Thursday, June 30, 2016

cinema obscura: the missing songs/moments from Milos Forman's "Hair" (1979)


Twyla Tharp's athletic dance corps performs the Hare Krishna dream sequence
Milos Forman's brilliant 1979 film version of the Ragni-Rado-MacDermott tribal rock musical, "Hair," opened at a time when critics were particularly resistant to the idea of movie musicals, much more so than audiences.

The studios, perhaps in an effort to court the reviewers, began pairing their big musical properties with a rather eclectic group of iconic filmmakers - Sidney Lumet and "The Wiz," John Huston and "Annie," Sir Richard Attenborough and "A Chorus Line" and Forman and "Hair." The ploy didn't work. The critics remained resistant, although Foreman's film was far better received that those by Lumet, Huston and Attenborough.

Personally speaking, I find "The Wiz" (which looks at if it had been shot through a microscope) and especially "A Chorus Line" (whose material I always found pretentious and insular) both unwatchable, but Huston's ”Annie” is perfectly fine and "Hair" is utterly unique, thanks largely to the commingling of Forman's singularly foreign sensibility and choreographer Twyla Tharp's unconventional moves.

Unfortunately, at 121 minutes, the release print of "Hair" doesn't contain everything that Forman filmed. Missing are musical numbers that, while trimmed from the film, can still be heard on the soundtrack album - the seminal "Frank Mills," "Air," "My Conviction," "Abie Baby" and "Fourscore."

After Forman expanded his "Amadeus" (1984) from 160 minutes to 180 minutes in the 2002, I hoped that he would go back and restore "Hair." But the harsh reality of the film business is that unsuccessful films are rarely given a second chance. There was a reason (not necessarily a good one) to expand "Amadeus": It had won eight Oscars.

The big omission from the "Hair" score is, of course, "Frank Mills," a song which one would think is inexpendable. Sung by the character of Chrissy, played in the film by Suzette Charles (whose role was entirely eliminated), the song is like a lulling anthem to the sweet obliviousness of apathy and is achingly beautiful in its utter simplicity.

If the name Suzette Charles rings a bell, it's because she would go on to be named Miss America - by default. In 1983, at age 20 (four years after "Hair" was filmed), Charles was named first runner up in the contest, after Vanessa Williams, and was eventually given the crown when Williams was revealed to be the subject of compromising photographs.

When I mentioned all this to Forman during an interview for the initial release of "Amadeus," he was delighted although he admitted that, by then, he had only a dim memory of Charles and her participation in "Hair."

Regarding the other songs missing from "Hair," Annie Golden sang "Air," Charlotte Rae did "My Conviction" and the late Nell Carter was among the singers on the combined "Abie Baby"/"Forescore."

One bit of trivia: The old RCA two-record soundtrack for the film does not list who sang what in the film, but the souvenir program for the movie included a removable plastic recording of selected songs from the film, with the singers listed (including Charles on "Frank Mills").

One of the songs in the film, "Walking in Space," is sung on screen by a young Asian actress playing a Vietnamese girl, but the singing voice coming out of her mouth belongs to ... Betty Buckley. I always wondered why that voice sounded so familiar - and so great.

Note in Passing: Two other film musicals of the era were helmed by less illustrious filmmakers - "Grease" by Randall Kleiser and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" by the late Colin Higgins. Both, along with "Annie," were hugely popular with audiences, particularly "Grease" (as we all know by now). So much for the myth that moviegoers turned their backs on the genre. Not so. It was the studios that rudely slammed the door shut.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

façade: Mimsy Farmer

One of the minor icons of the 1960s and '70s, the fascinating Mimsy Farmer flitted from Hollywood ingenue to biker-flick staple to jet-setting international attraction with an adjustable breeziness that made her credible in each morphing and that explains the small, select cult that never lost interest in the blonde actress.

Deceptively all-American and wholesome-looking, Farmer shrewdly subverted her first major role - as the assertive Claris Coleman in Delmer Daves' "Spencer's Mountain" in 1963 - by playing it with a shockingly candid sexuality and idiosyncratic line readings that made everything sound, well, dirty. If Warners was grooming her to be Natalie Wood's successor - and it's apparent that the studio was - you can appreciate both its reasoning and its misjudgment. She didn't wait. Farmer used her debut to undercut the powers.

A couple year's later, she did the same thing in Harvey Hart's "Bus Riley's Back in Town" (1965), nominally written by William Inge but credited to "Walter Gage" after the studio decided to showcase Ann-Margret, enlarging her role. That was good. Apparently, no one paid any attention to Farmer who got in under the radar and, again, quietly and effectively stole the film - and reduced Ann-Margret - in a matter of a handful of scenes.

