BOOB TUBE: UHF (1989)

November 11, 2014

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UHF was released to apoplectic critics and an apathetic public on July 21st, 1989. Its opening weekend box office put it in eleventh place, behind the nearly month-old run of Weekend at Bernie’s. It would disappear from theaters a few weeks later. Today it comes out in a “25th Anniversary Edition” Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, having etched itself into the nostalgia nodes of thirty-something weirdos. I count myself among them. During those awkward pre-teen years (before “tween” made the age period sound appealing) “Weird Al” Yankovic was something of a secular god, his mild pop-culture subversiveness a convenient way to channel my milquetoast angst. In 1979 Yankovic changed The Knack’s “My Sharona” into “My Bologna” and netted a recording contract, those albums introducing the possibility of oppositional thinking into my half-formed brain. Plus he dressed funny and had polka breaks in between tunes. No downside! His crossover moment occurred on the album Even Worse (1988), which spawned the MTV music video staple “Fat”, a nearly shot-for-shot parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad”. With the success of the album (it was his first to reach platinum) and the ubiquitous video, the brave souls at the now-defunct Orion Pictures gave him the chance to make a movie. Yankovic and his manager Jay Levey conceived UHF as a delivery system for parodies, along the lines of Kentucky Fried Movie. It turned out to be something more like a combo of SCTV and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but whatever it was, people hated it. Roger Ebert called it “routine, predictable and dumb — real dumb”, while Jonathan Rosenbaum described it as “awful by any standard”. But though I no longer listen to Yankovic’s albums, I still find UHF to be uproarious.

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The movie presents “Weird Al” as a sad sack dreamer named George. He’s introduced with a fantasy of himself as Indiana Jones, stealing an Oscar from a booby-trapped ancient temple. At the end of it he’s flattened by a boulder, and there’s a cut from his rubberized body to a hamburger on a skillet. He’s a fry jockey at Big Edna’s Burger World, a position from which he and his trusted doofus friend Bob (David Bowe) will be fired. He’s doomed to more hot dog-in-a-Twinkie dinners until his degenerate gambler uncle Harvey (Stanley Brock) wins a dilapidated UHF television station in a poker game. Harvey taps George to be station manager, and right before George runs the place further into the ground, their janitor Stanley Spadowski (Michael Richards) becomes a variety show sensation and shoots them to the top of the ratings. This attracts the attention of  villainous network affiliate head R.J. Fletcher (a jowl-shaking Kevin McCarthy), who unloads all of his dirty tricks to put George out of business.

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The antics to save the station are constantly interrupted by commercials and clips, a series of non sequiturs that are the raison d’etre of the film. These include ads for used car salesman Crazy Ernie (“I’m gonna club a baby seal to make a deal”) and highly specialized department store Spatula City (We sell spatulas/And that’s all!”). These are absurdist miniatures that work as well in isolation as they do in the movie. If released on YouTube today, they would light up aggregators as much as Adult Swim’s Too Many Cooks did earlier this week. Each sketch takes a different approach, from the magnificent bad punning of Conan the Librarian (who slices a late book returner in half) to the more direct parody of Geraldo Rivera with George’s apocalyptic Town Talk. Viewing it for the nth time last week, however, I was most amused by the shows that we never see. There is one scene where George is planning the schedule, padding things out around Spadowski’s runaway hit. There are the gross-out moves like “Name That Stain” or “The Wonderful World of Phlegm”, and then the more surreal items like the Friday night quartet of “Druids on Parade”, “The Volcano Worshipers Hour”, “Underwater Bingo for Teens” and “Fun With Dirt”. We don’t see a frame of these shows, but the movie manages to parody the mania for reality television a decade before it happens. Their station’s entire success is based on cheap “reality” programming, whether it’s Spadowski’s in-the-moment spazzing or competitive shows like “Bowling for Burgers” or “Strip Solitaire”.

