Monday, January 23, 2006

Aside from the mess just cited -- and why is it that movies I've always yearned to see turn out, years later, not to mean all that much? -- I watched a pile of movies over the last few days.

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story -- How do we know Blockbuster is doomed? People like me. I rented this thing on Thanksgiving, haven't returned it, and only recently got around to watching it.

Pretty funny, thanks largely to Ben Stiller's over-the-top performance as an egomaniacal owner of a gym, buffed to ridiculous perfection down to his inflatable crotch, who goes to war with the competion (Vince Vaughn). Classic commercial good guy-bad guy set-up, a real crowd-pleaser, and I laughed often.

Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour -- Another war; this time between a pair of comedians and a TV network.

There's a point in this fine, enlightening documentary that made me realize just how popular this duo were back in the day. Their variety show was not expected to do well; it was put up against "Bonanza," which dominated its Sunday night time slot across the country and killed every show in its path. Ours was one of the families who kept the ratings high; Sunday evening just wasn't Sunday evening without Ben Cartwright, his sons Adam, Hoss and Little Joe and their faithful cook Hop Sing as they civilized the Old West.

And yet, I remember watching the Smothers Brothers an awful lot, and I even remembered a lot of those clips in the documentary. Apparently, in those pre-cable, pre-VCR days, they took over our house along with everyone else's.

They were lovable and friendly and funny; everyone always got a huge kick out of how the two of them couldn't finish a song without Tommy getting the words wrong and straight man Dick losing his cool. One of those expected routines that always worked. Their show and Carol Burnett's were the gold standard for TV humor in the 1960s; you could count on both of those shows for the kind of big laughs you never got with sitcoms or the other TV Land narcotics.

And then, like everything in 1968, the Smothers changed the game on us. They got controversial, a term which meant an awful lot more then than it does now. Back then, it meant -- in our house and a whole lot of others -- making jokes about the president, the war, religion (especially religion) or sex. If you made jokes about those things back then, chances are excellent that a great portion of the country thought you were unpatriotic or distasteful or at any rate unwelcome in their homes; especially our home, where Mad magazine and Laugh-In were also forbidden.

Today of course you can more or less crack wise about almost anything and it barely raises a glance of concern; what Jay or Dave say in five minutes every weeknight would have given the Smothers a whole season of grief -- and did. Jokes about Vietnam, Johnson, Nixon, marijuana; no big deal now, but back then it was poison.

When the show got cancelled, I remember asking my Dad why. "Because they were mouthy," he said, with a certain satisfaction -- meaning, of course, he disagreed with them. He wasn't exactly wrong; a lot of people disagreed with them, including the CBS brass, who looked for a reason to nail them and ultimately found one.

The documentary does an excellent job in telling the Smothers story from start to finish, focusing with particular interest on the backstage battles that ultimately led to the show's early demise, which have become the stuff of legend -- particularly breaking the blacklist against Pete Seeger, whose anti-war tune "Waist-Deep in the Big Muddy" reminded people why they hated him in the first place.

One thing I learned: the main creative force was Tommy, which is not the first thing you'd think, given his stage persona, and he concedes today he wasn't especially diplomatic about his dealings with the network. He looked for trouble to a degree that seemed to assure the show would ultimately go down in flames, making it the legend it will always be.

The King of Marvin Gardens -- This is one of those 1970s classics that no one ever mentions when they think of classic 1970s cinema. I've seen it before in lousy TV versions, which is absolutely not the way to see it; commercials really kill a movie that moves at such a leisurely pace.

A very quirky story about two brothers: Jason (Bruce Dern), a fast-talking huckster who snags his nerdy, introverted brother David (Jack Nicholson, cast way against type) into his pie-in-the-sky plans for a real-estate development deal in Hawaii. Set in that boulevard of broken dreams known as Atlantic City -- hence the Monopoly metaphor of the title -- the two are joined by a disturbed ex-beauty queen (Ellen Burstyn) and her stepdaughter (Julia Anne Robinson, who apparently never did anything after this), both of whom have dreams of their own and are sleeping with Jason in hopes of securing them.

David -- a would-be writer who now works as a late-night deejay, expressing himself through tortured late-night psychodramas -- is a wallflower at this orgy; he loves his brother, knows he's a loser, and tries to have as much faith as possible in a dream doomed to failure.

This is the kind of movie people remember, if they've seen it, but not one they love or, I suspect, feel close to: fascinating as it is, it keeps us at a distance. You don't empathize with these characters so much as you gawk at them as they fall apart -- which they do, with the kind of violent and somber ending that characterize so much of the cinema of Nixon America.

I also saw two Bergmans for the first time in awhile: Persona and Hour of the Wolf, but I'll resist saying more until later. They punctuated my Saturday afternoon equilibrium, particularly Persona, which I'm not sure but I think I came closer to actually getting. I even wrote out a few notes about it, but typing them up here will have to wait until tomorrow.

This post was composed while listening to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and Moondance, back to back, as it should be.

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