‘The Bicycle Thief’ and ‘Habeus Corpus’ in ‘The Player’

I would not have expected Robert Altman to have much of a presence on this blog. I feel that he preferred being in control of all the irony, rather than appropriating it from an interpolated film made by some other hand. And sure enough, only two of his many movies appear on the comprehensive Films in Films website. The first is Short Cuts (1993), in which Monster in the Closet (1986) plays on a television. (Part of the reason Altman chose that slasher flick may be that three members of his unofficial stock company — Henry Gibson, Paul Dooley, and Howard Duff — are in it.)

The second is The Player (1992). And sure enough, the main movie-in-movie scene comes from its source material, the 1988 novel of the same name by Michael Tolkin, who adapted it for the screenplay. In novel and film, the title character, master-of-the-universe movie executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), has been receiving threatening post cards from an anonymous angry screenwriter. He thinks he’s figured out that the correspondent is David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) and phones him; his girlfriend answers and says that Kahane is at the movies — specifically, the Rialto in Pasadena, watching Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 The Bicycle Thief. (The title literally translates as “Bicycle Thieves,” but it’s commonly known by the singular in the U.S.)

In the novel, Mill slips into the theater for the last twenty minutes of the movie. Tolkin tells us his reactions, which are film-savvy, naturally, but as off as you would expect from a ’90s Hollywood exec giving notes on Italian neo-realism:

Griffin watched a father and son search for the lost bicycle. Knowing the title, it was obvious that someone had stolen the bike, that this poor man needed it, and that he and his son were now, since the movie was almost over, close to finding the bike and the person who had stolen it. It’s a good title, thought Griffin. He liked a movie where the story and the title were the same thing.

He doesn’t like the ending; it’s “so unnecessarily sad.” He wonders: “Was there a sequel?”

Altman has some nice tweaks on the scene. Griffin’s in the theater less than a minute and never once is shown watching the movie; he keeps furtively looking around for Kahane. The Bicycle Thief is so far away from his world as not to exist at all.

When the lights comes on, Griffin spots the screenwriter, and, true to form, tries to bullshit him: “Great movie, huh? So refreshing to see something like this after all these… cop movies and, you know, things we do. Maybe we’ll do a remake of this!”

The sequence is only a small part of The Player‘s all-encompassing commentary on the movies, which manifests itself in varying levels of explicitness. In the very first scene, Griffin and others at this studio talk about the six and half minute tracking shot that opens Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil — and it’s all part of a eight minute and fifteen second tracking shot that opens The Player. Later, we see the shooting of a noirish feature with Scott Glenn and Lily Tomlin, Lonely Room, that’s a counterpoint to the crime story Grifffin finds himself a part of.

A post at Films in Films notes that we see dozens of classic film posters in The Player, many of which offer commentary on the action playing out in front of them.

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Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) below portentous posters.

For me, the reflexive aspect of the film that packed the biggest emotional punch was the array of actors playing themselves, especially the ones that have died in the meantime: Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Jack Lemmon, Burt Reynolds, Rod Steiger, Patrick Swayze.  It was like spending some good time with ghosts.

The main movie-within-a-movie in The Player is a project called Habeas Corpus. It’s pitched to Griffin early on — a message movie about capitol punishment, with no stars, and a downbeat ending where the main character dies. Needless to say, he passes, for it lacks just about every element (as he says in a different scene) that make up successful movies: “Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.”

For spoiler-related reasons I won’t go into, Habeas Corpus does end up getting made, and at the end of The Player, we see execs screening the ending. Lots of cameos here: Susan Sarandon, Louise Fletcher, Peter Falk, Ray Walston, Jack Riley (Mr. Carlin from The Bob Newhart Show), and Altman stalwarts Bert Remsen, Paul Dooley, and Rene Auberjonois are all in the sequence. At the end of a(nother) long tracking shot, the death-row prisoner turns out to be Julia Roberts, showing some leg. She was the very sort of star the screenwriters had vowed would not be in the movie. Her presence is just the first of a host of broken promises, and it kicks off a Hollywood Ending that provides the Hollywood ending to The Player.

