Monday, September 18, 2017

see you next tuesday

I don't really want to rehash the inherent sexism in a family film made in the 70s--that's just par for the course, another sign of the times that were. At some point, you must take a film on its own terms, let it have its timely biases and its timely treatments of men, of women, of people of color, of varying ethnicities. What then can you take from The Apple Dumpling Gang?

It's an entertaining film. It's funny. It's got heart. It's plot is simple and easy to understand, and Donavan and Dusty ending up a couple is a good ending to the story as offered. That Amos and Theodore ride off with the happy couple and their kids is icing on the cake.

But, what really stands out watching The Apple Dumpling Gang after so many years--and I have seen it in the intervening years, probably most recently in the last 10 to 15 years--is just how well put together it's plot is. (Except for one detail.) The Hash Knife Gang--Amos and Theodore--and their antics are barely connected to the plot for much of the film. Sure, the film opens with them attempting to ambush Donavan as he arrives in Quake City. Sure, they try to rob him again later when he's won $500. Sure, they are there to direct the kids to the Commodore Mine, which leads to the kids finding the giant nugget that drives the rest of the story. And, sure, Donavan (and then the kids, too) is there to almost catch them stealing the ladder to get into the bank. And, sure, they're trying to get into the bank to steal the very nugget the kids have found. But, every one of these things is more coincidence than actual plotting.

To be fair, westerns rely on coincidence a lot. Gunslingers all know one another. Outlaws all know one another. That Wintle and Donavan already know each other is a coincidence at the start of this one. (For an example from another film, that Chisholm in the remake of The Magnificent Seven happens into a job that slides him into a position for revenge is coincidence.)

Dusty cares about other people and has to look after her alcoholic gambler father (plus she seems to do all the actual work for the Butterfly Stagecoach Line). So, she has an interest in the three kids she just delivered into town. This puts her in contact with Donavan because he's a gambler and had a chance at money right when he needed some to pick up what he thought was just a package. Meanwhile, Amos and Theodore are trying to be outlaws, bandits, thieves. But, they are no good at it. (It is mentioned briefly (just over half an hour into the film.) by Dusty that they used to be part of the Stillwell Gang. Amos accidentally shot Stillwell. This will be important later. This is also part of the one detail that isn't all that well put together.) This and the kids' antics makes for all the humor. Well, the Sheriff has some great lines, too.

(Including today's title, which probably went over the heads of anyone who saw this movie back then; since it was surely good wholesome families seeing the film, of course, and good wholesome families don't go for that sort of thing... Imagine me rolling my eyes now, except I surely didn't notice it before. Not until two nights ago. I probably just thought that guy in the barbershop got his shave every Tuesday.

The Sheriff also, as I've already mentioned, mentions seeing Dusty "caught in a cloudburst" (i.e. with her shirt wet from the rain).)

Wintle comes back after Donavan has convinced Dusty to marry him, for the sake of the kids having a mother and Donavan having access to their money and having the kids off his hands. McCoy is literally about to bang his gavel and make it official that the newlyweds will legally be the kids' parents, and Wintle walks into the courtroom. Coincidence. Off screen, the kids learn the Wintle just wants their gold, so they go to Amos and Theodore to get them to steal the gold nugget, leaving nothing to interest Wintle, and the kids will get to stay with Donavan and Dusty.

Then, the not-so-well-put-together bit comes into play. Sure, Dusty has mentioned the Stillwell Gang and Amos' having shot Stillwell, but for the Stillwell Gang to really matter in this plot, they should have been introduced earlier, or Amos and Theodore should have talked about them. That these two think they can be a gang, taking the whole situation in mind, probably comes from actual success they might have had with the Stillwell Gang. That is, the Stillwell gang may have managed some success despite having bumbling fools like Amos and Theodore as members. (Because this is a comedy, the Stillwell Gang isn't all that great at what they do, either, of course.) But, something else has to get in the way of Amos and Theodore really succeeding. I mean, why suddenly would they be any good at this? So, the Stillwell Gang is introduced (not counting Dusty's brief mention 34 minutes in) an hour and four minutes into the film. This is too late really to be introducing characters that will affect the plot in such a big way. In fact, that Amos and Theodore take old, sweating dynamite into the bank in the first place could easily have resulted in the same explosion and the same failure to secure the nugget, and we wouldn't need Stillwell. But, any movie with scoundrels in it--Amos and Theodore, but also Donavan--needs bigger scoundrels. Blackbeard's Ghost needed Silky Seymour to be actively trying to kick old women out onto the street, and for his men to pulls guns on people because that is visual scoundrelry, something concretely villainous while even reminders of Blackbeard's horribleness is mostly in the abstract; in the present, he's a nuisance and a drunk, but he never really does much that is that bad (cheating at the track meet and the roulette table don't count because that is in service of the greater good). Here, we need Stillwell, who is marked with a limp and a leg brace 1) as Amos' accidental victim (hence it makes their conflict in the bank personal) and 2) as an evil cripple. Physical disability as obvious sign of his less obvious moral disability.

