“Number One” (1969)
Considering the amount of complex psychology involved in both the achieving and the rudimentary maintenance of high level performance in sports, it is surprising how little of this is reflected in Hollywood’s occasional forays into the world of athletics; that is unless one considers the film industry’s usual lazy path in the exploration of the human experience in favor of easy and proven formula (even if this approach proves repeatedly insubstantial, as there is no safer method in maintaining one’s professional status in the film industry than in resisting the risk of originality). Why bother with the unglamorous reality of individual or group anxieties consistent with high stakes competitiveness when there are fertile fields of coarse melodrama, adultery and colorful substance abuse to enliven the usual offerings of artificial treacle enhanced tales of either miraculous inspiration of tear-jerker heartbreak? With the field of cinema sports reduced to convenient and relentlessly repetitive and shallow formulaic contrivance, it is little wonder the popularized conception of the “dumb jock” was seldom challenged.
“Number One”, which proposes a deeper look at the base insecurity of the competitive ego, is the kind of film whose occasional moments of interest only serve to magnify the disappointment in the fact that what is substantial is limited to the momentary. Frequently the film halts for what are probably meant as lyrical interludes of reflection, (including the umpteenth dissolve heavy montage of a tryst before a roaring fireplace), a directorial penchant which beckons impatience considering how sparse the attention granted penetrating character development which would fortifying the few truly affecting scenes in the film.
A portrait of a man in crisis, the film follows New Orleans Saints quarterback Ron “Cat” Catlan, a once great athlete whose waning of ability through age and injury causes him to be at a desperate career crossroads exacerbated by a crumbling marital situation, a fan base which has turned surly and a young rival who he has mentored and who now aggressively seeks to replace the veteran. The film doesn’t portray Catlan as entirely blameless for his plight nor is he treated with an effusion of sympathy; he is portrayed as self-centered and inflexibly arrogant, traits that unusual in commercial cinema, especially as defining a character for whom audience empathy would seem imperative for the fullest appreciation of the film’s more inglorious observations of life in professional sports. Considering the producers received fullest cooperation from the both professional football and the New Orleans Saints organization, the pointed jabs at the sport- especially those concerning the heartlessly mercenary nature of franchise management -are surprising in their frankness. Yet screenwriter David Moessinger continually shies away from meaningful implications of these bitter expressions of self-aware disposability, a reticence also extended to other important factors contributing toward Catlan’s crisis including bitter contemplation of post-retirement career choices or any reconciliation with his wife’s own independent career direction; a source of irritability to his controlling masculine ego.
Throughout the film, there are several characters both on and off the field of play whose contribution to individual scenes seems to lay the groundwork for continued importance in the scenario, but their further presence either consists of minimal windowdressing or is nonexistent. Significant examples of this include Ann Marley (Diana Muldaur), a woman with whom Catlan indulges in the beginning of what appears to be a significant extramarital affair who simply disappears without mention or explanation, or Richie Fowler (Bruce Dern), an ex-teammate whose success in a car leasing empire is offered as an unwanted post-football option. Neither character ends up playing a pivotal role in Catlan’s ultimate fate as can be ascertained since his final decision making process occurs off-camera and without explanation, effectively nullifying any point to the drama. The abrupt conclusion of the film is clearly based upon Morris Berman’s iconic photo of Y.A. Tittle, yet the moment lacks the expected gut punch since the audience is kept at such a distance from any meaningful dramatization of the determining of Catlan’s ultimate path.
Charlton Heston delivers a performance of quietly nuanced implosion, but his is a tempest raging against a narrative indifference that stunts the best efforts of the supporting cast.
In Michael Wadleigh’s celebrated 1970 documentary “Woodstock”, the myth of the purity of Sixties radicalism takes a sharp stick in the eye when the cumulative evidence reveals that rather than the three day music festival energizing the youth culture with an enlightened revolutionary fervor centered on opposition to the Vietnam War, the bulk of the attendees’ attention seemed reprioritized to the more immediately rewarding search for appropriately modest places to evacuate their bladders. Meanwhile, Country Joe McDonald scolds the largely somnolent audience to lift themselves from their torpor and participate in an antiwar activity as undemanding a demonstration of political solidarity as possible- a sing-along -with the noncommittal response seeming to be a result of cognitive benumbing through chemistry or simply distracted adolescence; neither of which is particularly characteristic of action born of deep rooted radical activism His is a rather dispirited call to revolutionary defiance that is met with glazed eyes and mud caked somnambulism.
