Thursday, December 14, 2017

Review - The Last Women Standing

December 14, 2017

The Last Women Standing – China, 2015

Before I get started, a confession: I watched the end credits of Luo Luo’s well-acted The Last Women Standing twice. Now normally when one does something as odd as that, it’s because there’s a particular actor whose name you want to know or because you missed the name of a friend of yours who worked on the film. Neither of those reasons applies in this case. No, I sat through rows of job titles and names in search of the company that had so badly butchered the subtitles on the Blu-ray disc that I had considered myself lucky to have found. Alas, it was nowhere to be seen. Therefore, it is incumbent upon me to issue the following warning: Anyone who lacks a working understanding of Chinese should stay away from The Last Women Standing, for if your copy is so haphazardly translated as mine was, you’re likely to tear your hair out in frustration and curse the unnamed company that had the audacity to release such gobbledygook and call it English. For the record, it’s get in the car, not get on, moody not moldy, and marry someone not marry with someone.

Okay, rant’s over.

No, I lied. It’s not. See, here’s the thing. At this stage in their career, neither Shu Qi nor Eddie Peng should be making films like this one. Shu Qi has earned a place among the great Chinese actress of her generation; Eddie Peng, while not having the same pedigree in the film industry as Shu Qi, has quietly carved out a place for himself in Taiwanese cinema. In a perfect world, the two of them would have their choice of scripts and the time to sift through them and separate the great from the good and the good from the atrocious. That they both decided to make The Last Women Standing indicates that they either cannot pick the films they make or – and this is the even scarier alternative – they saw something in Luo’s script that I completely missed – which is entirely possible given the problem mentioned in the first paragraph.

The Last Women Standing casts Shu Qi as Sheng Ruxi, a successful thirty-year-old woman who seems to have a lot going for her – a promising career, a nice apartment, few financial worries. The only thing she doesn’t have is a husband, and it is this void that makes her mother (Pan Hong) hang her head in shame. In fact, in the opening scene, she badmouths her daughter for not being married while she is sitting next to her at a wedding, and it only gets worse from there. She seems to be under the impression that having a single daughter in her thirties is the greatest shame a mother can have. There is some truth to this story line. I have had students relate to me superstitions about women over thirty no longer being able to have healthy children and worries that it is harder for women that age to find love. However, the film makes this the central issue in almost all of their conversations, and after a few minutes, I was ready for the film to move on and establish other aspects of their relationship. Sadly, the film doesn’t acquiesce. It just hammers the point home over and over again, and then it takes it to an even greater extreme.

Eddie Peng, for his part, plays a young man named Ma Sai. Ma Sai is five years younger that Ruxi, less experienced in the world, and somewhat socially inept. He is a gentleman, however. In one brief scene in an elevator, we see him extend his arm to ensure that Ruxi is not knocked in the head by a ladder carried by a construction worker. The two of them work together. She is his superior, and he seems genuinely interested in learning to do his job well. What they do not appear to be doing is developing romantic feelings for each other, yet as has happened in so many movies before this one, all it takes is a night sleeping in the same hotel room together (separate beds of course) for a mutual interest to begin to develop. Yes, those heartfelt conversations about love, inexperience, and bloody noses really do the trick, and in movies it never fails to win a woman’s heart when a man does not hit on a woman he shouldn’t hit on in the first place. I wonder what makes screenwriters think that this is so rare that it immediately makes someone a possibility for love.

This being a romantic film, it has its fair share of idiot moments, the most egregious of which involve Ruxi. In one scene, she stands at a window watching fireworks go off and asking aloud, “True love. Where are you?” In another, she utters words related to spaceships and changing the channels up in the heavens in an attempt to explain why it is so hard to find Mr. Right. There’s even a scene in which Ruxi practices saying “I like you” out loud because, you know, the words are so hard for her to say that she needs to practice. And of course there is the requisite break-up-and-exit-down-a-long-empty-pier scene, for in movies a man must always stand and watch helplessly as the woman he loves walks out of his life. Apparently, his legs and his mouth go utterly numb.

