-Beatles swinging London. David Hemmings played a photographer – loosely based on Mod-era photographer David Bailey – who may or may not have seen a murder. The film was especially notable for being the first major release with full-frontal nudity; and for featuring the Yardbirds smashing their guitars while playing “Stroll On,” a variation on “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” a song first recorded by King Records artist Tiny Bradshaw.

Until that time, Antonioni had made all his films in Italy – and in Italian. Born in 1912 in Ferrara, so already middle-aged by the 1960s, he was the product of a well-off, landowning family that valued art and education. He studied drawing and violin, became interested in film as a teen, and got his break co-writing a screenplay with Roberto Rossellini for a 1942 movie called “A Pilot Returns.” Working as an assistant director during the war, he was involved in the predominant style of Italian cinema of the era – semi-documentary, naturalistic Neo-Realism. (You can see remnants of that in the campus scenes in “Zabriskie.”)

But once he started directing in the 1950s (his first fictional film was 1950’s “Story of a Love Affair”), he moved toward a way of showing – rather than explicitly explaining – the kind of alienation, ennui and confusion facing people (often educated, bourgeois people) in the post-war Modern Era. He developed long takes – the equivalent of a blank, unemotional stare back at the world – and enigmatic narrative as a way to get that mood across, and it resonated with a worldwide audience. And once he started using color to connote his characters’ psychological state, as he did in 1964’s “Red Desert,” he added a very painterly approach. He even painted the trees and grass gray and white to fit into his portrayal of a polluted industrial landscape.

His first international success was 1960’s “L’Aventura,” featuring his early-1960s muse, Monica Vitti, as part of a group of beautiful people on a yachting vacation. Her friend goes missing, but it’s no conventional thriller; no conventional narrative. It also introduced to the world Antonioni’s dialogue-free poetic endings – which you also see here.

I found these excerpts from Antonioni’s speech at Cannes about "L'Avventura," when it won the top prize, protesting that in a modern age we live with "a rigid and stereotyped morality which all of us recognize as such, and yet sustain out of cowardice and sheer laziness. We have examined those moral attitudes very carefully, we have dissected them and analyzed them to the point of exhaustion. We have been capable of all of this, but we have not been capable of finding new ones."

This can be a discussion topic, but it sounds to me at home with the “God Is Dead – What Now?” moral argument of the 1960s.

By the time he was looking for a film to follow “Blow-Up,” one possible answer to the “What Now?” question was the American counterculture. It seemed to be capable – to idealists, anyway – of bringing about fundamental societal change in an otherwise-troubled nation, and perhaps for the world at large. Revolution, even. He thought it a good place to make a movie – and was attracted to a news item about a young man who stole a plane and was killed trying to return it.

That sounded pretty good to MGM – not that they wanted revolution, but they knew that films about rebellious young people were good box office, since they tended to feature sex, rock ‘n’ roll and sometimes drugs. “The Graduate,” for instance, or “Easy Rider.” I wonder if this film was explained to MGM, by producer Carlo Ponti, as Antonioni’s “Easy Rider?”

But Antonioni was no hippie. It’s pretty clear he found America at some kind of low – and chose Zabriskie Point as a metaphor for it. That spot is an overlook at Death Valley National Park, named for Christian Zabriskie, whose Pacific Coast Borax Co. developed the twenty-mule teams to get the precious mineral out of there. It is indeed a beautiful spot – I’ve been there. It looks out over the Furnace Creek Lake bed and surrounding bad lands and is like seeing where the earth began. At 282 feet below sea level, Death Valley is the lowest spot in North America. Maybe, Antonioni saw it as the bathtub drain that needs to be pulled, to let out all the dirty water, as part of a cleansing process. Or maybe he just saw it as the blessed opposite of the uncontrolled sprawl and squalor of consumerist L.A.

The trailer for the film, which one assumes he approved, phrases it like this: “Zabriskie Point: A remote and barren blister of land in the American desert, as isolated as the face of the moon, where a boy and a girl meet and touch and blow their minds.”

