This Month on TCM

The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a strangely prophetic film starring Laurence Harvey (Butterfield 8), airs this month on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). John Frankenheimer’s controversial conspiracy-themed movie, withdrawn by the studio from distribution after the assassination of President Kennedy, shows on May 18 (check local listings for all movies in May).

Another conspiracy-themed film, the sterling Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), shows on May 23. So does the fine little British war movie, Hope and Glory (1987). On the following day, May 24, TCM airs three unforgettable movies with extremely dark themes about the child in mortal danger: Barbara Stanwyck in 1931’s chillingly exquisite Night Nurse (I rarely say this but do not miss this movie, especially if you like to see strong women depicted in proximity to heroic men); 1955’s Night of the Hunter, based on the novel, starring Lillian Gish and Robert Mitchum as good and evil religious practitioners and John Wayne in The Searchers (1956).

Inherit the Wind, the 1960 motion picture version of the stage play about the trial of a Tennessee teacher who dared to teach Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, shows the next day (May 25), followed by a 1973 romp starring Richard Chamberlain, Charlton Heston and Faye Dunaway based on Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers.

The 1989 movie about an all-black unit of the Union Army in the Civil War, Glory, starring Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, screens on May 27 after a showing of the World War 2-era film From Here to Eternity (1953) starring Montgomery Clift, Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine, Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster. Two classics by director Howard Hawks, 1959’s outstanding moral alternative to the anti-heroic High Noon (1952), Rio Bravo (1959) starring John Wayne, and the romantically heroic Only Angels Have Wings (1939), air on May 30.

On the last day of May, May 31st, TCM features Steven Spielberg’s prelude to his 1982 masterpiece E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the marvelous 1977 hit Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Each movie airs on Turner Classic Movies, founded by Ted Turner 25 years ago this spring, uncut and commercial-free.

Three Reviews

I added three movie reviews to the archives this week. The first, my review of 2018’s Avengers film, is timed for next month’s heavily-hyped new Avengers movie. In this article, posted elsewhere last year, I question making mass death and nihilism entertaining or ‘fun’, which is the 2018 film’s essence. I point out that these comics movies depict the superhero’s superpower in widening disproportion to the individual’s vanishing power, due to government control, over his life. I think it’s an interesting contrast.

Is it possible these preposterous movies are popular for this reason? Read my review of Avengers: Infinity War here.

Two analyses of movies by screenwriter and director Robert Benton, whom I interviewed last spring in Hollywood, also appear on the site archives. The movies had been selected by Turner Classic Movies for presentation during last year’s classic movies festival where I interviewed Mr. Benton. We discussed both movies in great detail during the interview. It was a rare opportunity to delve into the motion picture arts with a marvelous storyteller (I plan to make the interview available to a wider audience).

I wanted to see the two pictures again before conducting the interview, which took place at the site of the first Academy Awards. Fittingly, both films won prestigious Oscars. This is not my primary concern, however, and I think the movies’ merits stand apart from Oscar recognition, awards which are rapidly becoming less meaningful. That said, I wanted to write an extensive review analyzing both films before the interview was conducted and published. I’ve made them available here for the first time.

The first article takes a serious look at Robert Benton’s adaptation of Avery Corman’s novel, Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979). This is an outstanding motion picture and not just as a character study of the modern man. Incidentally, besides Robert Redford‘s adaptation of Judith Guest’s novel of Chicago’s suburban North Shore, Ordinary People, it’s probably one of the last heroic movies to win Oscar’s Best Picture award to depict a wholly fictional story with style, depth and artistry.

Forty years after its release, Kramer Vs. Kramer remains relevant and compelling. I’m still thinking about the movie as I write this. I saw it as a boy in the movie theater upon its release and I was astonished. Today, Kramer Vs. Kramer exists as a testament that movies can be great, large and wonderful about heroic beings without being loud, brash and sniveling like today’s onslaught of Marvel or death premise pictures. I doubt whether Kramer Vs. Kramer would get a hearing amid today’s Me, Too orthodoxy. I think it would be deemed too pro-man, too white or too male or not abiding today’s collectivism. Read my breakdown of Kramer Vs. Kramer.

Benton made Places in the Heart five years later. It’s a bleaker film than Kramer, though in a way it is more challenging, epic and universal. Gone are the parks, brownstones and hurry of New York City’s Upper East Side in Kramer. Here, come the fields, rooms and quiet of faraway Texas. Celebrating its 35th anniversary, the picture that won an Oscar for Sally Field shows real insight about a range of serious issues, including what it means to be marginalized or minimized by others, but especially what it means to make your own home, family and life without regard to blood, tribe and the irrational.