I suspect that the film would have found a groove had it focused more exclusively on either the relationship between mother and daughter or that of Ruxi and Ma Sai. Instead, we get subplots galore, the result of which is a film that spreads itself in so many directions that it can’t do justice to any of its characters. A subplot involving Ruxi’s boss goes nowhere, and it is unclear what lesson Ruxi is supposed to learn from a friend who makes a rather large sacrifice for an ex-boyfriend. There’s also a doctor (Xing Jiadong) who falls for Ruxi because…well, I’m not actually sure why he does. She is not his type, never agrees with him on anything, and looks as if she’d rather be anywhere but sitting next to him. He can’t be that desperate, can he?

As the film reached its final act, I was sure it would resolve one of its two main plots, yet here I was again unpleasantly surprised. Instead of a final moment of reconciliation, we get a long heartfelt monologue from Ruxi’s father (Shih-Chieh King) because apparently fathers can always be counted on to tell their children not to live for someone else and not to settle for anything but the best. And so there the film is: at its end with two completely unresolved story lines, and an ending that left me scribbling only one word into my notepad: “WHAT?!” I couldn’t even bring myself to write a few comments about what I liked and disliked about it. Maybe I was still processing things. More likely I just didn’t care. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Asia)

2 stars

*The Last Women Standing is in Mandarin with truly horrible English subtitles.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review - Blackmail

December 7, 2017

Blackmail – UK, 1929

With her curly blond hair, slight build, and expressive face, I have no doubt that Anny Ondra excelled in silent films. In fact, prior to making Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, she had appeared in over twenty of them, and there is evidence that Blackmail indeed began as one. The film’s opening sequence, in which a number of officers from Scotland Yard set out to arrest someone, contains no dialogue and only minimal sound. There’s also an impressive sequence later on in which Ondra reacts to a terrible incident by opening her eyes wide, keeping her lips frozen, and slowly stumbling through an artists studio, utterly in shock. Here too the sound is non-existent – there’s not even a musical score. Ondra is perfect in the scene; truthfully, it’s the best one in the film.

Blackmail, however, is not a silent film, and if you didn’t know that it was directed by Hitchcock, you’d be forgiven for thinking it had been made by an untested director struggling to find his way behind the camera. The film is awkwardly paced, and, even more egregious, its cast seems to be a beat behind. An actor will speak, and instead of an immediate response, there is often an unnatural pause, as the actors just stand there looking at each other. Were it a stage play, I’d say someone had missed a cue.

The result of this is a movie that, with the exception of one or two scenes, moves at a painfully slow pace. Characters stand around waiting for someone on camera to do something, as if frozen in time. When someone finally moves, it is the other characters that become motionless. There is a particular scene in which a character inquires about a cigar, ponders which brand to buy, gets one, asks for a light and then just stands there smoking. I suppose the scene is intended to show the character’s calm and calculating demeanor, but I suspect that it will produce nothing but yawns and slowly closing eyes.

In the film, Ondra plays a young woman named Alice who is dating a police officer named Frank (John Longden). Early on, we learn that the two of them are having trouble, and that Alice has turned her attention to a young painter, Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard). The film’s most dramatic moment comes when he coaxes her up to his apartment and attempts to woo her with art, music, and sweet words. Of course, his intentions are not entirely honorable, and Alice is forced to protect herself from some pretty aggressive advances. Her escape from the apartment does not go unnoticed, despite her best efforts, leading to a scene from which the film gets its name.

There are a few classic Hitchcock moments. In one scene, Hitchcock films his lead actors as they ascend a staircase, and savvy filmgoers will immediately recognize the techniques as ones he perfected and used later in Vertigo. Hitchcock also excellently portrays the crazed obsession that can develop over specific items or images after an unfortunate act. In these moments, we get a great sense of Alice’s state of mind. And there’s a curious scene in which the chirping of birds is used to convey the message that nothing can put Alice’s fears to rest.