 

 

‘Garden Tool Massacre’ in ‘The Blob’ (1988)

Garden-Tool-Massacre

With this second post on a film about a gelatinous terror, Movies in Other Movies might start to get known as “The Blob Blog.” (Apologies to “The Bob Loblaw Law Blog” on Arrested Development.) Anyway, when director Chuck Russell and his co-writer, Frank (Shawhank Redemption) Darabont, set about remaking the cult horror classic The Blob, they must have had fun figuring out what movie to have running in their version of the climactic blob-goes-wild-in-movie-theater scene.

In the original, Irvin Yeaworth used the weird and obscure Daughter of Horror. Russell and Darabont, in keeping with their tongue-partly-in-cheek approach, opted to concoct their own, a Halloween/Texas Chainsaw Masssacre pastiche called Garden Tool Massacre. Announcing his plans to see it, youngster Eddie Beckner tells his friend’s mom “It’s your basic slice and dice.”

Mrs. Penny: Your basic what?

Eddie: Well this guy in a hockey mask, he chops up a few teenagers, but don’t worry, there’s no sex or anything bad.

From what we see of the picture, he’s a pretty good film critic. He probably didn’t anticipate that the sound-syncing would be horrible (another sly touch by Russell).

 

“Wait a minute … hockey season ended months ago”: a great line.

The slob in the Hilti hat (another sly power-tools reference) thinks he knows movies, too, but he doesn’t know enough to keep his mouth shut. And nobody in the audience knew enough to realize they never, ever, should have set foot in that theater.

‘See You Next Wednesday’ and ‘The Muppets Show’ in ‘An American Werewolf in London’

 

wolf

In a Facebook discussion of this blog, a friend, Dan Rubin, suggested writing about the use of See You Next Wednesday in John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1983).

See You Next Wednesday didn’t ring a bell so I Googled it and got led down a surprising rabbit hole. SYNW turns out to be a treasured in-joke of Landis’s. There’s a reference to an imaginary movie of that name in sixteen of the films, music videos, and television episodes he’s directed, from his first film, Schlock (1973), to an episode of Masters of Horror that aired in 2006.

Most of the time SYNW appears either in a line of dialogue or on a movie marquee or poster. Here’s a mashup of a bunch of them. According to the boffins at Wikipedia, the ostensibly actual film is seen only in American Werewolf.

(Landis’s better-known running in-joke is his one-up-on-Hitchcock penchant for putting cameos of fellow directors into his movies, sometimes multiple times. Steven Spielberg and Frank Oz are both in The Blues Brothers; Beverly Hills Cop III features Joe Dante, Martha Coolidge, Ray Harryhausen, Arthur Hiller, Barbet Schroeder, John Singleton, and George Lucs; and Amy Hecklerling, David Cronenberg, Jonathan Demme, Paul Mazursky, Roger Vadim, and Lawrence Kasdan all turn up in Into the Night.)

The movie-in-movie scene comes near the end of American Werewolf. While a wolf, the title character, David (David Naughton), has killed his friend Jack (Griffin Dunne). Now in human form, he sees Jack, in the body of a zombie, beckoning him into a Piccadilly Circus cinema. He finds Jack in the dark theater and they and we watch a bit of the porno See You Next Wednesday.

“Good movie,” comments David, reminiscent of a line in The Last Picture Show. In that film the reference was to Red River and the statement was true. I can’t say I’d apply it either to See You Next Wednesday or the pretty dated American Werewolf in London.

Incidentally, the IMDB page for American Werewolf claims that the See You Next Wednesday scene came from Landis’s earlier Schlock. That’s not true, as Landis explained in an interview with The Guardian. “When I was working [in London] in the 1970s, I went to those little cartoon theaters they had, such as the Eros on Piccadilly,” he said. “So in the original script, I had him going into the Eros and there was a Road Runner cartoon playing. But when I got back to London in 1980, all these theaters had become pornos. So I had to change the script to show a porno called, in the best smutty British tradition, See You Next Wednesday. We made the porno ourselves and it was the first scene we shot. It starred Linzi Drew, who was a Page 3 girl at the time; she went on to have an impressive porn career.”

Elsewhere in the film, David has a nightmare in which a peaceful family viewing of The Muppets Show is interrupted by a home invasion of mutant Nazi zombies.

