Who Should Have Directed Gatsby?

I’ve never seen any film version of The Great Gatsby. I’ve read the book, and loved it. But none of the movie adaptations earned much respect; certainly not enough for me to seek them out.

Which is odd, because the book seems easy to adapt. It’s short. It’s almost entirely dialog and action. A screenwriter wouldn’t have to boil it down to its essence. F. Scott Fitzgerald already did that.

Perhaps the story has never found the right filmmaker. Baz Luhrmann directed the most recent version, and I suspect that’s part of its problem. Luhrmann’s work tends to be about surfaces, especially glamorous surfaces. He never seems interested in what’s beneath those surfaces. The Great Gatsby is about the dark, false current beneath those glamorous surfaces. I can’t imagine him doing a good job on this (and the reviews I read confirmed my suspicions).

I’ve been slowly going through the HBO series Entourage, which ran from 2004 through 2011. Call it a guilty pleasure. At one point in this Hollywood fiction, Martin Scorsese directs a new adaptation of Gatsby .

Now that could break the Gatsby movie curse. Scorsese could have made a film worthy of Fitzgerald’s prose.

So what other auteurs, living or dead, could have adapted The Great Gatsby and turned it into a great film?

Luis Buñuel comes to mind. He certainly knew how to make rich and self-important people look ridiculous. So did Charlie Chaplin–the world’s most popular filmmaker when the book was published. His version, of course, would have been a comedy. But whom would he play–Gatsby or Carraway?

Among living auteurs, Paul Thomas Anderson comes to mind. John Sayles could have done a great version in his prime 20 years ago, if he could have gotten a decent budget.

There must be others.

The Return of the Found Footage Festival

The world is full of unwanted VHS cassettes, which is a good thing for Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett. They mine comic gold from the unwanted dregs of the video universe, which they serve up every so often with their Found Footage Festival. The results are often shocking, absurd, and pathetic. But they are also, almost always, funny.

Prueher and Pickett arrive in the Bay Area this coming weekend for three shows, highlighting their sixth collection. They sent me a DVD of the current show, recorded in concert in Chicago.

There’s nothing here quite as disgusting as their second collection’s How To Seduce Women Through Hypnosis, but the show still goes over the edge. There are male andimage female how-to masturbation videos (and yes, I really believe they were intended to be educational), and a nude exercise video starring a woman with breasts that are not found in nature. But easily the most disgusting clip is “Wound Round Live,” a horrifyingly upbeat, extremely graphic, mock game show about deeply injured body parts.

But “Dancing With Frank Pacholski”–while only mildly disgusting–took the humor prize, leaving me laughing so hard I was gasping for air. Mr. Pacholski, who manages to look both ripped and paunchy, wears nothing but a mask and an American flag jock strap as he does the most bizarre dancing imaginable, all in front a a handful of very confused senior citizens. He seemed very happy about it.

Other memorable moments include montages of child safety videos (one of which stars a clown far more frightening than any strangers with candy), instructional videos for ferret ownership and opossum massage (and no, oppossum is not meant here as a metaphor), a slideshow of VHS covers, and a fake yo-yo expert who manages to get on several local news broadcasts despite a clear lack of ability.

Not everything hit a home run. The montage of music lesson videos was only moderately amusing. “The Chris Tape,” involving a very stoned man explaining that he’s the new Jesus, only produced moderate derisive laughter.

Whether the clips are hilarious or only moderately amusing, the format remains the same. Prueher and Pickett come on stage and introduce a clip or a montage. They generally remain silent during the clip, but occasionally make comments.

While I admit that I have yet to see them perform live, I’m confident that it would make for an extremely enjoyable evening–assuming you like this sort of thing. I certainly do.

The Festival will perform at the New Parkway Friday the 14th, at 10:00, and Saturday and Sunday (the 15th and 16th) at the Roxie, at 8:00.

RiffTrax Live: Plan 9 from Outer Space

Three MST3K veterans add comic commentary to Plan Nine from Outer Space, allegedly the worst film of all time. I laughed so hard I was gasping for breath.

