Rupert Pupkin Speaks: "Bad" Movies We Love Guest Post: Jon Hertzberg ""

Saturday, July 21, 2012

"Bad" Movies We Love Guest Post: Jon Hertzberg


 My good friend Jon Hertzberg runs the Obscure One-Sheet Blog (http://knifeinthehead.blogspot.com/), which I highly suggest adding to your regular reading cycle. He is a remarkably knowledgeable cinephile that I hope publishes a film book one day as I know he'd put out something excellent.
Follow him on twitter @carroljohummer.

-----------------------------------------------

I can't say I really go for the "bad movies we love" concept, but I certainly appreciate / like / love some films that are nearly universally regarded as "bad."  Take Richard Lester's Superman III, for instance.  You won't find many people who don't think it's dogshit.  That said, I have fond childhood memories of seeing this film when it came out in the Summer of '83, and, though I think the first two films in the series are much better films, I still quite enjoy the third installment, even as an adult.  This second sequel is no doubt flawed, but I think there are some great things in it and, with some shifts in focus, it could have been a much stronger film...on par with the first two films.  As it is, there is some really intriguing material on hand, which is under-appreciated and which I wish had been further explored by the filmmakers.  Additionally, Lester, the Salkinds, and the rest of the creative team should be commended for taking the story out of the arc of the first two films (which were, of course, originally conceived as a single film) and attempting a stand-alone adventure...a sort of re-boot (without changing main actors) about 20 years before the term was coined.


I love Richard Pryor and I actually think a lot of what he does here is actually funny; I'm, of course, in the extreme minority on this point.  That said, the filmmakers' commitment to splitting the narrative between Pryor's Gus Gorman and Christopher Reeve's Superman / Clark Kent means that the potentially very rich thematic material between Superman, Clark, and Annette O'Toole's Lana Lang is compromised.  Going against Tom Mankiewicz's (co-writer and "creative consultant" on the first two films and all-around main man of previous Superman director Richard Donner) edict that no woman should ever choose Clark Kent over Superman, co-scenarists David and Leslie Newman (who also co-wrote the first two films, along with Mario Puzo and Mank), put Clark, not Superman, in a romance with Lana.


In the first two films, apart from when he gave up his powers briefly in II, Clark is portrayed as an utter buffoon, so as to better camouflage his real identity.  In III, however Lester and the writers allow Clark to tone down the schtick and actually behave like an almost normal guy, albeit one who still wears over-sized glasses and slightly ill-fitting suits.  So, it's actually feasible that Lana would be interested in him, and through some good writing and the solid chemistry between Reeve and O'Toole, the love story works quite well and functions as an effective change of pace from the Superman / Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) romance of the previous films.  Reeve continues his fine work in the dual roles and O'Toole gives one of the best, most moving--and, of course, unsung--performances of the entire series.  In another positive creative stroke that goes against the prevailing Reagan-era attitudes, Lester and the Newmans inject some real socio-economic issues into the narrative, positioning Lana as a single mother in a Rust Belt-like town (Smallville) with few employment opportunities and an unwanted male suitor in ex-jock douchebag Brad (Gavin O'Herlihy, later to appear as the deliciously outrageous main villain in Death Wish 3).  Pig-headed Brad tries to best his competition, Clark, throughout this storyline and, of course, ends up on the losing end to good comic effect.


One of the better scenes in the series has Clark and Lana in a cornfield for a picnic, their moments of bonding and tenderness interrupted by Lana's malfunctioning car...she breaks things up to diagnose the problem and fix it; it's good to see a woman portrayed as someone self-sufficient in these matters.  Yes, Lana wants a man to serve as a father figure to her young son and help ease her financial burden.  But at the end of the day, even though she is sexually attracted to Clark, she's also attracted to his connections to Metropolis ("the Big Apricot!") and a potential job there.  There are some admirable progressive ideas and dose of reality in that character arc that are very interesting and atypical, I think, of most mainstream Hollywood films of the era, particularly mass audience popcorn films like this one.


