26 March 2012

Go Tell the Spartans

United States - 1978
Dirtector - Ted Post
HBO Video, 1990's, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 54 minutes

Seen by many as an anti-war film, Go Tell the Spartans to my mind takes a somewhat less broad and explicit stance than that. When released it was (along with The Boys in Company C) one of the first films to directly address the Vietnam War. Set in the early years of the United States' effort, Spartans is based on a book written by Daniel Ford who was a correspondent in Vietnam during that period.
Although it looks relatively low budget, (and this VHS transfer doesn't help) Spartans captures some of the rugged simplicity of the advisory period, when individual or small groups of U.S. special forces led units of indigenous Vietnamese against so called "communists."

Rather than asking the existential "why" of so many other actual anti-war films, Spartans is a criticism of how the U.S. fought Vietnam. Nor does the film specifically address its own historical moment, instead conjuring the now familiar claim that we didn't (or weren't allowed) to fight it "our way" ('we' being experts) that pro-war Vietnam apologists would rely on in the years that followed. In the same year director Post would take more or less the same argument in a different direction with Chuck Norris in Good Guys Wear Black.

Spartans also has a number of other connections. Notably it stars veteran actor Burt Lancaster whose reputation as an actor mirrors in a way his character's position in this film. Corporal Courcey, Spartan's symbolic idealist who's faith is shattered by his experience played a similar role the same year in The Boys in Company C. And finally James Hong, who appears here as one of the local Vietnamese militiamen who helps the Americans in their futile defense and pays the ultimate price for it. To my mind, his death (and that of the other villagers) is the most apt metaphor in the entire film.

Craig Wasson as Cpl. Courcey and James Hong as "Old Man" in Go Tell the Spartans.
Scan comes courtesy of Fabulous Hollywood Memories

19 March 2012


United States – 1980
Director – Jerrold Freedman
Avid Home Entertainment, 1995, VHS
Run Time – 1 hour, 44 minutes

In the early 1980’s a whole little cluster of border films came out within a few short years. It seemed that suddenly, illegal immigration was contentious again. In Border Cop (1980) Telly Savalas, and The Border (’82) Jack Nicholson each played a jaded Border Patrol agent who threw up his hands in cynical and frustrated sympathy. He may have felt deeply for the plight of the illegals, may have even been good friends with some of them (or even fallen in love), but he still had a job to do. Borderline, which came out just a few months after the Savalas picture was a gap in my Bronson collection that I had long needed to fill, but I was worried that it might be a difficult experience.

You see, I get totally confused when we white people make movies about non-white people. I start to feel like my emotions are being intentionally manipulated, especially when white actors play sympathetic non-white characters. Steven Segal, Burt Reynolds, Marlon Brando, Telly Savalas; the list goes on and on. Even my creasy Polish-American hero Charles Bronson played Mexicans and Native Americans on occasion. Bronson’s may have been the most believable brownface portrayal, but it still felt somehow disingenuous. These characters are repeatedly robbed, abused and even killed with much handwringing, but my feelings of empathy were all too often haunted by an inkling of insincerity which I couldn’t quite place. I don’t like having to think too deeply about what’s going on on-screen, it really ruins my suspension of disbelief.

It turns out I needn’t have been so concerned. Bronson, though he may have been typecast, or facecast as it were, always manages to deliver yet another compelling performance. In Borderline he plays Jeb, a Border Patrol agent much like his cinematic contemporaries; physically and emotionally overwhelmed with the contradictions of the very system which cuts his paychecks. It is such a difficult and thankless job being the responsible, caring zookeeper. But after watching as crowds of immigrants were herded about like frightened cattle in a prison yard for the first few minutes of Borderline, I was once again feeling the early stages of nagging guilt. But moments later, when Jeb’s best friend and fellow agent Scooter (Wilford Brimley) was brutally murdered, I suddenly had a revelation.

Scooter’s killer is Hotchkiss, “The Marine” (Ed Harris), a cold-blooded, uzi-weilding Nam Vet working for a local California businessman in a grand conspiracy to rake in the cash by drowning the U.S. labor market in a sea of malleable brown servants. Now even though the complications and tensions of illegal immigration policy are central to the rivalry between the Jeb and Hotchkiss, Borderline is not about illegal immigration at all. In fact it’s never even discussed. That’s because everything troublesome about immigration is embodied in one unscrupulous and evil individual, Hotchkiss whose elimination “solves” everything. Jeb’s clear-cut moral victory relieved me of any responsibility for the active contemplation of systemic social issues that often makes watching dramatic movies so unpleasant. Pitting these two men against each-other was brilliant. Not only do they play their roles with gusto, but it utterly mystifies one of the most contentious issues in modern U.S. politics. I must say though, if I have to cheer on the retrenchment of the status quo, Bronson’s the guy who’ll get me to do it every time. It’s so much easier when complex moral issues are boiled down into charismatic and easy to digest character tropes. If it had been anyone but him I would probably still be feeling guilty.