A different form of activist dishonesty is on display in Francine Parker’s “F.T.A.”, a film documenting a satiric vaudeville troupe on what was called the Free The Army tour, a type of anti-USO show; not designed to provide entertainment to the troops as much as the indoctrination of additional disharmony among the ranks of the already situationally disgruntled. Armed with equal parts sophomoric glibness and celebrity vanity, the skits comprising the revue aim low and still miss the mark, unassisted by the unrelenting (and unmerited) smugness projected by Donald Sutherland and the faux-fawning Kewpie Doll persona affected by Jane Fonda as a substitution for ability in sketch comedy, though in her defense there is little the most able of comic talents could have done with the gratingly unfunny material (though to weaken her alibi, both she and Sutherland are accused, along with seven other abettors, of the writing). It plays like a suggestion for a show passed around the living room during a cocktail party with each each contribution seeming more hilarious as the passed bottle empties.
Interspersed amid the slipshod assemblage of concert footage are Fonda’s efforts to extract a greater condemnation of America by clearly troubled and confused military personnel, who express their own misgivings about the war, life in the military, racism and other social issues; thoughts which are usually appropriated by Ms. Fonda into an embellishment more attuned to her carefully crafted, though suspiciously ignorantly limited, political agenda. Curiously, to watch the film one gets the impression that every serviceman and woman regardless of service branch is in philosophical harmony with the performers (though the patchily inserted audience shots do suggest otherwise). However, on the one occasion when a few disgruntled, opposing voices dare intrude on the theatrical dominion of these self-righteous champions of peace and understanding, they are abruptly dismissed as “drunk” and “right-wingers” and the cast is stunned into a brief nervous paralysis, not due to any potential threat of violence, but for the very idea that someone might disagree with their fervently anti-American caustic cheeriness.
The entitlement of celebrity is clearly the fuel that keeps this film moving (it’s certainly not in the material) and it’s fascinating to watch the troupe and just how every random incident or comment is purloined to serve their self-aggrandizing posture. When upon arriving in Japan, the cast’s entry is delayed and it is suggested that the inconvenience is a deliberate ploy by a political machinery who clearly finds their message dangerous (the importance which Ms. Fonda places upon their presence seems equal to that of the participants of the Yalta Conference) when, in fact, the performers were merely carrying incorrect travelling visas. This antagonistic mindset embraces a paranoiac us vs. them attitude partially explaining the telling lack of focus continuously demonstrated throughout the film, in which the activist/performers wildly veer into ancillary areas of fashionable disgruntlement; slickly stepping away from the question of participation in Vietnam and into the more fertile territories of the usual suspects of discontent: racism, sexism, capitalism and institutional hurt feelings. This wild disparity of discontent is best represented by tiresome folksinger Len Chandler who seems to find nothing remotely associated with the very concept of America which is not ripe for scathing atonal damnation.
The film is riddled with dubious factual distractions which needlessly obfuscate the clarity of puposeful intention of the intended antiwar message in the service of promoting a hip anti-American dogma, though most are transparent cheats. For instance, we are told that 1300 crew members on the attack carrier U.S.S. Coral Sea have signed a petition for the ship not to engage in the Vietnam conflict, yet we are not apprised as to what the significance of the remaining 3,200 who declined to participate in the protest might indicate. The absence of any acknowledge of a factual contradiction (not necessarily pro-war) to the film’s claims of a comprehensive internal call for insubordination within the military ranks is not only lazy, dishonest filmmaking, but clearly a sign of a cowardice of idealism that any transparency of documentation might endanger the absolutes of the film’s propagandistic claims. Domestic protests in the Philippines are documented, but given insufficient contextual background to access their significance either politically or historically, but are presented strictly as a natural result of oppressive American imperialism. Interspersed are several unrelated travelogue shots of indigenous poverty carefully framed so that a sign advertising Coca-Cola is seen looming predatorily over the squalid landscape, though what editorial irony we are to surmise from this cultural juxtaposition is left unclear. Are we to interpret that the Atlanta-based soft drink company is responsible for the undoing of the country’s economic well-being? And if so, how? And how does this relate to the antiwar movement anyway?
