Archive | Culture RSS feed for this section

Gene Wilder

Mr. Funny Face, the great actor, comedian and writer Gene Wilder died today. The star of Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein (which he also wrote) and Silver Streak was 83 years old. And, though he is associated with a streak of absurdist comedy brought forth chiefly by his frequent creative partner Mel Brooks, a wonderful source of silliness grounded in seriousness has been lost.

GeneWilderinWorldsGreatestLover

Gene Wilder in ‘The World’s Greatest Lover’

The screenwriter Wilder supposedly took his name from writers, too, blending a character from Look Homeward, Angel and the name of an American playwright, which suggests his thoughtful nature. The literary tie-in was apparent throughout his remarkable career, which was remarkable for its many failures, which he constantly overcame.

Gene Wilder broke out at the peak of the counterculture in 1971’s weirdly brazen yet reassuring adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Paramount’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, though he had made an impression in smaller roles, too, such as an innocent victim in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Wilder played Wonka, of course, in the box office musical flop, one of many of his commercial failures that nevertheless influenced movies, ideas and culture. I think it was the first motion picture of his that I saw in a movie theater. I was transfixed, not by his weirdness, which forged a path for movie stars such as Johnny Depp.

I was captivated by his oddly severe benevolence. This unique quality, Wilder’s strange seriousness gilded with kindness, is his defining and most enduring screen persona. He displayed it, too, in his triumphant 1980 movie with director Sidney Poitier (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) and another famous comedian, Stir Crazy. I don’t think I had ever laughed so hard in a movie as when I watched his pairing with the late comic genius Richard Pryor (and, oddly enough, that movie was my first experience of seeing a movie being filmed; it was at the Tucson, Arizona hotel where I was vacationing with my family).

Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor are Hollywood’s first interracial comedy duo. The hilarious pair made four movies together. A look, a squeal, a facial expression, a line, a gesture, everything they did was comic chemistry on screen as they mined an audience and story for wonder, laughter and satire in everything they did. Though it’s not perfect, 1976’s Silver Streak teamed the Pryor-Wilder pair again, this time with liberated woman Jill Clayburgh in one of the rare madcap comedy capers of the 1970s to successfully integrate drama, suspense and humor with something semi-serious at stake. I know that many remember Wilder best for his roles in two 1974 Mel Brooks movies, which I never cared for, though Wilder is brilliant in Young Frankenstein. I prefer his other movies.

Gene Wilder made me laugh in Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) with Pryor, Wilder’s last movie I think I paid to see in a theater. Who can forget 1986’s silly Haunted Honeymoon with his then-wife, the late Gilda Radner, who preceded Wilder in death by ovarian cancer, and the late Dom DeLuise in drag? I think his best role was as innocent convict Skip in Stir Crazy, which still makes me laugh when I think about it. Gene Wilder went on to play in a television movie of Alice in Wonderland and his own TV series. He could play characters that were in turns biting, cruel and vapid. He was an amazing writer and actor of ability whose rubbery or stone face could fill a movie with enough humor to make it seem funnier than it was and, while it turns out that his legacy is to have been lampooning a world gone mad, Gene Wilder somehow managed to do it without sneering at the good.

His seriousness made it easier to take the silly less seriously. As Willy Wonka, his silliness made it easier to take goodness more seriously.

Gene Wilder is for this reason alone already sorely, deeply missed. He is survived by his friends, family and wife, Karen, and, I know, childlike people everywhere who cherish his depiction of a strange, kind industrialist who, with “pure imagination”, dramatized that it is possible to be good in a world going bad.

Nationalism, Statism and Propaganda

This month’s major political conventions will be historic. Nationalist Donald Trump, presumptive nominee of the philosophically bankrupt Republican Party, and welfare-statist Hillary Clinton, presumptive nominee of the New Left-dominated Democratic Party, are the most untrusted and, incidentally, unpopular presidential candidates in modern history. Clinton, exonerated this week by the Obama administration under a cloud of suspicion after the attorney general met with her spouse, the ex-president Bill Clinton, will be the first woman nominated for the presidency by a major party. Trump, generating controversy as always and this time by re-posting a Star of David superimposed on a pile of money via social media, will be the first non-Republican and explicit anti-capitalist nominated by the party which once advocated some degree of capitalism and individual rights. Both will be nominated in American states which were once great industrial centers; Clinton in America’s first capital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Trump in Cleveland, Ohio.

