Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Neon Ceiling 1971

The Neon Ceiling from 1971 is a haunting drama that I’ve been obsessed with for some time.  So many top Hollywood names worked on this movie yet it remains a mystery as to why it is such a discarded and forgotten film.  It was never released on DVD or VHS and is rarely shown, if ever, on television.  Despite these factors the movie remains a unique example of human tragedy that could be at least viewed, as of now, on YouTube.  One of its many attractions is that the script follows and adds a slightly feminist edge to the criticism of the American Dream that was begun by classic mid century dramatists such as William Inge or Tennessee Williams.    It’s basically the first edgy independent film that was made specifically for television.  

Consider the talent involved:

  • Produced by John Badham, who would go on to direct Saturday Night Fever.
  • Directed By Frank Piersen, writer of such classics as Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon.
  • Written by Carol Sobieski who also penned another unknown telefilm, Unwed Father, that I previously wrote about here.   She also wrote The Toy, one of the funniest movies of the 1980’s.

The film’s small cast includes:

  • Lee Grant, who dedicated a chapter of her autobiography to this movie.
  • Denise Nickerson, her first film before gaining fame for her role as Violet in the classic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory made the same year.
  • Herb Edelman costars in a small role but most TV viewers will recognize him as the actor who later played Stanley Zbornak (Dorothy’s ex husband) in the 80s sitcom The Golden Girls.

Gig Young is really the star of the show here.  You might recognize Young from the classic Twilight Zone episode The Walking Distance.  Young excelled at playing tragic characters and he would later win and Academy Award for his best supporting role in They Shoot Horses Don’t They.  The Neon Ceiling was made right after this film and Gig was at the top of his game.

In real life, Gig Young  was as troubled, if not more, than the character Jones who he plays in The Neon Ceiling.  The tragedy  of his own life adds another level to viewing The Neon Ceiling in retrospect.  An alcoholic who suffered from depression, he murdered his own wife before committing suicide.  He was also a man obsessed with youth, always marrying women nearly half his age - and this sentiment is also eerily reflected in the film The Neon Ceiling.  Despite the tragedy and desperation of Gig’s life, he was a great actor that was perfect for this particular role.  Perhaps this is the real reason that this film has slipped into obscurity.  The darkness of Gig’s own life almost mirrors the desperation of Sobieski’s script.

With the small cast and limited settings this film could easily be adapted into a stage play and it would work well.  As it stands, filmed on location in the California desert, the cinematography adds an authenticity to this motion picture that underscores its brilliance. 

The original music was scored by Billy Goldenberg.  It is subtle but it sneaks up on you and might just make you cry - once you get emotionally wrapped up in these characters.  Goldenberg was one of the most prolific composers for television in the 1970s including runs on the hit Columbo and the lesser known, but equally great Harry O.

Here is the setup for the story: 

Carrie Miller (mid to late 30’s) is a housewife in San Bernardino California.  Her husband is a dentist, who has been having affairs with his nurse.  Carrie considers herself mentally unstable and has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals.  Yet there is no real evidence that there is something wrong with her.  Mostly she is unhappy with her marriage and bored.

Neither parents pay much attention to the development of their daughter, Paula Miller.  Paula, at age 13, is on the verge of adolescence.  She is curious about sex in a purely analytical way - maybe it will help solve her parent’s marital difficulties.   Paula seems isolated from her peers as well as her family, but is also wise beyond her years.

One desperate evening, Carrie wakes up Paula in the middle of the night.  She tells her daughter to pack her bags.  They are leaving, running away.  Paula is not surprised.  This is not the first time this has happened.  Without telling the husband, they get  in their Ford and leave their suburban neighborhood behind.  Miller is aware that they are leaving but pretends he is sleeping and does nothing to try and stop them.

The car rides off into the mysterious night as the scattered headlights on the highway blur.  Carrie asks her daughter, “Do you know who we are?”  She continues,   “We are nobody way out on nowhere hanging on to nothing.”

Carrie and Paula eerily sing the Halleluia chorus from Handel’s Messiah.  Carries is bright eyed.  Paula is fearful.  It is a call for freedom and possibly the desire for something that doesn’t even exist.  The titles The Neon Ceiling appear…

The next day Carrie and Paula are still driving and approaching the desert by mid morning.  Paula is reading a book on marital problems and is trying to give advice to Carrie, who barely listens.  When Paula suggests that she needs to use a restroom, Carrie pulls over to a dilapidated cafe that also serves as a gas station.

The place seems to be abandoned.  After poking around inside for a bit, Paula decides to turn on the water to fill a glass.  Enter, Jones (or Jonesy).  In the script Jones is described in the following manner: “He is a filthy giant of a man, unshaven, shoeless, tough as a horned toad, imposing as a mountain, smelly as a goat.”

Gig Young plays the character with flair.  He is both brutal and charming.  One moment he is dancing, the other he is breaking glasses.  His behavior is intriguing because it is gloriously unpredictable.

In this scene he basically scares the hell out of his visitors.  Carrie and Paula run back to the car only to discover that they are out of gas and actually need to ask Jones for help.  This is where the drama begins because it turns out their car is dead - leaving them stranded at the edge of the earth with this lunatic. The stage is set and the rest of the movie takes place at the service station in the California desert bordering on Nevada.  