However, the film is ultimately a disappointment. It never develops the appropriate pace, and its script is so light on substance that its 85-minute running time feels like much longer. And then there’s Ondra. According to Wikipedia, her accent was felt to be too thick, which resulted in Joan Barry recording Alice’s dialogue. I honestly have no idea whose voice is on the version of Blackmail that I saw, but it was indeed awkward, the voice of someone unsure of how to speak with confidence in a foreign language. And yet in those moments when the film just lets her react, she is a revelation.

It is not hard to understand what led to the decision to change Blackmail into a talking picture. That was what audiences demanded after The Jazz Singer, and studios were eager to keep them happy. However, Blackmail is an example of a film that was hurt by the move toward sound. Its cast looks the part, yet they never find their groove. It’s as if Hitchcock hired them for a silent film and then did not have time to recast the film after the decision was made to add dialogue. And here’s the kicker. Remove the sound and edit some of the scenes a bit more, and Blackmail would work. It would not be a masterpiece or even a great film, but it would be a decent one, one led by an immensely talented silent actress. Unfortunately, that’s just not the film we have. (on DVD)

2 stars 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review - The Four Feather (1939)

November 30, 2017

The Four Feathers – US, 1939

Alexander Korda’s The Four Feathers is a great film. In fact, for about 100 minutes, I had no qualms with anything in it. A few highlights come to mind: an impeccably directed scene in which two characters wander desperately through the barren desert, large crowd scenes that must have been a logistical feat to capture on camera, impressive scenes of military confrontations in the desert, and the thoroughly moving performances of the three leads. I was so enthralled that I didn’t mind several casting decisions that would not pass muster these days, and not even a scene in which a character unnecessarily repeats key details from an earlier scene, something I would normally get frustrated by, was able to spoil my enjoyment. The problem is that the film is 115 minutes, and those other fifteen minutes made my eyes roll and a few light sighs to be heaved.

If The Four Feathers is to be believed, retired military men have such disrespect for cowardly soldiers that they sit around a table and reflect upon how deserved they were of the death that struck them. About one particular soldier who was shot after he fumbled his weapon, one of these admirable fellows remarks, “Best thing that could have happened to him.” That the conversation is happening at the home of the wealthy Faversham family makes the sentiments expressed even worse. These are rich men disparaging fallen soldiers. They sum it up this way: “There’s no place in England for a coward.” Yikes.

Sitting at the table during this eye-opening conversation is young Harry Faversham, and it is possible that the severity of the remarks is in part due to his presence. His father seems to think that Harry,  a poetry reader with the backbone of an amoeba, is an embarrassment and that graphic descriptions of gutless deaths will turn him into a full-blooded soldier willing to charge into battle at a moment’s notice. It’s an odd set-up to say the least, and I just didn’t buy it. However, it appears to have its desired effect. Ten years later, there’s Harry (John Clements), an enlistee about to be sent to Sudan to help retake Khartoum and avenge the death of General Gordon.

Harry does not go of course, and Korda superbly sets this up. As the news that Harry’s regiment is being sent to Sudan is announced, Korda focuses his camera on Clements’s face. Clements’s stare is ice cold, the only hint of emotion being a slight, but noticeable twitch. Later we hear Harry’s fellow soldiers speaking about him, and their low opinion is obvious. In that scene, Korda focuses on the face of John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), and the audience is invited to compare the two: the first, inwardly quaking and outwardly hesitant; the other stoic and determined. Which one would you want riding alongside you into battle?

