We Free Kings

Omnivorous musings on film, music, politics and the mass media

Thursday, November 22, 2007


SUPERSTAR: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987, Directed by Todd Haynes, 43 min. USA)

Many of the themes that emerge in Haynes’ films (rock stardom in Velvet Goldmine, the Dylan-inspired I'm Not There, dark personal secrets in Far From Heaven and Poison, stultifying societal pressures in Safe) can be traced back to his film debut. Fifteen years ago Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story announced his presence on the American film scene with a bang, as the film caused a sensation and was quickly withdrawn from circulation due to a lawsuit from Karen's brother and musical partner, Richard Carpenter. It still lives on bootleg video and Haynes himself quietly showed a new print a few years back at a film festival in Spain. It’s unlikely that its legal status will change anytime soon (it is filled with film footage and pop recordings of the seventies that are presumably uncleared legally), which is a major loss for American film history. It is one of the great films of the eighties, overflowing with ideas about celebrity, consumer culture, feminine objectification and America’s loss of innocence.

Do people still remember The Carpenters, as their heyday drifts further and further back in our cultural consciousness? From 1970 to 1978 The Carpenters had twelve Top Ten singles, all light and airy confections portraying a calm new beginning that counterbalanced the turbulence of the late 1960s. This was pop music made by young people that your Lawrence Welk-loving grandparents could embrace. However, the soft commercial sheen concealed secrets, namely Richard’s homosexuality and Karen’s severe affliction with anorexia nervosa.

In 1983 Karen died of a heart attack in her mother’s home, a consequence of her illness. Haynes tells this story in a richly packed forty-three minutes, surprisingly emotionally involving for a film whose cast is manufactured by Mattel.

When people hear that Karen and Richard, as well as the rest of the cast, are played by dolls from the Barbie line, they tend to get the understandable impression that the piece is a spoofy satire, poking fun at the white bread image of lite-pop icons The Carpenters. This hardly the case. Sure, Karen's Barbie actress is employed for her 'perfect' underfed image, but after a few minutes you tune in to the vocal talents (especially Merrill Gruver and Michael Edwards as the musical duo and Melissa Brown as their controlling mother) and it becomes somewhat unnerving how much you can be moved, staring at a ten-inch piece of mass-produced plastic. As Karen signs her record contract, you see Holocaust footage of an emaciated corpse being thrown into a pit. As the Carpenters’ ubiquitous hits 'Close To You' and 'We've Only Just Begun' are played, you get facts, figures, and footage about the birth of the American supermarket, the bombing of Cambodia, and The Brady Bunch. Anorexia Nervosa is discussed in what appears to be a mock health education film. And as the syndrome’s side effect of a euphoric high is discussed, Karen is heard singing 'I'm On Top Of The World'. Within this context, all the American happy-faced cheer of the era comes crashing down as part of a cruel conspiracy to deny the truth about who we are and how we live. And Karen, the era’s angelic voice, becomes victim to its lies as well. 'I just want it to be perfect' she pines during a recording session. But perfection only lasts for a moment, if it exists at all.

Last year, I showed this film to a film class I was teaching at an all-girl high school. Since the class was an hour and a half long, I took a number of short films to fill the time. However, after showing Superstar, a wide-ranging and spirited discussion consumed the remainder of the period. Our next class didn’t meet until three weeks later, yet the analysis instantly resumed. The girls discussed eating disorders, the media, and their relationships with their parents. Despite the film’s unusual tone and scattershot technique, it spoke to them directly and hit them hard. If Haynes had never made another film, Superstar alone would leave a large legacy.

SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY will take some wiles on your part since it cannot legally be shown or sold, but like procuring Cuban cigars, you will impress yourself and others once you do. It is not terribly hard to find.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Eavesdropper: Life As He Hears It

Report from the United Artists Riverview Theater 12-19-06:
The Eavesdropper notices a drama brewing an aisle ahead at the advance screening of Rocky Balboa. Some radio station promo guy is giving out prizes with Rocky film trivia questions and the thirty-ish Everyman is a winner ("His turtles names are Cuff & Link!") and he's looking over the bag of promo booty he's been awarded. Some CD, a t-shirt, radio station bumper stickers and Whoa! A 2007 Philadelphia Eagles Cheerleader calender!

