Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Garlic is As Good As Ten Mothers

Garlic is the spice of life, and the National Film Registry Project is the spice of rainy afternoons.

 So.... this is a really odd film. It's on both Hulu and YouTube, if you've ever wanted to see a documentary about people in California who really love garlic. It's... well, another of those films that I don't understand why it's on the Registry. That's not to say it's a bad documentary or even a bad film. Where else could you see a man wearing a giant garlic hat telling you about how America has discovered garlic because of hippies? Or see a guy credited as an "Andulusian Gypsy - Sausage Maker/Garlic Lover/Butcher of Fighting Bulls" tell you about the Spanish Civil War and appear to be threatening to stab the documentarian for asking questions about the garlic/tomato peasant sandwich? Or see a woman belly dance with a string of garlic? Or hear another woman sing a love song about garlic? Or see a documentarian go to a playground and ask a bunch of kids "Hey, what do you think of garlic?" (general consensus from kids in the 1970's "It's okay"). Or hear Werner Herzog's opinion on what garlic has to do with Nosferatu – yes, this movie addresses the vampire/garlic problem.

This movie really, really loves garlic, and what it primarily wants to tell you is that it's okay if you do too. Unlike a lot of other food documentaries, it's not highly concerned with recipes or health benefits (though it mentions both). It just wants to tell you that a lot of people freaking love garlic. There's a weird phrase about 15-20 minutes in where a lady in voiceover says something about garlic being universal among people from "primitive cultures", and then it cuts to the very excitable Spanish man yell-singing about the way to keeping a man being to add a lot of garlic to his food. That was pretty weird, since most of the people shown enjoying garlic are decidedly WASP-y, though besides our friend the yelling Spanish man, we also have three whole black people appear in the movie to show garlic being used in barbecue, and a Chinese man appear to show us how to use garlic in a stir-fry. My roommate the chef was watching with me and really enjoyed those segments of the movie - most 70's food tends to look like the nation lost a bet with the Jell-O corporation. But even with the bad lighting characteristic of the mobile equipment of the 70's, most of the food shown in the movie looks pretty good. The end of the movie veers off from "People love eating garlic!" to "Garlic should be grown organically!" and showing us garlic pickers. And mad props to those people. It looks like a tremendously difficult job. The film ends with a caption over the screen: “Support the People Who Grow the Food We Eat”. Well, almost ends, since it goes on to show people carrying boxes, people cooking with garlic, and a few more close-ups of garlic. But it's still a pretty good message.

 Overall, my impression of this movie is that it's bizarre, but bizarre in a good way. I don't know why this particular Les Blank documentary was chosen for preservation, and Wikipedia isn't particularly enlightening on that fact. But it's still fascinating. So go check it out, if you want to see a bunch of people who really, REALLY love garlic.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Thin Blue Line

Sometimes all that stands between civilization and anarchy is the preservation of culture.

 After some crazy time, it feels good to be back doing something that's my own again. Even if it is recording my reactions to a hideously depressing documentary where a real man was robbed of twelve years of his life, part of them spent on Death Row, for a murder he didn't commit. It was one of those stark peeks into just how crooked the concept of justice can go when punishment is put ahead of justice. Edith James, who represented Randall Adams, said that there were really two major things going against Adams in the trial - one, that he wasn't a local and the other possible suspect was, and that he was old enough to be given the death penalty, and the other possible suspect wasn't. You can't have cop killers getting off scot-free, and David Harris was a juvenile at the time of the killing.

David Harris, who in tape at the end of the end of the film as good as admits to the murder of Officer Wood, is the culmination of the kind of laid-back "boys will be boys" Duke's of Hazzard philosophy. Sure, teenage boys get into trouble and raise a bit of Cain now and then. No need to wreck their whole lives. Even though David Harris was arrested multiple times for armed robbery, assault, attempted kidnapping, bragged about the killing of Officer Wood, threw the blame onto Randall Adams, then was ultimately given the death penalty for killing a man who tried to stop David from abducting his girlfriend during a home invasion. It's an odd question to pose at this point in time, since "Three Strikes" laws and mandatory minimum sentencing have been considered to ruin lives... after all, we've got people doing major stretches for marijuana possession. But then you've got the "We can't ruin a boy's life" with a boy who was what could be considered a menace to society. Where really is the line? I thought this would be more about the police, but it did help free an innocent man. This is really much more about the justice system - the unreliability of eyewitnesses, the way evidence can be fudged if there's a point that people really want to prove, and the impact of emotional appeals over solid reason. Under the weight of the facts, there was absolutely no reason for Randall Adams to shoot Officer Wood, and plenty of reasons for David Harris to. But then the wagging finger "THE MAN IS SITTING RIGHT THERE!" by a woman who fancied herself a detective and the prosecution closing with a heart-stirring speech about the titular "thin blue line" that protects society did sway the jury.