Had Amos and Theodore talked about Stillwell early on, or had we seen Stillwell earlier, the plotting here would be perfect. (I imagine this story as drama, the Stillwell Gang introduced at the beginning of the film, and we keep going back to them, witnessing their awfulness, and the tension builds because we know that, at some point in act three, they will find Amos and Theodore again.) The barely tangentially linked antics of Amos and Theodore work as the fool(s) that distract from an otherwise quite simple story that wouldn't require such screentime. But then, they get pulled into the central story more overtly when the kids invite them to steal their nugget (something Amos and Theodore have already failed to do once). Their inevitable failure--Stillwell Gang involved or not--means Donavan and Dusty must stay together because they want to, not because the kids have money and Dusty is willing to be the abandoned wife. It's practically Shakespearean, really. The fools are exactly the twist in the plot that drives it all to the happy ending. It a classic story, that ending would include their wedding, but the cleverness here is that they have already married, legally. In the end, though, with father-in-law and three kids and two outlaws in tow, that is when Donavan and Dusty are really married. Classic romantic comedy trick, question tradition along the way only to uphold it in the end. (And it's not a surprising response, as it were, to the decade before its release.) The film upholds the family structure, "normal" gender roles, and gives Amos and Theodore a way out of town (not that the Sheriff would really have hung them).

Sunday, September 17, 2017

spread your blanket next to mine

That a lonely degenerate like Donavan can learn to care about three orphans or the woman he's convinced to marry him for the sake of said orphans, is a nice thought. That two incompetent fools like Amos and Theodore can not only find one another to spend time with but also manage to (somehow)... thrive seems like the wrong word, but they seem to be doing okay. And, that's a nice thought, too. Then there's the--dare I say it--gender-nonconforming stagecoach driver who... Actually this one is problematic. Over the course of the plot, she is manipulated (nicely) into a sham marriage and being a mother to three orphans because that degenerate Donavan would rather run off to gamble in New Orleans. She has to--according to the film, anyway--eventually wear a dress, and earn Donavan's appreciation, if not his love.

I already suggested yesterday that one detail isn't necessarily sexist--that Donavan is a bad parent figure because he's a selfish asshole and Dusty is a good parent figure because she's a caring person. But, that is sexist because those roles are written that way and played that way because of sexist stereotypes about men and women. I mean, look at Donavan and Dusty. They are both inherently independent...

Except--and I feel like I might use this word a lot tonight--Dusty is 1) introduced carrying children to their father, an easy and easily sexist metaphor for the role women play as mothers while the man is in the waiting room playing poker and smoking a cigar and not having to put any fucking effort into the birth. 2) She immediately defers to her father (the president of the Butterfly Stagecoach line, who just happens to be in this very same town) when Donovan wants to talk to someone in authority. 3) She drives for a stagecoach company called Butterfly, when her family name--again, her father founded the company--is Clydesdale. Rather than take the obvious tack of naming the company after himself, and Clydesdale being the name of a horse, which seems pretty damn appropriate for a stagecoach company, it's Butterfly, because, again, you've got feminize it. (Just like the film has to eventually feminize Dusty. Or her proper first name, which Donavan finds amusing for some reason: Magnolia.) 4) She stops by Wintle's shack (where Donavan and the kids are staying) to share some stew, ends up cleaning up the place a bit, and the kids "settl[e] right down for" her, because she has "a natural way with children." 5) She fawns over a solid brass bed (which she later thinks Donavan bought just to get her into bed (when she said he was "barking up the wrong tree" when she thought he was trying to get more from her than just being the kids' mother) in a store window the way another woman in another film might fawn over a wedding dress; it plays as innately feminine. 6) When it comes time to get married, the Sheriff offers the "trimmings--love, honor, and cherish and all that" Dusty says, "Kind of like to hear it anyway." Like she's been dreaming of getting married since she was a girl.