He turns to his left and huddles with his buddy as they peruse the calender, savoring month after month. It doesn't seem like it as that long ago that an Eagles Cheerleader calender might have the women in their uniforms, smiling. In 2007 the Eagles cheerleader is just one stretch or shimmy from being completely free of the clothing and those gleaming smiles have been replaced by the type of sex-zombie sneer that says, "You're going to be inside me in thirty seconds".

Then the Everyman turned to his right and looks at his wife. "I can't keep this!" he moans. "Where could I put it up? Not in the house! Definitely not at work!" he says with a disbelieving laugh. "You want it?"

His buddy upturns his palms and his buddy's wife chimes in, "If she says you can't put it up in your house, you think he can put it up in ours?"

He looks further down the aisle. "You want it?" A third friend reaches for it, his enlightened female companion laughing away.

"Take it, " says the Everyman, "I'll stick with my cups".

Sunday, October 15, 2006


(1973, directed by Jack Smight, 183 minutes, U.S./U.K.)

There are well over a hundred films that have the word “Frankenstein” in their title but while every decade brings another generation of stitched together brutes very few actually wrestle with the ideas in Mary Shelley’s allegorical novel. Almost thirty-three years after it was broadcast on NBC, one of the most unusual and intriguing of the films to rework the legend, the two-part TV movie FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY, has finally arrived uncut on home video.

Here is a film I was particularly curious to revisit. I was eight years old in 1973 when it ran over two night’s on NBC’s prime time schedule. Its classy British veneer distracted my parents from the ghoulishness of the film’s amputations, self-mutilation, decapitations and kinky sensuality. Given the film’s atmosphere of morbid taboos it is little wonder it was so irresistible to a curious kid. I counted KING KONG and this television film as being my two favorite movies in the day and they both share the misunderstood monster character that also has always reverberated in my animal-loving heart.

As lush as any TV productions of its time, the film is shot by Arthur Ibbetson (WHERE EAGLES DARE, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and 1984’s THE BOUNTY), whose work along with the production design creates a nicely realized vision of the 1800’s, from its Victorian parties to its charnel houses to Frankenstein’s wood and glass based machinery. As is usual for most made-for-TV films, there’s really not much to say about the direction. Jack Smight was a Hollywood veteran who alternated between TV and theatrical films, but even his big screen pictures (AIRPORT ‘75 and HARPER among them) have that stubbornly anonymous style that television demands. So instead of Smight’s personal stamp defining the film, it is the work of co-writer Christopher Isherwood that gives this Frankenstein its distinction.

Isherwood is the British born writer whose autobiographical short stories about sex and debauchery in Weimer-era Berlin formed the basis for the musical CABARET. Since 1939 Isherwood lived and worked in Hollywood, authoring numerous book and screenplays, including the 1965 cult satire THE LOVED ONE (co-written with Terry Southern). Isherwood’s script for FRANKENSTEIN, which is alternately thoughtful and lurid, was co-written with his longtime partner, portrait artist Don Bachardy. It incorporates not only characters and events from the Universal Frankenstein series but it also draws from the details of Mary Shelley’s personal life. Isherwood and Bachardy ultimately expressed dismay at their script’s treatment and published their own version as a novel under the title DR. FRANKENSTEIN.

FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY gives us a Victor Frankenstein (played by twenty-three year-old Leonard Whiting of Zefferelli’s ROMEO AND JULIET) much more like the character in Shelley’s book: an earnest and haunted soul, not the raving madman Colin Clive played in Universal’s 1931 version nor the cunning murderer Peter Cushing played in Hammer’s Frankenstein series. Whiting is a long-haired pretty boy, has a certain presence yet none of the intensity of a guy who digs up graves. There is a long tradition of stiff actors playing the lead in horror films and perhaps this blank quality allows us to easily project ourselves onto an actor while the rest of the cast turns ever more grotesque as the tale progresses.

Although this Victor blasphemously swears to his future bride Elizabeth that was would gladly become Satan’s pupil if he could resurrect his drowned brother, Isherwood’s script is not out to punish this Frankenstein for flying too close to the sun. Instead, FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY’s more curious moments concern Victor’s betrayal and abandonment of the creature.