I wish there were more of just this--Clark and Lana, but...since Richard Pryor had gone on late-night television after seeing Superman II, proclaiming its greatness, the producers got it in their heads that they needed to have him co-headline a Superman movie.  I do think Pryor is funny here, along with his co-villains Robert Vaughn ("I ask you to kill Superman and you're telling me you couldn't do that one simple thing."), Annie Ross (whose robot transformation scene still traumatizes adults of a certain age), and Aussie SNL alum Pamela Stephenson.  That said, their plot to use computers to control weather patterns and such is what makes most of this movie so laughable to so many.  The best thing that comes out of this team is their creation of a synthetic strand of Kryptonite, which causes Superman not to die, but to turn evil.


After Gus lays the bogus Kryptonite on Superman, the script presents his rapid decline into badness with a succession of scenes that show him causing havoc, all the while his uniform becoming darker and dirtier and his hair greasier with grey streaks, culminating in a scene of public drunkenness and a spectacular junkyard fight between evil Superman and his inner Clark Kent.  The bonkers Superman says things like "You've been getting on my nerves a long time, Kent!", a sentiment that I would have liked to have seen the film probe more, at the expense of the Pryor and Vaughn goofiness.  Earlier, the film has a woman choosing Clark, not Superman.  How potentially fascinating this material is, this brewing inner conflict between Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent.  Perhaps it was thought to be too cerebral at the time.  Now, of course, comic book films like Raimi's Spiderman and Nolan's Batman strive to appeal to and be regarded as films for adults, so mining this kind of thematic material in a Superman film wouldn't cause anyone to bat an eye.  It follows that Nolan is a creative consultant / writer / producer on the new Superman reboot...unfortunately, the filmmakers couldn't resist the urge to revisit the Donner / Lester universe of the first two films, but I remain hopeful that it will be better than the previous installment and less reverential toward Donner's original film.  And, I also hope that my words might persuade a few people to recognize the good elements of Superman III and reconsider the film as a whole.

15 comments:

Forgotten Films said...

Soooo many people are still terrified by that robot scene. Not sure exactly why, but it's still a scary childhood memory for me.

Rupert Pupkin said...

Same here!! That scene messed me up and still disturbs me to this day.

Ned Merrill said...

Thanks for the forum and the very kind words, Rupe!

-"Ned"

Cinema Du Meep said...

Wow, this is a pretty amazing post. I might have to give Superman III another day in court now. Such a big fan of the first two, and have always felt conflicted by 3. This post might help me get over my fear of it once and for all.

James said...

Superman thumping peanuts through whiskey bottles is one of my favorite childhood memories. I'm in the camp that still likes III despite it's admitted flaws.

Ned Merrill said...

Thank you, Meep! Glad you got something out of it.

Rupert Pupkin said...

I need to revisit it myself as well! Always been a fan(except for that one scene)

joestemme said...

SUPERMAN III wasn't universally hated at the time. There were some legit critics who wrote positively of the film. The film's "badness" has grown over time. I even wrote a piece for a suburban newspaper at the time comparing it favorably to that summer's RETURN OF THE JEDI (a judgement I still stand by). I gave credit to Lester et al. for at least daring to do something different with their precious hero than Lucas' Ewok juvenalia. The Network TV cut adds even further instances of the evil Superman (and, correct me if I am wrong, they were not fully restored on the 2006 box set DVD).

Ned Merrill said...

joestemme,

You're right about there being some legit critics such as Richard Corliss and Michael Sragow who liked SUPERMAN III at the time. It did not, of course, help the film perform at the box office at the level set by the previous 2 films.

I found this link a few days ago with some of the praise heaped upon a III at the time:
http://www.movlic.com/publicity/Synopsis/0000437.html

Corliss' review in full: http://supermaniii.com/siiiweb/S3_ARTICLES/Review_Goodness_At_The_Crossroads_Superman_III.html

Ned Merrill said...

