State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
I remember very little about winning my Academy Award®. The evening was a blur and I sometimes wonder if it really happened. I vaguely recall hearing my name read aloud, kissing my wife on the cheek, bounding up the steps to the stage and doing a joyous back flip straight into the orchestra pit. I do remember Jack Nicholson turning his head away at the last moment. You know, to spare me the shame of flying into the orchestra pit in front of Jack Nicholson.
Okay, full disclosure: I have never actually won an Oscar®. The Academy’s® decision to stop giving out awards for going to the movies sounded the death knell for this young cinephile’s dream. But I have always loved the movies. The darkened theater, the haunting classical music they used to pipe in before the film started, the monstrous ochre curtain you could just make out in the murk, hugely hanging there as across a gigantic secret door. The house lights would dim and a hush would befall the theater, signaling the start of the communal immersive dream. Going to a movie used to be a vaguely reverent ritual. Now it’s all you can do to get the iMoron down front to stop looking at his glowing lil’ screen when the movie starts—I guess because mobile devices offer such a delicious opportunity to sate man’s searching and noble curiosity.
SBIFF! (excuse me)
The 2018 Santa Barbara Film Festival will be ringing down the curtain as this issue of the Sentinel “goes to press” (as we say in the glamour-plated journalism business). Every year SBIFF is invested with more artistic gravitas and color then the year before, as Roger Durling continues to pull wildly procreating rabbits out of his hat. Under his unflappable stewardship (and the seamless rock star efforts of some 700 volunteers), Durling’s SBIFF has indeed grown more deeply edifying and relevant every passing year.
I attended a SBIFF event at the Lobero whose interview subjects were the unseen Oscar contenders who give a movie its flesh and blood—the panel included a composer (Alexander Desplat!), sound and production designers, I Tonya’s brilliant editor, and a young, buzz-generating makeup innovator who is set to become the Hollywood magicianeer. It helped that the nominated movies in the pipeline this Oscar Season® are almost uniformly excellent, truth be told. From Ms. Harding’s rage-fueled triple axel to a randy, amphibious Fred Astaire, and from a giddily beautiful love affair in sun-drenched Italy to the evacuation-by-yacht of the 350,000-strong, and previously doomed, British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk (true story), the macabre breadth of life’s rich pageant is fairly represented in this year’s Best Picture® nominees.
Where There’s a Heartache
On the other hand, one is reminded of the vast deposits of cinematic gold the Establishment brushes past during Oscar® season, and has done for decades. Some of my favorite films, those dearest to my heart, did not get a fair shake in their day, were not received by an adoring public, were not feted with red carpets and Academy®-issue statuary.
Yeah, we all love the mesmerizing Oscar collage, the priceless 5 minute pastiche of classic, breath-deepening movie moments we’ve all taken into our hearts, and which bracingly stir us to tears—a young, fiendishly handsome Peter O’Toole joining Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn in the camel and horseback charge across David Lean’s rhapsodic, widescreen Sahara; Sir Alec Guinness collapsing atop the detonator at the end of Bridge On the River Kwai (“Madness!”); Newman and Redford’s guns blazing in freeze frame as the camera ratchets back to capture the scale of Butch and Sundance’s violent end— Bacharach’s haunting “Where There’s a Heartache” timidly arriving with funerary flowers and wrapping the film in salving gauze—the history of cinema is the history of the human heart, writ 40 feet tall on the silver screen to our common exaltation.
But what about Donald Pleasance being eaten by that gigantic white corpuscle in Fantastic Voyage? I don’t recall an honorific Oscar collage featuring Pleasance screaming in mad panic as the corpuscle descends on his hobbled microscopic submarine and does its ghastly corpuscle business.