Carrie’s feelings go from hatred to love and to find out why and how, you’ll need to watch the movie because I don’t want to give it away here.  Will Paula be able to get the attention and discipline from Jones that she was lacking at home?  Will Carrie commit suicide?  Will Jones kill everyone (just kidding), or at least show us a gentler sign; the cause of his distress?

The Neon Ceiling, if seen through Paula’s eyes could’ve been told as a coming of age story.  Instead, what we get is three stories.  On the one hand, we have the story of a desperate housewife attempting to break hold of the way a woman is supposed to act - almost a liberating feminist plea.  Both are interesting stories, but Jones’ story overpowers them both.  His is the story of a lonesome man who retreated to the desert and made a Neon Ceiling his art.  Jones is the disgruntled artist, a man at odds with the world who still has a gift for simplifying the world’s complications with truth.  As he states to Paula when fixing the busted jukebox: There’s nothing in this world that’s broken that old Jonesy can’t fix with his bare hands.

I urge you to watch The Neon Ceiling.

The stills and script are from my personal collection (collected over a 5 year period).

Saturday, May 11, 2013

More vintage illustrated novels for and about young people...

Here are a few poetic short novels for young readers that I picked up recently because I loved the illustrations.  I purchased each of these books for a dollar at a used bookstore in Portland, Maine.   All three turned out to be amazing reads.  It seems I can never get enough of youth novels published in the 1960s and 1970s!

The Horned Helmet by Henry Treece  (Illustrated by Charles Keeping) 1963

This is the first book I’ve read by Treece and I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more.  He was a prolific novelsit who wrote approximately 40 novels from 1952-1966.  Prior to this Treece was a new romantic poet.   His work was more widely published in Britain than the US, making his work particularly difficult to come across.

The Horned Helmet takes place at the end of the Viking Period.  It is a piece of historical fiction written in a  modern manner and based on the Jomsvikings.  This is a fast-paced and moving coming of age story told in short chapters.  Beorn, an Icelandic boy has already witnessed cruelty as a young boy when the story begins.  His mother has died, and his father has drowned himself in the sea.  Beorn is to be a slave, but escapes and is befriended by a fierce warrior.  Starkad, a viking, takes Beorn above his ship, The Reindeer.  He experiences the cruelty of their raids, how to fight, kill and accept their hard-dealing ways.  After sharing a story with Starkad about an icelandic man who robbed a king’s grave, Starkad is inspired to do the same on a dangerous raid.  Bringing Beorn along with him, they retrieve a powerful sword and a horned helmet.  But they are captured and their companion Gauk in beheaded.  Starkad becomes like a father figure to Beorn.  When Starkad is crippled by the ship, Beorn saves his life.  After Starkad marries, Beorn heads back to a life of violence.  However, the Viking age is coming to an end and it won’t be long until Beorn throws in his horned helmet for a more noble way of life.

I don’t usually read historical fiction, but found myself entranced by this world and this pinnacle time of change in history.   I loved both the savagery and sense of humor in these characters.  You can be sure that I’ll write about Treece again because I was so intrigued by this book.

The Cold Flame by James Reeves  (Illustrated by Charles Keeping) 1967
Here is another UK paperback published by Penguin Books with magnificent black and white illustrations by Charles Keeping.  Keeping illustrated a number of books for Puffin in the late 1960’s and all of his work is brilliant.

This is an amazing retelling of a Brothers Grimm story.  The description in this book states that this book is “suitable for all readers who find themselves too old for the simple versions of fairy tales they used to love”.  I would say that is a fair description as this seems a bit too sinister a tale for children.   A 25 year old down on his luck soldier encounters a witch.  He tries to do her a favor and ends up in the bottom of a well, left to die.  With all hope abandoned, the soldier lights a pipe while waiting to die.  A crazy tiny man appears out of the smoke and grants the soldier any wish he desires.  To amuse himself, the soldier requests that the princess come at night to do his housework.  The King eventually finds the soldier and puts him on trial.  Before the soldier is to be killed, the phantom manikin appears and slays the king's men.  The soldier chooses to be King even though he knows he will probably make a poor leader.  I loved the dark, nihilistic tone of this magical story!

Marra’s World by Elizabeth Coatsworth (Illustrated by Krystyna Turska) 1975

Coatsworth is a well-known children’s author from Maine and this might be her least well known book.  From what little I know of her work, I believe this one is darker in tone than what she is more famous for.  It is a realistic story about a quiet outsider girl who lives on an island off of Maine.   She is shown little love from her father, her mother is gone and her grandmother is cruel to her.  The other girls in school treat her as if she is invisible.  When Marra finally makes a friend with a new girl named Alison, the two explore nature together and find beauty in the quiet world.  A boat trip on a foggy day leads to a poetic moment where Marra may or may not have an encounter with the spirit of her mother.  This is a moody piece that reads more like a character study or a short story than a novel.   Nevertheless, I enjoyed a peek inside this strange, cold world.

