Monday, September 23, 2013

"We supply Britain's economic wealth and get unemployment in return" Scotland: a Graphic History by Jeff Fallow

My youngest brother Matthew is much more fascinated with our family's Scottish roots than any other family member. In the three years since he moved to Scotland I've had the opportunity to visit him just once, but my own understanding of Scotland has been strengthened from Matthew's many Scot-themed gifts over the years - particularly books. Given my interests (and resume) Matthew reasoned this year's birthday present should be a copy of Jeff Fallow's Scotland: a Graphic History.

Reaching just 154 pages, it's important to note this book does not attempt to analyze Scottish culture - this is primarily a political history concerned with Scotland's tormented relationship with England over the centuries. "Scotland's identity has never been in question" states Fallow in the introduction, and thus the only references made to Robert Burns are those which touch upon how Burns' poetry was inspired by the struggle for independence. After opening with a quick summation of some famous Scottish inventions and inventors, the real narrative begins as Scottish history is rapidly broken down. The story is concerned with what the Scottish have been fighting for, not who the Scottish are.

It should be noted this book is not quite a graphic novel. It tells Scottish history through words and pictures, but not via sequential art - it's really a very sophisticated picture book. Although "sophisticated" would be a misnomer, since the black & white art is very basic, similar to the style Michael Kupperman uses in his deliberately-primitive Tales Designed to Thrizzle stories.

Being a political tome, the book seldom gets off its soapbox - never fear missing the Scottish perspective on English rule because it's underlined throughout. At times it's as polemical as anything Steve Ditko has penned (but not as fun to look at).

Although the early centuries move past quickly, recent Scottish history is described in much greater detail; for instance, Henry VIII's conquest of Scotland (described as "ensuring English military superiority once and for all") receives one page, while the thoroughly-loathed Margaret Thatcher receives four pages (John Major also takes a lot of hits); the last third of the book is little more than a collection of newspaper political cartoons. Unfortunately, the last third of the book was also apparently the least-proofread, given how one page appears twice (the second time in a rougher draft of the finished product) and another page appears in not-ready-for-print draft condition out-of-sequence a few pages later.

As a quick primer on Scottish history, it gets the job done, yes? It isn't as well-done as Canada at War or Action Philosophers, but as it's evidently the only book of it's kind, I don't see an alternative.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: the Parade's Gone By

Kevin Brownlow's 1968 book the Parade's Gone By looks back on the days of silent cinema, yet today is as much a historical artifact as its own subject matter.

I learned of Brownlow through his 1980s TV mini-series Hollywood; if you haven't seen it, please make the effort. This series was a fantastic history of how Hollywood became the film capital of the world, the pioneering techniques developed during the early days of cinema and the business was transformed by the introduction of "talkies." Heading into the 580-page the Parade's Gone By I expected something similar, but what I found was a strange match.

The Parade's Gone By features extensive quotes from silent-era actors, directors, producers, cameramen, stuntmen and what-have-yous, each interviewed by Brownlow prior to 1968; often, Brownlow turns the narrative over to his interviewee and they proceed to describe how they got into the film industry or relate some colourful anecdotes about what the business had been like.

However, unlike Hollywood, the Parade's Gone By fails to deliver a comprehensive look at the silent business; those people whom Brownlow contacted are given space, as is D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. (albeit, neither extensively so). And yet, so many names are missing from this book. Brownlow dotes upon Josef von Sternberg, Gloria Swanson and Reginald Denny, but where are King Vidor, Laurel & Hardy or Lon Chaney? So many books could be written about the days of silent film and Brownlow clearly had access to impressive research, but it isn't clear why he chose for inclusion the personalities he did and omitted the rest.

Easily the worst thing about the book - and what dates it the most - is Brownlow's frequent editorializing about the state of cinema in 1968. Throughout the text he makes jabs at then-contemporary films such as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Worldand includes weasel words such as dubbing Intolerance "still the biggest picture ever made." Personally, I don't like the former picture and I do quite like the latter, but I don't like film criticism mixed with film history, even when I agree with the critic.