 

Muppets puppeteer Frank Oz turns up briefly in American Werewolf as an American embassy worker. His line, “These dumb ass kids never appreciate anything you do for them,” is an in-joke reference to the cancellation of The Muppet Show. It was Landis’s first director cameo, and a prescient one, too: Oz wouldn’t direct his first film, The Dark Crystal (a collaboration with Jim Henson) until the following year.

‘Back Page News’ in ‘Homicide: Life on the Street’

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Brodie (Max Erlich) with camera

In 1991, then-Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon published Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, documenting a year he spent observing homicide detectives in Baltimore. Two years later, producers Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana and writer Paul Attanasio adapted the book into a TV series for NBC, which ran until 1999.

So: fictional Baltimore detectives based on real-life counterparts. So far, so simple. The levels of reality got more complex in a fifth-season episode, “The Documentary.” The premise is that the Brodie (like most of the characters, he’s known by his last name) has played hooky from his job as crime-scene videographer and has surreptitiously made a documentary film about the homicide unit. On a quiet New Year’s Eve in the squad room, he tells the cops about the movie, and slips the tape into a VCR machine for a private viewing. For those keeping score at home, we’ve now got a (fictional) documentary about (fictional) detectives based on real-life cops.

The title of Brodie’s opus is a mouthful: “Back Page News: Life and Homicide on the Mean Streets of Baltimore.” (The font in which it’s given is the same as that of the “Homicide: Life on the Street” credits we see rolling over the opening of Brodie’s movie.) Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) detects a bit of plagiarism.

Munch: “Mean Streets”? What, are you ripping off Scorsese?

Brodie: I wasn’t ripping him off, I respect the man. But he doesn’t hold a candle to great documentary filmmakers like Robert Frank, or [D.A.] Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers, Ken Burns.

Munch: Oh yeah, Ken Burns. He’s the only one who’s ever managed to make something more boring than baseball. A documentary about baseball.

Another name Brodie might have added to his list of documentarians is Barbara Kopple, director of Harlan County U.S.A and many other classic films. Guess what: as we see in the final credit, she’s the director of this episode of Homicide Life on the Street. (It was Kopple’s first foray into fictional directing. She would subsequently direct two more episodes of the series, and one of a later Levinson-Fontana production, HBO’s Oz.)

A few minutes later in the documentary, two cops chase a perp into an alley. What do they encounter there but two other cops who’ve chased down another perp, shouting, “Freeze!” But it turns out they’re all actors, making TV show called “Homicide.” We know the name because it’s on the cap of the director, Barry Levinson, playing himself. The shot goes back and forth between the homicide squad (from Homicide: Life on the Street) and Levinson’s “Homicide” crew as they stare at each other and say “Homicide?” “Homicide?” “Homicide.” The layers are now dizzying.

Ever the cinephile, Brodie, holding his camera, introduces himself to Levinson and pronounces himself a “big fan.” He adds, “I’ve got to tell you, the real police in Baltimore, they don’t say, ‘Freeze.’ It’s a television thing, I think.”

Coda: The Brodie character didn’t appear in the sixth season of Homicide. In the opening episode of the season, we’re informed that his documentary, Back Page News, has won an Emmy.

 

“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” in “The Simpsons”

Poochie
Poochie

As viewers of The Simpsons know, The Itchy & Scratchy Show is a cartoon often watched by Bart, Lisa, and their friends; it’s about a mouse who finds ever more baroque ways to maim and/or kill a cat. The cartoon-within-a-cartoon first appeared in 1988, when the characters who would become The Simpsons were a feature of The Tracey Ullman Show, and, according to the Simpsons Wiki, has been featured eighty-seven times on The Simpsons proper.

“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” (1998) was a milestone for The Simpsons: with it, the show passed The Flintstones for the most episodes produced for a prime-time animated series. Probably not coincidentally, the episode provides a deliciously meta look at the problems confronted by a long-running show. You see, ratings for The Krusty the Clown show are plummeting whenever Itchy and Scratchy comes on, and Krusty isn’t happy. “But Itchy & Scratchy is critically acclaimed!” the cartoon’s producer, Roger Meyers Jr., tells him. “Acclaimed?” the clown snorts. “I oughta replace it right now with that Chinese cartoon where the robots turn into blingwads!”