I also recently reread the following book, a favorite from my childhood:

Danny The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl (Illustrated by Jill Bennett) 1975

This is Dahl’s most realistic and least whimsical of the books that he wrote for children.  It is the story of a loving father and son.  Danny’s father owns a filling station out in the country and they live in a tiny caravan.  Instead of going to school, Danny’s father teaches him how to be an expert mechanic.  Danny’s father has a secret.  When he goes out late one night and does not return, Danny gets behind the wheel of one of the cars he has prepared and goes searching for his father.  He finds him in a pit in the woods.  It is revealed that Danny’s father is a poacher.  After rescuing his dad, Danny comes up with the most brilliant plan ever for poaching all the pheasants from the rich old Mr. Hazell.  I love the subtle rebelliousness in this book and the portrait of a loving and unconventional family.  The illustrations by Jill Bennett are perfectly integrated into the story and are far more detailed than Dahl’s more persistent collaborations with Quentin Blake.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Mary Downing Hahn

Mary Downing Hahn is a writer like Betsy Byars in that her books, unlike others I've written about on this blog, are never difficult to come by.  Both authors are mostly known for their pre-teen fiction.  I work in a library and often pick up short novels by these two when I'm at a loss as to what to read next.  Surprisingly, I am never disappointed. Where Byars has a reputation for her mysteries, Hahn is recognized for her ghost stories. Yet with both these authors, it is the books they write about outsiders and social issues that have the strongest appeal to me.

A former librarian, Hahn had her first book published when she was 41.  She has stayed steadily prolific since then, with over 30 titles to her name.  And she is still at it!  The reason I am even including her as a "discard treasure" is  because of a few of the non "spooky" books that she has written that deal with family and social issues.  These titles may be of interest to fans of writers like Norma Klein or Barbara Wersba because she focuses in on young people who, for a number of reasons, are the odd one out.   I'm also looking forward to reading her newest book, Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls, which is based on the murder of two teenage girls she knew in the 1950's.

The three books I've chosen to write about here are Daphne's Book (1983), Tallahassee Higgins (1987), and The Wind Blows Backward (1993).  All three of these books take place in Maryland (close to where Hahn lives).  They all feature teen (or pre-teen) characters that have suffered in some ways from parental death or neglect.  The parents that are alive and present in these books, are interesting, independent women.  These are some of the characteristics that make up these excellent dramas.  Also, like Kin Platt, even though these books are for kids, they are not sugar-coated.  Hahn writes about kids in horrible situations but does not feel the need to moralize with happy endings.

Daphne's Book is originally from '83. The edition I read was a paperback reprint from 2008. It's a timeless story but also feels very much set in the 1980's. The succinct story would've been perfect material for an Afterschool Special. 

Jessica lives with her single mother who works as a librarian. The mother is an independent woman who takes care of Jessica and her older brother. The other character, Daphne, has more serious problems than Jessica. Her father died in Vietnam and her mother was killed in a car wreck.

Jessica is twelve years old. Her best friend Tracy is now starting to hang out with a different crowd. Tracy's new friends are two typical popular mean girls who talk about nothing but how they look and boys. They also make fun of the strange new girl in their class, Daphne.

When their English teacher, Mr. O'Brien, assigns the girls to work in groups for a picture book contest, Jessica hopes she will be paired with Tracy. Instead, she gets paired with Daphne. Mr. O'Brien claims that it is because Jessica is the best writer in the class and Daphne is the best artist. Still, Jessica is distraught over being paired with the "weird" girl. She is embarrassed and believes this pairing will further estrange her from Tracy.

When Jessica finally meets up with Daphne to work on their project, she finds that there is a lot to like about this girl. Daphne visits Jessica's house with her little sister Hope. They engage in a game based on Jessica's dollhouse and the toy mice that inhabit it. This becomes the basis for the picture book that they create.

Soon Jessica finds out that there is more to Daphne's strange behavior than she imagined. It turns out that she lives in an old decrepit house on the outskirts of her town. Both of her parents are dead. Her grandmother lives there, but scary Mrs Woodleigh is quickly losing her mind. She believes her son, the kids parents, will soon come back to take care of everything. Unfortunately, he was killed years ago in Vietnam. The house is in a shambles, the electricity is turned off and she makes the kids collect bottles for redemption money. The food that they purchase with their scant money goes to feeding the cats. She also forbids the kids to go to school. Daphne obeys, in fear of being sent to an orphanage.

Because Daphne believes that she has found a friend in Jessica, she shares her family's story with her. Jessica, in return, promises to keep it a secret. Their school teacher, for example, believes that Daphne is out with Mono. No one knows of Daphne's true situation besides Jessica. Jessica visits Daphne after school and on the weekends to bring her school assignments and to talk. When Daphne gets lonely and desperate, she sneaks away to McDonald's in order to call Jessica from a payphone (there is no phone in her home). Jessica develops a bond with Daphne, but is still unsure of how to act with her when Tracy's friends are around. They still make fun of Daphne.

Eventually, the situation becomes so dire, that Jessica can not hold in her secret any longer. She tells her mother. But when her mother decides to help, Jessica wonders if she has betrayed her new best friend.

This is my favorite of Hahn's books that I've read so far.  The characters of Jessica, Daphne and Jessica's mother are fully developed and intriguing.