I found an excellent interview with Antonioni, done by critic Guy Flatley in London shortly after the film was released, on a site called moviecrazed.com. Antonioni was traveling with his companion of the time, Clare Peploe – one of the film’s screenwriters and later the wife of Bernardo Bertolucci. The director speaks very plainly about the filn, not something he always did. I’ll excerpt portions during this talk:

"'My basic reason for making a film in America was that I love this country,' he says in urgent, fluent English. 'I love the landscape – that’s why I chose Death Valley, because it’s so beautiful and not because it’s dead. This is also the most interesting country in the world at the moment, because of what’s going on here: the contradictions, many of which exist everywhere but which are already crashing against each other here. That’s what I tried to show in ‘Zabriskie Point.’'"

And he says this about the Los Angeles scenes: “In ‘Zabriskie Point’ I suggest that the material wealth of America, which we see in advertisements and on billboards along the roads, is itself a violent influence, perhaps even the root of violence. Not because wealth is bad, but because it is being used not to solve the problems of society, but instead to try and hide these problems from society.”

From the very start, people have complained about the performance of the film’s actors – non-actors, actually. Why use them? As critic David Denby has pointed out, there have always been directors who believe one way to get at “truth” is to strip the performances of artifice – the stylized professionalism that comes with trained actors. In a movie ostensibly about discovering the truth of America, one could see where Antonioni would find that important.

He found Daria Halprin by watching a documentary about San Francisco flower children, “Revolution,” and was taken by her striking looks. But she was hardly a Haight-Ashbury runaway – her father was landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, whose many environmentally sensitive projects included San Francisco’s Ghiradelli Square and the FDR Memorial in Washington. He just died in October. And her mother was Anna Halprin, founder of San Francisco Dancers Workshop, and a pioneer in the use of the creative arts, especially movement, as healing therapy. Daria was at UC Berkeley, studying anthropology, when Antonioni came calling.

Mark Frechette was a little different. The legend is that one of Antonioni’s casting directors found him in Boston, standing at a bus stop cursing at someone in a nearby apartment window who had thrown a flower pot. The casting director reported back that “He’s twenty and he hates.” Frechette also was already married and a father, doing odd jobs and living in a commune under the influence of a strange cult leader/musician named Mel Lyman, a former member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band who published a newspaper called Avatar.

So maybe Antonioni wanted some kind of yin-yang chemistry with these two, a melding together of love and hate into some higher energy plain. But to work with non-actors, you have to gain their trust, be open to them, and make them feel confident. That didn’t happen – that’s not something Antonioni was known for.

There’s an uncomfortable interview on YouTube with the actors from a 1970 "Dick Cavett Show," where they’re ostensibly promoting the film but already seem alienated from it. Film critic Rex Reed, a guest on the show who earlier had reviewed their performances as awful, asked what it was like working with Antonioni. He pointed out that he had interviewed the director once and was told: “Actors are like cattle – you walk them through a fence.”

“I felt very close to him personally, but it didn’t come through in the film,” Halprin says. Frechette: “I wanted to learn something, but he wasn’t teaching so I got mad…He’s a very distant man.”

Without strong central acting, the music becomes more important than ever to the movie. Here, “Zabriskie Point” really excels – but it wasn’t easy to get there. Antonioni hired a deejay at a Pasadena freeform station, Don Hall, as a music supervisor. He wanted the soundtrack to be like a very cool radio station of the era, and I think he succeeded. But Antonioni also wanted a score – “Blow-Up” had a jazz score by Herbie Hancock. Hall at first suggested Procol Harum for the job, but Antonioni liked Pink Floyd, who he had seen in London while making “Blow-Up.”

At the time, the band was arty in a pop-psychedelic way, because of the influence of trippy singer-songwriter Syd Barrett. But Barrett had departed by the time of “Zabriskie Point’s” production, and the band had turned into a more rigorously, intellectually musical outfit, using extended instrumental passages and sound effects to make a kind of classically influenced, druggy-spacey, art-rock. They had also already scored a movie – Barbet Schroeder’s “More.”

