Deathlog 2017 – Part 1

 

© Eon Productions

 

The Grim Reaper seemed to cull a record number of big-name celebrities in 2016: David Bowie, Prince, Umberto Eco, Muhammed Ali, George Michael, Carrie Fisher.  2017 has seen less carnage, but nonetheless some people I admired have passed away.  Here’s a post about them.  Links are provided to those people whom I’ve already written about on Blood and Porridge.

 

January 19th and 21st saw the deaths of British writers Hilary Bailey and Emma Tennant, who by a sad coincidence were friends and occasional collaborators.  I read some of Bailey’s work in the New Worlds Quarterly paperback series that she’d edited in the 1970s – the series was a reincarnation of the famous science-fiction magazine New Worlds that her one-time husband Michael Moorcock had edited during the previous decade.  I’m unfamiliar with Tennant’s work but have a tenuous link with her.  She belonged to the aristocratic Glenconner family who owned the Glen, a mansion in the hills a few miles southeast of my Scottish hometown of Peebles.  I’ve hiked past the Glen many a time and, according to Tennant’s Wikipedia entry, she lived there as a child and remembered it as “the strangest place possible.”

 

January 27th saw a further literary demise, of novelist and filmmaker William Peter Blatty.  He authored The Exorcist (1971), which was made into the ground-breaking and massively successful horror movie of the same name two years later.  In 1990 Blatty directed the film’s second sequel, Exorcist III, which has its admirers; and in 1980 The Ninth Configuration, a movie ignored on its release but now viewed as an offbeat classic.   Film critic Mark Kermode described Configuration as “a breathtaking cocktail of philosophy, eye-popping visuals, jaw-dropping pretentiousness, rib-tickling humour and heart-stopping action.”

 

© Warner Brothers

 

Also checking out in January were American character actor Miguel Ferrer – Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017) – on February 19th; acclaimed English actor John Hurt on January 25th; Scottish politician Tam Dalyell on January 26th; and, on January 25th, the American film and TV actress Mary Tyler Moore.  Through her sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), she was instrumental in getting American television to portray women in a more proactive and empowered fashion.

 

January 26th saw the death of a more conventional American TV performer, Mike Connors, who played tough-guy private investigator Mannix from 1967 to 1975.  Mannix fans presumably included a young Quentin Tarantino, who named a character after the P.I. in 2015’s The Hateful Eight.  Two days later saw the passing of keyboardist and guitarist Geoff Nicholls, who played in legendary Brum heavy-metal band Black Sabbath from 1980 to 2004.

 

February was had a relatively low death toll, although on February 17th we said goodbye to another Twin Peaks alumni, Warren Frost, who played the kindly Doc Hayward in its first two series in 1990-91 and briefly in its 2017 revival series.  And the much-loved movie character actor Bill Paxton died on February 26th.

 

March 14th saw the death of veteran American film producer Jack H. Harris, who’ll surely be remembered as ‘Father of the Blob’.  Not only did he produce hoary sci-fi monster movie The Blob in 1958 (starring Steve McQueen as an unfeasibly old teenager) but he masterminded its 1972 sequel Beware! the Blob, which was directed by none other than J.R. Ewing himself Larry Hagman and thus became known as ‘the movie that J.R. shot.’  Furthermore, Harris produced the 1988 remake, directed by Chuck Russell, and at the time of his death was trying to get a second remake off the ground.  On March 18th seminal rock-and-roller Chuck Berry passed away, and the following day the masterly American illustrator and comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson died too.  Checking out on March 26th was actress Darlene Cates, splendid as Johnny Depp and Leonardo Di Caprio’s mother in the 1993 movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

 

© MGM / United Artists

 

American funny man Don Rickles died on April 6th.  I wasn’t a fan of Rickles’ humour (“Who picks your clothes?  Stevie Wonder?”) but as an actor he was memorably nasty in Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and memorably pathetic in John Landis’s Innocent Blood (1992).  One day later, the English stage, film, TV and radio actor Tim Pigott-Smith passed away.  My juvenile self will always remember Pigott-Smith for playing: (1) Hotspur (to Jon Finch’s Henry IV, David Gwillim’s Hal and Anthony Quayle’s Falstaff) in the 1979 BBC production of Henry IV Part 1, which I was made to watch at school; and (2) Thallo in 1981’s Clash of the Titans.  Meanwhile, bowing out on April 12th was Charlie Murphy, elder brother to Eddie Murphy and a distinguished comic performer in his own right.  His Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories turn on Comedy Central’s Chapelle’s Show (2003-2006) was hilarious, perhaps most of all when he described an alleged encounter with Prince, where the diminutive funky singer-musician showed an unexpected flair for basketball.