In Tallahassee Higgins, Tallahassee is a resilient little girl with a free-spirited mother. Her mom, who she calls Liz, suffers from depression, and Tallahassee, however young, is often there to cheer her mother up.  But when her waitress mother meets one of many boyfriends, she decides to run away from Florida to California to follow her pie in the sky dream of becoming an actress.  Instead of bringing Tallahassee with her, she sends him to live with her estranged brother and his wife in Maryland.

Tallahassee believes that her stay with her aunt and uncle is temporary.  She waits for the day that her mother will send for her and she can take a bus out to meet her in California.  But in California, Liz is working in a restaurant again and is not any closer to becoming an actress.  She doesn't even call Tallahassee. 

In Maryland, Tallahassee manages to make a new friend, but she finds living with her aunt difficult.  She also finds out who her real father is (her mother never told her).  While her father died in Vietnam, her grandmother is still alive and actually lives across the street.  This woman is totally unaware that her son even ever had a daughter in the first place.

I loved this simple story that deals with a kid dealing with neglect.  The character reminded me a bit of one of my favorite TV movies "The Neon Ceiling" which I've mentioned previously in my blog.  The tone of this book and the age of the characters again brings to mind some of Betsy Byars' more somber efforts such as her excellent books The Pinballs, The Cartoonist or The TV Kid.

In The Wind Blows Backward, Lauren is a shy teenager who falls for Spencer, a former "King of the Jocks" who has lately been going over the edge.  Their romance develops quickly and Lauren soon becomes dependent on Spencer despite the warnings from her friends.  What Lauren discovers is that Spencer was a witness to his father's suicide as a child.  This had made him reckless.  He rebels against everyone, buys a motorcycle and secretly plans on running away with Lauren from DC to California.

When Spencer eventually ends up in critical condition in the hospital, Lauren must decide if their romance is worth holding on to.  This book is clearly for an older audience than Hahn's previous books but she handles this more mature with the same delicacy that has categorized her earlier work.
I'd recommend this book if you enjoyed Kin Platt's Flames Going Out or Bonham's Gimme an H.E.L.P.

The title of the book comes from a line in a children's picture book.  It's a book that Lauren and Spencer share before they sleep together.  In a way, the book is symbolic of the loss of innocence that comes with young adulthood.  Similarly, in Daphne's Book, the act of two girls making a book together runs parallel to a traumatic event which changes both their lives.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Adam at Six A.M. (1970)

After watching Hail, Hero! (see previous post) I knew that my fixation with early Michael Douglas movies had just begun.   Next up was Adam at Six A.M. (1970) and I was far from being disappointed.  This is one of the best films I have ever seen!

First off, the script for this amazing thing was written by Steven and Elinor Karpf.  This writing team went on to pen many of my favorite made-for-tv movie including the near cult classics Gargoyles and Devil Dog!  Additionally, they wrote the screenplay for the afterschool special My Dad Lives In a Downtown Hotel (which I’ve already mentioned several times in this blog).  What are you waiting for...You should click on those links in order to watch these awesome and once hard-to-find films on YouTube!

Back to Adam at 6a.m.  I love the directing/cinematography too.  It has a down to earth feel, great music and some nice overhead shots that were probably filmed from a helicopter.  Amazing!  Especially for such a subtle character study.  That’s not to say that this movie is not intense.  It is!  But that is mostly due to the acting on the part of Michael Douglas.  In Adam, he is a totally believable character.  Not necessarily always a lovable one, but REAL nonetheless.  His character is more serious than in Hail, Hero but still shows off some humor that reflects a rebellious spirit.  If you thought Hail, Hero! was a bit boring, you definitely will NOT have the same issue with this film.

So what is Adam at 6a.m all about?  It’s a story of a disillusionment.  More so than just a story of the 1960’’s a story of the generation gap, ideals and a rebellion against expectations.  It’s a movie about searching for answers...and the film itself leaves many open-ended questions.  It’s a challenging film but it’s not difficult to watch because there are many poignant moments of friendship and romance.  But these elements are never glossed over with tight conclusions.

Douglas plays Adam, a 29 year old assistant college professor in Semantics who lived in California.  He is unhappy with his work and with his love life.  He feels out of place with his family.  When his great Aunt dies (who he has never met), he takes a cross country journey to visit her funeral in Missouri. 

At the funeral, he again immediately feels out of place surrounded by the older generation.  He nearly gets into a fight with a man who takes Adam for a hippy and freaks out when he mentions the film Blow Up.  Things settle down though, when another old woman attempts to set up Adam with her daughter (the only other young person in the procession).   I think it’s funny that Adam compares Jerri Jo’s mother to a pimp!

Jerri Jo (played by Lee Purcell) takes an immediate liking to Adam.  She is different than other girls he has been with.  She is more innocent and enthusiastic...Adam is amused by her.  They go to a drive-in movie together.  Adam thinks about scoring with her but she is not as easy as she seems.

Instead of hitting the road again, Adam decides to sick around in the small Missouri town.  He gets a summer job working as a laborer, clearing brush for a local power company.  In the process, he grows fond of the uneducated workers.  Harvey Gavin (Joe Don Baker) shares his dreams with Adam and the two become pals.  Adam enjoys their friendship and feels that he learns much from Harv about the ways of the world.