 Then the original subject of the documentary came into play - James Grigson. A quick game of match-up and a few questions about proverbs, and he was willing to declare an innocent man an incurable sociopath who should be put to death for the safety of society. And apparently did that so much that he was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association. James Grigson didn't seem to read many cases that weren't incurable sociopaths that should be put to death for the safety of society, with his "expert testimony" securing the death penalty for 167 people. So you have to wonder if there was some projection there.

 Overall, this movie was chilling. The camerawork and recreations were cutting edge at the time, though now it looks more like Unsolved Mysteries. But Unsolved Mysteries was awesome. I usually like my movies more fun, but if you would just really love to get outraged, this is one to check out.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Great Dictator

Look up, Hannah, there's another Film Registry Project Review!

 So, here we are at the first Chaplin film I'm going to review. According to the little bonus commentary that played after the feature on Hulu, he really wanted to make a film about Napoleon, but felt that he really, really needed to lampoon Hitler. Which isn't surprising, given that he was Jewish. The rumors of the "Final Solution" were only starting to percolate out to the US by 1940, but most people just couldn't bring themselves to believe them. After all, Germany was a civilized country. A little jerky, but only 30 years before, German had been the second most common language in the United States. This is what started an odd little trend of comedians urging the US to enter the war by making Hitler and Mussolini both look like evil dopes who wanted to conquer the world. Which is fairly accurate, but it's still an interesting insight into propaganda history. Usually, propaganda efforts start when the government wants to get people on board with an idea, but as far as I've been able to tell, the pre-US-involvement films were a sort of grassroots effort by both Jews and anti-fascists in Hollywood. Carole Lombard's last film (another National Film Registry movie, To Be Or Not To Be) is another of these movies, and her USO tour plane crash made her one of the only American civilian casualties on American soil, since Hawaii wasn't a state at the time of Pearl Harbor. Maybe these movies are part of the reason Hollywood went to war, with almost every physically capable leading man signing up, and the physically incapable and the women doing USO tours and cranking out propaganda films by the hundreds. It's a fascinating bit of cinematic history.

 But back to The Great Dictator. This was Charlie Chaplin's first complete talkie, and got kind of mixed reviews upon release. It wasn't that the critics didn't love his trademark slapstick anymore - on the contrary, they thought it was great. So great, in fact, that a bunch of scenes became iconic enough to be "paid homage" in various Bugs Bunny shorts (memorably the shaving scene to classical music and the bit with the barber's chairs, both used in "The Rabbit of Seville"). The image of "Adenoid Hinkel" doing a delicate balloon dance with a globe has become one of the most famous images of Hitler-mocking that didn't come from the mind of Mel Brooks. It was just that ending that critics had a problem with. Why would a former soldier/barber, escaped from a prison camp and mistaken for the man persecuting his people, make a five minute impassioned plea for peace and justice and for the liberty of soldiers? Well... because any brave person given the platform would. Sure, he'd likely be shot at the end of his speech, but he gave it, and that's what's important. It's not inconsistent with anything we had been shown about the character, who had really kicked off the slapstick by slapping a stormtrooper in the face with a paintbrush. It's just no one at the time was familiar with the idea of mixing comedy and a social message. This one may have been on the heavy-handed side, but it was still a new idea. There are definitely a lot of people who don't know how to do this at all, so "kind of heavy-handed" vs. "Anvillicious", and I'll go with the originator of the idea being a little heavy on the pathos.

 Overall, this really is a great movie. Long, which I wish I had remembered before agreeing to watch it for a second time after taking cold medicine. I suggest anyone interested in film history or in WWII history give it a watch. Just make sure you're awake.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Star Wars: A New Hope

May the Force be with you... AND ALSO WITH YOU!

 So... what do I say about one of my favorite movies? I've seen this film so many times in the last twenty years, I can quote the whole thing from memory. I've cosplayed as Mara Jade. I have my own collection of lightsabers. I'm currently sitting underneath the New Hope poster, an Ewok keychain, and a Darth Vader with cookies con badge, and in front of a Rebel insignia autographed by Michael Stackpole. I have a wall of Star Wars collector's memorabilia on top of my movie collection, and a tub of mint condition action figures at my parent's house - not to mention a whole shelf of Star Wars books. So it's pretty hard to be unbiased about this film. Thankfully, it's the original that's preserved, not the "Special Edition", with all the CGI frippery. I can totally understand cleaning up some shots, but like every other fan, I don't understand cluttering up shots with dozens of CGI monstrosities. The success of the original films was that George Lucas was working with an amazing group of people - the actors would say no to him, he had good editors, script people, basically everything he didn't have for the prequels. The only thing that stayed the same was John Williams, and what do people remember fondly from the prequels? The amazing soundtrack. But off the criticism of George Lucas.

