‘Day of the Dead’ and ‘Back to the Future’ in ‘Stranger Things’

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Lucas on New Coke: “Sweeter, bolder, better.”

The Netflix series Stranger Things has two things in common with The Sopranos. First, it’s very good. Second, a lot of television is watched in it. I just went through the IMDB “Connections” for the 1980s-set Stranger Things and was reminded that the material visible on characters’ TV sets over the course of three seasons includes the series Knight Rider, All My Children, Magnum P.I., Punky Brewster, Cheers (three times), and Family Feud (twice), and the movies Mr. Mom, Frankenstein, and The Thing (John Carpenter’s 1982 remake).

The show, which was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, collectively known as the Duffer Brothers, is quite smart about all of this, with the TV stuff often implicitly commenting on the characters and action. Thus Hopper (David Harbour), a well-meaning but perpetually frustrated paunchy cop in small-town Hawkins, Indiana, is shown watching Tom Selleck’s glamorous Magnum. And Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who is ambivalent about her extraordinary powers, to say the least, is transfixed by Boris Karloff as the monster first imagined by Mary Shelley. As Anna Leskiewicz observed in The New Statesman,

Eleven sits on a sofa, hugging a teddy bear tight to her chest. She’s watching a black and white film on a static-filled TV screen. “Who are you? I’m Maria,” a girl says. “Will you play with me?” It’s the 1931 Frankenstein, and Frankenstein’s monster looks at Maria with the same blank expression Eleven has when she’s learning a new word. As Maria and the monster wonder off, hand in hand, Eleven looks as though she’s on the verge of tears. She’s just a child, but it’s clear that she feels caught between both characters: the monster and the girl.

There’s a lot of what you might call intertextuality going on here. A Terminator trailer turns up on TV in season two, and a major bad guy in season three is Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko), who’s one big Terminator callback, down to the big gun and the Schwarzenegger-esque hairdo. The likable Russian informant Alexei is seen laughing uproariously at a Woody Woodpecker cartoon; a couple of episodes later, he wins a big stuffed Woody Woodpecker at the town fair. The glimpse of John Carpenter’s Thing (a character also has a poster for it in his room) is perhaps an acknowledgement that the demon/monster in Stranger Things is quite Thing-y. In Season 3, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) cracks open a can of New Coke. (Stranger Things’ shamelessness about product placement is part of its cheesy charm.) His buddy asks, “How do even drink that?” Lucas responds: “It’s like Carpenter’s The Thing. The original is the classic, no question about it. But the remake … sweeter, bolder, better.”

It goes on. Red Dawn (1984) gets several mentions in season three, because the Soviets-take-over-small-town plot of that film is pretty much what’s going in on ST. And, more broadly, the whole series respectfully and artfully borrows themes, look, and vibe of ’80s kids-against-the world movies like E.T.., The Goonies, and Stand By Me.

But only twice do characters see a movie in the theater, both times in season three. In the first episode, “Suzie, Do You Copy?” (written and directed by the Duffers), Steve (Joe Keery) is working at the Scoops Ahoy ice cream shop at the Starcourt Mall, hence the ridiculous sailor suit. He shows the kids a back way to sneak into the mall’s multi-screen theater.

Day of the Dead (1985) was written and directed by George Romero, and is a sort of sequel to his seminal zombie pic Night of the Living Dead. One obvious connection is that zombie-like creatures will indeed show up in Hawkins later in the season. Another is that, as Elena Nicolaou pointed out on Refinery 29, the movie and the series have “uncannily similar music. The Dead Suite, played in the opening scene of Day of the Dead, sure resembles a simplified and slowed-down version of the Stranger Things theme. Those staccato notes in a minor key are staircases to the same conclusion: We’re not headed anywhere good.” The temporary electrical blackout at the mall portends bad happenings as well.