Considering the national mood was postured against the war in Vietnam (though not necessarily anti-military, which is a distinction lost to the members of the F.T.A. cast), it was not a great display of courage or moral fortitude to present satirical anti-Vietnam War material, but only in brazenly presenting such flimsy, witless and childishly conceived material as something politically revelatory. Rather than reflecting a souring national mood with genuine creative invention, the film shoots with soft as sneakers timidity at the “safe” time-worn tradition of enlisted man vs. officer humor à la “The Phil Silvers Show”, only without the laughs. “F.T.A.” is a vanity project in the guise of an ideological temper tantrum.
“Linda Lovelace for President” (1975)
Chances are that if a movie announces upfront that it intends to offend every member of the audience, the results will be fairly pedestrian, as a truly provocative feature would let the material speak for itself. “Linda Lovelace for President” does manage to offend, but only in that ho-hum way of the truly awful. As a comedy, the film manages to be uniformly unfunny, certainly not a unique accomplishment what with dozens of competitive examples unleashed upon the public every year; though with its rapid fire Hellzapopin’– style of anything for a laugh jokiness, this film may qualify for some sort of quantitative honorarium for negative achievement simply the sheer number of witless swings and misses it mistakenly presents as humor.
The film’s premise suggests that celebrity alone is enough to propel a person to the White House, and with that in mind, the early 70’s Porno Chic princess Linda Lovelace is offered the presidential nomination by a convention of what is meant to be a cross-section of America (including a Saudi prince, a Chinese Communist and a Nazi) and begins what might be referred to as a grass roots campaign to ascend to national office. The nature of Ms. Lovelace’s public reputation being entirely due to her sword swallowing abilities (her subsequent efforts to publicize herself as the incarnation of the Sexual Revolution’s Mother Courage would emerge five year later), one might suppose that the direction of the film would take would somehow put a comedic spin on how sex and politics make for strange (if not unfamiliar) bedfellows. However, the extremely scattershot nature of the film is a prolonged and agonizing stream of consciousness of aimless, tired crudity resulting in an experience that is the cinematic version of Tourette syndrome.
If the film capitalizes on the pretense of celebrity (and for all of her notoriety, Lovelace was a marginal figure at best, as exampled by her rapid nosedive from vulgar porn to this), it is also a testament to faded or fringe talent willing to sign onto the most demeaning of projects to pay the dental bills. The film is performed with a conscious witlessness that is truly demeaning; its difficult not to feel embarrassment for everyone on the screen (when an appearance by Chuck McCann accounts for the cast’s performance highlight, you know the movie is in trouble), especially for the once celebrated Vaughn Meader who is subject to one of the expected but still gratuitous occasions in which the film necessitates Lovelace to frolic in the altogether (admittedly, she has never looked better) with such purposeless impersonality that in one of the sequences, it is quite possible that she and her sexual partner were filmed at different times. The entire film is a celebration of craven, stupid behavior on such a colossally insulting level that in the frequent parade sequences, in which small town extras were obviously recruited to express celebratory excitement on the level of VE Day ticker tape parades, one wonders what enticements were offered (was it the film’s tasteless valentine to Nazism?) to lure so many to willingly participate in such a public degradation?
Linda Lovelace may have been looking to clean up her image with “Linda Lovelace for President” but it is such a misbegotten, vile production, that no matter what her later claims of coercion, at some point one has to take responsibility for indefensible judgment in career moves.
“The Penthouse” (1967)
Two strangely loquacious thugs named Tom (Tony Beckley) and Dick (Norman Rodway) stage an early morning invasion of a penthouse apartment, occupied by Bruce (Terence Morgan), a real estate broker who is enjoying a tryst with his mistress Barbara (Suzy Kendall), during which they terrorize the couple and subject Barbara to multiple acts of rape. Peter Collinson’s debut feature, based upon the Scott Forbes play The Meter Man, is a precursor of far more notorious depictions of domesticity undone through violent invasion by Sam Peckinpah and Michael Haneke, though fortified with the obtuse Pinteresque nature of the script (adapted by Collinson), the film lacks a comforting clarity of thematic intention in which the film can be casually viewed as a variation of prior, more straightforward dramas dealing with anarchic forces disrupting the placid surface of middle class tranquility.