Look for what today’s digital public relations, marketing and social media types call optics at the GOP (July 18-21) and Democratic (July 25-28) conventions. Halting, hair-splitting, cackling Clinton may try to come off as softer, less harsh and hostile and more easygoing as a leader; the safer choice. Spewing, ear-splitting, rambling Trump may try to pass himself off as essentially charismatic and strong, less harsh and hostile and more decisive as a leader; the stronger choice. He will try to be a man of the people, an unapologetic village crier and throwback to pre-Obama days, undoing Obama’s legacy by throwing up tougher, state-sponsored fixes at the strongman’s sole discretion. She will try to appear as a woman of the people, a servant carrying on the Obama presidency’s New Left agenda while silently signalling that the age of statism and egalitarianism—policy dictates defining one’s identity by race, sex or culture—has just begun. The next few weeks will be heavy on optics for two power-lusting frauds in American politics.

Look closer for signs of propaganda, however. Whether at the statist’s or the nationalist’s convention, despite whatever riots, anarchy and attack may be carried out, the coming conventions and 2016 will be filled with symbolism and signs of what’s to come. Trump is a master of this—Clinton is not—as he demonstrates by tagging media personalities, streams and channels to generate greater exposure and attract new followers (read my post on The Circus Cycle). Though Trump polls as a loser, polls have been wrong for years, from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s upset loss to this summer’s Brexit victory. I suspect the Trump voter conceals his planned vote from others. Watch for propaganda to foreshadow (unless Libertarian Gary Johnson is elected president) the new presidency.

TCOHG

Buy the Book

Propaganda, as shown at a recent exhibit at the Richard Riordan Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles, has the power to push a civilized nation to dictatorship. Through visual manipulation, such as digital memes, cartoons and posters, especially in today’s increasingly anti-conceptual, perceptual-level culture, the public can more easily be persuaded of certain assertions. National Socialist propaganda, including promotions for Hitler’s Mein Kampf (which translates as My Struggle), was thoroughly premeditated. Read Leonard Peikoff’s The Cause of Hitler’s Germany for a fundamental explanation of Nazi Germany.

As displayed in “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda”, which runs at the Downtown LA library through August 21 (read about the traveling exhibition here), the Fuhrer (“leader”) and his top Nazis clearly grasped the importance of graphic arts in disseminating their philosophy of duty to the state and submission of the individual to serving others, i.e., altruism, in the name of the god-state-people-race. In certain cases, graphics and images glorify the upshot of National Socialism in practice: mass death and total government control of the individual’s life.

The exhibitionproduced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, shows how “the Nazis used propaganda to win broad voter support in Germany, implement radical programs, and justify war and mass murder”. The exhibit continues in Texas and Louisiana (see the schedule here).

Nazi Propaganda Poster LAPLNazi propaganda posters, movies, art and designs also illustrate attacks on Jews, capitalism and profit. There are other lessons, too. Note the cult of personality employed to foster worship of the charismatic leader. Observe similarities to recent U.S. campaign themes, such as Obama’s “hope and change” paraphernalia, the controversial “Ready for Hillary” capital H with its arrow, and, of course, Trump’s chronic emphasis on himself as the charismatic leader for nationalism, bellowing against others—illegal immigrants, Moslems, Apple, businesses that trade with China—as causing America’s downfall. Clinton, and especially Sanders, target others, too—businesses, Apple, traders on Wall Street, the wealthy—and both sides explicitly target the individual for persecution.