When I started reviewing Blu-ray discs on this blog, my policy would be to stick with classics. I’m not sure if this review is a derivation from that policy.

More than 30 years have passed since the Medved brothers named Ed Wood’s Plan Nine the Worst Film of All Time in their book The Golden Turkey Awards. The description has stuck, even if it’s highly questionable. I’m not the first to point out that if a movie finds an audience that loves and enjoys watching it, it’s at least on some level a good movie–even if its charms are not the ones that the filmmakers intended.

Let me put it another way: In just about every way except technical competence, Plan 9 from Outer Space is far superior to I Melt With You.

But Plan 9 just may be the most entertainingly bad movie ever made. The clumsy dialog and wooden acting are a wonder to behold. Who could plan9aforget the wife, assuring her husband that she’ll be alright despite the odd goings-on, by pronouncing “The saucers are up there. The graveyard is out there. But I’ll be locked up safely in there.” Or the brilliant police deduction: “But one thing’s sure. Inspector Clay is dead, murdered, and somebody’s responsible.” Yet my favorite is the obviously gay alien (who isn’t the most obviously gay alien) admonishing the human race with a cry of ” You see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!”

But the acting and dialog are brilliant drama compared to the sets and the continuity. An airplane cockpit has nothing on the back wall except a circular slide rule, a clipboard, and a doorway closed only with a shower curtain. Exterior location scenes shot in daylight intercut with a soundstage graveyard set lit for night. One character is played by Bela Lugosi in some shots, and by a local chiropractor in others.

But I’m not reviewing a conventional Blu-ray of the movie. I’m reviewing a RiffTrax concert video.

Three Mystery Science Theater 3000 veterans– Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett–make up the RiffTrax comedy team. Following that long-running TV series’ shtick, they provide assorted comic commentary to bad movies (and good ones). This particular concert was performed in Nashville, and was broadcast live to movie theaters across the country.

The program gets off to a slow start. We get RiffTrax joking through an allegedly educational short about stewardesses. That’s moderately funny–praise that I can’t give to the two commercial parodies also presented. Nelson comes on stage to give away free stuff–not all that interesting after the fact. Musical guest Jonathan Coulton is mildly amusing with a song about a space invasion and a sing-along about zombies. There are clearly some fans of his in the live audience.

Finally, 36 minutes after the show begins, we get to the main event. You might just want to skip to the movie–it’s chapter 9 on the disc.

That’s when this show comes alive. Plan 9 is funny enough on its own. With Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett riffing on it, it’s about ten times funnier.

Their jokes are virtually all throwaways, so completely dependent on context that it’s pointless to repeat them. A bit player’s haircut will inspire the comment “the reverend Lyle Lovett,” and–silly as it sounds–you can’t help laughing. Before you’ve recovered your breath, another comment gets you laughing again.

They riff on most of the movie’s weaknesses, but they did miss a few. The shower curtain separating the plane’s cockpit from the main cabin goes by without mention. And why didn’t anyone notice that neither the earthlings nor the aliens understand the difference between the Universe and the Solar System?

How It Looks

There’s nothing really exceptional here. In fact, I can’t think of a reason not to save a few dollars and buy the DVD.

The non-movie sequences–introductions, songs, and audience reactions–were shot in HD and look very good. But there’s nothing here that requires high definition.

The movies, both the short and Plan 9, are pillarboxed to 4×3, with black bars on the side of the screen. That’s as it should be, but the movies appear to be transferred from standard definition sources; I suspect they look identical on the DVD. Every so often the presentation goes split screen, so you can see the movie as well as close-ups of the three commentators. This didn’t add anything to the experience.

The disc uses the colorized plan9bversion of Plan 9. It seems ridiculous to object to colorization in this context, but I’m going to, anyway. If a movie’s main claim to fame is cheesiness, additions can’t possibly help. I found myself occasionally wondering if it looked cheesy because Ed Wood was incompetent, or because the colorizers intentionally made it that way. The later, to me, feels like cheating. The colorizers added one intentional joke, which isn’t funny. RiffTrax added a comment to it, which didn’t improve it.

