MCN Commentary & Analysis

The Blue Mask Diaries: Episode One

I’ve been in lockdown pretty much since March 9, when I returned from the great and glorious True/False Doc Fest. Thirty-seven days. It’s not really that much, but it feels like forever at times.

But when I am on the couch/chair/bed watching something great, time stops and the world is my oyster.

There has been a lot of expected viewing. News, news, news. Junk I like on Bravo as an alternative to electroshock therapy. Binging and waiting for weekly episodes.

My favorite part of this the freeform connection between films that has appeared so often during lockdown.

I went from Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood to Once Upon A Time in America to searching for other Tuesday Weld performances to a long-lost film that I loved as a kid in 1980 called Serial, in which Ms. Weld co-starred with the great Martin Mull and a load of familiar TV faces, because the director was an old-school TV guy named Bill Persky.

Set in late-70s Marin County, where swing was the thing, the film was based on a “novel” by Cyra McFadden that was bound like a school notebook, as I found out years later when I got a copy at a used book store. (Sigh… used book stores.)

The movie, which I paid $12.99 to own, was much as I remembered it. Beautiful people acting stupid in the way I remember friends of my parents acting in Miami Beach in that decade. Sally Kellerman swinging her breasts, Bill Macy as the put-upon middle-aged man, the woman from “Hogan’s Heroes” and another from “Dynasty” and Jerry The Dentist from “Bob Newhart” and Tom Smothers and Peter Horton and even the recently in-the-news Stacey Nelkin as the big-breasted 18-year-old sleeping with Bill Macy who doesn’t look like Woody Allen, but works as a cultural stand-in for the moment.

The film is flawed in many ways. The script and the acting are too often TV glib, even though the atmosphere is highly sexualized… including a turn by the rarely-in-a-comedy Christopher Lee, playing the leader of a biker gang, with then-unexpected tastes. But it was also smart and funny and horribly current on some level. A not very deep rewrite could easily turn this into a thoughtfully funny and raunchy Seth Rogen movie.

But one of the things I remember from the swinging 70s and some of the 80s is the comfortable use of sex in movies. It’s gone. And yes, women were certainly the object of objectification, but if Tom Cruise and Kevin Costner were being honest, they would tell you that their asses were a big part of their appeal in the 80s.

Another movie from that period that was very sexually casual and which I came back to was California Dreaming, a John D. Hancock piece of almost-arty pulp starring Dennis Christopher in the same year as Breaking Away as well as indie legend Seymour Cassel. But most importantly, and the person who guided me back to the film, Glynnis O’Connor, who became a topic of dinner discussion because of “The Boy In The Plastic Bubble.” When this movie came on HBO in 1980 (I was 15 or 16), there was that sweet teenage girl from “Bubble” as well as Ode To Billy Joe and Baby Blue Marine casually dropping her bikini top.

But the film was more than an ingenue being naked on camera. It still fits into that pervy teen movie thing that was at its start and would be resurrected by American Pie in 1999. There was the notion of there being something, uh, European about the whole thing… until Porky’s and The Last American Virgin took over. Remember, La Cage Aux Folles was an arthouse sensation in 1978 and back then, it was sexually edgy. Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre was also in arthouse theaters, showing a Dracula with a much more realistic bite, leading Hollywood’s Warren Beatty from Julie Christie to Isabelle Adjani.

Oh my GOD, I need to find Camille Claudel with Adjani, a movie that moved me to my core. But I digress… which is kinda the point…

The Hunger. Tony Scott’s first feature-length film. What fun watching that one again. Tony is dead. Bowie is dead. Those women. Power and sex. Deneuve at 40, a goddess and a bad-ass. The whole experience is like eating the richest piece of cake ever, covered with drunken whipped cream, with a popper on the side.

This one was Criterion Channel’s fault. It was siting there like your favorite piece of candy, ever, when you are trying so hard to diet. It took me a moment to realize/remember that it was the great Ann Magnuson giving her all in those first seduction and blood scenes.