Then came the biker flicks for Farmer, the most memorable for me being 1967's "Hot Rod to Hell," starring Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain, before she  headed to Europe where she made the drug-laden "More" for Barbet Schroeder in 1969. The film was written by the former New York Times movie critic, Eugene Archer, with Farmer responsible for "additional dialogue." "More" was the head film of its time, Farmer became the darling of the Croisette and she pretty much stayed in Europe, returning to the United States for some occasional TV work.

Her most popular film during this time was Dario Argent's horror film, "Four Flies on Grey Velvet"/"4 mosche di velluto grigio"(1971), which expanded beyond art houses to become a mainstream hit here.

Although seen only sporadically here over the past five decades, Farmer managed to make about 50 films, just about all of them in Europe. In retrospect, she seems like a not unpleasant mirage, an image that now seems at once blurred and vivid. I miss her and regret that I didn't have the time, energy or inclination to keep up with her unusual career. Thank heaven for film, video and DVD. I can always create my own Mimsy Farmer Film Festival which, in addition to the titles already mentioned, would naturally include those three biker films - "Riot on the Sunset Strip," "Devil's Angels" and "The Wild Racers."

Now, whatever happened to another singular actress, Kaki Hunter?

Note in Passing: Check out Dave Kehr's comments on the DVD release of "Hot Rods to Hell" in his 2007 essay for The New York Times.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

cinema obscura: Fritz Lang's "Destiny"/"Der Müde Tud" (1921)

Scenes from Lang's "Destiny"/"Der Müde Tud": The Wall (above) and Lil Dagover and Bernhard Goetzke as the ingenue and death in disguise (below)

Master filmmaker Fritz Lang thrusts the viewer into an intense emotional whirlpool in his 1921 silent film, "Destiny" ("Der Müde Tud"), one of the lesser known titles in his canon of work but an achievement that I've always found compulsively watchable and utterly fascinating.

Its long inaccessibility, given that rep houses and a lot of campus film programs are sadly out of business, was blessedly only a temporary occurence now that the film is available on DVD and is slated for a Blu-ray release via Kino on August 30th.  

The dream-like tale of two lovers whose future together is dimmed when Death (Bernhard Goetzke) materializes and snatches the young man (Walter Janssen), "Destiny" is the kind of film that, on paper, can sound positively purple. The young woman (Lil Dagover) contemplates suicide when Death challenges her with a deal that she can hardly refuse: There's a boy and there are three candles, each representing a human life.

As each candle is extinguished, someone dies. But if one candle stays lighted, the boy will be spared and survive.

This main storyline gives way to three subplots - set in ancient Persia, Renaissance Venice and China - that are both wildly methaphorical and metaphysical as the woman frantically searches for someone to give up their life once the boy's is spared. The elderly, who are at death's doorstep, run from her. There is some alert, unexpected humor in this death-drenched fable, and the heroine confronts carefully-designed stumbling blocks, until she and her lover are reunited in a way that can only be described as supremely Lang-ian. Relax. No spoiler here.

I've always been struck by the methodical pace and overriding sense of calm that Lang brought to his very dark, moody fairy tale. The filmmaker kept things in check here, both his direction of the material and the performances of his cast.

The result is an impressively muted film.

Fritz Lang brilliantly deconstructs the notion of romantic filmmaking with "Der Müde Tud," which actually translates, tellingly, as "The Tired Death."

Friday, June 03, 2016

"And coming up in our next hour - Robin's exclusive sit-down interview with the amazing little gorilla boy and his parents! But first..."

The handsome, sentient Harambe's fate was sealed the very minute that kid fell into his moat.  Whatever would have transpired, he would have been shot and killed.


Police Lieutenant: "Well, Denham, the airplanes got him."

Carl Denham: "Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty that killed the beast."

The familiar dialogue, of course, is from the iconic 1933 production of "King Kong," written by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose and co-directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack.

But in the case of handsome Harambe, the 17-year-old western lowland gorilla who was murdered by the facility that was supposed to protect and nurture him, it was reckless stupidity that killed this gentle, magnificent creature.

Harambe was murdered on Saturday, May28th, the day after his 17th  birthday.

A willful child.  A possibly negligent mother. A clueless zoo.  A dead gorilla.

I reference this disturbing story, which has nothing to do with movies other than its unsettling similarity to "King Kong," because it will not go away anytime soon. With the media being what they are today - namely, insatiable and shameless - be prepared for the boy and his parents, when they are finally and officially unmasked, to be all over the place, along with the zoo's executive director and possibly even the gorilla's killer.  All of them are likely to be quite ubiquitous for at least a week or two, especially on television - on the morning infotainment shows in particular.

I predict that the unnaturally cheerful group on ABC's "Good Morning, America!" will get first dibs, sensitively questioning the kid and mother, listening attentively to some expert and feigning concern for the dead animal. It's what an overpaid television executive would call "great TV."

