Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '77 - John Mattson ""

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Underrated '77 - John Mattson

John Mattson is a screenwriter. He graduated from UCLA film school back when they still used film. He wrote a “kid and a hooker” movie and two “kid and a whale” movies. Then he went back to school to learn screenwriting. He is a recent graduate of UC Riverside’s MFA program.
Also, check out his Underrated '47 list here:

CAPRICORN ONE – I saw this movie maybe ten times the summer of 1977, mesmerized by how great and shitty it was. Outside of, say, laughing at the scenery-chewing of William Shatner in STAR TREK (TOS), this might have been my first exposure to that particular flavor of addictive pop-culture, something you could make merciless fun of while also loving every minute. Like ONE ON ONE (below), CAPRICORN ONE is a 70s time-capsule, and features many staples of the decade in performances that feel like outtakes from other movies. Elliott Gould more or less continues his performance from THE LONG GOODBYE, shambling through the mystery surrounding (SPOILERS!) what turns out to be a Mars-landing faked by NASA. His long suffering boss is played by 70s cliché (and staple of Matchgame and Tattletales) David Doyle, and in fact in my broken memory he’s also Gould’s boss in THE LONG GOODBYE. (Doyle was most recognized as the voice of Bosley, the unseen boss on CHARLEY’S ANGELS.) Hal Holbrook, the year after ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, plays the corrupt head of NASA (with fellow PRESIDENT’S MEN alum Robert Walden nearby in the control room). James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O.J. Simpson are the astronauts who must flee for the lives when (long story short) NASA decides to kill them to cover their evil tracks. Telly Savalas plays a kooky crop-duster who thinks everyone is a “pervert” in a script that thinks just saying “pervert” over and over is worth a laugh. When I was 13, the thing we laughed at the most was the fact that the two predatory helicopters chasing the astronauts across the desert actually would pause in the air to look at each other -- like they’re alive.
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A BRIDGE TOO FAR - William Goldman did the adaptation of this best-selling World War II epic by Cornelius Ryan about the ill-fated Operation Market Garden. The movie is big, expensive, expansive, self-important, cutesy and slightly dumb. (And long. It’s nearly three hours long.) But for all that, it features the most movie stars per square inch than any movie I have ever seen. My friends and I used to joke that CATCH-22 starred every actor on the planet except Lawrence Olivier. A BRIDGE TOO FAR has more – plus Olivier. You get: Sean Connery, James Caan, Michael Caine, Elliott Gould (again), Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neal, Lawrence Olivier, Liv Ullmann, Richard Attenborough (who also directed), Dirk Bogarde, Edward Fox, Denholm Elliott, Arthur Hill and Maximilian Schell -- and somehow even John Ratzenberger from Cheers. A BRIDGE TOO FAR has the too-clever-by-half reputation of being an expensive failed movie about an expensive failed mission. It is that, but I think the fact that they shot this cast of 1000s epic for $20 million with about a dozen major stars in their prime, lots of explosions, huge numbers of historically accurate equipment and weaponry, all in the pre-CG era, makes it a minor miracle. Even if it is a little overblown.
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FUN WITH DICK AND JANE – Jane Fonda and George Segal, both hilarious. Ed McMahon (Johnny Carson’s sidekick) as George’s evil boss. I was not allowed to see this movie in the theater, I don’t remember why. But I saw it anyway, I think as an ABC Movie of the Week. This, before video or cable, was mostly how we saw movies we missed the first time around. The script was written by Mordecai Richler, David Giler (yes, that David Giler, of ALIENS, etc.) and (also underrated, if you ask me) Jerry Belson (DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, ODD COUPLE, TRACY ULLMAN SHOW, a million other TV shows, and Spielberg’s ALWAYS).
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ONE ON ONE – I forgot all about this movie until I looked up the release slate of 1977. I’m pretty sure I haven’t heard anyone mention it in at least thirty years – and that’s a shame because it’s a good movie. Robby Benson (who at 19 co-wrote the script with his father) plays a high school basketball phenom who gets a scholarship to the big-time fictional basketball dynasty “Western University,” and has a rude awakening at the hands of his hard-ass coach, Senator Pat Geary from GODFATHER 2 (G.D. Spradlin). It plays out something like RUDY or HOOSIERS or any number of sports movies, but with many odd and remarkable detours you don’t see in such movies anymore. A 17 year old Melanie Griffith is fantastic for about a minute as a (SPOILERS!) street urchin/hooker/criminal/hitchhiker who robs Robby blind his first five minutes in the big city (“give me all your money or I’ll say you raped me”). This is played as a kind of aw-shucks welcome to L.A. moment and is never mentioned again. He reacts with the same nonchalance when the big league coach offers him a car (to give to his dad – attn.: Reggie Bush) and nobody bats an eye. Robby happily accepts the car without so much as a flicker of “hey isn’t this a recruiting violation?” His first day at the big college he’s given tickets to a big game to deliver to a donor. When the donor gives him $600 cash, Robby is just happy to have spending money. Then, when pulled over for speeding, he gets out of the ticket by offering the cop football tickets. (The cop is delighted. Robby shakes his head afterward and says, more or less, “bribing an officer! Jeez!”) These incidents pile up so quickly that watching this in 2017 you’re thinking the whole point of this movie is going to be a big Act III NCAA investigation where Robby has to testify and the school is suspended for a decade. But, no. It’s all just an accepted part of big city college sports. Ah, the old days! Also featured in the old days, Gale Strickland (the lady who borrowed Mr. Pitt’s tennis racket on SEINFELD) as “B.J.” (yes, B.J.) the coach’s secretary, known around campus as “Rudolph the Red Nosed Nympho”. Robby’s roommate offers him uppers so he’ll play better and downers so he’ll sleep, and this is played for laughs. My favorite thing, aside from watching Annette O’Toole (in her first starring role, as Robby’s tutor) is the awesome “shopping” montage, where a teammate takes Robby out to buy him some proper (i.e. non-hick) clothes to party in – which turns out to be a blue leisure suit (!) with a super wide collared shirt. The soundtrack is peppered with pop tunes by Seals and Crofts, trying really hard to evoke Simon and Garfunkel’s THE GRADUATE soundtrack.