(Watch Making Mr. Right, which has one of the great comedy performances — as I remember it — ever by Laurie Metcalf, a goofy, sexy turn by Glenne Headly, The Great Magnuson (a downtown legend who got a brief mainstream window), and of course, Malkovich, in one of his first truly goofy performances, as both an uptight nerd and the perfect robot man. A lot of people hated the movie back in the day. But I loved it so much more than Suddenly Seeking Susan, which was the movie that got Susan Seidelman the opportunity, before she crashed with Cookie and She-Devil. ALlthough that reminds me… the BBC version of The Lives & Loves of A She Devil is prime binge viewing with a stunning lead performance by Julie T. Wallace. I so hate the idea of anyone watching any of these things on YouTube. I may have a UK DVD of She-Devil in the garage. Making Mr. Right is an Orion title, so I don’t know when it will turn back up, aside from an overpriced DVD on Amazon.)

Getting further sidetracked before returning to The Hunger, another movie I love, Louis Malle’s 1992 Damage, with Jeremy Irons as its amazing center and Miranda Richardson giving what should have been an Oscar-winning turn as his wife… plus Juliette Binoche as the object of agonized desire and a glorious spin by the then-60-year-old Leslie Caron as her mother. I bought the film digitally on Apple or Amazon and… agony. It looked like a VHS conversion instead of even being made from a print or negative. And it was in the old TV square format. Such a beautiful, subtle piece of cinematography by Peter Biziou, who was between 9 1/2 Weeks and Mississippi Burning on one side of this film and Loncraine/McKellan’s Richard III and The Truman Show on the other. Why Criterion has not done its magic on this one, I don’t know.

The Hunger took me right back to the 8th Street Playhouse where I saw it as an NYU student, young and juiced enough that I could imagine such an adventure, but never nearly hip enough for that room. And all these years later, it is amusing as hell to notice John Pankow and Willem Dafoe as “1st and 2nd Phone Booth Youths.”

And I love watching the lines of clear progression between this film, which is so unique in so many ways amongst Scott’s sixteen feature films, and the world that was to come. Tony Scott was in his late 30s making this first feature, seven years younger than his brother Ridley and six years behind Ridley’s first feature, The Duellists (and Alien and Blade Runner). His films would define the 80s — for better or worse — while Ridley stumbled until Thelma & Louise in 1991.

I could take a bite out of The Hunger… Ten-to-fifteen minutes on a pretty regular basis. I don’t need every frame. I don’t need Cliff DeYoung, who was really kneed in the balls by the rest of that cast and young Mr. Scott. He never had a chance. And Bowie… going after Alice, played by young Beth Ehlers. Amazing.

Another note: Take time to watch Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence all the way through. I think I watched that film like five times in a couple weeks at one point. It was like meditating.

Criterion Channel — yes, I know that many cannot get it in their countries — remains a joy. I had never seriously watched The Bad & The Beautiful until a few months ago on Criterion. And then I got to watch Two Weeks In Another Town, which was a much better Vincent Minnelli behind-the-curtain movie for me. TB&TB is a classic idea of Hollywood power corrupting. The Two Weeks story feels so much more like the Hollywood I know… mental breakdowns, once-greats hanging on, dumb-asses on sets, the distractions that should be easier to see past… dirtier… messier.

I also realized that I had never closely watched Contempt, although it has been at every revival house. Did I write about By The Sea without watching the unofficial original?

Loved It! Of course I did. Loved Fritz Lang in the film and Jack Palance, who was so out of his depth and so not. I’ve never really been a Godard guy. He’s not as smart as he thinks and I’m not as dumb as he thinks. But I am happy to bunk in with most of his 1960s and 1970s films.

