Monday, January 30, 2017

Charlie Chaplin: Another immigrant banned from the USA

I try to make all the college courses I teach as, well, relevant for my students as possible. (Yes, I didn’t think I’d ever again be using that ‘60s/’70s buzzword either.) Most of the time, that requires a lot of time, effort and, most important, research on my part, to find direct (or even indirect) links to the current zeitgeist to make whatever material I’m covering – whether it be in a film studies course, or a journalism course, or Media and Society 101 – seem less like dry and dusty and, worst of all, irrelevant history.

And then there are times when God just throws something into my lap.

Today I screened Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid in a History of Film class. As usual, I pointed out that the term “Chaplinesque” continues to be used to describe everyone and everything from Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy to Zach Galifianakis’s Baskets. I also said they might be amused to know if they watched old black-and-white reruns of The Addams Family — and you might be surprised how many of them are familiar with that ‘60s sitcom through reruns on digital networks — that Jackie Coogan grew up to be Uncle Festus.

But today was a bit different. Today, I pointed out that Charlie Chaplin was demonized by J. Edgar Hoover and others because of his supposed “subversive” activities (which included, among other things, Chaplin’s directing and starring in The Great Dictator). And that in 1952, after he voyaged from the US to his native England for the premiere of Limelight, Attorney General James Patrick McGranery revoked his re-entry permit, and announced Chaplin would have to submit himself to interviews about his political leanings if he didn’t want to be permanently banned from returning. (You can read more about this shameful episode, and Chaplin’s response to McGranery’s threat, here.)

After telling my students all of this, I paused a few seconds, then added: “Gosh, aren’t we glad this sort of thing doesn’t happen in America anymore?” The general response: Laughter. And no one laughed louder, I should note, than two female students wearing hijabs.

By the way: Later this week, I am screening for another class Gregory La Cava’s Gabriel over the White House, a truly bizarre 1933 fantasy — which I scheduled before the November election — in which a US President suspends the Constitution, imposes martial law, dissolves Congress, summarily executes perceived enemies of the state — and is viewed as a hero.

Think I’ll have any trouble making that one seem relevant?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Hail and farewell to Gene Cernan -- The Last Man on the Moon

Such has been my good fortune in life that, on certain rare occasions, I have been in the presence of historic figures. At the 2016 Houston Film Critics Society Awards, I was privileged to be honored alongside -- and to joke around with -- astronaut Gene Cernan, my fellow adopted Texan, who passed away Monday at age 82. Months earlier, I was grateful for the opportunity to interview him for Cowboys & Indians magazine at SXSW after the premiere of The Last Man on the Moon, the exceptional documentary based on his autobiography of the same name.

My favorite parts of our conversation:

Most kids say they want to be a cowboy or an astronaut when they grow up. But in your case… 

Well, I thought I’d like to be both. [Laughs] But I think I may have been better at one than the other. I’ve got a little ranch out in Kerrville, Texas, where I have some longhorns, some horses. It’s my personal tranquility base. And I love it. See, my dad loved the outdoors. And I spent a great deal of time growing up on my grandparents’ farm up in Wisconsin. So I always wanted a ranch somewhere. At one point, I thought of having it in Montana – which, to me, is big-time cowboy country. But that wasn’t for me. This is the closest thing I’ve got to it. And, yeah, I’m a cowboy when I go out there. 

Who would you say were your greatest influences during your childhood? 

I’ve got two major heroes in my life. Well, maybe more than that. But, of course, the first one is my dad. And the other one is John Wayne. I always wanted to be like John Wayne. And the closest I ever came is when I crashed that helicopter out in Florida [in 1971]. I got out, and I swam to the surface – and saw the helicopter was a blazing ball of fire. And I thought, “I remember John Wayne in one of those movies where he was on a merchant ship that got torpedoed. And what he did what was, he’d go down under the water [to avoid the fire], and then kick his way back to the surface.” And that’s what I did.

You’ve been forthcoming while sharing your experiences in your autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, and in the new documentary film based on that book. Do you hope to inspire young people with your story? 

From my point of view, that’s the purpose of the film. Forget me. It’s not about Gene, the last man on the moon. It’s about inspiring those young kids to have a dream like I did. There was no space program when I was a kid. My dream was flying fighter planes off aircraft carriers. And I did. And I believe the important thing is to have a dream, and believe in yourself, and commit yourself to that dream. Did I ever think that dream would ever lead to my calling the moon my home? Not in a million years. But you’ve got to start somewhere...

Look, I don’t need anyone to tell me how wonderful I am. People have been telling me that for 40 years. I don’t need to be on another magazine cover, or anything like that. But walking on the moon gives me a platform to tell kids, “Look, if I can go to the moon – what can’t you do?” That’s the message of this movie.

(You can read the rest of our Q&A here. And you can view The Last Man on the Moon online.)

Friday, January 06, 2017

La La Land, Hell or High Water big winners at Houston Film Critics Society Awards

La La Land continued its extended victory lap Friday — two days before  the Golden Globe Awards — by picking up top prizes at the 10th annual Houston Film Critics Society Awards extravaganza. The HFCS (of which I am a member) named La La Land the Best Picture of 2016, and filmmaker Damien Chazelle the year’s Best Director, during a program presented at H-Town’s MATCH performing and visual arts center. La La Land also picked up awards for cinematography (Linus Sandgren) and technical achievement (production design).

The acclaimed modern-day western Hell or High Water picked up a pair of prizes: Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges) and Best Screenplay (Taylor Sheridan).

Elsewhere on the list of HFCS Award Winners:

Actor — Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Actress — Natalie Portman, Jackie
Supporting Actress — Viola Davis, Fences
Animated FilmKubo and the Two Strings
DocumentaryO.J.: Made in America
Foreign FilmThe Handmaiden
Texas Independent Film AwardTower
Outstanding Cinematic Contribution — The Alamo Drafthouse
Lifetime Achievement — Margo Martindale

And to counterbalance all the honors, HFCS announced a dishonor: Zoolander 2 was named Worst Picture of 2016. Which, of course, should greatly enhance its chances at this year's Razzie Awards.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Prepare for 2017 with words of wisdom from Sir Michael Caine

I originally posted this back in 2011, but I think it's even more appropriate for today. 

From Sir Michael Caine, words to live by: "You are going to make every moment count. I mean, you better make every moment count. Live your life now; start in the morning. You mustn’t sit around waiting to die. When it happens you should come into the cemetery on a motorbike, skid to a halt by the side of the coffin, jump in and say: 'Great. I just made it.'"

Works for me.

And Sir Michael also said this: "You quite often see these middle aged people on television who’ve won the fight against cancer and now they want to live their lives differently and enjoy every moment. Before they just went along and now they’ve had this scare that they were going to die. I had that scare that I was going to die when I was nineteen when I was a soldier, so I have been living my life that way for sixty years now... 

"I was a soldier in Korea and I got into a situation where I knew I was going to die – like the people know they are going to die of cancer, except then we got out of it. But it lasted with me – I was nineteen. That formed my character for the rest of my life. The rest of my life I have lived every bloody moment from the moment I wake up until the time I go to sleep."

By the way: Sir Michael is 83 years old, and he already has two movies in the can -- Going in Style and Coup d'Etat -- ready for release this year. I strongly suspect he and Keith Richards will outlive all of us.