The movie introduces her as Dusty, the not-so-feminine stagecoach driver, then insists repeatedly that she really just needs a) a man (and some kids) in her life and b) she yearns to be feminine. It's 50s gender roles as 70s backlash to 60s feminism.

Which might not be that bad if Dusty was the only woman in the film. You know, we don't have to take a singular story about specific people to represent everyone of their type(s). But, look at the other women in this story. Celia has to pee a lot, and gets scared by the sight of a rat. That's the little girl. The adult women have no time for the kids until the kids strike gold. While Dusty clearly wants for love and motherhood (according to the film), the other women are all gold diggers (almost literally) who would (in a moment fit for the Bible) tear the little girl to pieces to get at her wealth.

(Sidenote: best exchange in the movie (with the "Celia, stop shaking it" bit a close second) is Amos saying (of stealing the gold nugget) "It's a piece of cake" and Theodore responds: "You mean it ain't gold?")

To be fair, none of the men in town (aside from the Sheriff and maybe the banker) are much good either. Amos and Theodore can't even be proper men without fucking it up.

Dusty is a good person. She doesn't even want the kids' money. But, the film can't let the sham marriage just be a sham marriage. Instead, 7) she must wear a dress and ride off with Donavan and the kids (and her father) to start a new life together.

"It shouldn't be so bad," Donavan tells her as they ride. "I'll be going into town one or two nights a week to play poker."

Because, she's now playing the role of proper woman and proper wife, she responds: "Wanna bet?"

who are you talking to?

Still 1975. (Still not born yet.) Disney again. Except I was actually thinking about how different these childhood films are from the ones I watch now. Yesterday, for example, I watched mother! in the theater and I watched Adventures of the Wilderness Family at home. Today in the theater I watched Beach Rats and I'm watching The Apple Dumpling Gang now at home. Very different movies today. Very different movies today. I mean, you've got a big metaphor for human interaction with the universe, for religion, for male-female relations, for the cult of personality, sacrifice and self-sacrifice, and you've got a family running off to live in the wilderness and finding that some animals are nice and some are vicious... Which, really, taken simplistically, the themes could be much the same. But, Adventures of the Wilderness Family is just so innocent about everything. While mother! includes sex and violence and apocalyptic destruction as well as cannibalism. Meanwhile, Beach Rats is an indie film about a young Brooklyn stoner and his friends. Oh, and he's a closeted homosexual who goes out at night to have sex with men he meets online. But, The Apple Dumpling Gang, which may be about criminals and a gambler, is, like Wilderness Family just so innocent about everything. Even its racism and sexism.

I've come a long way. But, I figure it's all about the subtext. This film favors the criminals. It's funny, but it's also reminding the audience (i.e. me as a kid) that criminals are just regular people who took a different path; they aren't inherently bad people. Donavan (Bill Bixby) is a gambler and a scoundrel, but this film is all about him being humanized.  

And, I thought I might get into a rant about mother!--that film almost tempted me back to YouTube yesterday--but then Conway and Knotts were on screen again, and the kids got into that minecar and Celia said "I'm gonna have an accident" and I forgot what I was going to say. (I may have to actually to a YouTube thing in a couple days.)






Ebert, by the way, calls this movie an "assembly line plo[t] about the adventures of squeaky-clean kids" but in the right moment--

(after a long day and little sleep, because you stayed up watching American Vandal on Netflix until 3am, got up to see a movie in the morning, binged some Fear the Walking Dead while prepping tomorrow's D&D game, then your daughter directed one of the plays in this semester's 24-Hour Theater Festival at the high school up the street, and you didn't even get to The Apple Dumpling Gang until it's well after 10pm, you're already tired, you're hungry, and the expected rants about other films wandered out of your head hours ago)

--this kind of wholesome entertainment...

I must interrupt this thought because Donavan just said "three deuces beats aces over eights" and I don't understand. I thought they were playing poker. The win makes no sense. I mean, in a metaphorical, this-is-a-western kind of way, aces over eights is the worst hand you can have, but in actual, practical poker, it's beating three 2s every time. [Somehow, I have always assumed is was aces over eights, meaning three aces and two eights--a full House. But, apparently the famous dead man's hand is supposed to be just two aces and two eights and a hole card.]

But anyway, this kind of wholesome entertainment is just what you need sometimes. Sure, it's casually misogynist, but it's 1975. Everybody was casually misogynist, I'm pretty sure, even feminists.

