The Amazing Adventures of Movie Mike
Aaron: Has a movie set in the '50s ever come close to capturing that period's clashing of conservative values with a new form of teen rebellion? Has a film ever come close to capturing the contradictory nature of the '60s?
Mike: These are great questions, and I'm kind of blanking because in both cases it would be a tall order for the filmmakers. Regarding the '50s, I can tell you that even at the time--when I was only eight--Rebel without a Cause spoke to me and told me that something, whatever it was, was changing in the country. I saw it after its downtown first-run (October, 1955) but in its first run at my neighborhood Boulevard Theater in early 1956. Elvis has "Heartbreak Hotel" in early '56 and is making his first network TV appearances on Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey's Stage Show. So one is feeding off the other the way the Beatles on Ed Sullivan hit exactly as Dr. Strangelove was being released. Synergy. I can also tell you that--while being raised in a very upscale WASP suburb--I went into the theater men's room the day I saw Rebel, and there were "hoods" in there working on their hair to make it look like members of Corey Allen's gang.
Another Nicholas Ray movie that really spooked me as a kid--my first son isn't named Nick for nothing--was Bigger Than Life when the suburban teacher played by James Mason starts to take a "miracle drug" and goes bonkers. It was one of the first times I ever saw anything creepy like that in a middle-class setting. (Barbara Rush really knew how to play those edgy suburban wives; I was recently very impressed with her in the new DVD of the potboiler Strangers When We Meet.)
I didn't get into Douglas Sirk until after grad school, but certainly All That Heaven Allows really hits on the change that was coming (though hardly from a teen angle). I love it how widowed Jane Wyman is ready to get down with the younger Rock Hudson, and her snotty grown kids think all she needs is a bigger TV. Just a little more December Bride, mom, and you won't want to get laid anymore.
I think a movie that really captured the contradictory nature of the '60s would be great. I've often thought about this, and when I did an iffy series on the decade at the AFI (one that did allow me to double-bill Roger Corman's The Trip with Russ Meyer's Vixen!), the cover of the brochure utilized a diagonal split between stills from Easy Rider and The Green Berets. Because it's true: Contrary to belief, the majority of students didn't protest the war. If you want to get a headache sometime, try going from Ohio State, when Woody Hayes football reigned, to NYU a month after Kent State. Still, with OSU's huge student body, there were many, many protests; it was actually kind of schizophrenic. Further complicating matters in my own history were the summers I spent part of in Colorado during the '60s, way up in the Rockies and completely on another planet from what was happening in the country (just a week or two before the '68 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the Rockies were exactly where I was, and I even stayed in downtown Chicago a couple nights on the way back). So a movie that could capture that dichotomy--I guess Colorado, OSU and NYU would make it a trichotomy--would be something, though I think it would inevitably become some kind of mini-series soaper. Of course, in its own way and for a commercial movie, The Graduate did capture (while avoiding politics) the clashing values. I cannot overemphasize to younger generations the impact that movie had at the time. I saw it 15 times first-run (far and away my lifetime record), and it routinely packed the 3000-seat RKO Palace in my hometown for many, many weeks.
Aaron: As someone who has been collecting movies on videocassette, laserdisc and now DVD, what is your take on the continuing evolution of home viewing technology? At the time did you think laserdisc was the ultimate in home movie watching? Are you looking forward to next-generation technology like HD-DVD and Blue-Ray discs?
Mike: I'm all for change and improvement, but I'm getting pretty close to the point where I'm saying, "Wait till I die, will you?" I did think laserdiscs were the ultimate at the time and still think DVD is a miracle. When I was programming I often ran the studio 35mm's--and these prints didn't look as good as what you routinely get on DVD today. Aside from the improved sound and the supplements, which DVD co-opted, the big laser issue was over letterboxing when very few VHS releases of post-1953 movies were worth a damn.
