Lucas

My favorite back-to-school movie is Lucas. Filmed in the Chicago area in 1985, it was released in 1986 to generally favorable reviews. The movie stars Corey Haim in the title role and includes Kerri Green, Winona Ryder, and Charlie Sheen. This discussion of Lucas will contain **many spoilers** so, if you haven’t seen the film, you might want to stop reading now.

Lucas Bly is a high school student with much intelligence and a deep interest in nature. He is smaller than his classmates, perhaps because he was accelerated a year or two in elementary school. He scorns the superficial aspects of high school social life, including football and cheerleading. During the summer he befriends a girl, Maggie, who is new to the area. She likes Lucas and appreciates his attention, but once school begins she wants to fit in with her surroundings. She joins the cheerleading squad and, by the middle of the movie, she is dating a football player, Cappie, who happens to be the only athlete in the school who does not either bully or ignore Lucas.

I attended high school in the Chicago area, and I can affirm that Lucas shows what life was really like at that time and place. Bullies were bullies, the student body was divided into cliques, and school life seemed more oriented around sports than around scholastic achievement or the fine arts. My high school expected to win football and basketball games until we were overpowered by much bigger and wealthier school districts (represented in the movie by Rockford High School). Along with the scenes inside the school, the outdoor scenes also ring true, especially those set by the tracks of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad.

Lucas attempts the hopeless quest of joining the football team, dreaming that he can win Maggie’s affection away from Cappie. Of course the coach has no intention of allowing Lucas onto the team. When Lucas insists upon his legal right to be allowed to participate in school athletics, he is sent to the principal, who demands a note from Lucas’ father giving permission for Lucas to try out for football. Lucas is stymied, since his father will have nothing to do with the school. However, on the Saturday of the home game against Rockford, Lucas sneaks into the locker room after the game has started, suits up, and trots out to the field. When Lucas badmouths the coach (whose team is already losing badly), the coach decides to teach Lucas a lesson—he sends him out to the field for one play. Lucas is of course knocked to the ground, but he is determined and will not leave the field. The next play develops badly, Lucas runs alone downfield, and he has an opportunity to become the hero of the game.

Some people complain about the key scene, which is that one football play. Their complaints overlook the fact that everything that is wrong about that play fits the rest of the movie’s plot. The football coach is incompetent—he probably has not drilled into the quarterback that one football play cannot have two forward passes. The referees probably did whistle the play dead when the second, illegal, pass was thrown, but given the crowd noise, the whistles are not heard, especially downfield. Lucas drops the pass—even if it were a legal pass, it would be incomplete, and the play should be whistled dead. One of Rockford’s players grabs the loose ball and runs with it, which is exactly what good defenses are trained to do. Lucas has never been taught the rules of football, so naturally he tries to tackle the opposing player with the ball. In the pile-up that results, Lucas is knocked unconscious.

He recovers in the hospital, with Maggie sitting by his side. No, she is not his girlfriend now, but as a friend she is concerned for him. A few days later, Lucas is able to return to school. He is uncomfortable at first, as his fellow students are all staring at him. When he opens his locker, he finds a school jacket hanging inside. The football players who once bullied him now lead the other students in the hallway in applauding Lucas for his strong if pointless determination.

I first saw this movie in a one-dollar theater in the summer of 1986. I was in the Chicago area at the time. The Chicago Bears had won the Superbowl in January of 1986—after the movie was filmed, but before it was released. Football fans will remember that Chicago had a rookie defensive lineman named William Perry, nicknamed the Refrigerator because of his size and weight. The Bears’ defense coach called Perry “a wasted draft pick,” but Perry unexpectedly became an offensive star for the Bears. Coach Ditka used him late in one game as a running back, intending only to maintain possession of the ball without risking his star backs. Instead, Perry showed that, because of his size, he could advance the ball against the defense. Soon Coach Ditka was sending Perry into the game on goal-line situations, and the “wasted draft pick” was scoring touchdowns. He became a hero, along with his more experienced and more talented teammates. His jersey, number 72, was a best-selling item in Chicago area stores all that season and through 1986.

When Lucas snuck into the locker room and suited up, he happened to choose jersey number 72. (Remember, this was filmed before the Bears’ football season had started.) The Chicago area residents in the theater laughed and applauded when undersized Lucas trotted onto the field with William Perry’s number on his back. That remains one of my most vivid memories of watching a film in a movie theater. J.

Movies helpful to history students

As a history teacher, I often mention movies in the classroom to help the students gain some perspective on events and experiences that might be foreign to them. I’ve found that we cannot discuss the Greek and Persian wars without the movie 300 entering the conversation. To explain the events before and after that battle in light of what they think they know from the movie is beneficial. Once I led a before-class discussion of which war movies were truest to life. Since many of my students have military backgrounds, their perspective of war movies is probably more useful than that of the general population. Recently I recommended 1776 as a way to learn the issues and personalities surrounding the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Although Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and the rest did not sporadically burst into song in Philadelphia that summer, the movie script successfully reproduces the conversations that happened during that key historic event.