I must interrupt my attempt at humor to make a quick point about this film's misogyny. It's actually a pretty easy argument to make that Dusty (Susan Clark) is good with the kids and Donavan not good with them not because she's a woman and he's a man but because she's a nice person who cares about others and he's a selfish bastard who only ended up with these kids because he was desperate for cash in the middle of a poker game. Then again, Donavan's the asshole he is because he's a man, I suppose. (The film makes a regular thing of countering his selfishness with challenges from and comparisons to Sheriff Homer McCoy (Harry Morgan).) ... Then there's this from that same paranthetical sheriff: "Dusty's a fine specimen of womanhood! I seen her get caught in a. Cloudburst once and I wanna tell you!" And, I think I understand. He saw her in the rain and... Either he could see through her clothes and saw that she's not the more "masculine" coach driver that she presents as, or just the romanticism and shine of water falling upon her brought out all her beauty. The Sheriff suggests Donavan marry Dusty for the sake of the kids and the entire film's plot is sexist, but oh so nice about it. "No two people ever got married for a more honorable or worthy cause," he tells Donavan.

(Sidenote: it's interesting that the titular gang really isn't Amos and Theodore (Conway and Knotts, respectively) but the kids; it's the kids who keep asking for apple dumplings. Amos and Theodore actually call themselves the Hash Knife Gang. I can't remember if they've taken on the titular name in the sequel, but that sequel wasn't as successful anyway. And, I didn't watch it so many times as a kid.)











I'll say more tomorrow. Just enjoying the film tonight.

Friday, September 15, 2017

what makes it happen

A note before I begin: tonight's dinner is burritos and there are some chips and dip. This is the kind of meal we used to serve when we'd have people over to watch movies. Of course, there's no actual meat in the burritos anymore, as I'm a vegetarian now. But, it's an echo of the stuff we'd make when folks were coming over to watch a movie like this one... Most of the people coming over to watch movies happened in the latter half of the 80s and into the 90s, I'm pretty sure. But, this "month" is bundling all of it together.

(Secondary note: apparently, I’ve been misnumbering the blog days for the last couple weeks and only just noticed. Today is Day 1141 even though I called yesterday 1040 on Twitter and Facebook.)

Now, on to Adventures of the Wilderness Family one last time.

One scene that undermines some of what comes later in Adventures of the Wilderness Family comes just after the family meets Boomer (the mountain man who wanders into the film, names some animals to make later scenes easier to follow, then wanders right back out of the film). Pat asks, "What would you do if you were out in the wilderness and you had a headache and no medicine?" Jenny answers, "You should boil the bark from an aspen tree... Because that's how they make aspirins, right?" Skip asks about a mark on a tree, Toby guesses a woodpecker, Skip tells him it was a bear marking its territory." Coupled with the earlier scene of the kids doing some book learning in the cabin, this scene suggests that this family is prepared, or preparing, for life in the wilderness. The panic at Jenny's fever later is like someone in a script meeting (though I don't think this film necessarily had such a thing) forgot all about the earlier scene and decided the climax with Three Toes would be more exciting if Skip were out of the picture. On the one hand, the Robinsons are prepared and can handle this--to be fair, they would stick it out for several years (and a recasting of Jenny for the two sequels)--but on the other hand, there won't be much drama when the bear attacks if Skip is there...

Except, Skip isn't all that useful before. The whole family works together to build the bigger cabin. Pat has better... I was going to say luck, but really it's skill. The mother has better skill with a a gun than Skip does. The family dog, Crust fights off the cougar, not Skip. Crust fights off the nice bear, not Skip. It's like the movie wants to build itself on top of second wave feminism but also knows that the audience will inherently see a more dangerous situation if it's just the mother and children (and the dog) in the cabin when Three Toes attacks, the father off failing at canoeing but still managing to get to the doctor (or at least to a working radio; the doctor actually arrives separately). Pat, perhaps because she is skeptical about all this, is the better wilderness parent. She gets the kids to do school work, because they might not always live out there and shouldn't grow up ignorant. She is half of that outdoorsy learning scene described above. She is good with a gun, and even attacks Three Toes with a big stick when he corners Jenny by the river.