How It Sounds

RiffTrax Live: Plan 9 From Outer Space comes with only a single Dolby Digital soundtrack. It really doesn’t need anything better.

And the Extras

The extras are thin, with a total running time of about seven minutes.plan9_box

The best extra is a three-minute slide show on the event’s production. Each photo is captioned, and they give you some idea of what’s involved with putting on a live show in one movie theater that will be beamed to many others.

The other extras are slightly longer versions of the two fake commercials. They’re not worth watching.

RiffTrax didn’t include the most important and obvious extra: A straight, non-commentary version of Plan 9 from Outer Space. I’m not sure why. Perhaps there were licensing issues.

This is not a great Blu-ray release in the conventional sense. But then, Plan 9 isn’t a conventionally great motion picture. But in this case, bad really does mean good.

Tarzan of the 30′s

From 1932 through 1948, Johnny Weissmuller starred in 12 Tarzan movies–six for MGM followed by six for RKO, and all now owned by Warner Brothers. The Rafael will present two of these movies–both from the MGM 1930s–over the next two Sundays in a series called Hollywood & Vines: The Movie Magic of Tarzan. Visual effects supervisor Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt will be on hand to discuss how MGM created the look and sound of Africa on a Hollywood sound stage.

But I’m not writing about movie technology here. I’m writing about the Weissmuller Tarzan movies.

In the late 1990s, back when it was still a movie channel, AMC ran all 12 Weissmuller Tarzan movies in chronological order. I didn’t catch all of them, but I saw enough to observe the general arc of the franchise from pretty good to dumb but entertaining to laughably bad.

One interesting trend: Tarzan, as a character, got more domesticated as the series progressed. At the beginning of the first movie, Tarzan the Ape Man, he has never experienced human contact. In the second, Tarzan and His Mate (generally considered the best and the one screening this Sunday), he and Jane sleep in a different makeshift nest every night (they also appear to have a fantastic sex life). A few films later, they’re living in a huge and quite fancy tree-house complete with an elephant-powered elevator. At the beginning of the final film, Tarzan and the Mermaids, they’re living by a river, and eagerly awaiting the mail boat to see if they’ve received a letter from Boy, who’s attending college in England.

(The idea of Boy going to college intrigues me. Growing up in the jungle, how did he prepare for the entrance exams? And how does one manage a university social life when your name is Boy?)

When you think about it, these domesticating changes make sense. As people age, they settle down. And once-remote places often joined the world community in the 20th century. But a lot of the magic sure disappears.

One thing that never really changed was the films’ racism. The Tarzan story is inherently racist. There’s no reason why a white man, raised by apes, would be better adapted to the jungle than a black man raised in a human community that has had centuries to build a jungle-based culture and technology. But the depiction of Africans in these movies make that racism worse. The "natives" are often primitive, stupid, and violent, and clearly deserve the deaths they receive by Tarzan’s hands.

There are exceptions. Sometimes the natives are decent and friendly. But those natives are always played by white actors in slightly-swarthy make-up. The scary natives are played by very dark African-Americans.

On the other hand, the films carry a subtle anti-colonial and pro-environment message. The real villains are almost always white people who’ve come to Africa on some get-rich-quick scheme, and don’t care what they destroy to get what they want.

Tarzan movies are dumb almost by definition. But they can also be a lot of fun. And while they never tell us anything real about late colonial Africa, they can inadvertently reveal plenty about the time and place where they were made.

Viva

Spoof

  • Written and directed by Anna Biller

Anna Biller wants to out-auteur Charlie Chaplin. Not only did she write, direct, and co-produce this parody of late sixties/early seventies exploitation flicks, but she stars in the title role. She also wrote some of the songs, animated a drug-induced dream sequence, and designed the sets and costumes. She even directed her own nude scenes, something I’m pretty sure Chaplin never did.

But judging from Viva, Biller can’t act, write, or direct to save her life. She does have a unique and interesting flair for design. Nearly every shot in Viva is color-coordinated in a way that’s both pleasing to the eye and outrageously obvious. When there’s nothing else worth watching, which is most of the time, you can at least enjoy the way everyone’s clothes matches the walls and furniture (when they’re wearing clothes).