My favorite part of the film is when Harv takes the boys out for a wild night at a local bar.
Harv pulls on the charm and his barstool seduction is something that just has to be seen!  The boys have a rollicking time getting drunk and dancing.  Adam, sadly is not paired up.  The scene ends poignantly as Adam heads to a phone booth, alone, and calls Jerri Jo in the quiet darkness.  The whole thing is really quite beautiful.

When Adam gets inured at work, he returns to spend more time with Jerri Jo.  The film starts to get more romantic here and it’s worth it.  The two are a darling couple and the relationship changes the two of them for the better.

But before this turns into a romance movie, Adam continues to act more irresponsibly.  He gives all of his summer earnings to Harv, who gambles it away and nearly gets them both killed in a brawl.

It is clear that Adam still had some gnawing discontent within him.  Once he finally decides to marry Jerri Jo, it becomes apparent that he still needs to be on his own.  Her father, like his own, builds homes and will encourage him to again become a teacher.  Even though Adam has traveled a thousand miles, his life in the Midwest is beginning to look like his life back in California.  Is there any way to escape?

Adam at 6 a.m. has never been released on DVD.  It is definitely another one of my discard treasures!  Thematically I’d say this one is akin with some of the other movies I’ve previously mentioned such as The Neon Ceiling (1971).  I also recommend another strange romance film written by Steven and Elinor Karpf called Sandcastles (1972).  Another similar film/tv series from this time period is Then Came Bronson (1969-1970) that I'll have to write another post entirely about sometime.  It's also about a white collar drop-out who hits the road in order to find himself by taking outdoors laborer work.

Now I’m looking forward to seeing the final Michael Douglas “youth” film, Summertree (from 1971).  I can’t wait!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Talk about a revolution…2 war-time romances

Hail, Hero! (1969) is a long-forgotten film that stars Michael Douglas.  It is one of the very few films in which he plays a young adult.  In this, his feature film debut, Douglas is a college student named Carl Dixon.  This was a good 15 years before Romancing the Stone, and it is a Douglas you might be completely unfamiliar with.  The story takes place in the 1960’s at the onset of the Vietnam War.  Carl is an anti-war free spirit.  He is upbeat, energetic and spontaneous.   Douglas does an incredible job here in making the character Carl both eccentric and lovable at the same time.  The irony of the story is that Carl is returning home to Arizona is order to tell his divorced parents that he has enlisted in the US Army.
Carl does not want to fight.  In fact, he is against war and killing altogether.  But he has decided to enlist to make a point; out of confusion and desperation.  His insecurities stem from the relationships he has with his brother and his parents.  His brother has a lame leg and it is partially due to Carl’s actions.  What happened is that Carl once threw a snake at his brother’s horse.  The horse got out of control and landed on top of his brother.  Also, Carl’s father is always bragging about his achievements fighting in previous wars.  Carl believes that if he wasn’t the cause of his brother’s ailment, his brother would’ve been fighting in Vietnam.  He decides that he has to take on this responsibility instead.

While Hail, Hero! is not heavy on plot, it is an excellent character study.  It is an exploration of a new type of hero.   Carl is not your typical hippy.  Yes, the generation gap is explored in this film, but it’s more than just that.  Even without his long hair, Carl can sense the hypocrisy of the older generation.   At the same time, he is able to sympathize with it.   He realizes that everyone fears death and what he must do, as a hero, is to face it.   
Balancing out the seriousness, Douglas’ acting adds much humor to this picture.  Carl prances about with a tiger skin on his back, plays matador with a jeep on a country road, goes skinny-dipping, befriends an old pothead in a cave and pulls a terrible party prank involving a mummified baby.  Also, in the film’s finale, he turns artist, painting a terrific anti-war mural on the barn of his family farm.  
The film was based on the novel by John Weston and has never been released on DVD.
Cactus In The Snow (1971) is another comedy/drama that takes place during the Vietnam War.   A young Richard Thomas plays Harley, an orphan and a soldier. While he is on leave, the shy Harley decides that he would desperately like to lose his virginity before he is shipped off to fight.  