Showing movies in the correct aspect ratios or not is not an issue upon which reasonable minds can disagree. Any other way is wrong, period. If your TV screen is too small to facilitate letterboxed prints, there's a new invention called "the ass," and you move it a little closer to the screen. If you're tempted to make an argument for pan-and-scan, you simply ask yourself one question: If the person who made the film saw it panned-and-scanned, would he/she puke his/her guts out? If the answer to that question is "yes," you'd better rethink your position. I can't believe in this day and age, the so-called American Movie Classics (now 100% worthless) still shows a lot of widescreen movies incorrectly. Or that the Encore Westerns channel shows all these Scope Westerns incorrectly. I'm not exaggerating when I say that any trained eye can look at any mis-exhibited movie (on that level) and know within three seconds that something is wrong. So when you could finally see widescreen movies the correct way at home, I thought it spectacular.
Sometimes I think that by the time I die, we'll be dealing in holographs, and that we'll be able to stick our hands through the actors. In theory, I'm looking forward to new technologies--but it's as much an economic issue for me as anyone. It hasn't been that long since I made the leap from my 32-inch Sony XBR to a 57-inch widescreen Hitachi and super new speakers-- and like anyone else, I had to pay for the damned things (which I do love) just as I was entering "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Divorce Fall-Out."
Aaron: As someone who sees a lot of DVDs for your weekly column, what is your take on "director's cuts?" Granted, director's cuts have been around since the days when Chaplin kept tinkering with his movies. Personally, I feel the glut of re-jiggered films began with the re-release of the "special editions" of the Star Wars trilogy in '97. Do you like these additions or should they be relegated to bonus materials?
Mike: I think Star Wars is a special case. The purist in me may not like Lucas fooling around, but I do think he's earned the right to tweak these specific movies some, at least when the tweaks have to do with improvements in technology. Or at bare minimum, Star Wars wouldn't be the case on which I'd care to go to the mat fighting the concept.
It has all gotten out of hand--but then, I think seeing movies in theaters is in some ways irrelevant. Everyone's talking about R-rated movies making less money now, which is now affecting the editing of theatrical versions--and for purely non-aesthetic reasons. But when the same films come to the home venue (just 4-5 months later), the cuts will be re-instated. So which is the "real version"? Well, what the filmmaker wants, of course--though as a film historian of sorts, I can't help getting a headache when I see that, say, the long DVD version of Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur is substantially longer than its predecessor.
In this day and age, they (and there are a lot of individuals in "they") ought to be able to get it right the first time more than they do. You can see how, in the old days, the missing footage from Greed, The Magnificent Ambersons, and the Garland-Cukor A Star Is Born could have been dumped forever because a) the Internet and the snooping press weren't around to burn (no, make that char) those perpetuating such atrocities; and b) the studios didn't then have DVD to suddenly make everything recyclable. But it's gotten ridiculous when half the movies out seem to have a director's cut. It's like all these deleted scenes and "bonuses" from some Vin Diesel movie that no one ought to want or care about. In fact, the making-of documentaries for recent movies--obviously filmed at the time--aren't that interesting, either. You need historical perspective, the way Criterion always gives it to you.
Aaron: I've noticed in your DVD column that you make it a point to mention quality TV shows like The Honeymooners, The Simpsons, and compilations of famous variety shows. What TV shows did you watch as a kid? Did you prefer movies to television?
Mike: Up till about 1962, I was into television almost as much as the movies. The first show I loved (before we even had our own TV set, which means I would have been four) was Amos 'n' Andy, which is probably enough to get me arrested today. I've already mentioned the Colgate Comedy Hour; that was eternally No. 1 and the one show I actively collect (I probably have over 40). Dragnet was probably my favorite next to CCH, and I liked cop shows in general; I also dug The Lineup on CBS Friday nights. The Twilight Zone would have to be in my pantheon. To jump all over the place, I liked I Love Lucy a lot, though it wasn't one of my absolute favorites; Groucho on You Bet Your Life for sure. Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope and Steve Allen were kings; I didn't "get" Ernie Kovacs until later. Jack Benny, yes; Ed Sullivan, yes; Roy Rogers, huge. Leave It to Beaver, huge. Ozzie and Harriet, yes, especially when Ricky Nelson would sing at the end against James Burton licks; I always thought Ozzie was really funny. I loved a cult comedy series called It's a Great Life, with Michael O'Shea, William Bishop, James Dunn and Frances Bavier before she became Aunt Bee. I liked Donna Reed, but only because I thought she was really a sleeper in the hottie department (Shelley Fabares wasn't bad, either). I dug Edd "Kookie" Byrnes and his lingo on 77 Sunset Strip and can't figure out why Warners has never brought it out on video. The Army-McCarthy hearings were transfixing; just as Carmen Miranda scared me to death as a child (I feared her beady eyes and fruit-stand head apparel far more than any horror-movie monster), Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn made me feel queasy in a way I couldn't quite understand then. The Untouchables, cool, especially when teachers criticized its violence. I watched Disneyland some and The Mickey Mouse Club a teeny bit, but I wasn't that much of a fan (which is why I'm surprised at how much I'm moved when I see them on DVD today). I didn't care about outer space stuff at all. I never cared that much for Mary Martin's Peter Pan--a little fey for a Marine Corps. household. I probably liked variety show specials the best, which would include Dick Clark's great Saturday night show. But movies had the edge, except for with Martin & Lewis, who were better on TV. And after the early '60s, I had little use for the small screen (ironic, because this was when I was working in TV). All that god-awaful rube stuff on CBS during the James Aubrey era and the mind-rot of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, with their puke-o laugh tracks. (I would give Green Acres a pass, though; I love Eddie Albert and think his performance as Cybil Shepherd's father in The Heartbreak Kid is the funniest portrayal of Midwest WASP-ism in movie history.)