A big part of the problem: American exploitation movies from the dawn of the sexual revolution didn’t take themselves seriously, making them impervious to parody (although French exploitation films like Emmanuelle beg for it). All you can really do to parody the likes of Russ Meyer is to exaggerate what’s already exaggerated. That gets tired very fast.

Viva might have worked as a five-minute sketch, but as a two-hour feature (yes, two hours) it’s numbing. Despite all the sex talk and nudity, there’s not a single erotic moment (to be fair, I don’t think Biller intended one), and very few genuine laughs.

Biller has no idea how to turn an outrageous story towards a funny direction. For instance, the movie’s climax (so to speak) takes place at an orgy. Her date, having failed so far to seduce her, slips her a drug to loosen her inhibitions. Are there comic possibilities here? Yes. (Leaving aside serious date rape issues.) For instance, there’s the Midsummer Night’s Dream approach: She could lose her inhibitions with someone except–or everyone except–the jerk who drugged her. But it seems that neither this nor any other funny turn of events occurred to Biller.

Instead, she tries to get laughs from stilted dialog spoken with ill-placed pauses and punctuated by annoying laughs–especially the laugh of Biller’s co-producer, Jared Sanford, in the part of her best friend’s husband. The closest thing to a performance comes from Bridget Brno as that friend. She starts out stilted like everyone else, but spends most of the movie resembling a normal human being. You can really see the talent difference when Biller and Brno sing and dance together at the movie’s end (Viva inexplicitly becomes a musical about half way through). Brno’s performance won’t win her a lead role on Broadway, but it’s competent. Biller looks like she’s trying to remember the next step.

Viva opens Friday for a five-day run at the Red Vic.

ThrillVille Report, Part II

For the first part of this report, click here.

When I arrived at the Cerrito a little before 7:00 on Thursday night, I was handed a pair of cheap, cardboard,3D glasses–the red-and-blue kind. Yes, part of the program was in 3D. Not a big part, but a short called “Third Dimensional Murder” made in 1941–more than a decade before the 3D craze of the 1950s. Let’s just say it was a dreadful movie in dreadful 3D.

The features, as I mentioned in my last post, were House of Frankenstein (1944) and The Brides of Dracula (1960). These cheapies have two things in common. First, bad as they are, they came from studios with great horror film reputations. Second, Dr. Frankenstein never appears in House of Frankenstein, and Count Dracula doesn’t show up in Brides of Dracula. Curiously, Dracula makes an appearance in House of Frankenstein.

Made at Universal at the tail end of its great run of horror classics, House of Frankenstein is pretty much a mess. Frankenstein’s monster makes a brief appearance even if the good doctor never shows up, this time played by Glenn Strange. As I mentioned, Dracula also turns up, not Bela Lugosi but John Carradine. The wolfman also joins the festivities, astonishingly enough, still played by the original, Lon Chaney Jr. The original Frankenstein Monster, Boris Karloff, stars as yet another mad scientist. There’s a hunchback sidekick (who you actually feel a bit sorry for), a beautiful gypsy girl, and peasants with torches.

The Brides of Dracula was Hammer’s sequel to its highly successful Dracula (called Curse of Dracula in the United States), and it involves Van Helsing’s adventures after killing the Count in the title. You see, another aristocrat/vampire is stalking Transylvania, sucking the blood of the working class. But I’m not sure who these brides of the title are supposed to be? This vampire does turn two moderately attractive young women into vampires, so I guess those could be Brides of Baron Meinster if not Count Dracula. But they don’t enter into the story much. He also becomes engaged to the movie’s heroine. That makes her The Future Bride of the Vampire Who isn’t Dacula. Actually, it makes her The Extremely Forgetful Future Bride of the Vampire Who isn’t Dacula, since by the time he proposes and she accepts, she has discovered and apparently forgotten about Meinster’s evil ways. Our fun-loving Baron also turns his own mother into a vampire, which just seems sick.

Bad as these movies are, they’re both thoroughly enjoyable, especially in a crowded theater of people primed to laugh. And both movies were screened in pristine, archival, 35mm prints. If only the classics were so well cared for.

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