“The Penthouse” is a thriller that wastes no time in setting up its mousetrap of psychological dominance, yet spares not a single moment in interpreting the actions, statements and motivations of the intruding characters. The majority of the dialogue is relayed as continuous argumentum ad absurdum, a surreal verbosity which results in equal frustration of the hostage characters and the audience; though for the latter, there are stimulating compensations as there is adequate evidence that the film is not intended to be viewed through the prism of realism (albeit with heavily italicized black comic elements), but as an example of the Theater of the Absurd. Certainly Tom and Dick’s verbal gamesmanship leaves the hostages and the audience upended with their relentless bipolar assault of disorienting sardonic verbal comments laced with truly frightening moments of pathological rage; a torturous session of psychological humiliation that unaccountably shifts from the apoplectic to the supercilious.
Despite the constant threat of brutality, there is in the method of this film’s realization a welcome aversion of overt depictions of gratuitous physical or sexual abuse. The claustrophobic minimalism of the setting creates a sometimes breathless intimacy that gives the impression of the events taking place in a malfunctioning Skinner Box; where manipulation often results in reactions contrary to logical thought; an abandonment of the rational which magnifies the jarring undercurrent of violence seething just beneath Tom and Dick’s misplaced jocularity. Even the occasional reference to a third criminal confederate named “Harry” contributes to a general sense of dislocation since it is unclear as to whether this character is merely a fabrication, a manifestation of a more dangerous shared mental delusion or a very real portent of elevated horrors to come? While the physical violation Barbara is literal (the non-violent staging of her repeated sexual assault, falsely suggestive of encounters of a consensual nature- she has, after all, been forcibly intoxicated and drugged -predates the controversial rape scene in Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs”), the psychological rape of both Barbara and Bruce is allegorical; with their shared spiritual violation triggering a climactic deconstruction of their capacity for emotional intimacy. Barbara’s realization that Bruce would willingly sacrifice her for his own safety’s sake, by absolving Tom and Dick of any condemnation for her rape is, for Barbara, a violation greater than any physical penetration. In “The Penthouse”, the labyrinthine game of petty criminality is used to touch upon ultimately elusive considerations of morality and corruption, retribution and penance, good and evil. It’s an ambitious agenda, and Collinson’s film reaches for, but does not come close justifying its goal of metaphysical antagonism, in which the film might be rightly regarded as a demonstration of canonical terrorism.
The movie never loses its stage roots despite the best efforts of Collinson and director of photography Arthur Lavis to trick up the proceedings with a checklist of aesthetic gimmickry more demonstrative of film school experimentation than in finding an equivalent visual compliment to the surreal nature of the script. Also unfortunate is composer John Hawksworth’s garish contribution, with a score that is intrusive and quite unnecessary; if ever a film would have profited from simply relying on an aural background of almost imperceptible ambient sounds of its environment, this is it. The film is sometimes repellently and therefore splendidly acted, with special mention due to the perpetually undervalued Martine Beswick whose small but vital part here is demonstrative of a talent flourishing when unhampered by prehistoric bikinis and anti-SPECTRE overkill.
Tom O’Horgan brings his Total Theater blend of contortionism, tongue poking and vocal gargling in his film of Rochelle Owens’ “Futz”, a play which he previously directed off-Broadway and here attempts to lift the immersive environmental elements of the theatrical experience and transfer them as verbatim as possible into a medium which by its very nature only distances the material further from the viewer; a situation not helped by the inability of O’Horgan to recognize that shots and camera moves are selected for purposes other than visual grandstanding. There is a constant shift between the cast presenting the hillbilly Passion Play on a squared wooden stage surrounded by a bored and confused rural audience (also a part of the cast) and the same scenes then enacted in a realistic setting but performed in the same ritualistic, rigidly cadenced delivery of dialogue in voices ranging from primal shrieking to caterwauling, generally accompanied by flecks of foam on the lips and bugged out eyes. Featuring members of the La Mama Repertory Troupe with whom O’Horgan regularly worked and who performed in the theatrical incarnation, the film is an unceasing parade of extreme Felliniesque grotesquery in which every actor, no matter their normal appearance, squash their faces into displays of Basil Wolverton-like masks of ludicrously distended physiognomy while blurting out pretentious gibberish meant to express Great Themes from the minds of cretins indistinguishable from whom James Dickey succinctly referred to as “the nine-fingered people”.