The story starts when Harley hitchhikes and ends up in a car with a drunk guy who propositions him.  Harley escapes and ends up at a mod nightclub.   He gets drunk enough to walk over to a table and ask a few girls that are sitting there if any of them would like to sleep with him.  They find him charming.  One of the girls decides to bring him back to her house.  Only there is one small problem…
Before they get undressed, Harley passes out drunk and the girl admits that she too is a virgin.  The next day the girl, named Cissy (played by Mary Layne), makes a checklist of things she’s like to do before she loses her virginity.   She decides to do these things with Harley before sleeping with him. They decide to 1. Buy Her a Nightie 2. Ride a Merry-Go-Round 3. Walk by the Sea 4. See a Movie 5. Take a Drive.  Another one of the things Cissy does is get her hair cut short, which makes her look kind of awkward.  
While the two argue and make fun of each other, it is obvious that they are falling in love.  The couple actually reminds me of Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin from A Taste of Honey(1961).   They are very sweet together.  Harley goes and finds one of his foster mother’s who doesn’t even remember who he is.   Having second thought about sex, Cissy decides to buy a prostitute for Harley.  Harley meets the prostitute and is not sure if he could go through with it.  Then, when the two do try to sleep together, Cissy’s parents come home and kick Harley out.
Finally, the tender moment comes when the two have to say good bye.  As Harley’s train is leaving, the two remember that they have forgotten to exchange full names and addresses. There is a moment when we think the couple will be reunited.   But it is too late.   Harley is shipped off to war in order to die.  And while young love is true, it’s also too short and bittersweet.
Richard Thomas was actually in a bunch of great movies throughout the 1970’s at the same time that he starred in The Waltons.  For example, I’d also recommend Last Summer (1969), and September 30, 1955 (1977).  In some ways, a young Richard Thomas in these pictures reminds of an American version of Tom Courtenay.
Cactus In the Snow was written and directed by Martin Zweibach, who previously wrote the screenplay for Me, Natalie (1969) a strange film with Patty Duke that had a Rod McKuen soundtrack.  It was also released in the UK as You Can’t Have Everything.  It has never been released on DVD.
Both of these rare coming-of-age Vietnam-era movies are definitely worth seeking out.  They are stories about soldiers who don’t care to fight.   They are stories that favor LOVE over WAR!  While some may call these dated, I say that this theme is TIMELESS.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Beverly Hills 90210 outsiders

The original Beverly Hills 90210 is my guilty pleasure. The show’s concept works: a rich kid’s mix of Afterschool Specials and daytime soap opera. The Hollywood location always kept me from taking this too seriously, and the writing was great for what it was. The first two seasons were very issue-oriented and like afterschool specials, they often had an agenda or message. But into the third season, and for the rest of its run, it turned into full time soap. However, this was soap at its best: like Dynasty for young adults. Watching it as a teenager in the 1990’s seemed strange because actors such as Luke Perry seemed way too old to be in High School. In fact, Perry was about 27 years old when he was supposed to be playing the 17 year old character Dylan. These characters not only looked older, they acted older. Sex is casual and rampant in 90210. In retrospect, these details don’t bother me so much. Now that I am older than these actors were, I find it easier to fully indulge in the world of these well-developed characters. Where I was once reluctant to watch past Season 4 (the post High-School and post Brenda years), I now find that the later seasons are equally as enjoyable.

Part of what makes 90210 such an amazing series is its complexity. More so than shows that would follow in its footsteps, such as Dawson’s Creek, there were over ten main characters and viewers got to know them all intimately. The original group of friends in Beverly Hills 90210 is a nearly impenetrable, exclusive clique. Members included Brandon and Brenda Walsh, Kelly Taylor, Steve Sanders, Andrea Zuckerman, Dylan McKay, Donna Martin and David Silver. Their lives centered around romance, friendship and meeting significant others. All have plenty of money and despite their personal problems and complex relationships, none of them appear to have to hold down jobs (Brandon is the exception; Brandon can do anything!). Other young adults who attempt to permeate this group, don’t fare as well. I find these auxiliary characters fascinating. These tragic outsider characters are what keep the show interesting for me.

Brandon Walsh is the star and conscience of the show. In the first episode, his parents move to 90210 from Minnesota with him and his sister. His “all-american” abilities enable him to penetrate the inner circle of the elite. He is as much an icon to the 1990’s as Ferris Bueller was to the 1980’s. Brandon is the guy that everyone loves even though he’s more preppy than rebel. His best friends balance out his leanings towards perfection. Dylan is the brooding loner and Steve is the party-animal jock. The multitude of relationships that these characters have help bring new blood to the show. However, none of these outsider characters are able to cope with Beverly Hill’s beautiful crowd quite so easily.

Emily Valentine (played by Christine Elise), from Season 2 for example, nearly goes insane in the process of trying to fit in. The insecure Valentine drugs Brandon at a rave. Then, after attempting to torch herself, along with a parade float, she spends time in a mental hospital. Brandon still holds a place in his heart for this “bad girl” though and their romance is almost rekindled briefly in Season 4 and 5 after Emily begins to pull her life together and find some direction.

Another one of Brandon’s many girlfriends that I loved was Nikki Witt (Dana Barron) from Season 3. Barron is an actress that is most well known for her role in National Lampoon’s Vacation as Audrey Griswold. One of the things that now fascinates me about 90210 is how many of the actors/actresses were about 5 or 6 years older than the parts they were playing. Nikki is supposed to be a younger character (a High School Sophomore/ approximately 15) but in Season 3 (1992) the real life Barron was actually 26 years old! If Emily valentine was the “bad girl”, Nikki Witt was the more free-spirited hippy type. Her character was from San Francisco and Brandon saves her from a dangerous ex-boyfriend who nearly rapes her. Nikki is witty enough to almost become part of the group but unfortunately it was not to be and Season 3 was her last. Strangely, Dana Barron also appeared in a commercial for Trojan condoms around this time.

