Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Put some shama lama in your ding dong

I'm lost in the fifties tonight.

Back before he immersed himself in the galaxy far, far away with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, George Lucas made a charming little film called "American Graffiti."

I watched it again the other night. It may be the best slice of Americana ever put to film.

"Graffiti" focuses on the lives of four teenagers on the last night of summer 1962. Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) is unsure of himself and his future. Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) is the big man on campus, the high school star on the verge of leaving for college back east. Terry "The Toad" Fields (Charles Martin Smith) is the proverbial nerd of the group. John Milner (Paul Le Mat) is the older rebel rouser, the cool hot shot with the fastest car in town.

The film follows these four characters around, looks in on their adventures, captures a few moments of the end of American innocence. They cruise town. They listen to the early rock-and-roll and doo wop music of the period. They chase girls. They order cherry Cokes at Mel's Drive In.

And that's about it. It doesn't sound like much. But "Graffiti" is so much more.

Lucas wanted to capture the feel of the era by including wall-to-wall pop music in the soundtrack. This worked well since his budget was limited and he had no money for a score.

So as Milner and the preteen Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) cruise their California town, you hear not only the Beach Boys and the Platters, but the constant chatter of disc jockey Wolfman Jack (who plays himself).

Le Mat and Phillips quietly steal the film away from the other talented actors. Their interaction is so well-done, so pleasing, so full of unadulterated joy, that one feels a sense of dejection when Milner finally takes Carol home to go face Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) in the film's climactic drag race.

Le Mat has one of the funniest lines in the film. Carol hears a Beach Boys tune come on the radio. She and Milner have a fight over listening to the song.

"Don't you think the Beach Boys are boss?" she asks.

"Ahhh, I don't like that surfin' shit," he says. Then responds with a telling line: "Rock and roll has been going downhill since Buddy Holly died."

Lucas picked 1962 for a reason. He wanted to capture a period in the American experience before the British Invasion, before the Kennedy assassination, before Vietnam, before Watergate. Back to when America was, at least on the surface, still naive and innocent. Back to when an idealistic teenager's dream was to meet the president.

The soundtrack is a true classic. The Platters. Chuck Berry. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. All the great doo wop groups. Wolfman Jack peppers it all with his trademark humor and bizarre antics.

The other great performance in the film belongs to Charles Martin Smith. Given the hardest role to play, Smith's Toad is both pathetic and lovable. His scenes with Debby (Candy Clark) are full of laughter and of a certain awkwardness that comes with puberty and the pettiness of high school.

Lucas brought his A-game as a director. He and visual consultant Haskell Wexler chose to give the film an almost documentary look. This works well with both the script and the effect Lucas was trying to achieve.

I may be the only one in the universe who thinks this, but "American Graffiti" is George Lucas' best film. The "Star Wars" epics are what they are. But this film means something. It touches a nerve, captures an ethos, reminds you why movies can be so important.

"Graffiti" stays with you. It leaves you with moments to remember and savor when you need them. Steve and Laurie (Cindy Williams) at the sock hop. "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." Curt and the Pharoahs. The car salesman in the big rocking chair. Toad puking his guts out.

Alas the lights come up and you find yourself back in 2005. Gone are the poodle skirts, the muscle cars and the drive-ins. Much from "American Graffiti" is indeed no longer with us.

And the world seems darker somehow.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

THIS is what happened to Randolph Scott

"Whatever happened to Randolph Scott, riding the trail along?" The Statler Brothers asked back in the early 1970s.

It was a timely question. Scott and that style of filmmaking had already disappeared when the country act sang their ode to the B westerns they enjoyed as youth. By the early 70s, everything seemed to be on its head. Westerns included.

John Wayne was still churning out an old-fashioned oater every year or so (hence that great line in the song: "True Grit" is the only movie I've really understood in years"). But even the classically American movie genre had been subverted by directors like Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Nothing was sacred anymore.

Younger viewers and East Coast movie critics loved the change. But longtime fans yearned for the type of movie only The Duke seemed able to still make.

Randolph Scott turned up on Turner Classic Movies last week. The tall, gangly actor with the wonderfully distinctive voice rode tall in the saddle once again in one of his best, but lesser-known efforts.

The movie was "7 Men From Now." Released in 1956 under the B-wing of John Wayne's Batjac production company, "Now" featured an original story written by Burt Kennedy and an outstanding cast, including Scott, Gail Russell and the incomparable Lee Marvin. Its director, Budd Boetticher, became something of an auteur himself and according to a TCM documentary that preceded the movie, was quite a character.

Duke Wayne himself wanted to star in the movie. But he was busy making a little film called "The Searchers" with John Ford. Needless to say, it worked out.

Scott plays Ben Stride, a former sheriff who is hunting down the seven men responsible for his wife's death during a Wells Fargo robbery. Along the way, he meets John and Annie Greer (Walter Reed and Russell). They are easterners headed west looking for a new start.

Stride also bumps into Bill Masters (Marvin), an outlaw with a big mouth and an evil streak a mile long. Together, the group heads toward the final showdown with the killers.

The problem with most B westerns is that the storylines tend to be cliched. But Burt Kennedy delivered a fine script complete with enough twist and turns to satisfy even the most anal-retentive fans. Boetticher makes good use of the sparse landscape and turns in one memorable movie.

"7 Men From Now" has long been out of circulation. It was restored by the UCLA Film Archives in 2000 and has finally been released on DVD. Head and shoulders above most such pictures, the movie may be Scott's best.