By now, I'm sure that you are familiar with the disturbing story of the gorilla Harambe, an inmate at the Cincinnati Zoo, who was assassinated by the zoo after a four-year-old child ignored his mother, went on an "adventure" and fell into the gorilla's moat. Harambe was an endangered species, being held in Cincinnati for breeding purposes.  It's an ugly story.

And this story follows quickly on the heels of the one about the baby bison that was euthanized by its caretakers at Yellowstone National Park after visitors there, who meant no harm, handled it.  Why was the bison put down?  It was easier than caring for it.  (I'm paraphrasing what Yellowstone's officials actually said but that's the gist of it.)  And why was Harambe put down?  That's among the questions I'll ask later.  But the bottom line is, it's not a good time for captive animals, friends.

And it hasn't helped that the spokesperson for the zoo - its executive director Thayne Maynard - has come across as curiously callous and unflappable.  Perhaps he has been trying to be a calm or "manly" presence in the face of a tragedy or perhaps he's naturally stoic, but a little emotion and some show of concern would have made him more convincing and, by extension, his dubious decision less drastic.

After Harambe was shot and killed, it's been reported that reproductive bilogists extraced "viable sperm" from the gorilla for artificial insemination and gneetic research.

"There's a future," Maynard has said. "It's not the end of his gene pool." Not a good comment.  Sounds like he got what his zoo wanted.  Even in death, after his life had been diminished by being jailed in a zoo, Harambe was exploited and humiliated. Being imprisoned wasn't enough.

As for the media, nothing in-depth or tough has emerged. As for questions that need to be - and should be - answered, I have these...

  • Why would a woman with four children in tow, including an infant, go to a zoo with no support?

  • Why would anyone take a four-year-old, let alone an infant to a zoo?  Does anyone realistically think a four-year-old would absorb anything from a zoo visit (other than the fact that gorillas, or any other precious animals, shouldn't be imprisoned there)?

  • Wouldn't a four-year-old be better served by an insipid Disney cartoon about gorillas?  Or is it possible that this four-year-old has seen one too many insipid Disney cartoons and, consequently, can't distinquish fantasy from reality?  (Hence, the headstrong kid's reported insistence that he be allowed to enter the habitat of an endangered species, ignoring the word "no" from his mother.)

  • Why was the gorilla moat so easily accessed?  If a four-year-old could penetrate the barrier, anyone could.

  • Where was the handler who normally socialized with Harambe? Namely, someone who could reason with the gorilla, given that it's been widely reported that one can indeed reason with a gorilla?  (Gorillas are apparently exactly like us, something most humans don't want to hear.  We're superior, see?  But are we really?)

  • Given how quickly the zoo decided to put down Harambe, is it reasonable to assume that a sharpshooter is on the payroll full time and that a gun or rifle is readily available all the time? How handy.

  • Who exactly shot Hamabre?  Why hasn't that Zoo employee been indentified?  And was the area cleared of the public for the killing?

  • And why is so little information being extended by the zoo and the local police?  Why, for example, has the family been protected by both the authorities and the major media? Actually, anyone resourceful can go on the internet and easily locate this info.

  • Why has the family hired the Gail Myers Public Relations firm to answer questions and make statements? A public relations firm?  Hmmm. No, this story is not going away anytime soon.

  •  Shouldn't animals be protected from human interlopers, rather than the other way around? Isn't a zoo supposed to protect its unwilling prisoners, not kill them? And in this sad case, the victim was, again, an endangered species. Absolutely unbelievable.

  • And why do we still have zoos?  Here's a case of an animal that was imprisoned his entire life, from his birth to his death, and then murdered when he became an inconvenient PR problem.

  • OK, what if the kid had died before Harambe was shot?  I refuse to believe that the gorilla would have intentionally killed the boy but that the kid would have died accidentally.  Yes, what if the kid had died?  Is it safe to assume that Harambe still would have been put down - in response to the situation?  I think so, absolutely. Perhaps he would have been taken down even if the kid lived - shot for mauling the boy.
Perhaps he would have been taken down even if the kid lived - shot for mauling the boy.

Harambe's fate, unfortunately, was sealed the very moment that kid fell into his moat.

Finally, a touchy observation that has been brought up in an excellent editorial in The Philadelphia Inquirer:  "Zoo officials killed him according to the principle that human life is worth more than animal life. Though we tend to acknowledge it less readily or consistently, some animal lives must in turn be considered more valuable than others." At last, someone said it.

It's humans who, in convenient self-interest, decided that human lives are so much more important than animal lives. A case of conflict of interest.

Note in Passing: Harambe means "pull together" in Swahili.  His nickname at the zoo was Handsome. Perfectly describing the mood of the moment is Anthony Seta, organizer of the vigil in memory of Harambe, who in this brief video, notes that he was part of the Cincinatti community.