Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Bluesmobile Still Needs Gasoline: Elwood, His Car and the Movies of July 2013

For me, one of the most potent bits of evidence pointing to the veracity that the Blues Brothers were in fact “on a mission from God,” was the almost-heroic death of the Bluesmobile.



[Here I’m risking making an ass out of you and me by assuming that y’all’ve already seen The Blues Brothers, released by Universal in 1980, directed by John Landis, from a script by Dan Aykroyd and Landis… And that is why this article is illustrated with nothing but pix of Elwood or the Bluesmobile. BTW, it’s a throwaway gag in the movie, but I LOVE Elwood’s driver’s license photo.]

After zooming Jake and Elwood across Illinois and through Chicago—while flip/flying high into the air, taking rounds from a neo-Nazi’s Luger, and crashing through barricades, malls and other vehicles—the Bluesmobile gets the brothers to the front door of the Cook County assessor’s office. When they disembark, the 1974 Dodge Monaco police cruiser literally falls apart, collapsing into an exhausted and fatigued heap of scrap.

Which isn’t surprising, really, after all that the loyal steel chariot’s been through. If anything, why didn’t it break down sooner? The answer is obvious: They were “on a mission from God,” and He isn’t letting His faithful servants fail just because of a little car trouble (even though the vehicle seems to need gasoline occasionally)—or the efforts of the Illinois law enforcement community, either.

When the Bluesmobile has taken the brothers as far as it can, the Hand of God is removed, and CLANK! It’s an unsalvageable pile of junk. The Lord was holding that battered Dodge sedan together until the very last moment.

But the capper of the scene—and what makes it truly work—is Elwood’s reaction: dignified sorrow. Crestfallen, Elwood removes his hat in earnest respect, heartbroken at the passing of his metal steed.

The only things that he loved more than that car were his brother and the music of the Blues. For a moment, it seems as if Elwood’s forgotten all about their “mission from God.”

Dan Aykroyd’s Elwood Blues is one of my favorite movie characters. Laconic to the point of existential autism (today we’d say Elwood has Asperger’s Syndrome), he’s the gearhead’s gearhead, cousin to extremely-monosyllabic expert wheelman lead characters in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Walter Hill’s The Driver (more on that film in a second).

Elwood is not given much character development beyond a diet consisting solely of toast, but he’s loyal, cool under pressure with a snarky sense of humor (giving Wrigley Field as his address; although I would’ve thought the Blues Brothers would’ve been White Sox fans…), awesome with cars (and other mechanic devices we see him come across), and a tad weird (or else he doesn’t give a damn what the normals think) with a rat-a-tat delivery that mimics Jack Webb: Here he describes the vehicle which he picked up at a police auction.
“It’s got a cop motor: a four-hundred-and-forty cubic-inch plant. It’s got cop tires, cop suspension, cop shocks. It’s a model made before catalytic converters, so it’ll run good on regular gas. Whaddya say? Is it the new Bluesmobile or what?”
To which Jake replies, “Fix the lighter.” Jake had just thrown the vehicle’s perfectly fine cigarette lighter out the window moments before, and to this line Elwood just smirks and nods, in the classic “my brother can never admit he’s wrong” manner than many must do.

The car mimics Jake and Elwood’s color scheme, and I really like that Elwood uses a police car to beat The Man at his own game.

From the IMDB trivia page:
“The vehicles used in the film were used police cars purchased from the California Highway Patrol . A total of twelve Bluesmobiles were used in the movie, including one that was [rigged] just so it could fall apart."

Elwood’s also superstitious/religious (“You can’t lie to a nun!”), and the first to proclaim that the siblings are “on a mission from God” (dialog John Landis came up with).

My favorite line in the picture is in this vein, when Elwood exclaims (as they’re being chased and shot at by the redneck bad-guys), “Our Lady of Blessed Acceleration, don’t fail me now!

I can see Elwood being the type of guy to light a candle in church for that particular holy personage—and if he didn’t, he would feel guilty about it.