Harry’s decision not to go – his right under military rules - earns him the wrath of his commanding officer and a particularly stinging delivery: three cards, each bearing the name of one of his fellow soldiers, and three feathers, signifying their collective judgment of Harry. The fourth one comes from Harry’s fiancée, Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez), who tells him that although she agrees with his decision in spirit, they were born into a military tradition and must submit to it. To do otherwise is to be unworthy of the sacrifice other people are making. Her sharp rapprochement is the beginning of the end of their short engagement, yet it stirs something in Harry, something akin to shame. He eventually meets up with his former squadron on the sands of Sudan, but not in the way anyone would expect.

There are memorable moments aplenty in this part of the film. The conversation between Harry and Ethne is masterfully written and fully conveys Ethne’s inner conflict. It also helps explain the gung-ho nature of the British citizens we see cheering and throwing confetti at the soldiers as they march past them in parade just prior to being shipped out. The parade itself is particularly revealing. Only a few of the soldiers’ wives reveal deep reservations, and they do so with their faces, not with their words. The men are all practically beside themselves with joy. Harry’s replacement is congratulated whole heartedly for having gotten the privilege of going off to war. There is even a moment in which a former general fights back tears as he sees the soldier pass by, marching into the great unknown. It’s all very moving, and it almost makes up for the awkwardness in some of the scenes that precede it. (Earlier a soldier actually says, “Oysters in June? Don’t be a fool.”)

What fascinated me most about the film was the exact purpose of Harry’s journey. While many films have had characters who had a change of heart about war, it was usually on a grand scale. War was either entirely wrong or entirely justified; people rejoined because they had seen the light and were now teeming with patriotism, or they deserted, having grown disillusioned by the inhumanity of it all. Characters under such circumstances often eventually display unheralded heroism and may actually help turn the tide of the war or affect public sentiment of it. Harry’s actions, however, are more personal than nationalistic, and any help he is to Britain’s ultimately victorious forces seems purely incidental.

Could we quibble about how fast Harry goes from scared to brave? Sure. Could we complain about the limited character development of Ethne and her apparent decision to marry someone she doesn’t love? Again, we could. And would we be forgiven for throwing a shoe at our television set during the film’s final moments, when instead of giving viewers the heartfelt reunion they’ve been waiting for, they get yet another half-baked attempt at comedy and a complete u-turn in tone? Alas, we would. Yet neither these complains nor the awkwardness of the opening scenes do anything to dampen the enthusiasm I have for the film. It is dramatic, visually stunning, and sweet. It is powerful without being excessively graphic and contains characters that will stay with you long after the final credits have stopped. The film is further evidence that 1939 was indeed one of the greatest years for Hollywood. (on DVD and Blu-ray from MGM and the Criterion Collection)

4 stars

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Review - Zinnia Flower

November 26, 2017

Zinnia Flower – Taiwan, 2015

Tom Lin’s Zinnia Flower begins with one of those multi-vehicle pile-ups that are so often featured on local news programs, and it’s not hard to imagine what one covering it would sound like. Like most of these reports, it would probably be rife with numbers and banal facts. First, we’d learn the number of dead and injured, as well as the name of the driver responsible for the carnage. Then there would be an early – and possibly erroneous - explanation as to how the accident occurred, and that would likely be it. The broadcast would move on – to another story of suffering perhaps, maybe even to the latest sports highlights or the most recent viral video of a cute animal. The next night’s broadcast would likely not even include a reference to the accident. Yesterday’s news, they might say. It isn’t of course, for each death touches someone, and each survivor must now undergo an extremely difficult recovery.

Zinnia Flower is a look at the aftermath of one of these accidents. In the film’s opening scene, we are shown the scene of the accident, and while there are multiple cars involved, the camera focuses on two of them in particular. In one, we see a young woman named Ming (Karena Lam) stretch her hand out to caress the cheek of the man in the driver’s seat. He is unconscious, and she seems to sense that this could be her last moment with him. Blood drips from the top of her head, and as it falls, it takes the shape of a single tear streaming down her cheek. It is an image of both beauty and horror, an emotional pain being manifested by a physical injury, reminding us that the heart bleeds as well. Another man, Yu Wei (Chin-Hang Shih), is also badly wounded. At the hospital, he is awakened by the urgent voice of a doctor asking him a question no one should ever have to answer – Who should the doctors try to save first, his wife or their unborn child?