Robert Benton is religious. He comes from Texas. Places in the Heart reflects his faith and background, especially in its final frames. But it also depicts with serenity and clarity the hardship of being different in a world going bad and I think it offers a salve, a coolant and grace for forging one’s own way when nothing seems possible. I have seen and enjoyed most of Robert Benton’s movies, including those I’ve had the pleasure to interview him about, such as The Human Stain with its similar strains and Feast of Love with its blissful sense of life. Places in the Heart depicts that human strength begins with a commitment to care for yourself. This alone sets it far and above most movies now or upon its release. Read my review here.

Spring Announcements

This is my fifth year of delivering writing and media adult instruction in Southern California. I’m pleased to announce a new summer series in both Writing Boot Camp and Maximizing Social Media. I enjoy teaching the courses, which I created to foster practicing virtue in media and writing. Recently, I extended an offer to my ‘alumni’ to attend private networking mixers near Burbank’s movie studios. This week, I will share details of my recent literary agency representation.

Recent developments integrate the lessons from both courses; specifically, my thesis in Maximizing Social Media that one must commit, create and cash in using today’s media to advance one’s self-interest. Writing Boot Camp‘s thesis is the same idea in reverse; that the writer must devote himself to the writing process and to being explicitly social in disseminating his work.

Details of my discovery by a literary agent prove that both approaches yield results.

In the meantime, I’m happy to report that I recently interviewed one of my favorite filmmakers. Stand by for details on my exclusive interview with the director of Paramount Pictures’ Grease, Randal Kleiser, in Hollywood. We talked about his new virtual reality series, his stories for television, including episodes of The Rookies and Marcus Welby, M.D., as well as his movies The Blue Lagoon and Summer Lovers, a new book on Grease, his studies at the University of Southern California (USC) and working with the late Patrick Swayze. Mr. Kleiser is an amazing man of ability. What a privilege to meet and interview one of Hollywood’s best directors.

I’m currently writing articles about new books, events and old movies, including this season’s 10th annual Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. The annual festival celebrated the 25th anniversary of Turner Classic Movies with a visit from Cable News Network (CNN), TBS and TCM founder Ted Turner.

So, look for new analyses of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) and James Stewart in Winchester ’73 (1950) as well as a roundup of last week’s events. I also plan to write an analysis of the motion picture version of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, Gone With the Wind, starring Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable and Hattie McDaniel.

Seeing David O. Selznick’s production of Gone With the Wind (1939), directed by Victor Fleming, on screen at Grauman’s Chinese Theater for the first time, I found the movie simply brilliant and astonishing. The epic remains powerful, vibrant and penetrating. This time, watching with an appreciative audience of hundreds, I noticed new aspects. I discovered new insights. Seeing the remarkable four-hour movie again, this time inside the grand Chinese Theater, made me want to re-read the novel, which is better than the movie. That I saw the movie which initiated Turner Classic Movies 25 years to the day after the breakthrough channel’s debut was the ideal way to honor what TCM does, is and means at its best.

Announcing Literary Agency

I am happy to announce that I am now under representation by Alicia Brooks of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency in New York City. Ms. Brooks recently asked to represent me after reading my fiction writing.

The Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, Inc., or JVNLA, Inc., describes itself as having “never identified with the ordinary”. JVNLA enlists writers from every genre whose books have been published in over 50 countries, showcased on screen and stage and adapted for e-book and audio. 

This good news comes after I recently received an endorsement of my fiction writing from a serious screenwriter and movie director, Robert Benton (Superman, Feast of LoveKramer Vs. Kramer). Benton’s words of encouragement, which precede my writing’s new agency, are one of my proudest achievements.

Movie Review: Charlie Says

The newest motion picture about 1969’s mindless, mass murdering hippies aims for feminist equivocation of the women who committed the crimes. As such, its bloodstains cannot be removed. But director Mary Harron (American Psycho) shows ability in tackling a difficult subject.

In fact, Harron’s ability to depict the female monster gets in the way of the film’s feminist revisionism. At the conclusion of the movie’s first scene, the face of one of the monsters appears in the shower. It’s as ugly and blank as one would expect from a butchering murderess, which is essentially what opens Charlie Says.