Don't miss Lee Marvin's speech in the covered wagon about a man who was "short on spine." It may be Kennedy's finest moment as a screenwriter.

So this is what happened to Randolph Scott. He's still out there, still riding the trail, still tracking down outlaws and standing up for what's right.

Yeah, it's anachronistic. And, yeah, we need it now more than ever.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Merry Christmas one and all!

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Take a moment this holiday season and tell somebody you love them. Give thanks for all of the friends and family who bless your life. Remember the reason for the season.

And think a few moments about this timeless editorial that originally ran in the New York Sun in 1897. Peace on earth, goodwill to men.

Dear Editor—
I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O’Hanlon

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

If they'd only put the western back into country

Remember when country music used to be called country and western?

Those days are long gone. Course, country music doesn't even sound country anymore, let alone western.

But it's a shame. I heard the late Marty Robbins on the radio this morning and had forgotten how good that sound was.

His best collection of such music, "Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs," was recorded in one afternoon sometime in 1959. Robbins wrote most of the songs. Included in the set are the classics "Big Iron," "Cool Water" and Robbins' best-loved song, "El Paso."

The tune was almost revolutionary when it was released in 1960 because it ran for four and a half minutes. This was back when radio singles lasted three minutes or less. Period.

Indeed, the record label released an edited three minute version of the song. But disc jockeys flipped the single over and played the full-length version on the "B" side of the 45 rpm. It became a No. 1 pop and country smash in 1960.

I don't really know why westerns in general have gone out of favor with the public. People probably think they are too sophisticated now for such fare. John Denver tried to keep recording songs with western themes before his untimely death in 1997. Nashville told him to take a hike.

And yet John Wayne consistently is at or near the top of annual lists of favorite American movie stars. He's been dead since 1979. Tom Selleck's TNT westerns are always ratings winners. "Lonesome Dove" was one of the highest rated miniseries of all time.

But about the only place you can catch a good oater is on cable or at the video store.

It's too bad. Go back and listen to a Marty Robbins record. It will make you wish such talent was still around in country (or any other kind of music) these days.

Monday, December 19, 2005

It's only the beginning

INDIANAPOLIS, Dec. 18 --- Well, maybe this is a good thing.

Yes the quest for perfection is over. But the Colts season marches on. Thirteen wins in a row was a hell of a streak. And the important brass ring still hangs in the balance.

Indianapolis just didn't look sharp today. The first half was mostly a snoozer as the San Diego Chargers seized control.

They lead 13-0 at intermission. Before too long, the Chargers were up 16-0 and appeared headed for more.

But there was a glimmer of hope. Six delicious minutes in the third quarter saw the Colts go ahead 17-16 following a Gary Brackett interception and a Drew Brees fumble after Dwight Freeney stripped him of the ball.

Fans slumbering up till now woke up. The rafters shook at the RCA Dome. Fans gave each other hugs. There was a wink here, a nod there. Peyton would find a way. We're going to win.

But disappointment ruled the day, as it often does when any mortal tries for perfection. Brees hit Keenan McDardell on a third and nine play from the Chargers' nine yard line for a 54-yard pass. It set up the go ahead field goal and put San Diego ahead, 19-17.

Then the Colts forgot about the run, threw a bunch of incompletions and had to punt. Michael Turner scampered 83-yards with 2:09 left in the game to seal the deal, 26-17.

Peyton Manning was stoic and professional in defeat. He was quoted in the Indianapolis Star giving the Chargers all the credit for the win.

It wasn't so easy for the faithful. Many dejected fans simply sat and stared out onto the field. Others hurried for the exits.

It was a deflating loss. But, if they'll let it be, this is only the beginning for the Colts.

Bigger prizes remain. The AFC Championship. That Super Bowl date in Detroit. Get there and win it and this game will only seem like a bad dream.

A light snow fell throughout the day in and around the city. The white blanket brought with it the peaceful hush that always accompanies it. It was as if somebody was saying, "Relax. Don't worry. All is well."

So let Larry Czonka and those obnoxious 1972 Miami Dolphins toast their still-safe unbeaten season. At the end of the day, who really cares?

The best, it seems, could still be yet to come.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Pencil thin mustaches, black and white movies and other relics

I love black and white movies.

I love the feel of them. The deep focus. The fact that you can see that cigarette smoke (everybody smoked then, or so it seemed) as it wafts up out of the frame.

I dare say if I were to name my top 50 favorites films, at least a third would be in black and white. Course, I'm not like others. A girl back in high school said she doesn't watch anything filmed in black and white because "it's too old."

Ooooo kaaaaay. Don't get the logic. But to each his own.

Yesterday while home with a stomach virus, I caught Fritz Lang's last U.S. film, "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt." Dana Andrews played Tom Garrett, a reporter-turned-writer, who is convinced to plant evidence in a murder trial in order to be arrested to prove a point about capital punishment.

The film started off well. Andrews is a sympathetic character and one is quickly drawn into the plot as Garrett and his former boss, newspaper publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), set up the "evidence."

Just as things are getting interesting, things take a somewhat bizarre turn. In a terrible cliche, Austin Spencer is killed just as he is bringing the evidence that Garrett is innocent to the courthouse. From here, the plot shifts to Garrett's former fiance (Joan Fontaine) as she desperately tries to prove that Garrett is innocent.

The film includes a twist at the end, a la "Twilight Zone." Not a bad picture, really, but one that didn't quite live up to its promise.

Still, you gotta love that glorious black and white. It makes me wish I had a pencil thin mustache --- you know, the Boston Blackie kind.