The film then follows Ming and Yu Wei as they come to terms with their horrific circumstances and try to find a path forward. It is a journey told over 101 days, the first being the day of the accident, and the rest being the number of days in which people Buddhists mourn the dead. To put it mildly, their experiences are pretty disheartening. We watch as the things that once brought them peace of mind now cause them pain and as the people around them fumble for the right words to say, but quite often don’t find them. One intended comforter convey her empathy by mentioning that she recently lost her dog, thereby implying some sort of equivalence. Another tries to relate a humorous anecdote from work, as if laughter can somehow patch together a splintered life. Ming’s sister tries her best to provide emotional support, but mixes it with comments about how much parenthood is taking out of her. It’s almost as if the death of her sister’s boyfriend gives her a convenient excuse to get away.

There is little dialogue in the film, and there is truth in this. These are, after all, two characters who find it hard to express their emotions or relate to the outside world. Lin uses many of these quiet moments to focus on the facial expressions of his lead characters and to allow them to fully express their complicated feelings. We see the slow build to explosive outbursts, and we witness their struggle to cope with day-to-day life. In Ming’s case, she is practically shunned by her boyfriend’s family, and I wondered how they could do that until it dawned on me just how little they probably knew each other. I also found the film’s frequent references to Buddhist traditions, especially ones related to death and mourning, fascinating. At one point, Ming tell Yu Wei that she thinks the 100-day ceremony after a death is meant to benefit the survivors by giving them enough time to recover, and I couldn’t help feeling this was a subtle critique of the simplification that goes with assigning arbitrary timelines to the grieving process.

That said, I couldn’t help feeling that Zinnia Flower stuck too closely to the playbook long established for films of this sort. We watch as Ming and Yu Wei go through the stages of grief, yet much of what we see will not be a surprise to people familiar with movies of this sort. It may be odd to say, but the best moments felt both moving and rote, for as true to life as many of them were, I felt I’d seen them before. At one point, I even wondered if the film knew where it wanted to go because it didn’t seem in any hurry to go anywhere in particular. At least the film doesn’t opt for a Hollywood ending, wherein Yu Wei and Ming somehow fall in love. Instead, while the two of them do have a few scenes together, they barely talk in them, and what they do say is a variation of small talk. Neither of them is in the right place for anything else.

If Zinnia Flower does nothing else, it reminds us that healing takes it own time. Its characters demonstrate that recovering is not a series of simple steps or incantations and that shattered hearts are not so easily mended. In its closing moments, there is a note of acceptance, not of some predetermined fate, but of continued uncertainty and deep emotional pain. Perhaps this is why the closing moments show us characters with blank stares and forced-back tears. They know, and they seem to dread what’s coming. I felt for them. They’re the kinds of people you want to wrap your arms around if just to have the opportunity to say that pain passes. It’s a cliché, I know, but sometimes clichés are all we’ve got. And that’s part of the problem. (on DVD in Region 3)

3 stars

*Zinnia Flower is in Mandarin and Japanese.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Review - The Blot

November 17, 2017

The Blot – US, 1921

Lois Weber’s The Blot begins with the following sentence: “Men are only boys grown tall.” The implication of this observation is that the world is filled with male “kidults,” young men for whom adulthood never truly began. Now, the concept of “kidulthood” is a fairly recent one, but it seems to apply most to adults who have the financial means to do the fun things in their later years that they either loved to do or wanted to do when they were younger. With money, the theory goes, one never really has to mature. In The Blot, we are introduced to three kidults – Phil West (Louis Calhern), Bert Gareth, and Walt Lucas. In the films opening scene, we see them doing everything but paying attention in class. Phil, for example, is drawing a caricature of their professor, Andrew Theodore Griggs (Philip Hubbard), and one of the other two is wrecking havoc with a lizard on a string. They are all in their twenties and wealthy, so, yes, the term kidult seems quite appropriate here.