The attempts to get Itchy & Scratchy back on its feet were surely taken from The Simpsons’ staff’s own experiences, from the self-contradictory focus groups (“So you want a realistic, down-to-earth show that’s completely off-the-wall and swarming with magic robots?”) to the notes from network execs. They’re sure the show needs a new character–a dog. “We at the network want a dog with attitude,” one suit says. “He’s edgy. He’s in your face. You’ve heard the expression ‘let’s get busy’? Well, this is a dog who gets ‘biz-zay.'” (Remember, this episode appeared in 1998, when the “let’s get biz-zay” Arsenio Hall Show had already been off the air for four years.)

The ploy doesn’t, of course, fool Lisa: “Adding a new character is often a desperate attempt to boost low ratings,” she confides to Bart. Magically and without explanation, a new kid appears in the Simpsons household, Roy; like Poochie, he wears shades and a backwards baseball cat. Á la The Fonz, he calls Homer and Marge “Mr. and Mrs. S.”

Improbably, Homer is hired to provide the voice of the cartoon dog, Poochie. He appears with “June Bellamy,” who does Itchy’s and Scratchy’s voices, at a fan event. And that gives the episode’s writer, David X. Cohen, a chance to skewer the bulletin-board-lurking obsessives The Simpsons had already begun to attract. One of them, Doug, pushes up his glasses and asks a question.

In episode 2F09, when Itchy plays Scratchy’s skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib in succession, yet he produces two clearly different tones. I mean, what are we to believe, that this is a magic xylophone, or something? Ha ha, boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.

Homer: I’ll field that one. Let me ask *you* a question. Why would a grown man whose shirt says “Genius at Work” spend all of his time watching a children’s cartoon show?

[embarrassed pause]

Doug: I withdraw my question.

[starts eating a candy bar]

Everybody gathers at the Simpsons house to watch the episode.

Nelson’s right, it stunk. As usual, Lisa has the sharpest take: “It’s just that Poochie was a soulless by-product of committee thinking. You can’t be cool just by spouting a bunch of worn-out buzzwords.

To which Bart inevitably replies, “Don’t have a cow, Lise.”

Cohen gets in more jab at the “fans.”

Comic Book Guy: Rest assured I was on the internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world.

Bart: Hey, I know it wasn’t great, but what right do you have to complain?

Comic Book Guy: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.

Bart: What? They’re giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them.

Comic Book Guy responds with the first iteration of what would become one of The Simpsons’ own greatest buzzwords: “Worst. Episode. Ever.”

“Coed Frenzy” in “Blow Out”

blowout

Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) begins, appropriately, with the sound of heavy breathing. We see the outside of what turns out to be a sorority house. A security guard lingers in front of a window, watching as two very scantily clad sorority sisters dance to loud rock music. All of a sudden a knife appears in our frame a vision, and–from the point of view of us, the audience–the guard is stabbed in the back. The killer moves over to the next room, whose occupant is having sex with a guy. She sees the slasher and yells out. But it’s too late–he’s already in the house. As he strolls the halls he observes more young women wearing very little clothing and gazing at one with no clothing, in a shower stall. Out comes the knife, and before we can say Psycho, she sees him and screams…

And we cut to John Travolta, a cigarette in his mouth, giggling. “God, that scream is terrible,” he says. We’re in a screening room where Travolta’s character–sound designer Jack Terry–and the director have just watched the same footage we have.

 

 

After some back and forth about the scream, the director asks how long the two of them have worked together. Jack: “Well, let’s see. I met you on Blood Bath, right, and then we did Blood Bath 2. And then we did Bad Day at Blood Beach, and then we did Bordello of Blood. That brings us up to date, Coed Frenzy.