But it is Elwood’s sorrow at the collapse of the Bluesmobile that truly endears me to him (and also maybe his tube socks and black wingtips)—he loved that car, and now it’s gone. He takes his hat off and puts over his chest in respect, sad and forlorn.

A weird sui generis of a movie, a messy action-comedy-musical with quasi-religious undertones, it’s the car chases and stunts that made me fall in love with The Blues Brothers the first time I saw the film in the summer of 1980.

Upon reflection, I think that Landis—aided by an excellent stunt driving crew—is imitating the style of the chase scenes from Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver (a flick that should have been still fresh in their memories during the making of The Blues Brothers): Many auto POV shots; the camera is often solidly mounted on the car, so parts of the frame are always “still;” several scenes are filmed through the windshield; and so on.

I love the chases and stunts in The Blues Brothers. Yes, they are over-the-top, but they have to be: it’s a comedy; we don’t want to see scores of cops with shattered spines or impaled on their steering wheels.
Realistic chases are need for realistic films, like The French Connection or The Seven-Ups, but not here. Big and bombastic—but also really damn fast, and lots of fun!

While I am a big fan of The Blues Brothers, I’ll admit that not everything about the flick works for me (like the Good Old Boys or the Nazi subplot), but what is fascinating is how the movie has stood the test of time. Now considered and promoted as a classic, this movie was savaged by the critics upon its initial release, and was considered a disaster.


AND NOW THE MOVIES OF JULY 2013 (Short Takes, Mostly…)

The Purge (2013; written and directed by James DeMonaco) YES! This is what a B-movie is supposed to be! Radical political ideas wrapped in a gory exploitation movie. Reviewed HERE.

Aachi & Ssipak (2006; Jo Beom-jin) Reviewed HERE, but go HERE to find out where you can see it!

The Devil Rides Out (1968; Terence Fisher; script by Richard Matheson, based on Dennis Wheatley’s novel)
Watched in tribute to the late horror maestro Matheson, this film is jammed full of Black Magic, and Aleister Crowley stand-ins! Christopher Lee is great as the serious and spooky hero, and the flick often feels like a 1920s proto-X-Files, but more concerned with the Satanic than with UFOs.

Faithful to Wheatley’s book, which is a good and bad thing—lots of good details, and thought-provoking, but also slow as molasses at times—the film is really of interest only to those interested in the Occult and “The Left Hand Path.”

Upstream Color (2013; written, edited, produced and directed by Shane Carruth) Reviewed HERE.

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977; written, produced and directed by Larry Cohen)

Baby Face (1933; Alfred E. Green) Young Babs Stanwyck effortlessly holds the screen with Zen amorality in this classic flick, with tons of implied and explicit naughtiness.

Up (2009; written & directed by Pete Docter & Bob Peterson, from a story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson and Tom McCarthy)
To me, this is probably the weirdest Pixar movie as it strays so far from standardized cartoon/family-movie tropes. For one thing, Up is about people with no superpowers, nor are the characters anthropomorphized animals or toys—remember, the dogs in Up can only speak due to super-science and still pretty much act like dogs.

Then, the main character is an old, old man—who isn’t a magician or some billionaire inventor. Meanwhile, the plot shows its pulp magazine roots: This is for people with nostalgia for the 1920s, who were born in the 1970s.

Up is the most European of Pixar’s, in story and pacing—and even its lack of “spectacle”: The film is hardly hyperactive or candy-colored, and doesn’t end with a whiz-bang action climax with fireballs and collapsing buildings. But the flick is an earnest tale told well, and succeeds.

Argo (2012; Ben Affleck) Fun stuff—a smart movie done in an old-school way: no explosions, no romantic interests, but plenty of suspense, tension and friendship in this story off American diplomats hiding and escaping from Iran during the late-1970s revolution.

The movie follows a likeable CIA agent as he enlists special makeup effects legend John Chambers (who created the makeup for the original Planet of the Apes, as well as Mr. Spock’s original ears) and some other Hollywood types to play spy and create a fake film with which to fool the Iranians, to effect the rescue.