Six episodes later, Steve, his Scoops Ahoy coworker Robin (Maya Hawke), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and the breakout character of the season, no-nonsense Erica (Priah Ferguson), are sneaking into the mall multiplex again. This time it’s more urgent: they’re on the run from the Russian bad guys, who have given Steve and Robin some nasty bruises and (via a truth serum) a bad case of the giggles.

On the screen, of course, is Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future, and Jen Chaney has made the case in Vulture that “Stranger Things 3 Is Basically One Big Back to the Future Homage.” She lists a lot of small and large similarities, including a scene in episode 1 where Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) is late for work (the power outage messed up his alarm clock) and has to get dressed in a hurry:

Jonathan, wearing just a pair of briefs, puts one foot into his pants and loses his balance, falling forward out of the frame.

Vulture.com/via GIPHY

That is an exact duplicate of what Michael J. Fox, as Marty, does when he tries to get his jeans back on after his first 1955 meeting with the teenage version of his mother, Lorraine. Just in case you didn’t catch these Back to the Future hat tips, the Duffer Brothers, who created the series and wrote and directed this episode, follow them up by blasting a Huey Lewis and the News song — “Workin’ for a Livin’,” not “The Power of Love” — as Nancy marches purposefully to the office.

Vulture.com/via GIPHY

I have to admit I skimmed a lot of her article. That’s because she dealt with how the season ends and I haven’t watched episode eight yet. I’ve enjoyed this show so much I’ve kind of put it off as long as possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Maresi’ (?) in ‘The Third Man’

In writing the previous post, on the use of Brief Encounter in numerous films, I learned that the British Film Institute once chose The Third Man (1949) as the greatest British film of all time. I was therefore happy to have a chance to see Carol Reed’s noir classic recently, on the big screen of the Prytania Theatre in New Orleans, in magnificent black and white.

And what do you know, there is a movie-in-movie scene. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), an American just arrived in post-war Vienna, finds himself investigating some shady doings. In this scene, accompanied by actress Anna Schmidt (Allida Valli), he is about to question the porter of an apartment building. However, it turns out that the porter is dead, and his little son points to Holly as being the killer. There ensues an almost comically low-speed chase, accompanied by the movie’s defining zither music, with the little kid somehow being the fastest pursuer.

Holly and Anna duck in to a movie theater, which inspired me to add a new tag to the blog: “On the run.”

 

 

As you’ve observed, we don’t see the movie, only hear it. That makes it hard to identify, even more so when (like me) you don’t understand German. A clue is the title on the marquee of the theater:

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IMDB reveals that Maresi was indeed an Austrian film, released in 1948, and starring Maria Schell. The indefatigable Ben Zimmer has unearthed a plot summary (translated from the German by Google Translate): “An aging nobleman shoots his favorite horse, Maresi, who has sunk to the cab of a hawk, to spare him a dignified age – at least to him.”

Of course, movie continuity follows its own rules: the interior scenes might have been shot in a different theater or a sound stage, and the audio might have been from a different film.

So I appeal to speakers of German and/or scholars of Austrian film? What can you tell me about the movie that’s playing while Holly and Anna plot their next move?

Update: Hari List, who runs Bruttofilmlandsprodukt.net, a blog and podcast dedicated to Austrian film and TV, responded to my request for information on Twitter, where his handle is @HariLi. He reported that he was unable to find out anything about the soundtrack we hear when Holly and Anna are in the cinema.

It sounds “old”, as in bad speakers or gramophone. The dialogue is pretty basic, borderline nonsensical. It could be from an old movie that has been badly dubbed, but the dialogue stops when Holly and Anna talk and then resumes. Has to be a nondiegetic track, probably recorded just for that, which makes sense from the filmmakers standpoint. [“Diegetic music in a film or TV programme is part of the action and can be heard by the characters.”–Cambridge English Dictionary.] Also the audience smirks don’t fit, because nothing funny or in anyway emotional was said.  Lastly, the movies listed out front: Irrtum im Jenseits is Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death, Feuervogel is part one of the two-part cinema cut of the western series Miracle Rider (1936) with — as  seen — Tom Mix. On top it probably says Glück muß man haben (You have to be lucky) …which is a German film from 1945, that premiered 1950 – so again some timeline issues but it says “our next movies”, so it’s an announcement. Vier Humoresken was probably an individual comedy shorts program. Btw the cinema still exists, but is a stage theater now.”