Or Charlton Heston with his rakish neckerchief, Mt. Rushmore nose and pronounced underbite; hollering, hollering, wincing, and then hollering some more. “Soylent Green is made out of people!” Or Heston again, falling to his knees on the shores of a post-apocalyptic Ellis Island. “Hoo boy, you really did it this time!” or whatever he’s yelling, Lady Liberty half-buried and still naively hoisting her torch. Or the furry giants Gaira and Sanda doing battle in War of the Gargantuans, destroying not-especially-detailed models of Japanese cities with Oscar-worthy panache. Not to mention the hit song from the film that set the world on fire and gave Devo their Gargantuan street cred. Where is their statuette? Nowhere.
Like every other emotional wreck in Moviedom, I go completely to pieces at Fonda’s heart-seizing goodbye speech to Ma in The Grapes of Wrath. “I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready…” [Oh good grief, here I go] But why not follow that up with Peter Cushing having the bones sucked out of his arm by irradiated, snake-headed tortoises in Island of Terror! Now there was some acting! “To be or not to be…” What! Ever! Now check out Cushing. “It’s got me! Cut off my hand! CUT OFF MY HAND!”
Night of the Blood Beast, Atom Age Vampire, the picnic-ruining Basket Case—these unsung fear-jerkers made their collective mark in the psyches of many a jug-eared 60s crew cut in baggy blue jeans, yours truly included. I remember arguing heatedly with my older sister Jill in the TV room of our quarters on Warren AFB in Cheyenne—during that brief time we both lived in our parent’s house.
I wanted to watch Science Fiction Theater; my Saturday afternoon ritual. She wanted to watch something that did not involve shrinking a team of doctors and injecting their submarine, The Proteus (natch), into the neck of a mortally wounded world leader. Why would anyone opt not to see that? I mean, Raquel Welch in a skin-tight scuba outfit and attacked by a cloud of leukocytes? Clearly that is both valuable science and fiction.
Will Rogers Attacked by Giant Ant
It’s a fact that many of today’s Hollywood legends and show biz asterisks got their start in the Papier-mâché-and-zippers monster movie genre. Before Sergio Leone aggrandized Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name, Clint was that fighter pilot pouring hot lead into a tarantula the size of Milwaukee. The movie? Tarantula (pick up the pace here, people). Future game show smarm-charmer Bert Convy got cracked with a frying pan and plastered over in horror-spendthrift Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood. Before his four decade stage-run as American folk humorist Will Rogers, James Whitmore earned his screaming thespian stripes in the jaws of a wooden-looking giant ant in Them.
Writers and directors? Exalted Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne (whom I creepily sidled next to at the 2006 SBIFF, hoping for a stammering word or two with the Master. Nope.) got his start scribing for such Corman fare as Creature from the Haunted Sea. Francis Ford Coppola was a UCLA grad looking for movie work when Corman took him on as an assistant. A decade later, Corman’s kind gesture brought us Coppola’s The Godfather. What snobbery to venerate James Dean weeping on Raymond Massey’s unyielding shoulder in East of Eden, and ignore the fine work of Jason Evers dialoging with his girlfriend’s cantankerous severed head in its pan of gaudy fluids.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die likely spawned a generation of misinformed neurologists, thank you very much. 1953’s Invasion From Mars, with its crashed flying saucer, subterranean Martian cabal and flipped “dream sequence” ending, gave me serious kid-nightmares, and still haunts my dreams. Which may reveal more than I wish it to about my pitiable interior life.
So on the occasion of this 90th Academy Awards® statuette-orgy, keep directors Arch Hall Jr., Terence Fisher, and Arthur Crabtree in your thoughts [Eegah!, Brides of Dracula, and Fiend Without a Face, respectively]. It will be difficult to stay focused on these way-paving past masters as Ke$ha or some such warbles this year’s flimsy movie tunes to thunderous applause. But in the insistent, mispronounced words of horror hypnotist/ auteur/actor Herschell Gordon Lewis in his towering 1970 classic Wizard of Gore: “Concentrate…CRONCENTRATE!”