Cyrus Futz (John Bakos) is a farmer who, typical of pseudo-intellectual dramatic representation, doesn’t seem to actually cultivate any crops but mud (Urban academics to whom the rural life is foreign in nature often seem to blithely mistake “people of the earth” for “people rolling in the dirt”.), but who counters his dissatisfaction with the womenfolk of the community by engaging in intimate relations with his prize sow Amanda, to whom he will later wed to the general consternation of his fellow hayseeds who are preoccupied with more morally respectable enterprises as murdering young women over a leather jacket or passing around the town harlot like a bag of potato chips. (Viewers can be grateful for an uncharacteristic show of discretion from O’Horgan in not explicitly visualizing Futz’ carnal exploits- though there is a not-quite subliminal insert shot of what appears to be a graphic act of sodomy visible in the film’s orgy of blood climax which may prove such commendation unwarranted.) The accumulated townsfolk gather in an unmotivated wave of frenzy- convenient only to the intended direction of the play’s narrative but strictly illogical by any standards -to revenge themselves against the porcine paramour who they irrationally blame for the murder of Ann Fox (Mari-Claire Charba) by the clearly insane Oscar Loop (Seth Allen) who is supposedly inspired to irresistible impulses of homicide by espying Futz in flagrante delicto with his bestial bride, though this dubious finger-pointing does little to explain his lunatic monologues to Sheriff Tom Sluck (Peter Craig) nor the effects of his latent incestuous relationship with his mother, which in playwright Rachelle Owens’ low view of her farmer folk almost appears as business as usual. Futz is the titular center of Owens’ mixture of hillbilly histrionics and unlikely referencing to cultural mysticism and religious idolatry through the Ages: all in the service of confusingly championing bestiality as a beleaguered condition persecuted by the enemies of freedom, individuality and nonconformity.
This nonsense (adapted for the screen by “Psycho” scenarist Joseph Stefano!) is made doubly revolting by the sheer incompetence demonstrated by O’Horgan’s inability to tell any aspect of his story without indulging in an aesthetic which could only be accurately referred to as perceptive spasticity: an unchecked flailing of his camera in concert with the equally encouraged meaningless body movements of his players which obscure both the intended action of characters and their ability to intelligently articulate their dialogue. The film begins in a concert hall in which the audience is so appalled by the unintelligible and anarchic atonal cacophony emerging from the stage that they descend into riotous violence, whereas the film ends with the rural audience exiting in a stunned, dulled cloud of confusion. In these few moments, the director manages to realize his only genuine point of truth: that even in a fictional context, his film cannot help but to both irritate and disappoint the viewer.
_____________________________________________________________ “New Faces” (1954)
Essentially a filmed record of the successful Broadway review originally titled “The New Faces of 1952”, the film version retains most of the original stage version’s talent including such notable talents as Paul Lynde, Ronny Graham, Alice Ghostley, Eartha Kitt, Carol Lawrence, Robert Clary and a sketch writer by the name of Melvin Brooks. The film adds a trivial storyline to give the revue structure a semblance of being part of a wider conception though its random insertion between sketches or musical numbers actually intrudes on the almost documentary flavor of the movie, with the tepid connective plot involving the acquisition of funds to keep the show going while locking the creditor in a dressing room (with Graham and Clary all of a sudden playing fictional versions of themselves, which contradicts and undercuts the intention of the film being a program deliberately intended to headline real personalities and not fictional manifestations); material which is dismal in both conception and execution and while also belies the often startlingly impressive talent on display in the film’s musical numbers (especially in the dance in which there are several breathtaking moments which might put Gene Kelly to shame) and certainly lacking the more disciplined and practiced comic timing of the sketch material. That is not to say that every segment is a gem, but the treasures to be found tend to outweigh the more mundane moments; and certainly, as the revue structure might suggest, if the material is lacking there is always the promise of something new only minutes away.