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What cannot be ignored today, though, is its reductive depiction of race. One of George’s neighbors and friends is the martial arts instructor Kuni (Gedde Watanabe), whose humor is supposed to come from his heavily accented English and karate poses. Then there’s “Raul’s Wild Kingdom”, featuring the only Hispanic member of the cast. Speaking like Speedy Gonzalez, he lives in a hovel overrun with animals where he teaches poodles how to fly. It’s, as the kids like to say, problematic. If you can look past it, the film has wonderful performances, and I even found Yankovic to be an appealing presence, though Ebert disagrees:

his physical presence is undermined by bad posture and an indistinct speaking voice. He needs to practice throwing back his shoulders and strutting; he creates a dispirited vacuum at the center of many scenes.

I find this “indistinctness” to be interesting. He is mostly recessive until moments of extreme self-doubt, when he lashes out in violence. He screams at Bob to hit him in the face with a crowbar, and is prone to slamming his head on countertops when depressed. It’s an unstable performance, his slacker schizo something that Adam Sandler might have taken inspiration from for his weirder, more interesting comedies (Zohan, That’s My Boy). Michael Richards exhibits the physical elasticity that made him a star, though he elicits more pity than laughter in this one. His character is something of a tragic one, a lonesome mentally deficient janitor whose best friend is a mop. The true star of the film is Kevin McCarthy, who is clearly having a ball as the red meat villain R.J. Fletcher. He is sexist, sadistic and mean to people from all races and religions. McCarthy works on every variation of scowl, his mouth muscles permanently strained downward. Through all his huffing and puffing and bad mouthing, McCarthy walks away with the movie, his blustering in disbelief that “A UHF station!” beat them in the ratings a line reading whose tenor and bluster is permanently embedded in my synapses.

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But then, I cannot be objective about this movie. Some of my fondest memories involve listening to a cassette tape of the UHF soundtrack with my brother. We heard the movie before we saw it, imagining the jokes in our heads. On certain long afternoons in the early 1990s, “Weird Al”‘s twenty second blast  of cock rock “Let Me Be Your Hog” was the funniest thing in the world. Divorced of its context (Uncle Harvey listening to it on the radio), it was just a strange man making pig noises and screaming to a soaring guitar riff. It was nonsense, it was bliss.

DVD ROUNDUP: SHOUT! FACTORY AND WARNER ARCHIVE

July 5, 2011

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Edmond O’Brien enjoys a post-Independence Day fireworks display in Rio Conchos, the 1964 Western just released by Shout! Factory on DVD. With all my squawking about studios cutting back on library titles for home video, there are still plenty of rare and strange items sneaking onto those glimmering circular discs. Over the past few weeks, Shout! Factory and Warner Archive have shown they’re still fighting the good fight, and I’ll run down a few of their most intriguing recent renovation jobs.

I’ll start with Mr. O’Brien. Rio Conchos (1964) is paired with another 20th Century Fox film, the Blaxploitation-Spaghetti Western Take a Hard Ride (1975), encoded onto one dual-layered DVD. Directed by Gordon Douglas in sun-scorched CinemaScope, Conchos is a nasty job in which its ostensible hero, ex-Confederate soldier Jim Lassiter (Richard Boone), cold-bloodedly slaughters a group of Native Americans in the opening. It’s his bad luck that the repeating rifle he used was part of a cache stolen from the U.S. Army. He soon has Army Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) and sullen Buffalo Soldier Franklyn (Jim Brown, in his first movie role) on his tail. Haven needs Lassiter to lead him to the rifle seller, so this unlikely trio heads south to Mexico, with the fast talking ex-con Juan (Tony Franciosa) as their guide.

Douglas, whose haunting Only the Valiant I wrote up earlier this year, again utilizes gothic imagery, this time setting Lassiter against imagery of decay and death. In the opener, in which Lassiter’s face is never seen, Native Americans are recovering their dead from a field of gnarled and petrified trees. These civilians are gunned down by a dot in the far background, and fall dead with their brothers. All we see of Lassiter is a reverse angle of his hat and gun, and then a pan down to the shells hitting the ground, a visual rhyme to the men he killed. The next time we see Lassiter, he is sitting, fat and happy, in a burnt out husk of a home, with the sun hollowing out the wrinkles in his jowly face – a satanically jolly figure.