The intelligent vixen character that lasts is Valerie Malone (Tiffani Thiessen, known for her role as in Kelly in Saved By the Bell) who first appears in Season 5 to replace the hole left by Brenda’s (Shannen Doherty’s) departure. Along with Brian Austin Green (who plays David Silver) and Tori Spelling (Donna), Thiessen is the only one of the gang who is in close proximity to the age of the character she is playing and looks it. I was at first reluctant to watch the show after Brenda’s departure. However, I eventually found Valerie to be a much more interesting character. She added a lot of drama to the show in her attempts to have relationships with most of the leading men in Season 5 and 6 including Dylan, Brandon, Ray and David. At first it is the fact that Valerie is so manipulative that she is able to force her way into the group. Eventually though, she must learn to prove herself and act outside of her vindictive nature.

Unfortunately, other characters are not as strong or fortunate. Two characters are killed off after coming close to the group. These include the unfortunate Scott Sandlin, who accidentally kills himself in Season 2. And then there is Antonia Marchette, Dylan’s love interest from Season 6. The two are wed and the next day she is shot and killed.

Probably the most long-running outsider character on the show is Ray Pruit. Played by Jamie Walters, Pruit was Donna Martin’s boyfriend throughout Season 5 and the beginning of Season 6. Donna first notices Ray working construction while she is a student at California University. She tries to include him in a video she is making for a school project. When he realizes that the video is a joke that will possibly make him look stupid, he is immediately defensive. Donna is sympathetic when she realizes that Ray is deep and not just a “hot bod”.

In the show, Ray is a musician and his sensitive side comes out in his music. The actor who played Ray, Jamie Walters, landed the role right after starring in the short lived (1 season) show The Heights from 1992. The Heights was about a rock and roll band. Walters sung the title song “How Do You talk to an Angel” that became a number one hit. Recast as a musician in 90210, Walters had all the makings of a teen idol, perhaps a Ricky Nelson for the 1990s. His songs were featured in several episodes and outside of the show, he even began touring with a band.

I like Jamie Walters as an actor and his music isn’t half bad either, so it’s kind of a shame that fate didn’t shine on him. In the show Ray has a bit of a brutal past that appeared foreign to the 90210 clique. His father was abusive, his mother was an alcoholic and Ray, who never went to college, holds two jobs. He works construction and on his family farm while still trying to maintain integrity as a songwriter.

Throughout Ray and Donna’s relationship it is obvious that he has a deep love for her. However, this does not come without its problems. He often feels spiteful to her friends who view him as a bad influence. Also Ray’s abusive past makes him act aggressive with Donna at times. This becomes a more serious issue in the show when Ray’s aggression lends itself to Donna falling down a set of stairs and breaking her arm. Ray also has a brief affair with Valerie, who comes onto him. Ray is never happy about this because his connection with Valerie is mostly due to his frustration over his non-sexual relationship with Donna. He tries to keep the affair a secret. However after Donna eventually finds out, she gets a new boyfriend and Ray is again the terminal outsider. For a few episodes he is portrayed as a stalker, trying to win back Donna’s affection until he is gone from the program completely.

Despite his issues, I actually found Ray an endearing character that gets the short end of the stick, so to speak, in this series. Ray came far in trying to deal with his problems and making a career for himself as an artist. He could be violent at times, but for the most part he was very sweet. What he lacked in humor, he made up in sensitivity. In some ways Ray Pruit reminds me of James Dean. He is a rebel without a cause motivated by love and a troubled past. He never quite fit into the glamorous lifestyle of the other members of the exclusive 90210 clique. But for a while he lived there, and he did okay.

Other members of the clique had their own issues. And I’m not saying that Ray’s aggressive behavior towards Donna was at all justifiable. But certainly Ray never went over the edge the way Dylan did. Dylan acts far more despicable in Season 5 where he engages in multiple accounts of casual sex, uses Valerie, becomes addicted to drugs and alcohol, begins collecting firearms and throws tantrums at those he is closest to. If Dylan was redeemed in the eyes of the elite 90210 clique, then why not Ray? Is it because his character was poor in comparison and not from Beverly Hills? If this is the case, then as a viewer Ray gets my sympathy. To the credit of the writers, Ray does make a brief appearance in Season 7, having worked out most of his issues in therapy and appearing more well-adjusted.

In 1999, Walter’s had this to say about his role as Ray Pruit “At first he was this sort of underdog. He was this guy from the wrong side of the town, who didn't fit in with the Beverly Hills kids but he had his music and he was honest and all this stuff. And then they started twisting him into being this abusive evil boyfriend. I was like you either have to change the character or you have to let me off the show, because I'm going out and I'm like trying to sell tickets on our tour, and there's teenage girls out there who think, like they really think I'm an abusive guy you know, and they'd hold up signs saying like 'leave Donna alone' and that's so not what I wanted".

Beverly Hills 90210 was such a terrific show because even within the clique, we got to see the characters in depth and multi-faceted. As a viewer you learn to love the characters even through their toughest times. Examples of this would be when Kelly joins a cult or becomes addicted to drugs. Or when David Silver finds out that his mother is homeless. I even found at some point that I liked the character of Steve, even though he is a typical “bone head jock”, he is nevertheless still interesting and complex in his own way. I feel that Ray could’ve become such a character, given the chance. Out of all the characters that came and went on the show, he seemed to have the most potential. As a character from “the other side of the tracks” he brought something fresh to the program.