It is amusing to read von Sternberg's reactions to Brownlow's "parenthetical observations" as Brownlow seems unable to place a simple question before his subject without citations and disclaimers. "You have the most amazing paranthetical approach with everything you say that I have ever heard in my life," Sternberg says while the 30 minutes he allotted for Brownlow's interview quietly ticks away.

Frequently through the book, Brownlow complains about the state of film preservation and presentation circa 1968, fuming at how cinemas ran silent pictures at the incorrect film rate. These diatribes really belong in a separate manifesto, rather than dating his history lesson. In his epilogue, Brownlow goes so far as to claim filmmakers of his time were "generally less imaginative, less daring, and less skillful than their silent-era counterparts." To this, we must apply Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap and I believe it applies as much to silent cinema as it did 1968 cinema (or 2013 cinema).

For all of these complaints, the Parade's Gone By is a fantastic book, if only for the interviews with people like Joseph Henabery (who worked with Griffith), von Sternberg, Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford. There's also a fantastic history of Ben-Hur and how it became a terrible fiasco and some attention is given to the silent films of Europe.

I can't recommend the Parade's Gone By to a casual fan of books on cinema - I think you should really watch Hollywood first in order to better understand silent films; having seen it and doubtlessly wanting more, that's when you should pull up a copy of the Parade's Gone By.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Review: Tarzan the Ape Man (1981)

"Do you know you're more beautiful than any girl I know? Oh, you're a lot more."

- Jane (to Tarzan)

Following the success of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark (in 1977 & 1981, respectively) Hollywood seemed to believe audiences were experiencing nostalgia for good ol' fashioned adventure films; somehow, this led to the decision to launch wave after wave of nostalgia-fueled properties which, 1979's Superman aside, were not successful: Buck Rogers. Flash Gordon. The Lone Ranger.

It's amidst this backdrop that 1981's Tarzan the Ape Man came to be; I can only assume producer-star Bo Derek and her director-husband John Derek selected Tarzan as the actress' next vehicle because they felt there was money to be made from exploiting the supposed nostalgia wave. I had heard the resulting movie was pretty bad; yesterday I watched it and... it is bad. Really quite very bad.

Tarzan the Ape Man tells the tale of Jane Parker, a young woman who journeys to Africa to find her long-absent father. Learning her father is about to undertake an expedition into a region of Africa never before seen by white men, Jane determines to accompany the group to prove she's as beautiful, intelligent and courageous as every character in the film claims her to be. The party falls prey to certain pitfalls during the trip, none greater than a tribe of body-painted people who kidnap women. Am I forgetting anything? Oh yes, Tarzan is also in this picture.

This film makes so many baffling decisions I hardly know where to begin; how about the action scenes? Yes, both of them. In the first, a snake attacks Jane and Tarzan leaps to her rescue, wrestling the snake off her body. This thrilling sequence is shot as a series of slow-motion close-ups and fadeaways, making it impossible to see what's going on; the snake isn't really defeated, the sequence simply ends so another scene can begin.

Second, we have the battle with the painted people at the climax. When they first attack the expedition, we see them chasing Jane and then... look I can't make this up... there's a spin cut and the fight is over, the expedition has lost. No action scene required, just the same scene transition you'd expect from a prime time sitcom. Tarzan does rescue the expedition by battling the painted chief. Although the fight goes on for about 3 minutes, that's only because the entire scene is shot in slow motion, just in case the viewer mistakenly found themselves getting excited. Shots of Tarzan swinging on vines are similarly done in slow-motion. Supposedly this film had former Tarzan star Jock Mahoney as its stunt coordinator; it's hard to imagine what he did all day on set when he was supposed to be preparing stunts... it sure didn't make it to the final cut.

Let's talk about clash of tone. Near the end, Jane is tied up, washed and painted by the painted people. While Jane sobs and descends into hysterics, her father rants inanely. On paper, this could be a disturbing scene. Unfortunately, the film's director was married to Jane and he shot this sequence for maximum titillation. Emphasis on "tit."