What is it that makes Star Wars so successful? Well, it's a combination of a few things. The straightforward Campbell Hero's Journey. The exciting serial adventure feel. The lived-in look of the galaxy. The fact that you got the idea that if the camera wandered off the main characters, you'd still end up watching a story that was just as interesting. The feeling that you're watching a part of a grander whole. The voyage of discovery. The likability of the cast. No, on a strict level, it wasn't doing anything brilliant. It's actually a pretty by-the-numbers science fantasy story (it's not even true science fiction if you want to get technical). It's not a grand epic like Dune or Foundation. It doesn't espouse a philosophy like Stranger in a Strange Land or make commentary on the nature of humanity like 2001. But Star Wars did something that very few science fiction films had ever done before: it took that magnificent landscape of imagination and it made it visible. Unlike Star Trek, all the aliens looked alien. Robots looked like robots. Things looked dirty. It all looked real - you could totally imagine aliens from another society seeing this movie and mistaking it for a historical document. Sure, a few of the puppets and costumes look kind of rubbery now, but geez, did they look different from anything anyone ever saw before. And just like Blade Runner influenced future city design for years to come, Star Wars influenced science fiction films. Suddenly, these were blockbusters, not kiddie fare. It made nostalgia for the old whiz bang Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers cool. In a way, you could say Star Wars started this whole nostalgia train by legitimizing it. It made some level of geeking out socially acceptable. And the soundtrack was just so good. And the cast was just so likable. And the special effects were just so groundbreaking. People who are more educated in film than I am have tried for years to explain "Why Star Wars?". That's my best explanation. Every time I watch it, I'm back to a 9 year old kid with a sore throat sitting down with a ginger ale and a bowl of chicken soup, watching them for the first time. Even if I can quote every line, I'm filled with wonder and joy every time. And I can't really ask a movie to do more than that.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Bride of Frankenstein

It's a perfect night for mystery and horror and the National Film Registry.

 So, this is another of those movies that's more famous for its level of pop culture osmosis than for actually being seen. A fair amount of the parody Young Frankenstein (another List film) is taken from The Bride of Frankenstein, rather than Frankenstein itself. This also sets up that apparently the Preservation Board adores the Frankenstein's Monster character, as four films featuring him are preserved. No other character has that distinction. Even Dracula is technically only on the List once, though in original English and Spanish dubbed form, it's the same movie. The Bride of Frankenstein does veer a little closer to the book in attempting to make the Creature more sympathetic and more articulate, and even adds in Mary and Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. That part is an odd little scene, because the conceit is that Mary is telling the sequel to the tale she told the last time... which was set in the 1930's, and judging by most of the costumes, still is. But she's still the historical figure of Mary Shelley, telling the tale in 1817. She's amazingly presentient about the fashions of the future, since Elizabeth again spends this film impeccably dressed.

 Anyway, this movie not only introduces the comic old lady in Minnie (famously recreated as Frau Blucher), but also the old blind hermit, who has somehow acquired cigars. I thought the idea of a hermit with cigars was just a gag for Mel Brooks, but no, that's actually a plot point in the film. The old hermit teaches the Creature to speak, to eat, to drink, and to smoke. "Smoke good, fire bad". The film also introduces the very camp Dr. Pretorious, who has succeeded in growing tiny human forms that he plays dress-up with and keeps in bottles. He also enjoys blackmail, fancy coats, and picnics in crypts. He's a riot. He's also the one that convinces Henry Frankenstein to make the Bride, using parts from random dead ladies, including a few murder victims. Pretorious isn't really the snuggly type. Again, a major plot point from the book is never addressed. There, you have some excuse, as Mary Shelley was presumably ignorant of a few facts of reproduction - Victor Frankenstein destroys the nearly completed Bride out of terror that She and the Creature will reproduce. Apparently the idea of just leaving out her uterus or ovaries never occurred to him. In the film, Pretorious is all for the Creatures having Creature babies, so I guess that explains that, except why does he think they'd be able to reproduce? But it turns into a moot point anyway, because the Bride is horrified by her Bridegroom, and after maybe five minutes of screentime where she spends the entire time screaming and hissing, the Creature kills everyone except Henry by knocking the tower down. Though a good monster can't stay dead, and he reappeared a few years later in The Son of Frankenstein. Dude needs to learn that collapsing buildings just isn't a good suicide method.

 Overall, this movie was a lot of fun. It made the jokes in Young Frankenstein a lot funnier. It also opened up a lot of questions to a nitpicker like me, but I had a roommate on hand reminding me to just go with it. I'm not supposed to look for logic in a classic monster movie, I'm just supposed to enjoy the ride. And I definitely did.