Brought to life by solar energy (a nice eco-conscious 70’s touch), the creature here is not the suture-ridden disaster of previous tellings. Instead the gauze is unwrapped to reveal a handsome being of pure innocence, as played by doe-eyed actor Michael Sarrazin (star of THEY SHOOT HORSES DON’T THEY?). For a brief shining period Victor and the creature (who he calls “Adam”) frolic and horse around like a couple of school kids (a marked difference from the dour exchanges he shares with his fiancée Elizabeth). But as soon the creature’s brow begins thickening and he develops lesions, Victor abandons the creature like an aging boy toy and leaves him for dead.

Here, as in the novel, the creature continues to haunt Victor. In Shelley’s original the creature has been interpreted as a misshapen consequence of the industrial revolution; in Isherwood’s version the monster appears to be a more personal ghost, bringing guilt and shame and threatening Victor’s relationship with Elizabeth. The creature, once a worshipful student, is now a bitter son, and Victor his withholding father. The film’s black-hatted villain Polidoris (a game James Mason) smugly laughs at Victor’s hypocrisy: “What a model parent you’ve been! You loved your creature as long as it was pretty but when it lost its looks – ha! That was another matter! So much for your dainty conscience!”

Shot mainly at London’s Pinewood studios, and with bit parts by Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, the first half of the film has a bit of the elegance of British period productions of the day. During the second half, which includes the creation of the decaying monster’s mate (a kittenish young Jane Seymour, forged in a stream of psychedelic bubbles), the film begins to take on the hokey air of an episode of THE WILD WILD WEST. Mason returns as Polidoris, dressed in an Oriental smock and accompanied by a murderous pair of Chinese servants! The creature’s bride tries to strangle the castle’s cat and dances a crazy freeform frug at a formal ball! Actors hold their breath and pretend to be frozen in ice! All this is never less than entertaining but it is the film’s ending, set at the North Pole, where the film redeems itself from its campier moments.

With everything taken away from him, here in this icy no man’s land Victor can finally confront his failures, embrace his shunned creation and ask forgiveness. Despite the set-bound artifice, the finale remains surprisingly touching and satisfying. When else but during The “Me” Generation would a story traditionally about the larger issues of science and God become transformed into a parable about the emotional needs of the monster in all of us?

Thursday, September 28, 2006


This is Ann Telnaes' comment on a quote George Bush gave to Wolf Blitzer when asked about the carnage in Iraq during an CNN interview Wednesday, September 20th:

"I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is -- my point is, there's a strong will for democracy." - George W. Bush*

*full text @

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

ALOHA BOBBY & ROSE (1975, directed by Floyd Mutrux, 88 minutes, U.S.)

Most serious film buffs have a mental list of a handful of pet films that they pester friends to see. Something forgotten, rare or offbeat that symbolizes an unjust world that fails to appreciate true beauty and genius. Asked to curate a film to send West Philadelphia’s Cinemagic off into the movie theater netherworld, I avoided thinking of relevance, drawing power or historical importance. Instead I went with my gut reaction, thinking I’d love to see Floyd Mutrux’s 1975 lovers-on-the-run tale ALOHA BOBBY & ROSE with an audience again.

ALOHA is a primo portrait of 1970’s existential aimlessness disguised as a drive-in movie and is audaciously shot by William Fraker, one of the truly gifted cinematographers of the era. With renewed interest in 70’s cult items like BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA and TWO LANE BLACKTOP (on which Mutrux did some uncredited writing), ALOHA BOBBY & ROSE seems ripe for rediscovery.

ALOHA is the second film in director Mutrux’s small but distinctive filmography, a companion piece to his stunning debut DUSTY & SWEETS MAGEE. Shot in 1970, DUSTY followed a group of unconnected heroin users around the fringes of L.A. With the glamorous sheen of Los Angeles being the neutral setting of so much of Hollywood film and television, DUSTY stands in contrast as one of the rare films to reveal the skuzzy sun-bleached underbelly of the city. DUSTY is part documentary and part staged drama, where mostly non-professional actors deliver their zonked-out philosophies directly to the camera, then take us back to their rooms to watch them shoot-up and lie around.

ALOHA takes us back to the same low-rent L.A. setting to show us around with just a smidgen of incident propelling us through its star-crossed lover scenario. Bobby is a completely unambitious auto mechanic with a souped-up ’67 Camero. When his co-worker Moxey (the gangly younger Carradine brother, Robert) shows enough initiative to apply to transmission school, Bobby derides such blatant careerism. Who wants to wake up that early? Bobby is played by Paul LeMat, fresh of his tough guy role as John Milner in AMERICAN GRAFFITI. LeMat’s Bobby could be the same character, his ducktail grown out into a shag and his natural geniality starting to sour with his new awareness that all this hot-rodding isn’t leading anywhere.

