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August 16, 2014
David Kalat
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Robin Williams, My Popeye

I had planned to run something else here this week, but in light of this week’s tragic news regarding Robin Williams, I’ve shoved that essay to a later week and opted to re-run an oldie but a goodie, my fifth ever Movie Morlocks post from four years ago about one of my very favorite movies, which happens to star Robin Williams  (apparently when I re-posted it, the original comments reposted with it!).

The actual piece itself makes a passing mildly unkind remark about Williams, within the context of praising one of his most notorious flops.  I thought about rewriting that section but decided against it because it felt dishonest.  And as schmaltzy as Williams ever was, he was never dishonest.

There is a curious distinction to be drawn between “pop culture” and “popular culture.”  It’s a divide that’s been opening up in American entertainment ever since the days of Elvis–arguably ever since jazz–but the 21st century’s media fragmentation and Internet communities have only hastened the pace.  To put it simply, “pop culture” loves Community; “popular culture” loves NCIS.  And there was a time when Robin Williams was an anarchic rebel force from pop culture, and a time when he opted to make career choices driven by popular culture.  The hipsters of pop culture never forgave that defection; the vast majority of America never saw it as a defection in the first place.

Below the fold: the story of an oddity that belongs to neither pop culture nor popular culture, despite being a splashy musical comedy from some of America’s most accomplished satirists and starring its then-up-and-coming beloved comedian superstar, adapted from one of the most ubiquitous and enduring characters of 20th century pop/popular art.

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KEYWORDS: bill irwin, comic book films, harry nilsson, jules feiffer, Musicals, Popeye, Robert Altman, Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall
COMMENTS: 66
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Comic Relief with Artists and Models (1955)

artistsmodels

This has been a rough week. And when the bad news starts to outweigh the good I like to escape my worries with a great comedy that makes me laugh out loud and allows me to forget my troubles for a few short hours. I recently found some comic relief in my favorite Martin and Lewis film, Frank Tashlin’s ARTISTS AND MODELS (1955). I grew up watching this brilliant musical satire and it never fails to put a big goofy grin on my face. Your own mileage will vary of course but here are 10 reasons why you should consider watching ARTISTS AND MODELS today.
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The Love Song of Judex (Summer’s End Edition)

My children returned to school this week. Which to my mind spells the end of summer.  Who cares what the calendar says, summer = not-in-school, end of discussion. And the end of summer, also, means the end of summer movie season. Some cinephiles welcome this transition. Not me.

You see, I like comic books. And I’m not one of those stuck-up toffs who thinks comics need to be graphic novels, all arty and grown-up and off-putting. No, I like superhero comics, and I like movies based on superhero comics. I like popcorn movies, I like movies who only aim to please, I like special effects.

In short, I’m easy to please. That being said, why am I so heard to please?

Comic Book Guy

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The Bat Returns: Roland West’s “The Bat Whispers”

The Bat Whispers, Roland West’s sound version of his silent classic The Bat, is scheduled to air this Wednesday, June 23, on TCM. Despite the 2:30am airtime, those interested in visually stylish films, the influence of German Expressionism on Hollywood, or the connection between comic books and the movies will want to catch this old-school thriller.

I became a fan of Roland West’s films when I watched The Bat last year at the Silent Film Society’s annual Summer Film Festival in Chicago. The Bat is an old dark house tale about a murderous cat burglar who dresses in a bat costume. The old dark house storyline was enormously popular during the Jazz Age. The script for The Bat was adapted from a play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood, which opened on Broadway in August 1920 and ran for 867 performances. The play was a reworking of Rinehart’s popular novel The Circular Staircase from 1907 combined with a bit of her short story “The Borrowed House.” What made The Bat stand out among the dozens of other old dark house tales was the Expressionist mise-en-scene adopted by West and his team. The thriller’s stark, high-contrast lighting, with little or no gray scale, and stunning set design elevated the material above the formulaic storyline, much like Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary. Arthur Edeson, one of Hollywood’s most influential cinematographers and a cofounder of the American Society of Cinematographers, worked out the lighting schemes and camera angles with West for The Bat, while William Cameron Menzies, who later served as art director on Gone With the Wind, did the set design.