In short: the original Beverly Hills 90210 was an addicting and total watchable show.
That being said, Jamie Walters as Ray Pruitt was in this writer’s opinion a discard treasure.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bad Ronald is SCARY!

The 1974 made-for-tv movie Bad Ronald, starring Scott Jacoby, is nothing short of a cult classic.  This psychological thriller about a teenage murderer hidden inside the walls of a Victorian home in Oakland California undeniably left a strong impression on anyone who viewed it.   In the movie, Ronald Wilby is the ultimate teenage outsider.   Denied the affection of his peers and a girl who he has a crush on, a frustrated Ronald accidentally kills a young girl.  He returns home and admits the crime to his mother who hides him away in a sealed off downstairs bathroom.   Ronald lives there, only occasionally communicating with his mother through a secret entrance in the pantry.   Locked away, Ronald reverts to an intricate fantasy world that he calls Atranta and rules over as Prince Norbert.  He covers the walls with paintings from the characters in his imaginary world.  When his mother unexpectedly dies, a new family moves into the Wilby house.   Still in hiding, Ronald creates peepholes to spy on the three teenage daughters.   In the process he grows more deranged and eventually tries to lure the teenage girls into his lair. The horror in this film comes from mood and atmosphere rather than blood and guts.  Jacoby was a natural for the role, having already played a disturbed teenager who attempts to murder his stepfather in the rarely seen feature film Rivals (1972).
The film’s screenplay was based on the paperback book published just one year earlier in 1973 by John Holbrook Vance (who is better known as sci-fi writer Jack Vance).   The novel was an unlikely choice for a television adaptation and even though much of the book’s contents remained intact, all of the disturbing brutality was removed.  In retrospect, reading the novel seems all the more shocking.  In the film, Ronald’s situation seems somewhat accidental allowing the viewer to have some sympathy for Ronald’s unfortunate situation.  The same cannot be said for the book.  In the novel, the character of Ronald Wilby is far more despicable.  Here is how it differs:

In Vance’s book Ronald is far more sex obsessed.  He pines for his neighbor Laurel and when he attends her pool party, he finds her wearing a very revealing bikini.  When she ignores him, Ronald becomes so sexually frustrated, that he takes out this angst on another one of his neighbors Carol Mathews.  In the film, Carol’s death is shown as an accident.  In the novel, it is anything but. 
In the film, Ronald is a momma’s boy and is at least honest with her about his crime.  In the novel, he flat out lies, never mentioning the rape that brought about Carol’s death.  Also in the film, Ronald appears skinny and nerdy.  The fact that his mother wants him to be a doctor is believable.  In the novel, Ronald is overweight and shows no interest in science or medicine.  Sex and fantasy are his preoccupations.  When the Woods movie in, he takes advantage of the voyeuristic opportunity for all it's worth.  Much of his free time is spent finding ways to eventually take advantage of the girls.
In the movie the girls are more fortunate.  In the novel, not so much.  Two of them are captured and later killed by Ronald.

In the book, he gets what is coming to him.  When Ronald is discovered, he is set on fire.   After he busts out of the house, he attempts to return to the original “scene of the crime” and the first place he goes to hide is Laurel’s home, and finally her pool, before he is captured.

In short, the novel is a far darker version of this story with harsher, nightmarish sexual overtones.  On the one hand, this makes it a more horrific story.  On the other, it takes away from the reader's/viewer's ability to identify with the metaphor for Ronald's terrible predicament and psychosis as one of a more typical awkward male teenage yearning and loneliness.  For what it's worth, Vance's book is a frightening one.  It's far more terrifying than the film and far more straight forward than any of Vance's other books.  That being said, it's still exceptionally written and worth a look for any fan of horror or books dealing with teenage psychopaths.  The movie is a toned down version of this nightmare as Scott Jacoby, as an actor, is more sensitive than he is terribly creepy.  So to sum it up, both the book and the movie are worth your time, albeit for two very different reasons.

If you are already a fan of Bad Ronald and are looking to bill this as a triple-feature with two other movies dealing with frightfully dangerous teenagers, here are my recommendations.


The Lost (2006).  Chris Sivertson is my favorite "young" director currently making movies and The Lost is his masterpiece.  Based on the novel by Jack Ketchum, this is a fictionalized story based on the true crimes of the "Pied Piper of Tucson", Charles Schmid.  Marc Senter is brilliantly evil as the deranged teenage killer Ray Pye,  Be warned: this is not for the faint of heart as extreme violence ensues.  Sivertson also directed the crazy and highly-underrated Lindsay Lohan vehicle I Know Who Killed Me.

The Young Poisoner's Handbook (1995).  In this rarely screened film, director Benjamin Ross has crafted a comedy out of the true account of Graham Young, the St. Alban's Poisoner.  Hugh O'Conor plays the part of a teenage poisoner who tries, and sometimes succeeds at offing his family members and co-workers.  This movie did not play long in theaters as soon as family members of the deceased got a hold of it.  Putting the true crime element aside, this is a truly entertaining movie with a structure that mirrors A Clockwork Orange.