It would not, however, be suitable for the other men in the film. They are more working-class and, perhaps more importantly, struggling to make ends meet. Therefore, they have a maturity and a purpose that the others lack. The professor, we soon learn, is woefully underpaid, as well as terribly under-appreciated. The film makes this clear by repeatedly contrasting the attire of the professor and his family with that of Phil and the other wealthy characters. It also makes sure that the audience knows the disparities that exist in the eating habits of Phil and his socialite friends and the professor’s family. The film also introduces us to a young reverend living on a small stipend that is sometimes paid late and a genuinely decent neighbor named Pete Olsen, who is aware of the plight of the professor’s family, but lacks the wherewithal to act on his altruistic impulses.

The film’s title, The Blot, is said to refer to one of society’s biggest shames: its appalling treatment of religious figures and educators, people who perform invaluable services, yet receive very little compensation for their diligence. And it is this message that Phil is tasked with learning. Luckily, the professor has a beautiful daughter named Amelia (Claire Windsor) who Phil has become smitten with, and as movies have shown us time and time again, the fastest road to an awareness of the needs and perspectives of other people is through the human heart. So, we watch as he visits the library she works at every day – each time returning the book that he checked out and “read” the previous night. One rainy day he gives her a ride home and sees her family’s hardship first hand and decides to help.

There’s a lot to like about The Blot. Its lead characters are generally well developed, and Phil’s arc is entirely believable. I admired the way the film explores important issues, yet does not provide easy answers or simplistic, fairy tale resolutions. In fact, for several of the characters, while the end brings closure, it does not bring happiness.  

Weber gets good performances from her cast, in particular Margaret McWade, who plays Amelia’s long-suffering mother, a woman whose spirit has been broken by economic difficulty. When we first see her, the look on her face powerfully conveys the long-term impact of financial insecurity. I also enjoyed the work of the actress (her name is not listed in the credits) who plays Mrs. Griggs’s next door neighbor. She has a way of looking at Mrs. Griggs that fully communicates her disgust for poverty and the people living in it. However, I never got the sense that she had a particular grudge against the professor’s family. Instead, she came across as someone who blames poor people for their conditions, as if all they needed to do to better themselves was roll up their sleeves and work a little harder. In fact, I doubt she’s ever really talked to them.

As for Amelia, she is what the script calls for her to be – decent, calm, reliable. In other words, exactly the kind of woman a rich man falls in love with in movies and ultimately changes his ways for. Amelia has a particularly powerful scene toward the end of the film, but other than that, she isn’t given much to do other than be decent. A similar problem can be found in the character of the reverend. Again, he’s a decent person, yet he is misused. Instead of just being an example of someone society has neglected, the film uses him as Phil’s competition, in essence pitting the rich kid and the poor kid against each other. The film would have been better off devoting more time to the part he plays in Phil’s transformation. The same could be said of Pete Olsen. By having this character also pine for Amelia’s love, Weber further muddies the waters. Instead of a film on social issues, we have a film in which three men pine for the same woman, and this distracts from the film’s much more important themes.

Of course, the film belongs to Calhern. A 1921 newspaper article proclaimed him “the newest arrival in stardom,” and it isn’t hard to see why. He has a natural presence in front of the camera, and he conveys an impressive range of emotions. It is through his character’s eyes that we see everything, and his transformation is meant to be ours. In other words, we too are supposed to feel inspired to rise up against the system and demand better salaries for the underpaid, and so if the film becomes a bit preachy toward the end, it’s understandable. This is a movie meant to wake people up to a deplorable reality, and it is, for the most part, an effective advocate for those it seeks to assist. Sure, it’s a too obvious in its imagery, and it goes back to the same symbols of inequality too often, but the film works. I cared for the main characters, and I was intrigued by Phil’s journey. Released during a time that would come to be called the Rolling Twenties and known for its infamous excess and lavishness, the film must have been a sober reminder that America’s economic prosperity had not reached everyone. It is a message that everyone needs to be reminded of sometimes, and The Blot, despite its occasional unevenness, continues to be able to both drive home this message and entertain. (On DVD and Blu-ray as part of Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology)