Coed Frenzy is specifically a … takeoff on? homage to? … Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), which shares the killer-in-the-sorority-house setting and is sometimes credited (?) with being the first slasher film.  Blogger and author Dan Hassler-Forest makes a distinction between Black Christmas and John Carpenter’s much more successful Halloween, which came out four years later:

Halloween and its many, many imitators tend to transform the intended victims into objects for us to stare at as they are being stalked, pursued, and threatened by the killer, thereby aligning us with the aggressor’s point of view. The implicit misogyny of the resulting formula was parodied most effectively by Brian de Palma in the opening scene of his masterpiece Blow Out, where every sexist cliché in the genre book is thrown at us. As early as 1981, it was apparently obvious to someone as astute as De Palma that slasher movies were all about ogling women as fetishized sex objects before taking sadistic pleasure in seeing them suffer.

I’m not sure if I would be so quick to credit De Palma with astuteness and parody. Rather, he appears to be fetishizing (or at least directing his gaze at) the women, and then taking sadistic pleasure in their fate. The sleazy director tells Travolta, “I didn’t hire that girl for her scream, I hired her for her tits.” To me, that about sums up De Palma’s actress-casting philosophy.

Travolta goes out to Fairmount Park to record some sound effects for Coed Frenzy. (The thing I like best about this movie are the many Philadelphia locations. I moved to town the year after Blow Out was released, and the film is an archive of many things that have changed, like the Reading Terminal, RIP, and a few that have stayed much the same, like the Reading Terminal Market.) While there he happens to record the sound of a car plummeting off the bridge, a car that happens to have in it a politician and a woman not his wife. Shades of Chappaquiddick.

Listening to the recording, Jack is convinced that it contains evidence of nefarious doings, and he becomes obsessed with it. Shades of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Antonioni’s similarly titled Blow-Up, and Coppola’s The Conversation. There is some interesting exploration of voyeurism and ’70s-style conspiracy, and some typically well-crafted De Palma set pieces, but the film left a bad taste in my mouth. The repeated violence against women came off as exploitative (in a bad way) and, to use Hassler-Forest’s word again, sadistic.

Back to the subject of this blog, Dennis Franz plays a sleazy opportunist in Blow Out, as only Dennis Franz can. At one point he’s in a cheap motel room, and the TV is on, as TVs in cheap motel rooms always are. IMDB tells me that the movie he’s watching is Brian De Palma’s first film, Murder à la Mod (1968), which failed so badly that for years it was believed to be lost, and no one missed it. The plot, according to an IMDB contributor:

Naive young lady Karen wants to help her struggling amateur filmmaker boyfriend Christopher raise enough money so he can divorce his wife. Meanwhile, jolly psycho prankster Otto stalks the building where Christopher is shooting a low-grade adult movie in order to keep himself afloat.

From the get-go, apparently, De Palma was De Palma.

 

“Saboteur”

In 1942, six years after Sabotage, Alfred Hitchcock made the similarly titled Saboteur. But so much had changed. Hitchcock was now based in America, and Saboteur–an earlier-day North By Northwest, in a number of ways–was his first film to exploit the landmarks of what would become his adopted country, including Boulder Dam, the Statue of Liberty, and, in the movie-in-movie scene, Radio City Music Hall.

The main character, competently played by Robert Cummings, works in a munitions plant in Los Angeles (which in the movie is always pronounced “Los Angle-ese,” the way I remember the baseball announcers of my youth saying it). Falsely accused of setting a fire, he goes on the lam and eventually crosses the country, along the way finding the real Fifth Columnists.

One of the traitors is played by Norman Lloyd, whose career has stretched from his debut on the New York stage in 1933 to a role in 2015’s Trainwreck (and included a memorable turn as Dr. Auschlander in the 1980s medical drama St. Elsewhere). The cops are on to him and track him down in Radio City, filled with folks watching a melodrama.

 

It’s a great set piece but a strange one. The audience is tittering, then laughing uproariously, at the film on the big screen (which isn’t a real movie but a scene shot by Hitchcock with B-list actors), even after jealous-husband Henry pulls out a gun and threatens to use it. At that very moment, the Lloyd character, cornered by the cops and hiding behind the movie screen, shoots through it with terrible consequences. Henry starts shooting, but the audience incongruously keeps  roaring with laughter–until a woman screams. Lloyd moves in front of the screen and darts across it, creating a riveting image that may have been Hitchcock’s most self-conscious commentary on reality and artifice and terror, and how mixed up they can become.

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