If this movie were made today, I could imagine Skip not being a part of it at all... But, that is problematic in itself; that it's hard even for a bleeding heart liberal like me to imagine a film about a strong wife and her supportive husband heading off into the wilderness. It's the patriarchy, and Americanism, and Christianity ingrained in me since childhood. A single mother is easy to work with. But, a mother and wife with a submissive husband? The closest you get to that in popular culture is something like Roseanne, except Dan Conner was not submissive. He just wasn't the center of the show like Roseanne was. Instead, I think of a current FX show, You're the Worst, Lindsay (Kether Donohue) as the put upon wife with her weak-willed husband Paul (Allan McLeod), except as the series goes on, she's the bad guy in that relationship, and as of the new season, Paul is out of the picture. But, that's what I picture with American pop culture when it comes to a strong wife and a weak husband. Actually, that terminology is the problem. That one must be strong, one weak. But, I grew up Christian. Back when I was watching often these movies I'm writing about this month, I was also going to church every Saturday and attending private school Monday to Friday, with daily Bible lessons. I was constantly being told at church, at school, at home, and in popular culture, that the man is the leader of the household, the woman is his supporter, his "helpmeet" as God puts it in Genesis. By 1975, it was okay for the mother to be better with a gun, for the mother to be the one who saves her kids' lives, to be the one who ultimately decides if the family remains in the wilderness. But, Skip is still in charge, even as he says he'll stay only if she wants to. That final moment by the lake actually embodies the problem. It's playing lip service to her agency but one can imagine another argument coming if she actually suggested they head back to Los Angeles. It's easy to imagine that this only plays as it is because it is scripted. Of course, she's going to opt for staying; otherwise, what is the point of the film at all? Had one of the children died, running back to Los Angeles would be the option; this would be a cautionary tale about stepping outside of civilization. This isn't that kind of movie. This is a celebration of the wilderness, a celebration of the wilderness family--just listen to that cheesy title song. Pat can not opt to leave the wilderness. But, the film can pretend she can.






Again, this film is all about family, like Snowball Express. And, whether it's about the wilderness or not, this film certainly suggests that we'd all be just fine if we rejected the big city and pollution and jobs. It won't make every problem go away. But, it would help.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

that loves and keeps us free

You gotta wonder, actually, how detailed the script for Adventures of the Wilderness Family even was. Aside from a few scenes, there isn't much dialogue, the story turns arbitrarily--hey, look, a cougar; hey, look, a bear; hey, look, another bear; hey, look, a random mountain man; hey, look, arbitrary use of slow motion; hey, look, Jenny's sick despite our rather basic attempt to save her from urban pollution--and there isn't really much of a plot, not a formally structured one anyway.

This is 1975, but as I've said before cinematic decades bleed into one another. This is more a tail-end 60s film, a family-friendly extension of the counterculture. Skip Robinson is like a shoulda-been hippie who turned establishment, maybe because he got Pat pregnant and he needed work, because that's how the man says it's supposed to be. Skip tells the pilot of the plane that drops them off, "We thought a lot more than twice" about bringing the family out there. The film hasn't demonstrated that. It's offered an abrupt burst of I-need-to-escape-the-city after a brief glimpse of some pollution over Los Angeles. And, for a resident of Los Angeles, that urge to run away would be relatable, sure. For Robert Logan, who plays Skip, it fits right in with his actual life.

His first big role seems to be on 77 Sunset Strip; he appeared in 53 episodes. But, what I'm interested in is his role as Jericho Jones on Daniel Boone. Introduced in the first season finale--"The Courtship of Jericho Jones", Logan's character wanted to marry the daughter of a Native American chief--he would appear in 11 episodes in season two. According to Frank Martin writing for People, March 12, 1979, Logan left that show over a script dispute and

embarked on a series of Jack London-like adventures. He crewed on a record-setting sail from L.A. To Tahiti. After a stint as a yacht broker (and a divorce from his wife of three years, modern Susan Henning) he set off for Europe and happened into a part in David Wolper's The Bridge at Remagen, then shooting in Czechoslovakia. He was nearly fired for ruining a battle scene by smuggling a girlfriend into the middle of the combat. When the movie crew was evacuated because of the 1968 Soviet Invasion, Logan stayed behind to film a documentary, The Prague Spring, for which he was detained and then expelled.

Over the next few years Logan produced an unsuccessful documentary on American drug smugglers jailed in Spain and lived for a while on a houseboat on the Seine with actor Sterling Hayden. Logan returned to the U.S. In 1973 to start a screenwriting career. After meeting the writer of the original Wilderness Family... He became an actor by chance.

