Friday, May 25, 2018

War is Hell: a Memorial Day Memory

The upcoming Memorial Day weekend seems an apt time to look back on my years as story editor to Roger Corman at Concorde-New Horizons Pictures. In that era, circa 1986 through 1994. many of our action thrillers were set among the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Some of our most prolific screenwriters were Vietnam War vets who could write accurately about military weapons and reproduce the slang of grunts in the field. I myself had no similar war experience to call upon when I was tasked with finishing up the script of a Concorde writer who’d dropped the ball on one of our projects. But I did my best, and Beyond the Call of Duty became one of my six Concorde screenwriting credits.

Roger Corman’s Vietnam movies were all shot in the Philippines, where Roger’s buddy -- the legendary Cirio Santiago -- had access to weaponry, jungle foliage, and legions of actual Filipino soldiers who were only too happy to put on Vietnamese uniforms and die dramatically for the cameras. Authenticity was never more than the vaguest of goals. But my writing colleague Frank McAdams is capable of much better. Frank, after thirteen months in Vietnam, entered UCLA Film School. He wrote Stagecoach Bravo, based on his own Marine Corps experience, as his thesis film, and it went on to win the prestigious Samuel Goldwyn Screenwriting Competition. Later, after years of teaching screenwriting, he published The American War Film: History and Hollywood. More recently the University Press of Kansas put forth his Vietnam Rough Riders: A Convoy Commander’s Memoir (2013).

Some of the stories told in Frank’s memoir were already familiar to me from conversations we had had over lunch. There was, for instance, the major who took it upon himself to withhold from his troops those movies (like The Graduate and Dr. Strangelove) he considered offensively countercultural. But the episode that really stood out for me in Frank’s book began when, while in the process of writing a letter, he heard a commotion coming from the neighboring hooch (or canvas-walled living quarter). Peeking inside, he discovered a young Marine holding an M-16 rifle on eight U.S. Army officers and South Vietnamese Rangers. Hopped up on booze or drugs (or both), this Marine was mourning the deaths of two buddies by threatening the lives of eight men who were on his own side in the conflict. His weapon was set on full-automatic, and bloodshed seemed inevitable until Frank stepped in and managed to disarm him. For this gutsy act Frank received the Army-Marine Corps Medal. He continues to marvel that, in a few seconds’ time, he managed to prevent the sudden deaths of eight comrades-in-arms.

This dramatic real-life episode came back to me when I heard about the death of an actor named R. Lee Ermey. Ermey, who died this past April at age 74, was an actual Marine Corps drill instructor during the Vietnam era. After moving into acting, he found fame as the foul-mouthed  gunnery sergeant in the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 military drama, Full Metal Jacket. The foul but funny language Ermey’s character uses to intimidate new recruits was drawn from his own Marine Corps experience. It’s a raw and powerful way to open a film, especially when it culminates in one of the newbies suddenly turning on  this man who has never let up on him. The resulting bloodshed slams home Kubrick’s war-is-hell message. Like Frank’s story of the young Marine, it reminds us that in wartime there’s death around every corner, and it sometimes comes from places we don’t expect.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A Visit to a Mean and Frozen SpongeBob

June 10 is date of 2018’s Tony Awards ceremony, Broadway’s answer to the Oscars. As usual  Hollywood will doubtless gets its due. Such familiar TV and movie folks as Amy Schumer, Andrew Garfield, Tony Shalhoub, Michael Cera, and Denzel Washington (who’s earned raves for a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s classic The Iceman Cometh) all earned acting nominations. But I was especially struck by the entries in the Best Musical category. Though the musical revivals being honored this year (My Fair Lady, Carousel, Once On This Island) all began life on a stage, every single new musical on the 2018 list of nominees is an adaptation of a film property. It feels as though no one dares to launch a musical these days unless its basic premise and characters have been vetted by movie audiences. Given the cost of putting on a Broadway musical, I guess that makes some sort of sense. But for those who love discovering new musical stories, it’s disheartening that originality seems to be dead.

So what are these candidates for Best New Musical? Inevitably, there’s a stage adaptation of the Disney mega-hit, Frozen, with writer/lyricists Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez enhancing their Oscar-winning film score (“Let it Go”) with additional songs. In recent years, Disney has added to its coffers by turning its film successes into Broadway extravaganzas (see The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, etc. etc.), and so a stage version of Frozen—a story beloved by little girls everywhere—was an easy sell. Surprisingly, Frozen will not be a big winner on Tony night. It is only nominated in three categories.