Despite its 1926 release date—84 years ago—The Bat does have a connection to contemporary films, albeit an indirect one. Bob Kane, the originator of Batman, likely saw The Bat and/or The Bat Whispers, or perhaps a version of Rinehart and Hopwood’s play. Debate exists over which version of the material actually inspired Kane, but I lean toward the silent version because there is more bat imagery, including the silhouette of the Bat against a spotlight that looks very much the Batman signal. In addition, the Bat’s costume includes pointed ears, reminiscent of the pointed cowl that  is an essential ingredient to Batman’s look. However, both The Bat and The Bat Whispers use a stark, graphic Expressionist style later associated with comic books. Those contemporary graphic novelists and filmmakers influenced by Bob Kane and comic book art owe a nod to West’s thrillers, which in turn were influenced by German Expressionist films and the work of French filmmaker Louis Feuillade and his 10-part serial called Les Vampires about a group of master criminals who call themselves the Vampires. (For more on the origins and influence of The Bat, click here for my earlier post.)

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J. Carrol Naish, Changeling

Careening across the countryside in a gypsy wagon, a lovesick hunchback cries out piteously for release from his twisted form. A hardworking Jewish-American father tries to appease his young son on his birthday, seeking to interest him in a baseball bat rather than an expensive violin.

A tired general on the Western frontier finds a few moments of solace in soldiers’ singing. An Italian soldier, willing to do anything to get back to his wife and baby, is stranded in the war-torn desert. A stoic Indian chief joins a wild west show, finding a way to keep his dignity despite his reduced circumstances. A broken matador tells an up and comer some hard truths. A Mexican dictator regretfully but decisively goes to war. A Japanese editor tries to correct his American-educated son’s corrupt Western ways.  And a half-monkey, half-man broods endlessly about his plight, especially since he’s stuck being an unpaid houseboy for his creator.

What do each of these diverse (and sometimes pretty outlandish) characters and at least 200 more have in common? Character actor and changeling J. Carrol Naish (1896-1973). I can’t possibly touch on the range of Naish‘s roles in this blog, but his remarkably productive career includes an enormous range of characters, far beyond the roles as heavily accented types he is often best remembered for today.

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Goldentusk Does The Movie Themes

YouTube sensation Goldentusk, a.k.a. Andrew Goldenberg, as Superman

Okay, so I’m again officially the last to know something.  This marvelous young actor/comedian named Andrew Goldenberg, a.k.a. Goldentusk, has been writing, producing, and starring in a series of imaginative original videos, taking movie theme songs and putting his own words to them, and playing all the characters.  Maybe you’ve seen them — I hadn’t until yesterday, actually — but I’m now officially in love. 

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Who Needs the Dark Knight When You Have . . . Jessie???

In an earlier post, I admitted a fondness for quirky foreign films, particularly foreign versions of popular genres such a science fiction, westerns, or horror movies. (Maybe one day when I am feeling brave, I will explain my love for live-action talking-animal movies.) I am actually more curious and open to foreign genre films than I am to the serious foreign fare that receives all of the awards and acclaim. While I appreciate the Bela Tarrs, Krzysztof Kieslowskis, and Alexander Sokurovs of world cinema, I am entertained by the Julius Machulskis and Vaclav Vorliceks. And, a good genre film can be as artistic and meaningful as a drama — sometimes more so. Like their American counterparts, foreign genre films are too often overlooked because they are formulaic, entertaining, or just plain fun.

In the wake of the media blitz surrounding the opening for The Dark Knight this past weekend, plus the recent news of a remake of Barbarella in which Robert Rodriguez will attempt to rework Roger Vadim’s 1968 cult classic, I am reminded of one of my favorite quirky foreign flicks — Who Wants to Kill Jessie? [...MORE]

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