And now, my family has driven my train of thought into a tree. So until the next episode…

37 Responses to “The Blue Mask Diaries: Episode One”

  1. Bradley Laing says:

    Your March 26 column predicted theaters starting to re-open on June 1st, and then normal box office July 1st. That is approaching one month ago. Should I assume that you have pushed back your guess to July 1st re-openings, and August 1st normal business?

    With another thought: “normal business” does not mean as many ticket buyers as in August of 2019. Because this will be happening in a “new normal”?

  2. Stella's Boy says:

    Normal business on August 1 probably means drive-ins and some other theaters scattered around the country here and there showing movies long out of theaters.

  3. Christian says:

    David, Criterion “did its magic” on “Damage” not long after its official home-video release. See this eBay listing:

    Why the film is not on the channel is above my pay grade. Must be a rights issue.

  4. Bob Burns says:

    The Mouse is furloughing 100,000 workers, saving $500 million a month, so that they can pay a $1.5 billion dividend. The taxpayers pick up the cost of the enhanced unemployment benefits….. so that, in the end, taxpayers are paying dividends to Disney stockholders.

  5. David Poland says:

    Yes, Bradley… that first take was adjusted on Twitter a while back. It’s actually odd to think about how long this last 6 weeks has felt compared to the norm.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily so date specific. But I do think August is now the first window that will have the opportunity to do something closer to normal box office on a movie. Of course, the international theaters are a huge part of that puzzle and I don’t have any closely-held insight or trust of the public posturing on that.

    I have also stated that I think that the interest of audiences will be there, but the liability issues will be significant. Also, there was a Deadline piece kind of undercutting the cost of keeping the theaters clean enough to make audiences comfortable… I disagree with that. If they try to cheap it out, there will be problems. They need to hire into the problem and this should be financially supported, to some degree, by the government. Multis should be required to hire at least one additional worker to clean in every hour for every 4 theaters they have and the US should support that. That could be 20,000 people employed at $15 an hour, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week or $25.2 million a week. President Blonde Moron should make this an argument he makes that would cost $300 million for 3 months to make this viable. (Chains should be required to provide documentation to show that they are not just bonusing some 15-year-old from back of concessions to this role.)

    Theater Owners need to understand that this is about image as much as reality.

    As for the September film festivals, I would be making radical choices for Telluride and Toronto. For instance, if I was at TIFF, I would recommend removing the media from the equation on location altogether. Figure out what works for the locals, as it is their festival and has always been their festival. And then let the media see participating movies that are media-needy digitally from wherever they live. Every studio streams movies to press (and awards) now. We have no idea where we will be in September, even if things quiet down more. Moving 10,000 people to Toronto for a week to stand in line to watch movies at mostly multiplexes is insane.

    Anyway… I should write a full piece about this. I have been avoiding writing a future-looking piece for a few weeks because there has been so much dumb noise out there. Perhaps it is time.

  6. David Poland says:

    Christian… sigh. According to another site, “Damage” was in Malle’s approved theatrical ratio as well. The murky mess I bought online is pillarboxed while the Laserdisc was letterboxed.

    I am pretty flexible on these things. But it hurts my heart to watch this version of the film. It’s like finding a film you love on the 6 non-HD channels of the premium channels these days. Pass.

  7. Stella's Boy says:

    Closer to normal in August like a movie gets a wide release? That is really hard to imagine right now. With so many Republican states about to reopen and all these nitwits demanding to reopen it seems like things are going to get worse before they get better. A lot can happen between now and August 1 but for the life of me I can’t envision any scenario where things are even semi-normal at movie theaters then.

  8. TJS says:

    Great essay.
    I, too, loved SERIAL. And have owned THE HUNGER in every home video format.
    Still behind on my Minnelli and Godard. Will add to the list!

  9. Is Wells Well says:

    I would like to purchase the audible version of today’s column, read by Poland and introduced by Woody Allen. Link?