The film, by its faithful reenactment of the theatrical experience, doesn’t lend itself to the dynamics of cinema: it’s a very static affair, with the camera often nailed to the floor during most of the numbers, granting the illusion of the viewer being seated in the front row of the live theater, though since there is an annoying tendency for director Harry Horner to ignore the possibilities of useful camera movement, it is perplexing that he fails to position his players so that they won’t find themselves awkwardly squeezed-or partially out of frame -in the widescreen picture. (This is not the case with the sketches directed by John Beal which may be equally stagnant visually, but at least are framed properly. If the cinematic technique involved in the stage show’s cinematic translation borders on the banal, not so the true subjects of the film’s intentions which are the roster of fresh talents who are allowed to unleash their formidable talents. Many of the performers who would move on to prominence are given a unique opportunity to reveal abilities that would be later sadly untapped, most especially the gifted Alice Ghostley who would later enjoy a successful career as a rather typecast comedic figure usually relegated to dowdy and gossipy nervous Nellies which did not begin to plumb the depths of her talents; especially a clean powerful singing voice which impressively ranges from ballads to operetta, most enjoyably demonstrated in her rendition of The Boston Beguine and Take Off Your Mask. However, a particularly irksome presence emerges in the diminutive form of Robert Clary, who makes up in energetic enthusiasm what he lacks in physical stature, though even a small taste of this raging human tornado- he makes the ebullient Tommy Steele seem positively moribund by comparison -is more than enough for ten lifetimes; his tendency to feel the need to translate the song lyrics through wildly gesticulating pantomime is thoroughly exhausting to witness and obnoxious in the same way a publicly cavorting child invites a relieving croquet mallet to the head. If his lyric interpretation seems frenzied in the songs Lucky Pierre or Love is a Simple Thing. one indefensibly startling instance of hyperactivity may be experienced in the musical number Raining Memories which may be the world’s first filmed musical performance better viewed with the use of a double dose of dramamine.
On the opposite end of the performance spectrum are the numerous musical numbers featuring the impossibly sensual Eartha Kitt in a treasure trove of early performances from a woman whose seductive allure with a lyric could be considered a defiant obliteration of every convoluted repressive intention of the Production Code. For once the static camera is suited to highlight a performer whose every fluttered eyelid, arched eyebrow or curl of a smile is a serpentine seduction; an erotic enticement of womanly temptations- at once coy, playful and exotic -a true musical succubus. In these performances, the missed opportunities of Hollywood’s disgraceful neglect of such explosive talent is all the more tragic for what might have been: one cannot help but speculate that if Ms. Kitt had been granted the lead in Otto Preminger’s “Carmen Jones” (sans the ridiculous dubbing which ruined that feature) that she might have literally melted the screen with a cinematic sexual energy heretofore unexperienced in American cinema. The songs featured by Kitt, including C’est ci bon, Uska Dara, Santa Baby (included after the emergence of her hit 1953 recording of the song) and Monotonous are beneficiaries of the straightforward recording technique afforded in this format, unlike many of the other songs, which are not only lesser in quality but are staged with often ruinous theatrical banality: a semi-transparent scrim used during the staging of Penny Candy only makes the weak song seems more ludicrous, and the thematically redundant Time for Tea, though well performed by Alice Ghostley and June Carroll, is lost in a mire of overproduced distraction. However, the delightful number Take Off the Mask, a giddy parody of Viennese operetta is presented with uproarious comic brio by Ronny Graham and, again, Alice Ghostley as is the rollicking, homicidal hoedown Lizzie Borden.
As with all similarly fragmented enterprises, there is a distinct wavering in the quality of material especially in the newly comprised connective material (which is “locked door” humor tired) and some of the earlier portions of the film, though the stand alone comedy sketches are fairly consistently amusing (Clary’s comic songs are less so as he is the one performer in the film who shows the fatigue involved in every minute reminding the audience as to how funny he’s supposed to be), especially fortified with the participation of Graham and the irrepressible Paul Lynde (whose Trip of the Month monologue resembles a Harvey Kurtzman Mad Magazine parody sprung to life), who together with, yet again, Alice Ghostley combine in the film’s comic tour de force, a Mel Brooks parody of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, with its uproarious premise that one of the great tragedies of the American theater could be stood on its head with the slightest alteration of career choices.