Left out of the movie, unfortunately is Jack Kirby’s participation in this endeavor (which was peripheral, I’ll admit).

The Street Fighter’s Return (1974; Shigehiro Ozawa) Sonny Chiba kicking ass! He fights the Mafia—but no mention of the yakuza! Hmmm…. No matter, it’s eyeball-poppin’ (literally) karate action.

On Dangerous Ground (1952; Nicholas Ray) Stylistic and inventive noir—a classic even though it often feels like two different films bolted together. Thankfully the incredible Ida Lupino is on hand for the film’s second part, and Robert Ryan is excellent as always throughout, and a tad more sympathetic here than usual. Some genius camerawork, too, with a fab cameo by screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides as a sleazeball club owner.

Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro; 2013) Reviewed HERE, although the more I think about this movie, the less I like it.

“Production & Decay of Strange Particles,” The Outer Limits (1964; written & directed by Leslie Stevens)
This is one of my favorite episodes of The Outer Limits, as well as one that’s taken me a long time to figure out—and honestly the episode is still open to more interpretation I’m sure.
Mack Daddy Chris Loring of Secret Sun calls it a “nuclear black mass,” and I don’t disagree.

It’s an alchemist’s tale; an atomic The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, sort of—set in a high-tech nuclear laboratory. The chief researcher has pulled some new and very weird elements out of the cyclotron, and when they are introduced to some new radioactive isotopes, a dimensional rift occurs, and an intelligent subatomic radiation (who says aliens have to look like anything recognizable?) is released into our world. It absorbs and consumes the researchers—but still has shape because of the anti-radiation suits (with groovy claw “hands” instead of five-fingered gloves) the technicians were wearing. It’s a radiation blob completely converting the humans into glowing, sparking swirls, leaving nothing behind.

This intelligent radiation wants out of its subatomic prison, and is trying to create a thermonuclear chain reaction to do it, our world be damned!

With its themes of total obliteration, annihilation, consumption and negation, this simple episode of The Outer Limits never stops being exciting. There is a sense of urgency—plot details may be glossed over, but the lack of info leads to a disorienting feeling that enhances the mood: a horrible feeling that an unstoppable nightmare is intending to devour us all. This episode is sorcery and alchemy unleashing Cthulhu through super-science.

Spring Breakers (2013; Harmony Korine) With the exception of James Franco’s excellent reimagining of Harvey Kietel’s Sport (from Taxi Driver), this flick is repetitive and borrrrrrrrrrring.
It’s trying so hard to say “something,” but when boiled down, that “something” is utterly vapid and shallow, stapled to a dirty old man’s lackluster ogling of teen flesh (the movie is anti-erotic at best).
With the exception of the brunette girl (Faith, who is religious and has a conscience), the chicks have no individual personalities other than degrees of abrasiveness and greedy stupidity.
When Faith leaves, the story becomes Franco’s and the chicks are just window dressing: Three loathsome teen wenches with no character development, indistinguishable from each other. However, Franco is quite the “hustla” and gives a fantastic, multi-layered perf, and deserves any praise he gets. There’s only one reason to see this movie, and he’s it.

Meanwhile, the only people who would think this film is shocking are those who have either never seen MTV’s Spring Break—or those who watch that sort of thing exclusively.
The themes Spring Breakers has been covered much better in the films of Russ Meyer, Richard Kern and 1979’s Over the Edge.

Street Trash (1987; Jim Muro; written & produced by Roy Frumkes) Great low, low, low budget craziness—deservedly a cult classic, and a magnificent time-capsule of a now-gone Brooklyn. Beware of Viper Wine!

Man of Steel (2013; Zack Snyder) Y’know, I liked this movie a lot. Probably because I enjoy the concept of the egalitarian Son of God come to save us from ourselves much more than the Batman story (sociopathic billionaire instilling fear in the population to guard his precious property)…

This is also the flipside to Avatar/Dances With Wolves, where humans are the Indians and Superman is the noble white man come to save us (from other white men, so to speak). Using its elements to put forth a “First Contact/Alien Invasion/Jesus Was an Extraterrestrial” story, Man of Steel works because it picks and chooses (and discards) elements from the Superman mythos. In this film, he’s not even working at the Daily Planet yet—and it’s thankfully not campy (like the Chris Reeves Supes).