3 stars

Friday, November 10, 2017

Miscellaneous Musings

November 10, 2017

On That Time It Happened To People I Knew

For two and a half years, I worked at a movie theater in San Francisco. It was a job that I thoroughly enjoyed. In truth, what teenage cinema enthusiast wouldn’t? There were a group of us from my high school at that time, and pretty soon our clique included a few members of the summer theater group I was a part of. There were others of course – youngsters on the verge of entering adulthood, older people who didn’t need a job, but loved being around that one, and some who hoped to parlay a job as supervisor into a career in management.

For the most part, everyone got along. As we were teenagers, there was always the chance that our egos would clash or that romance would blossom in the popcorn-scented air of the concession stand. Only once did I get into a heated argument with a co-worker that included a stern “invitation” to step outside, a remark was quickly apologized for. We weren’t all the best of friends, but when we were at work, we were a team.

That was the spirit with which new employees were accepted, and perhaps that blinded us to something that we should have seen signs of. At some point during my employment, a new guy was hired. This guy was tall with curly red hair and a mustache that matched it in brightness. He looked older than most of us, and it was clear that he spent some time in the gym. He was also cordial, had a hearty laugh, and was generally liked by those that worked with him. Despite not being the hardest worker or having put in the time of many of the other employees, he was soon promoted to usher supervisor.

Should I have seen the indicators? Maybe not. He made sure to put on an air of professionalism in the break room, and I never saw any direct evidence of the actions that he later admitted to. I may have also been a concessionist by that point – it’s hard to remember. What I do recall is the shock I felt when I heard what he had been accused of. Apparently, he had been cornering female employees in the back exits and assaulting them with his hands and lips. These were women I knew and talked to often.

I never found out exactly how his crimes were detected. I can only imagine that someone had walked in on him forcing himself on someone or that one brave woman had approached management. However it happened, it was soon common knowledge, and the question became what to do about it. The theater at the time had about seven managers, and the number two guy was given the task of handling the situation. After carefully weighing his options, which I have no doubt included reporting him to the police, #2 simply demoted the offender.

I was confused and incensed, and in one of my rare moments of defiance and rebellion, I went to the manager’s office and asked for an explanation. The honesty of the answer I received surprised me: “[#2] was a chicken shit.” The offender quit that week. According to one of my fellow supervisors, if he’d shown up again, he’d have gotten his ass kicked. Apparently, some of the more imposing male employees had made that point abundantly clear.

I haven’t spoken of this incident much over the last 20 years, but with all that’s going on in Hollywood, it resurfaced recently, bringing with it a flood of questions and unresolved feelings. I wish I’d known sooner; I wish I’d done more than simply ask a question. I wish I’d been a more observant supervisor and friend. I didn’t see the side of him that the women he hurt did.

That’s the sad truth. Sometimes we only see what someone wants us to see, and when we hear things that contradict the image we have a person, we can be slow to react. It’s as if we want to give the person the benefit of the doubt, but here’s the thing. By doing so, we are telling the victims that we don’t believe them, that we think they have some ulterior motive for telling such an outrageous thing about someone we think we know.

Here’s another sad truth. Sometimes those responsible for protecting the people in their care or on their payroll fail. They may give someone the benefit of the doubt, completely disbelieve an accusation because it flies in the face of the person they think they know, question an accuser’s motives, or simply turn a blind eye, determining that their investment or future earnings are of greater importance than the trauma someone experienced. They may even learn to mentally think of horrendous charges as unsubstantiated rumors because rumors can be ignored or dismissed outright. If it doesn’t happen in front of them, they can convince themselves that there’s a chance it hasn’t happened at all.