What is so alarming about the 2016 presidential election, and what makes National Socialist propaganda particularly relevant, is the erosion of freedom of speech in America. Obama’s administration attacks free speech, from censoring news to censoring movies and intimidating Americans who would exercise free speech (read Obama Vs. Free Speech). Clinton, who once proposed outlawing divorce for couples with children, has been a part of Obama’s assault on the First Amendment and she sought to evade public and press scrutiny during her entire four years as secretary of state while denouncing an American film as the cause of an Islamic terrorist act of war on the United States. Trump, who cuts off microphones at press conferences, proposes eliminating free speech by weakening libel law and jokes, then says he means it seriously, about having journalists targeted for state-sponsored death.

NaziFlowChartThese are explicit policy ideas, plans and actions. Insidious state sponsorship of media and the arts, like something emanating from the Nazi flow chart pictured here, includes quasi government control of the Oscars (Michelle Obama Ruins the Oscars) and arts and technology conferences (SXSW).

As the free press, too, diminishes with the spread of quasi-government control of industry, subsidizing state-favored cable TV monopolies like Time Warner and Comcast which own and operate major media (CNN, HBO, Warner Bros. Pictures, MSNBC, NBC, Universal Studios), coupled with the dumbing down of American education and culture, it becomes both easier and less apparent for the state to impose controls, cronyism and influence, i.e., blacklists. Only this summer did Tribune Publishing, which owns the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun, change its name to the term “tronc” (without the quotation marks but with the bad punctuation), an amalgamation of “Tribune online content” in what appears to be a bid to seem modern, generic and anti-conceptual.

Convergence of today’s aggregated, dumbed down media with secretive, oppressive censorship cannot be far behind.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, whom the world lost last week, lived his entire life warning of the danger of staying silent while ominous government insidiously gains the power to destroy life. As the summer of ’16—with Clinton, tronc and Trump—goes down shoveling propaganda in conventions and toward a darker history, this is the moment to stay tuned, call statist and nationalist propaganda what it is and speak out.

The End of The Greatest

Muhammad Ali, who called himself The Greatest, is gone. He was 74 years old.

The Kentucky-born boxer who became a world champion told his story in 1977’s The Greatest co-starring Ali and Ernest Borgnine as his trainer. The film originated “The Greatest Love of All”, the egoistic anthem later made famous by the late Whitney Houston.

Ali’s life was exceptional for his arrogant expression of egoism rooted in superior athletic achievement. I think Ali’s life is likely to be distorted and misunderstood for many complicated reasons, stemming from the times in which he died, this season in which a con man, the fraud who is Donald Trump, claims to be the best and isn’t. Muhammad Ali, whatever else his flaws, claimed to be the best and, in fact, he was.

Ali’s pride in his own ability, not to mention his poetic and often profound musings, commentaries and thoughts, was larger than life.

220px-The-greatest-movie-poster-1977

Click to Buy

He was a poor boy in Louisville, Kentucky, encouraged by a policeman to channel his rage against injustice into training as a boxer, which he did. Soon, Ali, originally named for his father (who was named for an abolitionist) and known then as Cassius Clay, won the Gold Medal at Rome’s 1960 Summer Olympics, appeared in Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight with Anthony Quinn and upset the world’s heavyweight champion. He was then mentored by Malcolm X and joined the Nation of Islam, adopting the new name and seeking his own set of beliefs, a practice he never let go. He kept winning—Ali lost five bouts—and thinking for himself. He sometimes did so by race-baiting, bluster and dubious tactics.

He eventually left the Nation of Islam and mellowed his anti-white views and practiced his religion in private but not without first citing his personal beliefs as a conscientious objector to being drafted by the state into the Vietnam War. Ali was arrested, lost three years of prime competition due to persecution by the United States government and, long before Apple‘s Tim Cook, he fought a Democrat-controlled Department of Justice and later won in the U.S. Supreme Court. The damage to his career, however, had been done.

Yet Ali had influenced the nation, which turned against the Vietnam War, which was never declared and never won, and the military draft, which was abolished by President Nixon. By the time Muhammad Ali triumphed the last time as world champ, having defeated great boxers such as George Foreman and Joe Frazier and Leon Spinks, Ali had inspired Sylvester Stallone to make Rocky. Future athletes, such as Oscar De La Hoya, would invoke selfishness, too. According to Objectivist scholar Harry Binswanger in 100 Voices, Ayn Rand wanted Ali to play a role in an adaptation of her novel Atlas Shrugged.