He becomes a hero by default, with the passivity of Haven and the apathy of Franklyn unable to take the lead. Or perhaps because he is so familiar with evil he is the only one comfortable enough to confront it. In the infernal climax, Lassiter is right at home. In Chihuahua he meets his old Colonel Pardee (O’Brien), who has gone mad with dreams of establishing a new South in Mexico, and his half-built plantation house is the misshapen manifestation of that insanity. This time Lassiter enters another man’s decay, and fulfills the promise of those opening scenes, but destroys Pardee along with himself in a scene of grandiose self-immolation.

Speaking of grandiosity, there is Warner Archive’s handsome-looking remastered release of Dark of the Sun (1968), Jack Cardiff’s rollicking men-on-a-mission gloss that nails all of that genre’s pleasures with irresistible efficiency. You’ve got a shirtless Rod Taylor and Jim Brown, an evil German guy (Peter Carstein), and Yvette Mimieux wearing tight pants. Taylor and Brown are mercenaries hired by the Congolese government to recapture uncut diamonds in rebel-held territory, and things do not go as planned. Add chainsaws, gruff cynicism, an anthemic score and $25 million in diamonds, and you’ve got a movie out of Quentin Tarantino’s wet dreams (and he did sample the score for  Inglorious Basterds).  What makes this more than camp fodder is Cardiff’s slashing compositions, whose brash diagonals point to further adventures off-screen. Another unusual aspect to this Dirty Dozen clone is its frank depiction of violence. While it has its share of cartoon shootouts (see above), there are also awkward, grotesque deaths impossible to cheer – here civilians do die and consciences remain decidedly unclean. Rod Taylor is superb as the no-nonsense mercenary, a granite he-man who still sweats like an ox.

Another kind of masculinity is on display in Warner Archive’s The Breaking Point (1950), Michael Curtiz’s faithful adaptation of Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not. A spare and relentless noir about how unemployment can reduce a man to neurosis and petty crime, it bears no relation to Howard Hawks’ heavily reworked version of the story. In the Curtiz film, Harry Morgan is played by a hunched and fidgety John Garfield, in one of his finest performances. Morgan is a fishing boat captain with a wife and kids, but his business is floundering. His wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) wants him to quit and work on her family’s lettuce farm (Garfield: “What’s so great about lettuce?”). Stubborn to a fault, and loyal to his partner Wesley (Juano Hernandez, whose quiet dignity was also present in Stars in My Crown the same year), he makes some extra cash by ferrying revelers over the border to Tijuana. One of those passengers is Leona Charles, a man-eater played by Patricia Neal with a knee-buckling purr. After her date abandons both of them in Mexico, Morgan doesn’t have the money to pass through inspections to get back home. So he takes on a job smuggling illegal Chinese immigrants back into the states. It is the beginning of his troubles.

Curtiz makes it a film about foreground and background interaction, with his expert blocking allowing for constant motion in every segment of the frame. It’s when the background moves forward, and into Morgan’s space, that his world starts to disintegrate. Harry and Wesley have calm spatial relations, as seen in the first photo, each carving out their own domain. It is the same way in Harry’s home, in which Lucy and his kids occupy background spaces, and approach with his tacit permission. But the entrance of Leona into his life is the breach that brings him down. Expecting just a single man, he spies a couple in extreme long shot, walking down the pier. Once they arrive, the separation between background and foreground breaks down, with Leona inviting them to puncture the space.

Within these setups, Garfield’s unraveling takes place behind his tense jaw clenches and repressed desires. He repeatedly forces himself close to Leona, only to deny himself her body again and again. It is a masochistic maneuver, testing the boundaries of his guilt. He represses his sexual urges and releases his neuroses in violence instead — taking a getaway boat driver job on a horse racing heist. By that point his doom is pre-ordained. But in the culmination of Curtiz’s work with foregrounds and backgrounds, the final shot is reserved for a wandering supporting character, pushed to the fore. Wesley’s son is seen searching the pier for his father, unseen and unknown.

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I ran out of time this week, but Shout! Factory has also released an inspiring two-disc set of three Roger Corman Women-In-Prison movies (with a Blu-Ray slated for 8/23): The Big Doll House (1971), Women in Cages (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972). Fun for the whole family.