  10. Bob Burns says:

    I have posted this before, but it bears repeating. Theatrical won’t happen until we have a working testing and contact tracing regime. Today, thirty billion dollars is being appropriated for this purpose. This is much more than the annual CDC budget. It will take weeks before this can be packaged by the CDC to send to the states, and it will take them weeks before they can organize and train work forces much larger than those they currently manage. Then they will have to conduct mass testing for several weeks before their contact tracing processes can create boundaries around outbreaks. There are no shortcuts, short of an off the shelf miracle treatment.

    Our public health system was designed to build a cage around infectious diseases before they reach scale. Unfortunately this capacity was crippled by short-sighted, anti-government politicians who have cut CDC funding year after year, resulting in this plague. Now, public health will have to build a huge, sophisticated, new capacity from scratch. We have not heard, yet, about mobilizing the National Guard to check temperatures at the doors of grocery stores, because we don’t yet have the capacity to act on the huge number of fevers they will find. But news of mobilization of the National Guard to help with testing, nationwide, will be an indication that we are getting nearer to the day that theaters might be able to open.

    There is so much we don’t know. A large scale, scientifically designed random COVID 19 testing sample was taken in Los Angeles. It indicated that there were many people who have been exposed to the virus for every known case, but we don’t yet know what this means, and we don’t know if immunity actually exists for people who have recovered. And recovery is a myth, COVID has serious health implications other than death… real damage to our brains, hearts and livers.

    Regarding theatrical, the medical costs of an outbreak are orders of magnitude larger than any benefits from watching movies in theaters, at a time when hospitals and municipalities are starving for money. I cannot imagine any responsible adult contemplating opening theaters before we know much more than we do, and have accomplished far more, as a country, than we have accomplished to date.

    On top of all these difficulties, pubic health departments are trying to maintain their existing services, while adapting to isolation. They are already exhausted trying to do this. One of the most accomplished, and senior, public health figures in my state told me that if 500,000 tests were dropped onto the loading dock of our local health department, which is a very good health department, they would be almost helpless to move forward. Public health campaigns, much smaller than this, usually take about a year to organize, from what I have observed at the CDC and locally.

  11. Stella's Boy says:

    That is really well-said Bob and I agree with all of it. Thinking that Tenet and Mulan are going to play in theaters nationwide in three months seems like wishful thinking at best.

  12. movieman says:

    Thinking that ANYTHING is going to play in theaters nationwide within the next twelve months (or more) is probably wishful thinking, too.
    I’m really getting increasingly pessimistic about the whole situation.
    And just how will theaters re-open even if there’s a vaccine or–gulp–a cure within 12-18 months?
    I hardly think multiplex employees who were furloughed in March are sitting around waiting to go back to work at their old jobs in 2021.
    In most cases, they’ll have to hire completely new staffs to operate the ‘plexes.
    The same can be said about most restaurants and their employees (chefs, sous chefs, line cooks, servers, managers, etc.). Certainly the ones (and there are plenty I’m sure: particularly the top-tier, Michelin-y type establishments in larger metropolitan areas) that aren’t currently operating as takeout/delivery joints.
    Of course, it’s not like there’s a whole lot of available jobs in the current economy to fill the void while their former places of employment sit dark. But how many of them have enough savings accrued to wait it out?
    Damned if I can see a light at the end of this particular tunnel.

  13. Stella's Boy says:

    Hard to argue with any of that movieman. And from a business standpoint, if a huge movie like Mulan or Tenet is going to open in theaters nationwide, how long does a studio want to run a full throttle advertising campaign before opening day? If Warner Bros. or Disney believed that those movies would be opening in three months, would they be running ads?

  14. movieman says:

    And can we all start calling the Coronavirus what it really is?
    It’s “The Trump Virus,” dammit.

    If he’s still squatting in the Oval Office a year from now, we might as well say “Adios” to any chance of ever returning to the Old Normal.

    That means ever seeing a movie in a theater (crowded or otherwise) again. (And forget film festivals: they’ll be as dead as the proverbial dodo.)
    Actual (not online) classrooms.
    Live theater/concerts.
    Sporting events.
    Las Vegas.
    Amusement parks.
    Ad nauseam.