Make no mistake, all actors and actresses, whether they make $20 million a picture or $50 as an extra, are employees, as are those who work behind the camera. Hollywood is where they work, and no workplace should tolerate abuse. In this, much of Tinsel Town failed, just as my former manager did. However, perhaps this is a turning point, a moment in which we can spin failure into resolution and inaction into resolve. If that happens, at least something good will have come out of all of this.

Friday, November 3, 2017

In Memorium

November 3, 2017

Gone…but not forgotten
Robert Guillaume
November 30, 1927 - October 24, 2017

In my youth, one of the joys of the end of the school day was being able to rush home and see my favorite television shows. Usually this consisted of a healthy (or unhealthy depending on who you ask) dose of afterschool cartoons, such as the embarrassingly amusing He-Man, those robots in disguise, The Transformers and The Go-Bots, and the amazing fantasy of Harmony Gold’s Robotech. As the years went by, I added syndicated television to my routine. At the time, this consisted of earlier seasons of prime-time television shows, as well as television shows that had long ago stopped having new episodes. It was in this capacity that I first came across Soap and Robert Guillaume.

My memories of these times have somewhat faded, but I distinctly remember being aware of Benson, Guillaume’s character in the show. He was no nonsense, didn’t feign respect for people who weren’t worthy of it, and was unafraid. During one season, the Tate’s house was haunted, and who do you think it was that went to confront the demon upstairs? At that time it was common for African-American characters to be used a comic fodder whenever ghosts appeared, especially in cartoons. This often meant they would scream and run as fast as they could in the other direction, yet there was Benson going toward the danger and talking about how his mother had taught him to confront problems.

I was not a regular watcher of Soap, and I doubt I understood it all given my age, but at some point I become aware that the character had been spun off into his own television show. If I remember it correctly, Benson was on soon after reruns of Happy Days, another of my childhood favorites. I ended up watching these shows regularly, much to the chagrin of my parents, who always maintained that I watched too much television in the afternoon. They were probably right.

For some reason, Benson stuck with me. I remember fondly hearing my mother hackle at his duel of insults with the much-overmatched Clayton, his frequently sarcastic responses to Kraus, and the genuine support he gave to Governor Gatling. I remember him solving a murder on a cruise ship, as well as an episode in which he learned of the poor service offered to military veterans and subsequently volunteered to be part of the solution. And I remember his joyful proclamation, “I’m the new lieutenant governor!” It almost brought tears to me eyes.

I was a fan. When The Robert Guillaume Show premiered, I made sure to see it, and when Sports Night premiered, I was right there too. I can’t say I was always the most knowledgeable of fans. When I first heard he had been cast as the Phantom, my eyes rolled. To me, he was Benson, and Benson had never given me any reason to think he could sing. How little I knew back then.

Years later, I was browsing in Border’s when I happened across his autobiography Guillaume: A Life, and immediately my curiosity was piqued. Eventually I purchased it, and what I read was a revelation. Here was a man completely open about his professional successes and personal failures. At times, he even turned the book over to the people in his past and let them relate their chapter in his life, and what they said was not always flattering. Guillaume didn’t hide anything. He had achieved fame late in life, and I have always believed he found reconciliation during that time as well, an acceptance of an imperfect past and a determination to make the present and future different.

It is that that I will most remember him for. While I will always have fond memories of his television work, his dramatic moments in Lean On Me, and his memorable work in The Lion King, to me, his life – and his honesty about it – provides a lesson in determination and passion; it is a cautionary tale of the terrible cost that sometimes comes with that and of the never-ending possibility of finding both true love and contentment. Simply put, it is never too late. That message resonated with me then. It still does today.