 

‘Task Force’ in ‘White Heat’

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Verna, Ma, and Cody at the drive-in

The heyday of the American gangster movie lasted eighteen years. It started in 1931 with Little Caesar, starring Edward G. Robinson, and The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney, and ended in 1949 with Cagney’s White Heat, directed by Raoul Walsh. (All three are Warner Brothers productions and are on the American Film Institute’s list of the top ten gangster movies of all time. Chronologically, the one after White Heat is Bonnie and Clyde, released in 1967, also by Warners.)

White Heat pointed the way forward in a number of ways. It had the kind of gritty semi-documentary style scene in crime films of the late ’40s and ’50s like Naked City, The Asphalt Jungle, and The Killing. It had the dark psychological themes of the emerging film noir genre, especially in the portrait of Cagney’s character, sadistic gangster Cody Jarrett. Cody suffers debilitating headaches, comforted only by the Oedipal ministrations of his Ma (Margaret Wycherly), who massages his neck and invites him to sit in her lap.

And it had a modern movie-in-movie scene. It occurs early on, when Cody, Ma, and his girlfriend, Verna (Virginia Mayo), are being chased by the cops. Needless to say, Ma is sitting next to Cody, Verna riding shotgun. He pulls in to the San Val Drive In theater in Burbank (the country’s second drive-in, opened in 1938), as the police cars speed past, sirens blaring. Taking his money, the ticket-taker says, “It happens every night. Ruins the movie.”

The movie is Warner Brothers Task Force, which was still a few weeks from release at the time of White Heat‘s premiere. (And therein lies a goof. A sharp-eyed poster to a website about movie theaters points out that the marquee announces two different 1949 movies, the western South of St. Louis and the exotic fantasy Siren of Atlantis.) I haven’t seen Task Force, but according to the IMDB description, it’s apparently a history of aircraft carriers seen through the eyes of a fictional admiral played by Gary Cooper. In any case, all the explosions and mayhem are too much for Cody, possibly because he feels a headache coming on. After an attendant puts a speaker inside the car (I just barely remember that technology), he orders Verna, “Kill that.”

 

After Verna’s sarcastic comment about the second feature, Cody outlines his plans for escape. Just before he bolts the car, he kisses both ladies goodbye–lingering just a little more on Ma than on Verna.

 

‘Gold Diggers of 1933’ in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’

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Ginger Rogers, backed up by coin-wielding chorines, is “in the money”

There’s probably no more ironic movie-in-other-movie than the use of a scene from the backstage musical Gold Diggers of 1933 in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Aspirational outlaws Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) graduate from small-time heists to a proper bank robbery but the getaway is delayed because their  driver, C.W., has unaccountably decided to parallel park the car. A lawman jumps on the running board and Clyde shoots him in the face.

Cut to the interior of a movie theater where the three robbers have sought refuge. As Clyde berates C.W., we see the “We’re in the Money” production number from Gold Diggers. In this Busby Berkeley spectacular, the scenery consists of giant legal tender. Ginger Rogers and the other chorus girls wear costumes made of coins; they wield a giant coin in each hand for a sort of fan dance, while a third one covers their private parts. They sing:

We’re in the money,
We’re in the money;
We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along!
We’re in the money,
The sky is sunny;
Old Man Depression, you are through,
You done us wrong!
We never see a headline
‘Bout breadline, today,
And when we see the landlord,
We can look that guy right in the eye.

(Ginger later runs through the whole thing in pig Latin, in extreme and disconcerting close-up.)

Irony number one: far from being “through,” Old Man Depression would stick around another eight years.

Irony number two: while Bonnie and Clyde may be in the money for the moment, it’s a pretty sure bet–given the ineptitude already on display–that it won’t last.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.

“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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