    And I’ll be damned if I’m going to start paying $20 (or more) a pop for at-home movies.
    Especially when I was paying $18 a month for my Regal Unlimited plan.

  15. Pete B. says:

    Not sure why it’s the Trump Virus. If you name it for its place of origin, it is the Wuhan Virus.

  16. movieman says:

    I will always associate the virus with Trump (hence “The Trump Virus”) because it was his months of slothful inaction and deliberate lies that allowed it to snowball in the U.S. to become the game-ender that it is.
    No apologies.

  17. Pete B. says:

    If everyone follows that line of reasoning, anyone who’s unhappy with their country’s leadership should name the virus after that leader? So in France it’s the “Macron Virus”? That could get confusing.

  18. Stella's Boy says:

    I believe we are in the U.S. Pete and therefore it makes perfect sense to judge our leader’s response, not France’s, but that’s a real nice attempt to try to change the conversation. I understand why you would want to do so to given the disastrous response from Trump and his administration. Internal GOP polling showing his numbers going way down, etc. Telling people to drink disinfectant. And on and on. Hard to spin away the crazy and how poorly he’s done. Not that you won’t try (BUT MACRON!!).

  19. Pete B. says:

    Actually Stella, I think the directive was to inject the disinfectant, not drink it. But “spin away the crazy” seems equally apropos to the DNC keeping Joe locked in his basement so he doesn’t get lost.

  20. Stella's Boy says:

    More deflecting and changing the conversation. I get it. What else can a Trump lover really do right now?

  21. movieman says:

    Changing the subject to something less depressing than Trump-Coronavirus:

    I really enjoyed “Extraction” with Chris Hemsworth on Netflix.
    It’s a mash-up of “Man on Fire,” the “Raid”/”John Wick/”Mad Max” (Hemsworth’s Aussie accent!) franchises and even “Slumdog Millionaire” (the setting, duh), but there’s nary a dull moment.
    Unlike some movies which are just as relentlessly paced, it never exhausts you. Which is a real achievement.
    On the downside, it’s “stylish” without having any particular style of its own.
    And the closing credits are positively “Avengers”-esque: 14+ minutes if you can believe it.
    I bet it could have grossed $75-$90-million as a wide studio release.

    P.S.= “Circus of Books” is an even better Netflix movie this week. Loved it.

  22. Stella's Boy says:

    You think so movieman? Men in Black 4, Rush, El Royale. Hemsworth hasn’t been box office gold as a lead outside of Marvel movies. I look forward to seeing Extraction. Looks like dumb fun and good home viewing.

  23. Pete B. says:

    Rush deserved to find a bigger audience. A very underappreciated film.

  24. Stella's Boy says:

    Also a fan of Rush but Hemsworth failed to open it.

  25. movieman says:

    It reminded me of a Wahlberg/Berg movie, SB.
    Which makes me think of their Netflix movie from earlier this year which I also enjoyed.
    That would have banked some nice multiplex bucks, too.

    “Extraction” is pure action/momentum. It’s tough to bet against movies like that at the box office.
    They’re sort of why “motion” pictures were invented.
    Turn your brain off and groove, lol.

  26. Stella's Boy says:

    I enjoyed the Wahlberg/Berg Netflix movie too but don’t forget that their last wide theatrical release less than two years ago only made $35 million. So I don’t see much reason to believe Spenser Confidential or Extraction makes much more than that. I like that kind of R rated action movie but I also get why they’re debuting on Netflix.

  27. movieman says:

    Maybe I’m projecting, SB: I would have LIKED to seen it gross $75-million-plus as a wide theatrical release.
    I’m sure it’s burning up the ‘net, though, lol.

  28. Stella's Boy says:

    It’s too bad that we’ll never know. Although sometimes we get some info about Netflix ratings. If it’s a huge hit they’ll tell us and we’ll have to take their word for it.