Antonioni was as hard on musicians as actors. In writer David Fricke’s accompanying booklet for the “Zabriskie Point” CD, where a lot of my information about the music comes from, Floyd leader Roger Waters recalls being stuck in Rome for a month with the director, who rejected one track after another as not perfect. “It was hell, sheer hell,” he said.

The guitarist John Fahey, whose “Dance of Death” is heard on Daria’s car radio as she learns of Mark’s death, told a similar story. He was asked to have a go at the desert love scene. But he said he and the director got into a fight at a Rome restaurant – Antonioni was decrying America – and he decked him.

Anyway, Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia had the good fortune to record his beautifully melodic “Love Scene” without Antonioni present. He did so in the MGM studio alone, with Antonioni out of town, composing and improvising as the scene played. He did several versions.

Pink Floyd also tried several “Love Scene” takes. And they also did an alternate approach to their very effective opening-scene music, their ominous, industrial-sounding “Heart Beat, Pig Meat.” It’s reportedly a lovely six-minute piano piece that became the basis for a “Dark Side of the Moon” song called “Us and Them.” Pink Floyd’s famously effective, screaming closing number, “Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up,” is just enough of a rewrite of their “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” which by then had been released on the album “Ummagumma” and included in an earlier movie, to constitute an original composition. So “Zabriskie Point” could advertise its prominent use of original rock music, even though it lacked a score per se.

The closing song, Roy Orbison’s dippy ballad “So Young,” was added by MGM because it had Orbison under record contract and had no idea what to do with him – his career was as dead at that point as anything in Death Valley. Antonioni hated its inclusion in the film – and it does seem almost comically inappropriate. By the way, the song that cost the most to use was “Tennessee Waltz” – which in 1965 had become one of Tennessee’s state songs, so the publisher and the state were wary about using it in a hippie movie. (It, too, was first recorded at Cincinnati’s King Records, by Cowboy Copas.)

The screenplay – itself pretty Minimalist and vague – suffers from a sketchily detailed scenario and dialogue that sometimes seems to be justifying the visuals. (Sam Shepard was involved in the writing.) It can be confusing on certain important plot points, such as Daria’s relationship to her boss, Rod Taylor’s Lee Allen. It seems pretty clear she’s a temp working for his development company when we first see her, yet there are scenes at the desert house where he treats her with an intimacy that could be either fatherly or romantic.

Taylor, it should be pointed out, was probably the film’s most famous cast member, having starred in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and in an adventure TV series called “Hong Kong.” Next in reputation would be Kathleen Cleaver, one of the black militants, who was married to Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. And Harrison Ford supposedly can be glimpsed in the jail scene – is that him, bandaged and bloodied, at 16:34?

The most crucial confusing plot point is whether Mark killed the policeman. This was pretty radical stuff for a youth-culture film – students didn’t kill cops – and it probably had as much to do with the negative reaction as anything else. It was OK to do that in foreign films, like Godard’s “Breathless,” but not on American campuses.

Mark confesses to Daria that he is innocent, but he sure seems ready to during the campus scenes. Yet if we freeze-frame this, I think you’ll see that the shot rings out before he gets the gun from his boot. So he’s an innocent man. Yet it’s strange – it doesn’t matter. The film really doesn’t care. It seems to echo Daria’s comment, “Oh a cop did get killed and some bushes were trampled,” before giggling. And, of course, if he didn’t, who did? If it was a student, it’s still pretty bad. And he did bring that gun on campus.

The two mind-blowing scenes, of course, were the love scene at Zabriskie Point and the house and contents blowing up at the end. I think most filmgoers, now used to David Lynch, realize these are manifestations of Daria’s subconscious – although at the time people wondered where all those naked people came from all of a sudden.

The love scene involves The Open Theatre of Joe Chaikin, an avant-garde performance group that was an offshoot of the Living Theater. There were additional people brought in; I’ve found one report Antonioni used as many as 200 in the overhead shot. And it’s beautifully choreographed and, I think, not chauvinistic compared to so many sex scenes from youth movies of this period. I especially love the family that shows up at the end, with the travel stickers on their vehicle and the guy who says they need a drive-in at the spot. That’s the most authentic piece of Americana in the film.