From 1975 to 1981, he would star in 7 films (3 about the Robinsons) set in the wilderness. He did his own stunts for the Wilderness Family series, and received a scar from one of the cougars. The outdoors seems to be his thing. "Sometimes I've been in the Arctic or Europe," he tells Martin,

and I've said, "By God, I wish I could share this moment with somebody special," he says. "Usually, though, there is nobody special. The fulfillment of life is the voyage," he philosophizes. "It's not being there that's important, but getting there.

If anything, this encapsulates what is supposed to be the point to this first Wilderness Family. That's why there's no obvious plot from start to finish, but a series of vignettes about this family that moved out into the wilderness. (The sequels would continue with the vignettes and echo some of those that had come before; The Further Adventures of the Wilderness Family replaces Jenny's arbitrary fever with Pat's pneumonia and the bear Three Toes with a wolf called Scarface; Mountain Family Robinson offers up something a little different with a mining claim on the Robinson's land and Pat's mother back in Los Angeles being sick, so it's Pat's turn to run back to civilization because of someone else's illness.) This is more a scrapbook structure, snapshots of an idyllic life but with the occasional reminder that even away from civilization, life is not always perfect. Structurally, Skip's rush back to civilization to get a doctor for Jenny feels both unnecessary and antithetical to the point of the story. Sure, your kid might still get sick out in the wilderness, but the Robinsons have managed so far, and it's the attack by Three Toes that really matters as the force that might drive them out of the wilderness. Jenny could just have easily been in shock from nearly getting mauled, sans the fever, and Skip could have been around for the final climax... Except, Pat gets to fend off Three Toes instead, something like a shadow of second wave feminism (similar to her having shot, offscreen, two birds for dinner earlier)... Except, even in that, if not for the intervention of the other bear, Samson, the way the film presents it, Pat never would have the opportunity for the kill shot. Meanwhile, Jenny is the one who gets lost and cornered by wolves. Jenny is the one who gets corned by Three Toes initially. Jenny is the one who creates the situation that calls into question Skip's big manly trip into the wilderness. If there were more depth to any of this action, more commentary in the dialogue or even the presentation, the film might be problematic in offering up a masculine fantasy, living off the land, fighting off wild animals, and undermining it through the use of the daughter and the wife. Toby is only ever in danger when he's with Jenny or with Pat.

For its time, of course, the film is harmless. A simple story about a family, who as realize about the wilderness, in the words of Jenny, "There are some bad things, but there's a lot more good things... Like having the best backyard in the whole world, and being together." This isn't a cautionary tale like, say, Into the Wild, nor is it really an aspirational story like, say, Into the Wild. It's just wholesome family fun, with dangerous animals.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

you gotta have respect for things

Adventures of the Wilderness Family is an interesting case, potentially. Watched it a lot as a kid. And, I mean a lot. My sister Bobbie recently informed me that this was the only movie our parents would let us watch on Saturday mornings; that was the sabbath for us.

(And, that I grew up attending church regularly and going to a church-owned private school will become important below.)

I remember hating it, or at least really disliking it. I guess, if I hated it, I probably would not have sat there and watched it every time.

(I also remember associating the opening shot of this film--showing the Bonaventure Hotel being in downtown Los Angeles under construction--with the sitcom It's a Living, which was set in a restaurant at its top, but that's just an arbitrary link, however permanently fixed it is in my head.)

Officially, I thought it was boring. But, I can't have been completely against it to have watched it so often, and to have sat through its sequels more than a few times. The thing is, I imagine, assuming the acting is good and the script itself holds up, that I might actually like this movie today. It has been years since I've watched it, but my recent enjoyment of, for example, Captain Fantastic and The Glass Castle would suggest that I harbor an appreciation for folks stepping away from regular society to live a little more off-the-grid.

(Another movie I used to dread watching as a kid--Jeremiah Johnson, a film I wish I'd been able to fit into my month of Westerns (June 2015)--I have come to rather like as I've gotten older.)

Anyway, now the movie begins...

The opening is closer to Joe Versus the Volcano than Snowball Express, but straight drama. Skip (Robert Logan) working in construction, Los Angeles covered in smog. Meanwhile, his daughter Jenny (Hollye Holmes) is sick, some vague affliction with her lungs. And Skip wants to get away, try a better life.

Four minutes and we're in the mountains. The Robinsons are flown into the middle of nowhere, 25 miles from the nearest people--a ranger station.

Immediately, I am struck by just how willing the kids are. (That the wife goes along with the husband's craziness is par for the course; it's the 70s and this is a family film.) Then the action plays for silliness right away--a raccoon in the stove (not unlike Blackbeard's Ghost) and a bear that eats the family's food as they watch from the roof of their tiny cabin, in the rain. With a different soundtrack, this moment would be pure comedy.