Aaron: What TV shows do you watch today? Do you prefer cable programming to regular programming?
Mike: I don't watch that much. Part of it's all the nights I'm at screenings, which means I'd better be doing the DVD part of my job the nights I'm home. (Or a movie for pleasure and overall knowledge.) Baseball dominates April-October though it's often wallpaper as I do four other things. I seem to miss SNL a lot, which I regret. I like the political shows like Chris Matthews' Hardball and Tim Russert on Sunday mornings; in the '80s, I was a never-missed-it McLaughlin Group junkie. I've gotten to be a bigger fan of The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Sopranos, and Friends, to name five, more from DVD than their actual airings. Basically, I prefer reading when I have spare time. I just devoured James B. Stewart's Disneywar; I mean I just ate that sucker. I'm also one in a large group of people I know who thought Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons was much better than the critics (oh, those critics) said. To answer your question, I do prefer cable. I mean, Angels in America is in a class with any theatrical Mike Nichols has directed, and Wit was pretty great, too--both much, much preferable to the theatrical Closer. And I will also concede that TV has now probably become more interesting than the movies--the first 46 weeks of the year.
Aaron: What bad movie do you find yourself watching when it comes on TV? Has a movie you originally disliked been improved by viewing it on television?
Mike: If it's a movie, good or bad, that I want to re-see, I tape it in the first place. Or if I do fall into it and am taken, I make sure to tape it the next time it's on. I've been recording off the air since 1982 and have many hundreds of movies that have never even been released on VHS. I don't recall many movies being improved by television per se, but television may be where you're seeing it the second time. Film appreciation is definitely a living, organic process. And people being people, their own circumstances come into play (I don't care how aesthetically objective film folk try to make themselves). I can tell you, for one example, that I'm now more appreciative of domestic dramas about marriages going on the rocks since my own marriage went south.
I'm not that much into the concept of "guilty pleasures." My stock line is: "I'm now of the age where, if something gives me pleasure, I don't feel guilty about it." But I do have a pretty high tolerance for trashy color musicals, Republic Westerns, any movies where athletes play themselves, most baseball movies, and any film noir (even the really cheap ones).
Aaron: How did you get the assignment to interview Jerry Lewis? Is he as intimidating as legend would lead us to believe?
Mike: My Jerry fandom hasn't exactly been a secret since the 1950s, though there was a long period beginning roundabouts 1966 that severely tested my enthusiasm until The King of Comedy came out in 1983. The interview was not the first time I had met Lewis, though he did not remember it (nor was there any reason he should have). He had come into DC and to the AFI to do a taped interview for American Film magazine in 1976 or '77, and it had been conducted in front of a very small select audience in our upstairs screening room. He did three hours, was on his good behavior and was wonderful.