In another sequence, there are shots of the expedition climbing across a steep mountain using ropes. Frequent cutaways to the ropes show them growing frayed by the constant tension. Suddenly, one of the ropes breaks and a porter falls to his death. Cut to a dramatically lit Mr. Parker who raises his fists to the sun and bellows, "Why did you do that?! WHY?!" On the page, it sounds like tragedy; instead, it's one of the funniest moments in the film.

Oh yes... laughs. You really have to laugh when you can while watching Tarzan the Ape Man because unlike any other Tarzan film I've seen, this one takes itself completely serious. So much of this film could have been redeemed with moments of light comedy, but the intent was apparently to make a "serious" Tarzan picture. It's clearly not for boys (ie, the R-rating)... I can only assume they hoped women would be receptive to the supposed sweeping romance of Jane's love for Tarzan.

And yet, I'm not sure if the Jane-Tarzan relationship really is the point of the film; Tarzan doesn't enter the picture until it's already half over and even when he and Jane do begin their hour-long staring contest, it holds less passion than any given scene from the Blue Lagoon (which was filmed with teenagers, I remind you). Having no dialogue, Tarzan's motivations are a mystery; he alternates between fear and fascination with Jane until they finally hook up immediately before the closing credits.

At one point, Tarzan is unconscious and Jane begins pawing after his body, remarking "I've never touched a man before!" while grinning like a schoolgirl. Lest you accuse the film of double standards, when Tarzan revives he spends about a minute feeling Jane's breasts. The difference, I suppose, is that Jane is intelligent enough to realize fondling Tarzan is wrong, yet does so anyway (and with glee); Tarzan is curious and uneducated. At various points I felt as though I was watching an adult molesting an innocent child, which is surely not the stuff sweeping love stories are made of.

Bo Derek starred as Jane Parker. I'm not too familiar with Derek's career, but this film certainly doesn't make a case for her being unjustly forgotten. Her performance was flat, wooden and miserable; the terrible script did nothing to help her and because she was in about 99% of the scenes, she was effectively the worst thing about any particular moment. Her only strength was her ability to drop her drawers and appear in the nude whenever the story demanded it (which was often). This was the reason for the film's R rating, but I can't say it was worth it; I mean, surely everyone who wanted to see her in the buff was already buying Playboy?

Richard Harris played James Parker, Jane's father. Harris threw so much loud, booming emotion into every single line delivery that he almost managed to overpower the terrible dialogue. Unfortunately, having begun his performance dialed up to eleven, he had nowhere to go with it. He provided the best laughs and it seemed like he was the only man on the production who knew he was making a turkey and felt he might as well kick back and enjoy himself. Like Brian Blessed in Flash Gordon, Harris brought his best "large ham" delivery... pity that unlike the former, Harris was the only actor worth his salt.

John Phillip Law held the enviable role of "Man there so Richard Harris has someone to talk to," otherwise known as Harry Holt. Although he was present for roughly 70% of the film he managed to have zero screen presence. I suppose it's an achievement.

Finally, the fourth-billed Miles O'Keeffe portrayed Tarzan. Having heard he was supposedly a terrible Tarzan, I'm here to say: he had the best performance in the picture. Obviously, this isn't saying much. He had no dialogue (even the "Tarzan yell" was recycled from Johnny Weissmuller's films) so had to carry himself with body language, like a silent film actor. Consequently, O'Keeffe was spared having to mouth any lines from the script and maintained his dignity, which ain't too shabby when you're playing a glorified boy toy in a loincloth being groped by Bo Derek. There were moments when O'Keeffe's eyes would project sensations of fear and confusion and at such times, I could completely relate to his character.

To leave this on an upbeat note... the filming locations in Sri Lanka and Seychelles were absolutely beautiful. Also, the Frank Frazetta artwork on the production company's title card was very good.