The scene caused a lot of trouble. A district attorney in Sacramento investigated whether it violated the federal Mann Act – transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes, which had been passed decades ago to help fight prostitution. But that came to nothing.

Going back to that Antonioni interview, he said this of the investigation: “I understand that a girl said that I had asked her to do oral intercourse in the film, which is absolutely ridiculous. I’m not crazy, after all. And there was no violation of the Mann Act in the love-in scene, either. What I wanted were the attitudes, the gestures of love. Those people from Joe Chaikin’s Open Theater were acting, not doing.”

There’s some indication Antonioni had something else in mind originally, back in 1968 when planning on the film began. A story I found by Bryan Gindoff, an MGM executive at the time, said the director wanted him to round up 20,000 kids for a desert rock concert, possibly with the Stones or the Beatles. This was before Woodstock, Altamont or Burning Man.

If the love-in represents the release of “positive” energy once Daria gets high and makes love, the blown-up house is the release of “negative” energy after she learns “they” (society) killed Mark. It’s sort of like the line in that Springsteen song, “Promised Land:”

“Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted.”


The house, according to the Movie Locations website, is on the outskirts of Phoenix, and was designed by an Arizona Modernist architect named Hiram Hudson Benedict. In that interview with Flatley, Antonioni describes how it was blown up:

“We rented the original house, the one in which we shot the interiors and some of the exteriors, but naturally the owner was not going to let us blow it up. So we built another one just like it not far away. I believe that the owner sat on his terrace and watched as we blew up that house that looked exactly like his own. We used 17 cameras. It was so difficult to organize the explosion, with all the wires and cameras – like a war operation, and I was the general, giving instructions for one cameraman to shoot now, and then turning quickly to another and signaling him to shoot next. I was so concerned with the practical things that I didn’t have time to feel anything else as the house exploded.”

After “Zabriskie Point” bombed, Antonioni finished his three-film deal with MGM with 1975’s The Passenger,” a very good existential thriller – what else? – starring Jack Nicholson that nobody at the time saw. In the 1980s, he made several Italian films but suffered a stroke and lost his power of speech. He received a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, given by Nicholson, in 1994. His last film, “Beyond the Clouds,” and the only one shot after his stroke, needed to have Wim Wenders direct several scenes. However, Wenders has said Antonioni rejected all his footage. He died in 2007 at age 94.

Halprin fell in love with Frechette and for a time they lived together in Lyman’s commune. She left, tried an acting career that included the Hollywood production “The Jerusalem File,” and married Dennis Hopper. They had one daughter before divorcing and she returned to the Bay Area to work with her mother on healing therapy. They founded the Tamalpa Institute and she has written “The Expressive Body in Life, Art and Therapy.” She continues to run it, after her mother has passed.

Frechette, sadly, didn’t turn out so well. After a couple obscure foreign films, he took his money and returned to Lyman’s commune. In 1973, he and two other members decided to stage a bank robbery to protest Watergate-era politics. One of the others was killed by police; Frechette dropped his gun – which had no bullets – and surrendered.

At the time, he said in a statement, “We just reached the point where all that the three of us really wanted to do was hold up a bank. It would be like a direct attack on everything that is choking this country to death.” Seems like the kind of thing that might inspire an Antonioni movie about America. Sentenced to prison, he died in 1975 while bench-pressing in jail. A 150-pound set of weights fell on him, the bar strangling his throat. It was considered an accident – he had been depressed and not eating at the time, and thus weak. He was 27.

‘Zabriskie Point’s” reputation has slowly been growing – partly because everyone recognizes how important and singular Antonioni’s career was, partly because it was a film about America in turmoil as seen by an outsider. It’s a flawed movie, but an unforgettable one.


(This is adapted from a lecture, after a screening of "Zabriskie Point," presented at Cincinnati Art Museum on Jan. 17, 2009.)