If you think about it, it’s not difficult to see why. Amid today’s numerously preached and accepted contradictions and confusions, with scoreless sports games and entrenched egalitarianism, Muhammad Ali stood out as one—against the mob, the intellectuals and the state—proudly proclaiming his own excellence. He was arguably often tactless and vulgar, sometimes animated or even cartoonish and occasionally his means and ends were in legitimate dispute. But, in asserting with pride his own superior ability, Muhammad Ali was never wrong. Unlike today’s frauds, he dared his detractors to check the record. Ali earned his poetic and prideful proclamations.

It turns out that Ali, who was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, paid a high price for his fierce and determined, possibly overlong and overzealous, competition. But Muhammad Ali was right. He was, in fact, the greatest. As the song from his movie says, “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”

This is fundamentally true. As the nation once in turmoil during Ali’s blustery, arrogant and triumphant youth goes into a violent new era ominously threatened by a blustery, vacant and bankrupt power-luster who would be president, Ali leaves a magnificent legacy which calls upon Americans to differentiate between the proud man whose pride is based in reality and the loud man whose bullying and boasting spews from raw, unchecked emotions.

Ali once said: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Repeatedly, consistently, he did. This is what makes a man great. This—authentic self-esteem realized by human action—is what makes Muhammad Ali a great man.

Roundup: TCM Classic Film Festival 2016

Classic movies tend to linger. Last month, TCM’s seventh annual Classic Film Festival, which I attended for the first time last year and wrote about here, offered a range of marvelous movies.

I covered festival events, discussions and interviews and watched or reviewed films from every decade from the 1920s to the 1990s. Besides my blog, reports and articles appeared elsewhere online. I’m also writing articles for a new, independent film print edition planned for future publication.

80fd3868f6692b85f0c9a3cca2d9d1dbThis year, I was finally able to see a 40-year-old past Best Picture Oscar winner at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 hit Rocky, a film I had never seen in any format. Now, I think every adult should see it. What an inspiring movie.

Besides the new Rocky review, my other TCM festival reviews also include thoughts on the live interviews as applicable. Among the new reviews: thoughts on Stanley Kramer’s brilliant Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, John Singleton’s powerful Boyz N The Hood (1991) featuring Cuba Gooding, Jr., Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, and Vincente Minnelli’s lively, inventive The Band Wagon (1953) starring Fred Astaire.

Happily, I’ve also discovered Frank Borzage’s restored, Rachmaninoff-themed I’ve Always Loved You (1946), Josef von Sternberg’s striking Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich, and I enjoyed seeing Elia Kazan’s insightful A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) with Dorothy Maguire on the big screen for the first time.

John Frankenheimer’s conspiracy-themed The Manchurian Candidate (1962), about an assassination plot to control the United States of America by a global Communist cabal, was an incredible moviegoing experience—also at the Chinese. It was introduced by Angela Lansbury.

In addition to the interesting discourse on journalism in movies and composer Michael Giacchino’s audio-visual presentation on making the musical score for film, I had the pleasure of watching Faye Dunaway, who’d previously introduced an anniversary screening of another still-timely picture, Sidney Lumet’s satire Network, interviewed at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre. Dunaway, a glamorous movie star whom I found intelligent and discriminating about her career, did not disappoint. At that point, I’d already run into the Washington Post‘s Carl Bernstein, who was there for a screening of All the President’s Men, and met fellow movie bloggers and buffs, including TCM curator Charles Tabesh after a press conference. Socially, the best aspect was trading thoughts with moviegoers from across the world.

Classic film fans might also be interested in new Western critiques of Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) co-starring Barry Sullivan and Barbara Stanwyck and the 1946 version of The Virginian starring Joel McCrea, both screened at the Autry Museum of the American West.

As much as I enjoy seeing new movies, and I do, I must say that I appreciate the classics more on the larger screens and I think they get better with age. I was filled with a similar rush last year with the TCM-screened movies—film noir Too Late for Tears with Lizabeth Scott, George Stevens’ Gunga Din, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, Walt Disney’s So Dear to My Heart and Robert Wise’s adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music—and, afterwards, the same sense of motion picture withdrawal.