In the coming week, I will be mentioning three more movies to the students. When we are at this part of the book, I frequently want to watch all three movies, even though generally I don’t have enough time for even one of them. Besides, I’ve already seen each of them enough times that I probably could speak much of the dialogue along with the characters on the screen.

Evita (1996) tells the story of Eva Peron, wife of the caudillo Juan Peron. She was part of his message to Argentina that he supported the common people and their goals. (After all, he married one of them.) The movie comes from a musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, first performed on Broadway in 1979. (The soundtrack album was recorded and released in 1976.) As is the case with 1776, Evita depicts the principle characters singing rather than talking. In fact, there are very few spoken words in the entire movie. Casting Madonna in the title role was extremely controversial in the 1990s, but it worked. While the movie condenses history and combines events, it reflects the emotions of the time and place in a way that a classroom lecture and discussion cannot replicate. The movie runs two hours and 15 minutes.

Gandhi (1982) won many awards for its biographical portrayal of Mohandas Gandhi, known in India as the Mahatma. Like Evita, it condenses history, combines some events, and skips others entirely. Unlike Evita, the film Gandhi is not a musical. The key events of Gandhi’s life and career are shown within the proper historical and geographical setting. Again, a sense of the flavor of India during the first half of the twentieth century cannot be reproduced in the classroom. The movie runs three hours and 11 minutes.

The Last Emperor (1987) shows Chinese history during the first half of the twentieth century from the point of view of the final Qing emperor, who was only a boy when the rise of the Republic threw him out of power. Later, he naively cooperated with Japanese officials in an attempt to regain some of his lost power. He then is captured by Communist forces, who retrain him to be like everyone else in China. Once again, the film gives context to the historic events, dramatically depicting the way real people dealt with the changes that were happening in China during those decades. The movie runs two hours and 43 minutes.

An odd similarity among these movies is that all of them begin at the end of the life of the title characters (in the case of Evita and Gandhi, with their funerals) and then treat their lives and histories as flashbacks. This allows the moviemakers to make dramatic jumps in time between two events, omitting the portions of history that are less relevant or interesting for the script and the audience.

These three movies are vastly superior to the large number of movies that use history only as inspiration for the story the moviemakers want to tell. Most movies of historical fiction (and even some that pretend to be documentaries) consist of more fiction than history. This phenomenon is not new—Shakespeare’s historical plays were more imagination and propaganda than they were historical truth. (This may be as close as Oliver Stone will come to being compared to Shakespeare.) When I can point to a few helpful movies, though, it may assist at least one student to gain more appreciation of history than can be imparted in the classroom. J.

The privilege of genius

Last weekend I saw Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining for the first time. Two nights later I saw it for the second time. I’ve also done some reading on the Internet about this movie and how it was made, as well as biographical information about Kubrick.

I’ve seen about half of the movies Kubrick made, and I’d like to see the rest, except for maybe his earliest work. Kubrick is acknowledged a genius in the making of movies, with classics such as Spartacus and 2001: Space Odyssey to his credit. He is famous for shooting each scene dozens of times to achieve the best possible result; also, he is famous for detailed and meticulous planning of his filming, so that everything in each frame contributes to the story that the movie is depicting.

For example, in one of his movies, two characters are having dinner, and they are seen from various angles while they eat and drink. Yet the amount of food and wine in front of them fluctuate irregularly rather than disappearing steadily, as one would expect during a meal. Any other director would have been accused of continuity errors, but Kubrick says that he mangled the continuity purposely to make viewers share the feeling of disorientation that the main character was feeling.

The Shining has similar distortions of continuity which Kubrick’s fans consider deliberate and meaningful. During one conversation, Jack pulls a sheet of paper out of his typewriter and rips it to pieces; minutes later he is typing again—paper is in the typewriter, even though he never added another sheet. In the same conversation a chair is seen behind Jack at first, but it has disappeared later. In the pantry cans of food appear mid-scene on shelves that were previously emptier. In other scenes items are rearranged from moment to moment without ever being touched. Even light switches and electrical outlets appear and disappear during the course of the movie.

One might assume that all these distortions are simply continuity errors, but with Kubrick’s reputation for genius and for meticulous planning, his fans are certain that every one of these distortions was done for a reason. Because The Shining is about haunting and supernatural abilities, some viewers assume that moving chairs and lamps reveal telekinetic abilities of the characters. Others think that the hotel itself is inhabited by malignant spirits that steal light switches and provide paper for Jack’s typewriter. Because the cans of food which appear out of nowhere have a Native American as their logo, some viewers think that the entire movie contains a message about Native Americans.

Of course it is also possible that by filming each scene dozens of times, Kubrick left himself vulnerable to continuity errors. Maybe after filming the conversation five or six times, Kubrick decided he didn’t like the chairs behind Jack and had them moved, but when he edited the footage he found that Jack’s best delivery of a certain line happened before the chairs had been taken out of the set. Perhaps he rearranged props in the pantry, not to make a point about Native Americans, but to achieve a certain proportion of shape and color in the background. Since the light switches and outlets were props, perhaps they were installed after some scenes had already been filmed.