 

We also saw the departures of American blues singer and guitarist Lonnie Brooks on April 3rd; hugely influential British comics artist Leo Baxendale on April 23rd; and American guitarist John Warren Geils Jnr, mainspring of the J. Geils Band on April 11th – how I loved the Geils song Centerfold when I was a fifteen-year-old.  American director Jonathan Demme, whose CV included Caged Heat (1974), Crazy Mama (1975), Melvin and Howard (1980), Stop Making Sense (1984), Swimming to Cambodia (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993), died on April 26th.

 

And American character actor Clifton James died on April 15th.  James was best-known for playing redneck police officer Sheriff Pepper in two Roger Moore James Bond movies, 1974’s Live and Let Die and 1975’s The Man with the Golden Gun.  (In the latter film, Sheriff Pepper turns out to be less of a redneck than expected.  Holidaying with his wife in East Asia, he refuses to have his photo taken with an elephant: “Elephants!  We’re Demy-crats, Maybelle!”)  For a more nuanced Clifton James performance, however, check out his supporting role in Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1975).

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

Another notable movie policeman passed away the following month, on May 10th: Michael Parks, who played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dawn to Dust (1996), Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and the Rodriguez / Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse (2007).   Parks also played the villainous Jean Renault in the first two series of Twin Peaks (1990-91) – so yes, he was another Twin Peaks casualty of 2017.  Another man who was no stranger to violent action-thrillers, character actor Powers Boothe, died on May 14th.  Boothe’s career saw him perform in such gritty movies as Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981) and Extreme Prejudice (1987), Oliver Stone’s U-Turn (1997) and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005).

 

Other notable actors departing in May included the cinema’s longest-serving James Bond, Sir Roger Moore, who died on May 23rd; and English character actor Geoffrey Bayldon, who passed away on May 10th.  Bayldon appeared in British horror films like The House That Dripped Blood (1970), Tales from the Crypt and Asylum (both 1972) but will be remembered by British TV viewers my age for playing a medieval wizard transported by magic to the present day in the children’s fantasy show Catweazle (1970-71).  Meanwhile, the musical world took a hit on May 18th with the death of yet another grunge-band frontman, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell.

 

From Wikipedia

 

Before taking leave of May, we should raise a glass of vodka to the memory of Soviet Air Defence Forces officer Stanislav Petrov, who died on May 19th.  Petrov is credited with saving the world from nuclear destruction in 1983.  Suspicious of an early-warning report about an American missile approaching the USSR, he disobeyed an order to launch a retaliatory strike.  The initial report turned out to be false, the result of a malfunction in the satellite tracking system.  Phew.  Looking at the shitty state of international politics in the early 21st century, I suspect we’ll need a few more people of Stanislav Petrov’s calibre in the years ahead.

 

June 2017 wreaked havoc in the world of children’s TV entertainment.  On June 9th it claimed Adam West, square-jawed star of the campy old Batman TV show (1966-68); on June 19th Brian Cant, narrator of the revered British stop-motion-animation shows Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969); and on June 5th, the venerable Peter Sallis, who provided the voice for Gromit in Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit quintet.  Sallis also played Norman Clegg in all 295 episodes of the BBC’s seemingly never-ending sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010) and appeared in a couple of Hammer horror movies.  I love the fact that he was in both the Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and the Wallace and Gromit epic Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005).

 

© Aardman Animations

 

Anita Pallenberg, 1960s icon, actress and muse to the Rolling Stones died on June 13th and Dave Rosser, guitarist with the reformed American alternative-rock band the Afghan Whigs, died on June 27th.  Finally, June 30th saw the passing of Barry Norman, English movie critic and host of the BBC’s long-running Film… review show from 1972 to 1998.  I disagreed with many of Norman’s opinions – he could be annoyingly conservative and prissy in his tastes – but he performed his duties with undeniable wit, charm and aplomb.  And a long time before the Internet, when the UK media didn’t seem particularly interested in films as an artform, his weekly show was an invaluable lifeline for cinephiles like myself.