Good movies leave me wanting more.

Travel: McCrea Ranch

Last night’s Cowboy Cookout and Ranch Tour at movie star Joel McCrea’s ranch in Southern California was perfect. The air was a bit chilly. But, with everyone helping to make the annual Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch Foundation fundraiser a success, from bus driver Pete and ranch staff to the poet, the band and McCrea’s grandson Wyatt, who lives there, the place was warm, relaxed and rooted in Western culture. Guests added Hollywood glamour.

McCreaRanchVisitorSign

McCrea Ranch. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

You’ve probably seen Joel McCrea’s movies. Whether romancing Claudette Colbert in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story or Veronica Lake in Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels or leading as handsome, freethinking young Dr. Kildare or in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, he was a commanding presence on screen. But the underrated, underappreciated actor—who was 6’4 in height—was most comfortable in Westerns, appearing with his wife Frances Dee in Wells Fargo, Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific opposite Barbara Stanwyck, Wichita, as Bat Masterson in The Gunfight at Dodge City, opposite Randolph Scott in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, usually as lead and hero of the motion picture. I’d recently seen him as the title character in The Virginian, the 1946 Western. After that, McCrea appeared in mostly Westerns, including his last picture, 1976’s Mustang Country.

Apparently, the Golden Age-era movie star made the Western part of his life. Encouraged by his mentor, humorist Will Rogers, McCrea bought the first thousand acres of private ranch property in Ventura County—what’s now northern Thousand Oaks, California—in the early Hollywood years and made ranching a labor of love. Eventually, Joel McCrea would buy a sprawling ranch where he lived with his wife of 57 years and raised three sons, Jody, David and Peter. Today, a small portion of the original McCrea Ranch in the Santa Rosa valley is left, including the main house McCrea had built and remaining outbuildings, such as the bunkhouse, chicken coop and milk house.

McCreaRanchRoadSky

McCrea Ranch. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

Yesterday, foundation docents and park staff showed the grounds. There’s a road leading up to the house, with a large kitchen and original appliances—including the elevated refrigerator to accommodate McCrea’s height—master bedroom, reading or sun room, Mrs. McCrea’s writing room, living room and the boys’ rooms above the garage. It’s a stone’s throw from the avocado-shaped swimming pool and the trees and vegetation Mr. and Mrs. McCrea planted. The 1,400-square foot visitor’s center has photographs and films on McCrea and his family in movies and at the ranch. Being there, it’s easy to imagine Joel McCrea riding horses and milking cows (he did both). After he died in 1990, Frances moved into the bunkhouse. Mrs. McCrea never lived in the main house again.

McCreaRanchMainHouse

McCrea Ranch Main Home. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

The house he’d had designed and built is filled with fireplaces, books—Frances McCrea was an avid reader and Joel McCrea, whose forefather signed the Declaration of Independence, was a serious student of American history—and portraits of Lincoln and Washington. This is a modest, family home, which is not open to the public. So, while the property meets the foundation’s goal to conserve the region’s history and lifestyle, and South Pasadena native McCrea is the embodiment of the healthy, tanned, good-looking, hardworking outdoorsman with which one associates Southern California, the rustic ranch evokes the man and his chosen values. It is here that the movie star lived, worked and enjoyed privacy. The place exudes McCrea’s unique ability to shuttle between relaxed, easygoing charm and hard-driving loyalty to one’s personal code.

Donors attending last night’s Cowboy Cookout—including Western artists and intellectuals such as Eric Heisner, William Wellman, Jr., whose father directed McCrea in The Great Man’s Lady and Buffalo Bill, and Bruce Boxleitner (Contagion, Tron, CBS’s Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Gods and Generals, ABC’s How the West Was Won)—joined Wyatt McCrea in toasting McCrea Ranch as a place worth preserving as it once was. So do I, especially to study, experience and honor McCrea Ranch as home and land where Joel McCrea cashed in on what he’d earned—as an example of where a man once lived the honest, productive life he’d portrayed in the movies.