I will also add that SUPERMAN III's reputation, as well as the theatrical cut of SUPERMAN II, has been further (and unfairly, IMHO) tarred and feathered over the years in the SUPERMAN online community, as the theme has largely been to deify Richard Donner while skewering Richard Lester for ruining the franchise. It seems like many--not all--of these people have no awareness of the overall career of Lester and the many great and near-great films included in that oeuvre--PETULIA, A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, the MUSKETEERS films, THE BED-SITTING ROOM, ROBIN AND MARIAN, JUGGERNAUT, etc. I wrote a little about it here a few years back: http://knifeinthehead.blogspot.com/2008/03/in-defense-of-richard-lester.html

thevideovacuum said...

Superman 3 is badass. The junkyard fight, the robot scene, Vaughn's performance, the Smallville scenes, the scene where Supes freezes the lake and drops it on the chemical plant, I could go on. My favorite part still is when Vaughn says, "Do you know what I want now? COFFEE!" And Pryor says, "Cream? Sugar?" Awesome write-up.

Ned Merrill said...

thevideovacuum,

Very glad you dug the article and enjoy III so much. I still chuckle at a lot of Pryor's dialogue--I wonder if some of it resulted from the comic's famous ad libs. His referring to Vaughn as "Ross the Boss" on at least one occasion still makes me laugh. Seems like something Pryor could have made up.

Love that bit when he cautiously takes the fake Kryptonite (with tar standing in for the "unknown" ingredients) from a humorless delivery-woman: "What the hell am I afraid of? I'm from Earth."

joestemme said...

RE: Ned Merrill said...I wrote a little about it here a few years back: http://knifeinthehead.blogspot.com/2008/03/in-defense-of-richard-lester.html

Nice piece, Ned.

I actually started a thread on the SUPERMAN II messageboard on imdB about comparing the careers of Lester and Donner. But, in imdB's very finite wisdom it was deleted pretty quickly. Their excuse is that they only have so much space. I guess it's more important space-wise to have 73 threads for THE DARK KNIGHT about "What I thought of the movie"! Grrrrrrrrrr.

Anyway, I totally agree that Lester has been scurilously treated over the years. Around the time the Donner cut of SUPERMAN II came out I, by coincidence, happened to be reading some old 70s issues of magazines such as Cinemafantastique. 2 or 3 times there were references to "Lester-like" filmmaking or "Lester-ish flourishes". One never reads such sweeping importance to the "Donner-touch"!
Now, I will agree that for the SUPERMAN series, that Donner may have been more genre aware overall. But, people seem to have long forgotten that Lester's SUPERMAN II was considered in extremely high regard upon its releases. Many calling it the best of its kind up until then.
SUPERMAN III got a particularly poor reception because Lester dared to tinker with the formula and add slapstick and satire. Sure, it all didn't work, but, Lester certainly doesn't deserve the bashing he's taken. I guess he's too much the gentleman to take on his critics. It's particularly sad that Tom Mankiewicz went to his grave speaking so ill of Lester. If one compares the careers and influcend of Richard Lester vs. Donner & Mankiewicz combined, it's not even close.

Ned Merrill said...

joestemme,

We agree on all counts. Yes, the "Donner touch" is clearly a far cry, in terms of importance, from, say, the "Lubitsch touch."

What happened with the SUPERMAN and Lester / Donner conversation was a case of the recently much-discussed (with regards to DARK KNIGHT) "fanboys" dominating the proceedings and, in the process, revising history a bit, as you allude to in your previous comment.

Lester does come across in the fairly recent Onion interview as trying to remain above the fray while allowing Donner and the fanboys to backslap each other so to speak.

Guitar Toolbar said...

Awesome post my friend. At the end we need to take everything light, with a smile, and there are some scenes that surely made me smile.
Maybe that's why I still love superman games..?