Maybe it sounds like I don’t like this movie. I do, though. It somehow manages to be twisted and square at the same time.
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STAR WARS – Really. Hear me out.

The other day I listened to Karina Longworth, in her podcast YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS, make an off-hand comment about George Lucas “strip-mining” Joseph Campbell in writing STAR WARS. This kind of attitude about Lucas is prevalent now. There is a new wave of conventional wisdom that George Lucas was never really “all that,” that STAR WARS (or, if you prefer, EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE) is not “that good” in the scheme of things, and that maybe history will judge (for example) THE AVENGERS movies to be objectively better than the original Lucas movies. Or, alternatively, that the privileged position STAR WARS has enjoyed was merely an effect of its time and an opinion of the generation who experienced it as it happened; and that accordingly, that generation is “over” and the new generation sees THE AVENGERS (etc.) in the same way.

I remember this argument from when the Bay City Rollers came out in around 1977. The Bay City Rollers were, some people said for five minutes, the next Beatles. Oasis declared for themselves the same thing twenty years later. It’s a silly and ultimately doomed argument.

After my family and I saw THE FORCE AWAKENS, we decided to re-watch the original trilogy.

(I loved THE FORCE AWAKENS. Especially [SPOILERS!] Han Solo’s death. I think it may be a moment without precedent in movie history. Popular characters have been killed off before, usually within the same movie that they are introduced. But Han Solo was beloved by millions in multiple media for forty years. When he died, I felt a sadness I have only ever experienced when real people die. So, yeah, I liked the movie a lot.)

Watching A NEW HOPE the day after THE FORCE AWAKENS, I realized that, as iconic as the Han Solo death scene is, this is true of nearly every scene of A NEW HOPE. Pretty much every minute contains either a character moment or line of dialogue that is referenced a million times daily in conversation or a storytelling beat or trope that is now considered all-but-required in not only movies of that genre, but in many other genres.

Part of the current Lucas-wasn’t-so-great narrative is that those original movies haven’t aged well. Yes, STAR WARS is hokey. But that’s not news. We knew it was hokey in 1977. We laughed and made fun of how Luke says “power converters” and all sorts of other stupid shit every single one of the thirty times we saw the movie in the theater. The things that seem dopey now always seemed dopey. We just didn’t care.

The template of STAR WARS was imposed on everything and everyone that came after. This seems less remarkable to new viewers many decades later because every change that it wrought has been built into the system and is now taken for granted.

In April 1977, a month before STAR WARS’ release, Lucas discussed his conscious decision to bypass the cynicism and nihilism of Vietnam/Watergate-era movies: “Rather than do some angry, socially relevant film [...] I realized there was another relevance that was even more important—dreams and fantasies, getting children to believe there was more to life than garbage and killing [...]—that you could still sit and dream about exotic lands and strange creatures. [...] [I]t struck me that we had lost all that—a whole generation was growing up without fairy tales. You just don’t get them anymore, and that’s the best stuff in the world—adventures in far off lands. It’s fun.”

He borrowed heavily from Buck Rogers, and Kurosawa and Zorro and old westerns and GUNGA DIN and war movies (dogfights especially — he actually assembled footage clipped from the aerial war movies of his youth and used it as a template to assemble the tie-fighter scenes). Han Solo is, as we all know, a cowboy. The cantina is a saloon. R2 and C3P0 are from HIDDEN FORTRESS. Jabba is Sydney Greenstreet. And, yes, Lucas read a lot of Joseph Campbell.

So, yadda yadda yadda, it had all been done before.

Here’s the problem I have: I can’t think of a single movie that did it before.

Of course there are damsels in distress, princesses to rescue in towers, all of the individual elements of the story have a precedent. But what movie comes closest to putting it all together as an antecedent?

ROBIN HOOD, maybe. One of those Arthurian movies from before I was born that I haven’t seen? A Sinbad movie I haven’t seen since I was a kid? I don’t know.

One thing that was absolutely inventive about STAR WARS: It was, as far as I know, the first movie set in space in which space wasn’t framed as a place for exploration with rockets and man going out into the far reaches like an explorer looking for The New World (“Space, the final frontier,” etc.). This was not the space of the Apollo missions, or of STAR TREK. It was space seen as a WWI dog fight movie, or a western — or through the prism of other genres not of the future, but of the past.

It was also an innovation that space, through the filter of George Lucas, was fun.

ADDENDUM: The American Film article ends on this note, anticipating the film’s release the following month: “There can be little doubt George Lucas has gone out on a limb. He has used the success of AMERICAN GRAFFITI to put on film the dreams and fantasies of his childhood. He has spent $8 million [!] in a genre where movies are usually done as cheaply as possible, resulting in shoddiness. The only question left about STAR WARS is an old one, frequently asked since the Wright Brothers took their contraption to Kitty Hawk: ‘But will it fly?’”
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1 comment:

Dave Canzanese said...

Bosley was seen. He worked for Charlie, who was the one who we never saw.