The USA Today interview came up because Labor Day weekend was, as nearly always, dead at the movies. The LIFE section desperately needed a cover story (related to the Telethon), and I was literally ordered to do it, though I had no idea if Lewis would cooperate. To the paper's astonishment, I balked at this assignment because (and they did not know this at the time) my 20-year marriage had gone on the rocks three days earlier, and I was planning to really "have it out" with my now-ex the next day. So I did not, at this time, want to be flying to San Diego and be out of town for most of the following week. But I was told that "the editors went in and had a meeting and you have to do it," so I faxed Lewis what I thought was a good letter establishing my "Jer" credentials, and he immediately called my house the very night before the marital confrontation--how surreal is that? It led to one of the great phone queries (overheard by me) in the history of the Clark household: "May I say who's calling?"
To go from DC to San Diego (where he lived on his boat that time of the year) wiped out a Monday. Coming back did the same for Wednesday. So I spent about four Tuesday hours with him on the boat. I was in bad emotional shape and a little worried about what was in store, but I figured that if I stayed away from The Day the Clown Cried, I had a good shot at a harmonious afternoon. He had been extremely gracious on the phone.
Lewis was in dicey health but energetic and "on" within his physical limitations, and we got along famously, though I'm not at all sure what he thought of the kind of warts-and-all final article, which was very well received within the paper. I have excellent recall of everything I've seen Lewis do for 50 years--I'm currently seeing DVDs of old Colgate Comedy Hours I haven't seen since the time, and it's amazing how well I remember them. So I think this helped.
We ate popsicles together, and I did get treated to one "Lay-deeeeeeee!!!!" He got on a speaker phone with a longtime assistant to get me some piece of info I needed, and he blared, "I'm sitting here with this hack who needs..." Early on, I was telling him how I always preferred comedians and comic teams with a sexual dimension. Comparing them to Martin and Lewis, I was trying to find a diplomatic way to say that I thought Abbott and Costello were technically proficient yet that it was hard to imagine them in a, well, a romantic situation--and here I was stumbling around until Lewis interrupted and said dismissively, "Nobody wanted to fuck 'em."
Aaron: You once wrote that Steve McQueen was the last true movie star. Could you elaborate? Do you think the nature of celebrity has changed so much that we will never see an old-style movie star?
Mike: I think you kind of answered your own question. My memory isn't sharp on this, but if someone told me that McQueen never did a talk show, I wouldn't be dumbstruck. Has Jack Nicholson ever done a talk show? I don't recall any. There's no such thing as mystique anymore, but when I saw that recent commercial that digitally imposed McQueen into the action, I still got a jolt. Because he had it. I read in a bio of McQueen a few years ago that in the last 10 or so years of his career, the only interview he gave was to some little kid for his school paper. I love that, even though I'm a journalist.
What you react to in movies (and stars) is always going to be subjective; I don't care what anyone says. I just always reacted to how much (pain? comical bewilderment? coolness?) he conveyed with his eyes. He was so natural and so authentic. He didn't even make that many great movies, but he did so much for the movies he was in and took them to another level. I feel about him the way I feel about Nick Ray, who only made about 15-16 films, half of which weren't that great. But on the other hand, They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground, The Lusty Men, Johnny Guitar, Rebel, Bigger Than Life, and maybe even Party Girl (seen in CinemaScope on a big screen) were.
I'll tell you something I'm not sure I've ever told anyone. And a lot of people who know me won't believe it (though some, if they think about it, will). And that's that even though I'm in many ways an extrovert and also thoroughly inept with anything mechanical, the insular mechanical genius McQueen plays in The Sand Pebbles is the screen character I most identify with and the one I think is most like me. Because he draws the line in the sand and says, "Don't cross it" when other people try to tell him how to live his life and especially how to do his job. I love it when some useless subordinate (not the great Mako character; before the Mako character) has been forced on McQueen's engine room, and Simon Oakland says, "We can't do without him." And McQueen says, "Well, by God, I can do without him." I just love that.
Yeah, the tabloids and celebrity have ruined a lot, though it's not the current actors' fault when they have to work within a system. And I have to admit that when I saw Sin City just after Hostage, I thought, "You know--Bruce Willis really is a star throwback." I was amused not too long ago when a USA Today colleague I really like--big Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine fan--was lamenting what it would be like if Hollywood remade The Dirty Dozen today. I quote him directly: "Braaad Pitt, Beeennnn Aff-leck. Get the fuck out of here."