Charlie Says, as the title implies, is about the hippie commune led by Charles Manson at a movie ranch in metropolitan Los Angeles. The commune is the perfect model of New Left ideals, chiefly that one can’t know reality. Harron, working from a screenplay by Guinevere Turner, dramatizes this ideal in grisly, horrifying detail.

Mixing horror with equivocation yields predictably mashed results.

The extent to which the audience is familiar with the mass murders by the hippies indoctrinated, trained and ordered by religious leader Manson may determine its impact. As it is, the murders are at once graphically depicted and substantially minimized. By showing certain flashes of the crimes’ most heinous aspects, Harron is able to concentrate audience attention on the women who repeatedly stalk, bound, torture, pulverize and stab their upper middle class and wealthy victims.

By de-emphasizing that the victims, mostly women who were targeted by New Left female hippies for being upper middle class and wealthy, and by stressing that the Manson Family females were abused by a male cult leader, Charlie Says downplays the nature of the crimes and the guilt of the criminals.

Instead, Charlie Says counters that one of the women, Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), makes a post-conviction breakthrough through collaborating with a women’s studies scholar in prison. Feminist intellectual Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), offering to teach female Family members feminist literature and philosophy, presumably lets these self-described “earth mothers”, each of whom sought by adult consent to join Manson’s Family to “let go of [her] ego”, to liberate themselves from patriarchy.

In flashback, you see the women give their money to men, watch them undress, have orgies and whore and bully one another to gratify Manson.

This is the problem with Charlie Says, which neither properly dramatizes their supposed transformation nor properly accounts for the women’s exercise of free will. What it does do, culminating in the hippies’ mass murder of several innocent Southern Californians, most famously actress Sharon Tate, is capture the essence of America’s nosedive in 1969.

Dumpster diving in Hollywood, vegetarianism, Manson’s wannabe rock rants, complete with nihilistic lyrics and song titles, and the power players, such as the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson and Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher, who flirted with the hippies long enough to mingle with the monster — it’s all here in chilling, numbing and disturbing detail. So is the agony of natural childbirth at the Family’s cult compound at Spahn Ranch, led by a horny old blind man named George Spahn, whose complicity is an interesting if utterly ignored subplot. Charlie Says is filmed with a style that’s virtually indistinguishable from the deadness of McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

Above all, Charlie Says painstakingly shows that the hippies’ hedonism, and its corollary, religionism, was among the laziest and most obvious conformist applications of the status quo. Pick your poison of shopworn ideals, from the Communist chic of “everything belongs to everyone” as a newborn baby is taken from the mother for the collective to references to Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary and Holy Communion (with hallucinogenic drugs). When someone tells one of the newer hippies in Manson’s compound that “you don’t have to think” it is clear that you do have to believe.

Indeed, the film’s supposed female savior falsely claims that she wants “to give [Manson’s female hippies] back themselves” and asks the prison warden and others to take her on faith. In this sense, feminist Dr. Karlene Faith (an adviser on the film), not unlike Charles Manson, demands that women be treated based on sex, not as individuals with minds of their own.

For the heavy-handedness in laying blame on Manson (perfectly portrayed by Matt Smith, nailing Manson’s rambling, singsong nasality) for being male, Charlie Says at least depicts that it was a trio of men on motorcycles who came to the woman’s rescue and it was the female who chose to evade the evidence that she was annihilating her own mind and existence.

Charlie Says shows hippie Van Houten becoming aware of her nihilism, the philosophy of nothingness which came to define and dominate American culture. And this underscores that nihilism undergirds today’s cynical culture in everything from The Simpsons and South Park to Seinfeld and Breaking Bad, Avengers, Game of Thrones and scads of movies, TV shows and recordings based on the death premise.

You do not have to look hard to find the spread of nihilism that precipitated 1969’s Manson Family, such as the 1967 movie adaptation of Truman Capote’s prize-winning In Cold Blood, but you should read Vincent Bugliosi’s exemplary legal-historical document (with Curt Gentry) Helter Skelter to know, grasp and account for the full extent of the evil of the late 1960s, when America started to go straight to hell.

When Charlie Says was first announced by Epic Level Entertainment, which has focused on horror, it was touted for expressing a relevant contemporary theme “aligned with the Me, Too movement, according to the company’s press materials. The feminist-themed movie fails as apologia for the women’s mindlessness that led to the mass slaughter of victims such as Tate, Abigail Folger and Rosemary and Leno LaBianca.

But it’s to director Mary Harron’s credit that Charlie Says shows the horror of faith and the exercise of free will by vacant females in action … which no amount of feminist rationalization can eradicate or erase.