A very different kind of film adaptation is up for 11 awards. This is The Band’s Visit, a stage adaptation of a small, charming Israeli film about an Egyptian troupe of amateur musicians who find themselves stuck in a small desert town in the Negev, reliant on the hospitality of Israeli locals. The good-hearted film hints at the power of music, which gives its transformation into a stage musical a kind of artistic logic. Serious Broadway pros are involved on the production end, and critics feel this is a class act – and the show to beat. 

But wait! Two other new musicals have racked up 12 nominations apiece. Decidedly NOT good-hearted is Tina Fey’s stage adaptation of her own 2004 hit, Mean Girls. I’m told the musical, like the film, has a wonderful sardonic edge, as well as a point to make: both are based on Fey’s reading of a genuine how-to book, Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boys, and the New Realities of Girl World. Like most things Fey touches, this show is golden, and could well take home the top prize. (Its lyricist, Neil Benjamin, was responsible for both music and lyrics on what might be the epitome of the movie-to-Broadway musical, the perky and forgettable Legally Blonde.)

And, yes, there’s SpongeBob SquarePants, a big-budget musical that borrows characters and settings from the Nickelodeon cartoon series, which itself became a 2015 film. The always acerbic L.A. Times drama critic calls SpongeBob a play “spun from pop cultural pabulum.” And there’s no question that a show about the happy denizens of Bikini Bottom is going to be bright and cheerful, instead of intellectually challenging, Still, it obviously has its partisans.

But as someone with a close relative who hopes to make his career writing musical theatre, I trust there’s still room for projects unconnected to movies past and present. Here’s hoping audiences can still be surprised and delighted by a brand-new stage experience.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Of Mail and the Male Gaze (A Post-Mothers Day Post)

The U.S. Postal Service, looking for ways to convince us to buy stamps, has of late become focused on American popular culture. Flipping through a recent catalogue, I find the ever-popular Love stamps (suitable for wedding invitations and the like), as well as stamps celebrating American heroes, natural wonders, and holidays. I felt a pang upon spotting a stamp (first issued on January 30 of this year) dedicated to the great Lena Horne. Not only was she (as the catalogue puts it) “a trailblazer in Hollywood for women of color,” but she was also a sultry, sexy, powerful singer whom my parents adored. As they frequently reminded me, her musical numbers were featured in many a big-studio musical (like Ziegfeld Follies and Till the Clouds Roll By) in such a way that they could easily be snipped out when the films were shown in the Deep South. But Horne got an actual role as the femme fatale in one of my parents’ movie favorites: Vincente Minnelli’s all-black musical from 1943, Cabin in the Sky.

To be featured on a U.S. postage stamp, you need to be dead. But it’s also OK if you were never actually alive. The category of fictional characters on postage stamps now includes an assortment of Disney villains. Yes, villains! Here’s how the catalogue explains their presence:  “The Disney villains were a little scary when we first met them in the movies, but we learned that they couldn’t hurt the good guys. So now, children can enjoy sharing them with friends . . . .” Aha! It’s a ploy to convince kids to pen letters (and also send the USPS’s Disney-themed-postcards) instead of just texting. Far be it from me to discourage little ones from mailing off letters to their grandmas. In an era when letter-writing has become a lost art, I’m all in favor of a gentle nudge in the direction of the mailbox.

In studying my sheet of Disney Villains stamps, I found myself thinking back to classic films I still remember fondly: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Pinocchio. And of course there was Snow White, the landmark 1937 film that was the world’s very first full-length animated feature. Naturally, each of these movies boasts an evil character who’s part of the postal service stamp array. The other villains on my sheet come from more recent Disney: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King. But here’s the thing: of the ten Disney Villains represented: fully six are female. And of these six, most are mother figures Like the beautiful but deadly stepmother in Snow White, as well as the conniving stepmother who favors her own daughters over the heroine in Cinderella. I’ve read Bruno Bettelheim and others who’ve commented on the secret meanings of fairy tales, so I know it makes sense for children to see their own moms as sometimes morphing into wicked witches when their tempers are aroused. Still, it’s dismaying that there are so many evil women out there in the world of animation. Count them: Malificent, the Mistress of All Evil who dooms the Sleeping Beauty. Cruella de Vil, who makes puppy dogs into coats in The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Ursula the Sea Witch  who tricks Ariel into giving up her tail in The Little Mermaid.

I guess all this feminine evil is an effective counterpart to the sticky-sweet Disney princesses. But in the #MeToo era, I’m noticing there’s only one potentially lecherous Disney male, the chauvinistic Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Otherwise, leave it to Hollywood to make the women the bad guys.