Wait, who's the headliner here, the Subject or the Objects?

French, Italian and United States' posters from Movie Poster Shop.
The French one is my absolute favorite, maybe one of the best posters of all time. It perfectly exemplifies the misguided self-deluding quality of white-people making movies about brown-people.

German poster-thing from Movie Poster Database
Why does (almost) every poster have a giant United States' flag on it?

16 March 2012

Once Upon a Time in the West

Italy - 1969
Director - Sergio Leone

I do so love Charles Bronson that I am almost willing to say that this is my favorite of Leone's classic westerns. Woody Strode doesn't hurt of course, even though he's only in the film for the opening scene. I recently read a nice long article in Cinema Retro which proposed that Leone's film was a response to 1962's romantic fantasy How the West Was Won. Something of a darker, more cynical vision, though I would argue no less fantastical or romantic.

This poster by artist Rudolfo Gasparri

13 March 2012

Samsung VCR Advert

Found in an old magazine from 1989. Apparently Rambo 22 was still the "hottest rental" three years after its release. With a G rating no less.

12 March 2012

Red Sun

France 1971
Director - Terence Young

I so badly wanted to like this movie and I waited with much anticipation for it to arrive in the mail. I mean, Toshiro Mifuna and Bronson! I suppose it's one of those films that I should give another chance since it's been a few years. Good posters anyway. Polish poster above comes from At The Movies, the rest from Moviegoods.

05 March 2012

Obsession: A Taste For Fear

Italy - 1988
Director - Piccio Raffanini
Imperial Entertainment Corp., 1989, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 30 minutes

Some of my favorite future-sci-fi movies are the ones set in a year which, by the time I see the film, has already passed. I just love laughing at vintage dreams. Even post-apocalyptic films usually do the same thing. They may be dystopian but usually they are typified by fantastic technology and absurd fashion, strange languages. But my, things sure didn’t end up nearly as awesome as they thought they would. Still you can’t help but sympathize with the poor optimistic suckers. Just like we all often do, these films imagined and hoped for something different and better than what they had. Most of them did anyway. There was one era which was so narcissistic that it didn’t really look forward for the future so much as in the mirror.

It is hard to see it now except in film because that is such an all encompassing medium. But if movies are any kind of cultural barometer, the 80’s was so convinced, so all fired sure that the it was the raddest that stuff would ever get, that it cocieved a future that looked, sounded and acted just like itself. Obsession: A Taste For Fear takes this sort of instantaneous self-adoration to new circular depths. It starts with a cookie-cutter thriller/Giallo plot in which young women keep turning up dead and at one time or another everyone is a suspect. Australian actress Virginia Hey stars as Diane, a snotty fashion photographer whose ex-husband George makes abstract video porn. Both call their work “art” presumably because it features boobs, neon and computer screens; all sure to be popular in the future. Soon, their shared models begin to get killed off, their deaths filmed in videos that look just like Diane’s photos and George’s pornos. And just like Obsession: A Taste for Fear. Of course, this makes both of them prime suspects and a surly cop chases them around between scenes of harshly-lit softcore and second-string period hits on the soundtrack. Finally Diane’s gay assistant is revealed to be the killer and Diane herself retreats cathartically into her pornographer Ex’s reassuring grasp. Ladies and gay men take note; the future may remain less than liberatory.

Wow, I honestly don’t know if I can compute that. If the future is exactly like right now how do we know it’s even the future? Truth be told, Obsession does have an odd looking car in one scene and I heard a rumor about a ray-gun somewhere. There are a few computers that clack and bleep so that’s peripherally, hintingly supposed to be the future I guess. What gave it all away though was the overwhelming sense that what was happening on screen, and on the screens on screen, and on screens on screens on screen, was the most significant and important thing that could happen. It was the feeling of imminence exuded like last night’s cocaine from every solipsistic pore of Obsession that made it an exercise in self abuse. It’s the sort of future that looks great in everything except the rear-view mirror.