Saturday, June 15, 2013

Fun with Rewind

Recently some triple-digit cable channel I’d never focused on rebranded itself as “Rewind”, with the following blurb: “Rewind is Canada’s first specialty channel to connect Generation X to the films they grew up watching. Featuring favourites from the 70s, 80s and 90s, Rewind will transport viewers back to the era of the VCR through daily access to some of the greatest films of all time.” In a sample week, the greatest films of all time as per Rewind’s analysis might include the questionable likes of Teen Wolf Too, Hot Shots Part Deux and Revenge of the Nerds Part Two, but hey, if you truly grew up watching such things, then maybe you’ll follow the reasoning (I didn’t particularly, and so I don’t). In between these highlights, the channel has been a sporadically intriguing source of largely forgotten oddities, and here are three of them I recently, uh, rewound.

All Night Long

I actually went to see this when it came out in 1981, but not many others did, and it’s probably Barbra Streisand’s least-known film. She replaced another actress at short notice after production had already started, in what’s really a supporting role, and tried out a Marilyn Monroe-kind of presence, with odd and only vaguely effective results. Gene Hackman (for whom this was something of a comeback after two years away) plays a retail company executive who loses it and gets demoted big-time, to night manager at one of the outlets; Streisand’s character has an affair first with his son (Dennis Quaid!) and then with him. The film was directed by Jean-Claude Tramont, who was married to Streisand’s agent; he seems to have struggled to hold it together, and never made anything else afterwards. The theme of self-discovery is more persuasive for Hackman’s character than for Streisand’s, who seems to end up with him mainly because he decides he wants her and he’s nice about it (not that this couldn’t accommodate a meaningful point, but as presented here, it probably doesn’t, it’s just the same old convention playing out again). Everything about the movie seems to recede as you watch it, but it has an understated oddity which I like to think of as “European,” even if, in this case, that could be taken as a synonym for “bewildered and overwhelmed”.

House Calls

This was actually a hit in 1978, and even generated a spin-off TV show, although maybe I needn’t say “even” because it happened a lot in those days. Walter Matthau plays a recently widowed doctor who starts dating younger women, but then decides maybe he’d be happier with an English battle-axe played by Glenda Jackson. You know, Glenda Jackson won two Oscars during the 70’s, but it’s hard to imagine she cracked a smile at either of them. She was a generally severe presence, drawn to punishing and sometimes downright weird material, and yet in her heyday she was the female lead in several mainstream comedies. Maybe so soon after Nixon and Vietnam the studios subconsciously didn’t think people deserved to laugh. Since 1992, she’s given up acting to sit in the British Parliament, where she was a thorn in the side of her former leader Tony Blair, being much further to the left than he was. I wonder if even she believes she was ever in House Calls.

Anyway, I find I have an odd liking for these unforced, middle-age-friendly slices of Hollywood-imagined life. The film plainly isn’t powered by the kind of calculation that would prevail now for laughs per minute, or for striking set-pieces, or emotional climaxes. The underlying premise seems simply to be that it’s pleasant to spend time with these seasoned professionals, even if they’re not doing that much. It’s a lazy film at best – for example, it seems the hospital is meant to be a notorious hotbed of incompetence, but it’s so sketchily evoked you can’t really tell - and the notion of Walter Matthau as an unprincipled horn-dog just seems quaint. He’s always mesmerizing to watch though, always conveying a delicious inner life, and ultimately actually selling the premise that attaching himself to Jackson’s character wouldn’t merely be an abject rejection of all possibilities and hopes.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

This is the one that has to be seen to be believed. A massively misjudged over-conceptualization of the Beatles’ concept album, it posits that Sgt. Pepper was a real-life figure who performed during the two World Wars, eventually leaving his magical musical instruments to the town of Heartland, which flourishes in 1978 as a moronically benign enclave where Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees seemingly perform songs from the album on an endless loop, and no one gets tired of them. The performers gets sucked out of Heartland into the corrupt recording industry, and in their absence, Mean Mr. Mustard arrives in town and turns it, in the manner of the what-might-have-been portions of It’s a Wonderful Life, into a derelict hellhole. Eventually the day is only saved when the town’s weather vane comes magically to life and puts things in order.

The film’s reputation is terrible, and rightly so – it’s weirdly unfocused, cheesy and bland. Much as I said of House Calls, except much more gratingly in this case, the premise seems to be that the 1978 audience would lap up any old rubbish, as long as it’s colourful and populated by familiar faces and sounds. Sometimes it’s a Wizard of Oz-type fantasy, sometimes a strangely grim parable on modern-day temptation, sometimes an anything-goes grab-bag of performances and special effects (although “special” isn’t really the term, given the unremitting shoddiness in this area), placing little importance on how it shifts from one mode to the next. There’s no dialogue – everything is sung, with George Burns’ narration filling in some of the gaps (in the sense of someone hurling sand into the Grand Canyon). Some of the performers mug grotesquely, while others barely register at all. Worst of all, it barely offers a single serviceable interpretation of a Beatles song, let alone an interesting one.

At the end, after the movie proper has just about collapsed, it unveils its piece de resistance, a large gathering of celebrities joining together to reprise the title track. According to the Internet, formal invitations were engraved and sent to “virtually everyone” in the entertainment industry – among those who responded were Carol Channing, Keith Carradine, Robert Palmer and Leif Garrett (that’s just a small sample, but makes the point that something less than virtually everyone accepted). It’s ridiculous, awful, messy, and yet rather endearing, conveying utter certainty in the audience’s submission to cold Hollywood math, that if you keep attaching one razzly dazzly brick on top of another, in the end you’ll have a solid tower of entertainment. Not only was I transported back to the era of the VCR, I was tempted to keep on going until safely back in the womb.

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