And then the cheesy song kicks in over the chopping wood montage and... Wow.

(Plus, an apparent hole in the Internet: I cannot find the lyrics to that thing.)

Toby (Ham Larsen) is adorable, trying to chop down a tree, pulling the raccoon into his sleeping bag, calling the dog a chicken for not fetching the bird his father just shot. He didn't do much acting outside this series, one other movie and a few tv episodes (including one of Little House on the Prairie).

Random rockslide kills the mother bear and now the family has two bear cubs. Because, that is what happens when you live in the wilderness. Duh.

Cougar Cubs follow the kids home because a) the kids are allowed to wander far from the cabin on their own and b) the family needed even more animals, I guess. Throw in some slow motion running with the kids and the cougars and, I'm not entirely sure at this point what the movie wants. And the father tells the kids "You don't take baby animals out of the forest like that." He literally just took some. Different situation--mother bear was dead--but still...

Returning the cubs, Skip gets attacked by their mother, the dog fights the cougar and, it's like the film can't decide if nature is supposed to be dangerous or not. The cheesy song from before suggests it's all happy freedom time but this... This feels like what we might call today a teachable moment. But, Skip literally tells the kids to go play with the bears as Pat (Susan Damante) dresses his wounds. But, yeah, they "learned a valuable lesson."

And, I'm not sure Skip's and Pat's marital problems (barely touched on as he came up with the big idea to flee the city) went away just because they picked up stakes and moved into a cabin. (Also, I'm not sure if we're supposed to side with Skip or Pat on this one.)






Ultimately, I'm not sure what the movie is trying to be exactly. Is this supposed to make families want to skip town and head for the hills? Or is this a reminder about the dangers of the wild? Frank R. Martin, writing for People in 1979, suggests that this film's success--made for just $405,000, it earned over $62 million--spawned more than just its sequels; it was the reason for Across the Great Divide (which was on my longer list for this month but got left behind) and for The Sea Gypsies (which I don't think I have ever seen). Robert Logan starred in all of these. And, apparently, he wasn't that much different from his character Skip... And maybe I'll write some about that tomorrow. For now, I'm wondering what the point of Boomer (George Flower) was. He shows up, eats a meal with the Robinsons, tells them names for the local animals, then wanders off again. Like Jenny saying grace before an earlier meal, it's a lingering notion of the order we like to think the world has. God gave everything a place, man named those things, and ultimately, this family will tame their little corner of the wilderness. I guess. Local black bear turns out to be tame because of the guy who used to live there, because reasons.






And there's not much structure to this story, either. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Jenny gets sick, somewhat arbitrarily, after the bad bear attacks. And, the message of the film gets even more muddled. Sure, move out into the wilderness. (But, definitely bring this family's dog because he can fight anything and not even be injured.) Sure, don't put much effort into avoiding local predators. But, as soon as your kid gets a fever, go running back to civilization because you are an ill-prepared fool who forgot to bother having any first-aid knowledge, or figuring out what was actually wrong with your daughter before you fled the smog of the city. It's almost like the film has nothing to say at all. But, that's something, too. Like, you know, fuck it. Kid's sick. Run. Kid's sick again. Run again. Doesn't matter to where or from where. Just matters that you do something. That's the 70s, right? Doesn't matter what you do, as long as you do something.






Oh, and do it with your family. And a dog. And maybe some bear cubs.






And, know first aid. And, know how to handle a fucking canoe.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

this poor half-crazed genius

Our progress so far in this deconstruction:

(All, in theory, of course. Plus, it's basically a chicken or the egg problem; like, did I like movies about rebels and outcasts because I already had the interest, or was it my interest that drew me to such movies? Could I already imagine that monsters were human too, and that's something I liked about Young Frankenstein, or was it this movie that formed that notion within me?