  29. movieman says:

    I’m having the same problem w/ Prime that everyone else claims they have w/ Netflix: too many choices!
    While there’s precious little that interests me on Netflix these days–the increasingly rare original movie or doc; I don’t think I’ve “binged” a N-ix series since Ryan Murphy’s “Politician” last fall–Prime offers a veritable cornucopia of viewing options.
    Every time I switch it on, I discover a half-dozen new titles (movies I’ve been wanting to re-see for decades, or ones that I’ve always wanted to see). Last night I stumbled upon Rohmer’s “Perceval” which I haven’t seen since the 1978 NYFF, “Cutter’s Way” (haven’t seen that since its original release when it was still called “Cutter and Bone”!) and Wertmuller’s “The Seduction of Mimi.” Yeah; I want to see all of them again.
    Of course, what Prime giveth they also take away. Every few days I discover that a movie available free to Prime members last week (e.g., “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation”) is now $3.99, lol.
    Currently watching a 1973 whatzit? (“Messiah of Evil”) directed/written by Willard Huyck and co-written and produced by Gloria Katz. Can’t tell whether it’s supposed to be an homage to Dario Argento or an early precursor to David Lynch. Either way, it’s f***ing weird, and the print quality is abysmal. Of course, it might have looked that shi**y at the time of its release, too.
    It stars Marianna Hill (4 short years from “Medium Cool”) and Michael Greer.

  30. Christian says:

    Hate to do this to you, MM, but if you haven’t seen it, here’s Richard Brody’s guide to 83 movies streaming (as of 4/10/20) on Prime. I printed this off last week but haven’t started in yet because I’m prioritizing some long-on-the-shelf DVDs. But this list is full of great titles or titles I’ve long wanted to see. So it was disappointing to have my wife page through the printout earlier today and shrug; guess I’ll be watching these alone!

  31. movieman says:

    Thanks, Christian.
    I’ll definitely check that Brody guide out.
    But knowing Amazon Prime, half the titles are no longer available to watch for free, even to Prime customers.
    Just finished Robert Aldrich’s “Sodom and Gomorrah:”: it was the only Aldrich I hadn’t seen.
    Pretty awful, and the “subtitles” were hilarious: it was like really bad smartphone voice-spell.
    I guess I should have gone w/ Jack Hill’s 1974 cheerleader romp w/ Colleen Camp instead.
    It couldn’t have been any more tedious than “S&G,” and is only half the length.

  32. Stella's Boy says:

    Extraction is meh. 100% a Netflix movie and would not have done well theatrically. Too saccharine for my taste. Doesn’t miss a single reluctant hero or white savior cliche. Some very well-staged action scenes. I like Hemsworth but he’s pretty bland here. Could do this role in his sleep and sometimes seems to be half asleep. It’s no Man on Fire.

  33. movieman says:

    Sorry you didn’t enjoy it, SB.
    Give HBO’s “Bad Education” a try.
    Great stuff, and I can definitely see it figuring prominently in this year’s Emmy race. (Jackman and Janney are veritable locks for nominations.)

  34. Stella's Boy says:

    Well I enjoyed it for what it is while also having some beefs with it. It’s a decent Saturday night movie that has some issues. Sometimes OK is just fine. Definitely going to watch Bad Education.

  35. movieman says:

    “Bad Education” reminded me of the kind of moderately budgeted movie for adults that used to be released by Searchlight, SPC or Focus in the early ’00s. The kind of movie (e.g., “The Savages” or “Capote”) that generally parlayed critical acclaim and moderately successful b.o. into a bevy of Oscar nominations. I liked it a lot, and Ray Romano also has an outside chance at a supporting nod.

  36. Stella's Boy says:

    I love the movies you speak of. Saw lots of chatter yesterday about Jackman being a serious awards contender if it had been a theatrical release. Look forward to checking it out.

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