 

To be continued…  Alas.

 

© BBC

 

Stand-ups, stand up and avoid Hollywood

 

Here are some words I thought I’d never write.  I find myself in agreement with Barry Norman.

 

For those of you unfamiliar with the name, Barry Norman was the best-known and no doubt most influential film critic in Britain for a quarter-century.  From 1972 until 1998 – a period when, for much of the time, most British people had access to only a handful of terrestrial TV channels, the Internet didn’t exist and newspaper coverage of new cinema releases was limited to one page of reviews on a Friday – he presented a weekly film-review programme, as well as occasional cinematically-themed documentary shows like The Hollywood Greats, on the BBC.  Thanks to his regular telly appearances, he was for a long time Mr Movies as far as the British public was concerned.

 

For me, however, he was a conservative, prudish, play-it-safe old fart who seemed to epitomise everything I hated about the British film-critic establishment of the era.  British films were only seen to be good if they were either socialistic kitchen-sink dramas set on housing estates or expensive costume epics set in the glory days of the British Empire – everything had to follow in the slipstream of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or Lawrence of Arabia.  Anything, British or otherwise, that tried to be unusual or different or fantastical was treated with the sort of benign condescension that adults usually bestow on small children who are babbling nonsense.  Anything that pushed the boundaries of acceptability was distasteful.  Horror films – one of my favourite genres, Barry’s least favourite one – were detestable.  I sometimes got the impression that Barry and his counterparts in the British press didn’t actually like films very much.  They thought far too many movies were immature and childish, and they could be unsavoury or even dangerous if they weren’t kept firmly in their place.

 

(c) BBC

 

This past week, poor old Barry – who keeps his oar in both with the film world and with the BBC by writing a column for the Radio Times – has found himself at the centre of a shit-storm.    He wrote a column in which he opined that the recently, tragically-departed comedian and comic actor Robin Williams had an “enormous talent which, if not exactly unfulfilled, could sometimes be spread so thinly as to be almost invisible.”  Williams, he conceded, had made some good films but also “a plenitude of bad ones.  Well, every actor makes bad films occasionally but what was remarkable about Williams was not that he was good in the good ones but that he was so very bad in the bad ones.”  And he attributed this problem to the fact that Williams seemed addicted to making unrelentingly feel-good movies, to peddling “saccharine, tooth-rotting sentimentality.”

 

The column promptly drew a flurry of angry responses from people who thought he was wantonly despoiling Williams’ memory.  It was considered so newsworthy that it was soon being reported in newspapers like the Guardian and the Telegraph – whose comments threads quickly filled with equally-angry posts.  “F**k off Barry Norman” was one measured reaction in the Guardian.  In a cinematic context, I don’t think I’ve seen so much opprobrium and disgust heaped on someone or something since, oh, old Barry himself reviewed David Cronenberg’s The Brood in 1979.

 

Well, I suppose one could argue that Barry, although he’s entitled to his opinion, was out of order to harp on about the weaknesses in Robin Williams’ back catalogue so soon after the man’s death.  Then again, when creative people die and obituaries appear in newspapers – including the Guardian and the Telegraph – it’s usually considered fair play for obituarists to point out the deceased’s failures as well as his or her successes.  When Michael Winner – a filmmaker about whom the kindest thing that can be said is that much of his oeuvre was not terribly good – popped his clogs early last year, nobody tried to claim that Winner’s films were brilliant out of consideration for the feelings of his family and friends.

 

It grieves me to say so but, in my opinion, Barry Norman was right about Robin William’s film output.  There came a time in the 1990s when his output seemed to consist of nothing but toe-curlingly sugary, openly manipulative schmaltz-fests and / or juvenile fantasies in which he played naïve, lovable man-children: Hook (1991), Toys (1992), Jumanji (1995), Jack (1996), What Dreams May Come (1998), Patch Adams (1998), Bicentennial Man (1999) Even in more acclaimed films, like Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Awakenings (1990) and Mrs Doubtfire (1993), I sensed there was a huge reservoir of sentimentality lurking nearby, ready to swamp proceedings if the slush-gates suddenly burst open.  Mrs Doubtfire, in fact, captures the Williams dichotomy perfectly.  Playing the title character, the eccentric nanny with the prim Scottish accent – this being a Hollywood movie, of course, everyone assumes she’s from England – he’s a comic delight.  When he’s playing the despondent dad who wants to be near his kids, the ‘power of family’ message and the sentimentality generally are cranked up to eleven.