Or is it all just coincidence with some of these really early films--i.e. movies made before I was born, and put to VHS in my family's house not by my choice, and not even viewed by me necessarily by my choice; I mean, I took an interest in films before I can remember taking such an interest. If there was a movie to watch, I would watch it. Didn't matter what it was about; I'd give it a shot. And, if my mother didn't already know just how adult the film might be, she might try to cover my eyes (though she usually failed, and always piqued my interest in what I might be missing. For example, when that burly Nazi gets his face torn up by that flying wing's propeller in Raiders of the Lost Ark, my mother tried to cover my eyes. This was in the theater, she didn't know what they were going to show. (And she certainly didn't know the kind of gore I would see in so many movies over the next few decades. The kind of gore I would sometimes seek out deliberately in a film.) And, on the off chance she had actually blocked my view of something--I saw the blood spatter on that flying wing's tail--I think I might have assumed there was more, that I just missed seeing a guy's face get torn up by that propeller, and I swear I remember (or maybe this memory is invented) being disappointed the next time I watched Raiders because I hadn't missed anything. It was a cheap cutaway. Well, maybe not cheap. They wanted that PG rating.

Anyway, before I got to rambling, my point was that it could just be coincidence. My personality may have formed independently of the films I got to watch, the films I would later seek out. But, where's the fun in that?

See, in theory, each film was like a building block in the edifice that was my brain. Like any lesson at school or in church, like any tv show I might watch, like any book I might read. I mean, what is the point of reading a book or watching a movie, or taking a class, if not to affect the formulation and reformulation of your thoughts and feelings? But, then again, you must remember that I don't buy into that escapism bullshit as the reason to go see a movie, even a mindless action movie. Hell, I might be the first one to argue that a supposedly mindless movie isn't mindless at all, that it has, at least in the way it invokes the sociopolitical atmosphere of it's era, something to say about the world and the people in it, even if its content seems less interested in anything beyond primal titillation. Even a bad movie can teach us something about when it was made, about who made it, about things as simple as, say, your friends all turning to vegetarianism. Or simply the monolithic nature of Hollywood and the blocks that keep some people from making it "legitimately" in film, so they turn to making films themselves, damn the budget, damn the quality, just follow your inspiration and get it done yourself.

I exited the viewing of each film differently than I entered. It's one of the theses of this blog--that film changes you and you change film, that the experience of a film is personal; sure, with a particular auteur filmmaker behind it, they might manage to manipulate the audience into thinking and feeling certain things along the way (hell, a bad filmmaker can do that to an extent, or we probably wouldn't call their product a film at all) and most of the audience will have an experience that mostly resembles the same as anyone else's. But, we bring our own mental noise into any viewing, and that affects how we take in the filmmaker's machinations, how we take in the performances. Like, Marty Feldman's innocent smartassedness--that was a performance that grabbed me when I was young. It grabs everyone, of course. Feldman is brilliant here. But, put Feldman next to Wilder's sardonic humor and it's like a lesson in how to be funny without making it look like you're trying. And, I loved it. And, whether it's linked or not, I turned into a sardonic and sarcastic smartass as I got older. Hell, I think I was a smartass well before I knew what it meant to be one. I think I discovered sarcasm before I understood more obvious means of being funny. And of being rude.

We have to take something from a film. Or forget the film entirely, I suppose. And, any film that is truly forgettable... That is worthy of the greatest of lamentations. But then, I suppose even that can tell us something about the filmmakers, about the state of Hollywood, about the world, about ourselves.

But anyway, this is all just theoretical. But, I will proclaim myself an expert in this field, because this field doesn't necessarily even exist, or didn't until now. The deconstruction of my childhood as built by film is something unique. This is my theoretical, my field. So, I am right.)

Blackbeard's Ghost taught me that anyone can be forgiven, that a man can be bad and be good, that it is good to drink and enjoy life, and that pirates are awesome and mobsters and capitalists are bad.

Snowball Express taught me that chasing your dreams is worth it, family matters, if at first you don't succeed (or a donkey engine crashing through your house), try try again, and capitalists are bad (but not too bad, because (see above) anyone can be forgiven).

Young Frankenstein taught me that being eccentric is fine; that you shouldn't worry about the haters; that you can accomplish anything with enough effort, some friends to help you out, and a castle in Transylvania and the riches that implies; and that monsters are human too (and humans are monsters too).

And, I'm not even alive yet. I've got a couple more movies to do before I get to my birth. But, these were movies we had on VHS through the 80s, movies we showed to family friends who came over for dinner and a movie (or two), or that we watched when we were bored, or just needed to pass some time.

(I will skip some movies. Some, like Halloween, I have written about in this blog before. Some just didn't seem as important when I was narrowing down my list. So far, I have skipped but one--another Disney film with Dean Jones and I figured I had enough of those on the list: The Million Dollar Duck. And that one, in retrospect, is such an obvious commentary on stuff like capitalism and and family that I've already covered in talking about Blackbeard's Ghost and Snowball Express.)