Diane Hull plays Rose, a single mother whose life seems so stifled her boozy mom encourages her to kick loose and go out with Bobby when he delivers her car from the garage. While on their date a dumb prank spirals out of control (leading to cinema’s freakiest car crash) and the two set off for Mexico in an attempt to escape the law.

The 1970’s were the last time that popular films would be so casually fatalistic. Much like DeNiro’s Johnny Boy in MEAN STREETS (a film ALOHA echoes with its rock score and improvised feel), Bobby is a character that seems less likely to survive the film the more we get to know him. Apparently nearly broke throughout the entire film, Bobby seems to have no support, dreams or prospects. He’s more feckless than self-destructive but his indifference seems so profound you can’t imagine the future having a place for this guy. The “Aloha” of the title is a reference to a passing thought running off to Hawaii, a dream Bobby and Rose seem to choose because of its very improbability.

When Bobby first meets Rose he lays it on thick trying to impress her but his lies are as transparent as a child’s. She finally calls him on his bluster and Bobby seems to wilt into her arms, “When you work in a gas station, you gotta bullshit” he meekly admits, and with that admission he seems to win Rose’s sympathy and love, that brand of instant-love that frequently strikes in Hollywood. Diane Hull makes the under-written script appear poetic. She was another of the open hearted long-haired hippy gals of the seventies, like Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith or Christina Raines, who worked steadily for a time then seemed to disappear.

But the real star of this film is cinematographer William Fraker. The former President of the American Society of Cinematographers, Fraker shot some of the iconic films of the sixties and seventies, including ROSEMARY’S BABY and BULLITT. In ALOHA he seems to have been given a free hand to shoot some of his boldest work (Mutrux used him on every one of his films) and Fraker delivers a pictorial essay of L.A. at night. Fraker’s work often features rich colors cutting through the darkness and as the bruised and bleeding lovers move through the city his images give the sensation that Bobby & Rose are merely insignificant pinballs bouncing amidst the bumpers of a shimmering pinball machine.

In one unforgettable scene the two drive down Hollywood boulevard and the camera shows us, shot from below, the giant music billboards that line both sides of the street. While the DJ motormouths an into to Junior Walker’s “What Does It Take To Win Your Love” Bobby & Rose are little people dwarfed by giant-sized effigies of Ringo Starr, The Stones, Marvin Gaye and Al Green. There a real excitement to the way the music and the images come together but there also the feeling that you could never be a bigger nobody in life than right here, cruising below the shadows of these God-like entertainers.

As Bobby and Rose escape towards the Mexican border they end up briefly riding with another couple, Buford and Donna Sue. Played by Tim McIntire (who had a mesmerizing turn playing rock and roll pioneer Alan Freed in Mutrux’s following film AMERICAN HOT WAX) and Leigh French (of the San Francisco improv comedy group The Committee), this duo seems to epitomize the American Dream to Bobby. Buford wears a cowboy hat, owns a Cadillac with a phone in the back and, along with the chirpy Donna Sue, seems to just drive around and raise hell wherever he goes. Although we can see the Buford is as full of bullshit as Bobby, he at least has some spirit in him and Bobby seems to shrink in his presence, merely becoming a sidekick in his own film. Rose barely tries to play along, quietly distressed at Bobby’s boyish admiration for this insufferable blowhard.

But there’s no future in being this guy’s lackey and with no real place to run Bobby and Rose have no choice but to turn around and meet their fate. At 88 minutes, ALOHA plays like an American BREATHLESS, succeeding at what American films do best: taking a pulpy and recognizable genre and revving it up with an individualistic personal vision. Now, thirty-one years later, ALOHA’s period stylizations have mellowed beautifully, turning what may have seemed tossed-off and minor youth film into a dreamy, blissed-out and tragic reverie.

*There will be a free screening of ALOHA BOBBY & ROSE Sunday September 24th 2006 at 4:00pm at the final day of screenings at the Cinemagic Theater (3925 Walnut Street, Philadelphia PA). ALOHA BOBBY & ROSE will be projected from DVD.