 

I find What Dreams May Come, a fantasy-weepie about the soul of a dead man searching heaven and hell for his wife, particularly depressing.  As well as squandering Williams’ talents, it’s based on a 1983 novel by Richard Matheson, who’d once been one of the sharpest and most innovative horror and fantasy writers around.  However, by 1983, Matheson had lost his grit and this novel is the new-age literary equivalent of comfort food.  Meanwhile, it’s no surprise that in Cecil B. Demented, the anti-Hollywood satire that John Waters made in 2000, there’s a scene where the independent-film-loving terrorists led by Stephen Dorff attack a cinema that’s showing Patch Adams: The Director’s Cut.

 

(c) TriStar

 

I think one problem was that too often Williams got partnered with directors like Steven Spielberg, Penny Marshall and Chris Columbus, who didn’t always seem aware that ‘feel-good’ didn’t necessarily equal ‘good’.  And it’s interesting that when Williams worked with Terry Gilliam in 1991 – Gilliam had had his fair share of strife from the big studios with films like Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and no doubt by then took a more cynical view of things – the result was a genuinely endearing and special movie, The Fisher King.

 

By the late 1990s, I’d formed a film-going rule.  If I was approaching a cinema and saw a film-poster that had Robin Williams’ name on it, I’d immediately give that cinema a body-swerve.  (I’d developed a similar rule about Hugh Grant.)  However, I was glad that in 2002 I forced myself into a cinema to watch Christopher Nolan’s excellent thriller Insomnia.  In it, Williams plays against type and is surprisingly effective as a murderous psycho, up against Al Pacino’s sleep-deprived cop in Alaska.  By this time, Williams must’ve realised that his career was drowning in a vat of schmaltz and he needed to drastically change direction, for in the same year he played another deranged character in the psychological thriller One Hour Photo.

 

Anyway, the real villain here isn’t Barry Norman.  It’s a Hollywood studio system that, for most of the time, proved itself clueless about how to properly harness and package William’s talents as a stand-up comedian for the big screen – and if you’ve seen footage of Williams doing stand-up, you’ll agree that those talents were prodigious.  Alas, Williams was not alone in this predicament.  After he’d swapped the stage for the film studio, Steve Martin got a decent string of movies during the 1980s – The Man with Two Brains (1982), Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), All of Me (1984), Roxanne (1987), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) – but you’d have to be a masochist to find pleasure in most of the Martin films that’ve come since.  Father of the Bride (1991)?  Sergeant Bilko (1995)?  Cheaper by the Dozen (2003)?  The Pink Panther (2006)?  Such movies are pain on a stick.  Eddie Murphy’s period of grace was even briefer.  He was great in 48 Hours (1982) and Trading Places (1983), but even by 1984 and Beverley Hills Cop the rot was starting to set in.  And many unfunny, formulaic duds ensued.

 

Perhaps the best a stand-up comic can hope for is to do what Billy Connolly has done – he’s kept his stage career going whilst making the occasional movie on the side.  Mind you, I can think of one person who’s bucked the stand-up-comic-good / movie-actor-bad trend.  I thought Andrew Dice Clay was an odious, racist knob-end when he struck gold with his stand-up career in the 1980s.  However, I saw him in a supporting role in last year’s Woody Allen-directed movie Blue Jasmine and found myself, to my astonishment, quite liking him.

 

But returning to Robin Williams – the best thing you can do to honour his memory is throw those DVDs of various dodgy 1990s comedy movies into the bin and, instead, watch some of his great, vintage stand-up material on youtube.   (The moments where his unhinged comedy genius erupts during a 2001 interview on the American cable show Inside the Actor’s Studio are remarkable too.)  Yes, screw Patch Adams and Mrs Doubtfire.  Remember the man this way.