The cast is good, but especially Henry Cavill as Kal-El, but more importantly Michael Shannon is fucking brilliant as Zod: he treats his role very Shakespearean in my opinion, giving 110% without resorting to grotesque and obvious scenery chewing.
A moving, often thoughtful film that successfully uses non-linear storytelling to tell its tale—
before it goes into disaster/invasion movie overdrive, utterly demolishing Metropolis—but who doesn’t like seeing cities get clobbered? And I for one paid my $14 to see superpowered aliens destroy a ton of stuff…

Technically the film is superb, and I got a big kick out of the design of Krypton and its technology, reminiscent of a steampunk Barbarella.

Interesting criticism of Man of Steel HERE.

Clash By Night (1952; Fritz Lang) A great film trapped by an awful title! WTF is “clash by night” supposed to mean? Sounds like a war movie, or maybe a western.
Although I felt the picture’s second half showed its origin as a stage play too much (people talking in a set that might as well been a filmed play), it’s still an incredible flick with some top-notch acting supported by a snappy (very theatrical) script, with some exquisite B&W cinematography on location in Northern California’s fishing communities.

Watched as part of my recent Barbara Stanwyck obsession. The cast is perfect, especially Babs herself, supported by Robert Ryan and a young Marilyn Monroe.
Fabulous, multilayered script—about confidence and how people need it, with crackling barbed dialog (“On your way, dust!” growls an angry Ryan at one point) and a deliciously world-weary attitude.

A mature film about adult themes, with seasoned performers—and even the extras are well cast. Deserving of its “classic” status.


BOOKS READ IN JULY 2013
Lush Life by Richard Price—Inspired by a true story (stupid hipster gets shot to death while mouthing off to street hood with gun), author Price creates a vibe that feels incredibly well-researched; with what people of all social strata say and do, but especially police and crime talk. Wisely, Price avoids the billionaires of the stratosphere—too many books written about them anyway.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (script) by Paul Dehn—the movie is better (but in Dehn’s defense, this was the final draft of the script, after the producers et al have gotten through with it). Not sure why I read this…

Slayground by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake)—Parker, nuff said. He’s hiding out after a heist in a closed-for-the-winter amusement park, and has to deal with the mob and crooked cops. Almost perfect, only surpassed by…

Butcher’s Moon by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake)—the sequel to Slayground, and the equal to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. Parker’s main refrain is “Where’s my money?” and this book has that in spades as the Big P. brings in various crews he’s worked with before to put the screws to a mob-run town. Goddamn genius, that Westlake.

The Zap Gun by Philip K. Dick—PKD rules, even the stuff he wrote in a weekend for quick cash. And The Zap Gun is actually a damn fine book, with a variety of still-relevant themes, like the continual war economy and the development of underground crypto-fascist organizations. Aiding it all is that PKD’s characters are neurotic everymen, characters rarely seen in sci-fi.

5 comments:

  1. Great stuff here! Ha, you even watched Spring Fuckers.

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  2. Yeah, sometimes I take one for the team....

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  3. Ivan, THE BLUES BROTHERS has long been a favorite with us here at Team Bartilucci HQ; in fact, it was one of the movies that brought my hubby Vinnie together! And wow, what a treasure trove you've dazzled before our eyes with your coming attractions! :-) Great post!

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  4. Bless you Dorian!
    You must share the tale of how you and Vinne bonded over TBB--where did you see it?
    And sorry I haven't been posting like I wish I could: The job search has been dreadful; meanwhile a chunk of my time has been taken up with applying for NYC teaching residencies. Wish me luck! (And HELP!)
    Stay well--I'll be posting again before Halloween!
    xoxo
    Ivan

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