Stanley Kubrick was a genius. Therefore, what would be a mistake for any other director is part of his deliberate plan to film a masterpiece. People have tried to make maps of the Overlook Hotel, the setting for The Shining, only to discover that the layout seen in the movie is impossible. Interior and exterior windows do not match, interior rooms have windows that show outdoor scenes, stairways lead to dead ends, and journeys through the passageways are inconsistent from scene to scene. Of course the movie was filmed on a group of sets, not in an actual hotel. Other directors would have been blamed for these inconsistencies, but Kubrick is assumed to have created an impossible hotel for dramatic purposes.

The privilege of genius is that mistakes don’t happen. A good explanation can be found for everything a genius does, even if it looks like a mistake. Of course people study the work of geniuses far more carefully than the work of average people—most movies set in a hotel don’t compel viewers to draw maps of the hotel. Ordinary people make ordinary mistakes that most of us don’t even notice. Only geniuses can make what seems to be a mistake and send people searching for its meaning.

By the way, the thought that Stanley Kubrick made The Shining to confess that he helped fake film footage of Apollo 11’s trip to the moon is ridiculous. J.

Field of Dreams

Spring begins this weekend, and a young man’s thoughts turn to… baseball. Spring training is underway, and the regular season approaches quickly. With that, the time has come for me to review my favorite movie involving baseball. Warning: spoilers abound in the following paragraphs.

Field of Dreams, made in 1989, is about baseball and about much more. It is about pursing one’s dreams. It is about reality and how poorly we notice what is truly real. It is about the relationship of parents and children. It is about two hours long.

Ray Kinsella and his wife, Annie, own a farm in Iowa. With their daughter Karen they live in a farmhouse next to the cornfields. One day, as Ray is inspecting his corn, a voice tells him several times, “If you build it, they will come.” Ray has visions of a ballfield and of the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was banned from baseball because of his association with gamblers. In spite of his doubts, Ray plows under some of his corn and invests the family’s savings to build a baseball field. He installs a small set of bleachers behind the first base foul line. There is no outfield wall; the corn begins where the ballfield ends.

Many months pass before the ballfield receives its first mystical visitor. One evening Shoeless Joe Jackson appears. Ray hits a few fly balls to the outfielder and then throws some batting practice. Joe reminds Ray that seven other White Sox players were banned from the game. Ray assures Joe that they are all welcome.

Meanwhile, Ray and Annie are facing financial hardship. Annie’s brother Mark offers to help them by buying the farm from them. Annie was willing to consider his help until Joe appears. Ray and Annie discover that Mark is unable to see the baseball players; neither can Mark and Annie’s mother. Ray is delighted being able to hang out with the baseball players, but then he receives a second message: “Ease his pain.”

A meeting is held at the school. Some parents are demanding that certain books be removed from the curriculum, particularly books written by Terence Mann. Annie defends Terence Mann, one of her favorite authors from the 1960s. Ray concludes that he is supposed to ease Terence Mann’s pain by driving to Boston and taking Mann to a baseball game. When he does so, Mann is skeptical and even hostile toward Ray. Reluctantly he attends the game with Ray, where Ray receives a third message: “Go the distance.” On the scoreboard, statistics are given about a former ballplayer, Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who played one inning of one major-league game in 1905. Ray decides to drive to Chisholm, Minnesota, to meet Graham. Surprisingly, Mann decides to accompany him.

Throughout these occurrences, Ray reveals to Annie and to Terence Mann that he regrets being alienated from his father, who has since died. In Minnesota, Ray and Terence Mann learn that Graham became a doctor, a pillar of the community of Chisholm, but he has also been dead for years. When Mann learns from a newspaper that his father has reported his disappearance to the police, Mann telephones his father, and Ray goes for a walk. He finds himself walking the streets of Chisholm in the year 1974, where he encounters an elderly Doctor Graham. Graham invites Ray to his office and reminisces with him about his brief baseball career. Ray comments that some people would consider coming that near to their dream and having the experience end as a tragedy. Graham replies that if he had only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, that would be a tragedy. He declines Ray’s offer to visit the ballpark on Ray’s farm.

The next morning, on their way out of Chisholm, Ray and Mann pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a youthful Archie Graham looking for a place to play baseball. He accompanies Ray and Mann to the farm, where the three of them discover that Joe Jackson has invited other deceased players to join him on the field so they can play ball. Graham is welcomed to join the other players.

The next day Ray, Annie, Karen, and Terence Mann are watching the players on the field. Archie Graham takes a turn at the plate. Shortly thereafter Mark arrives. He tells Ray and Annie that they are delinquent on their mortgage and are about to lose the farm. Terence Mann gives a moving soliloquy about the importance of baseball and promises Ray that “people will come” to his magical baseball field. In his exasperation at Ray’s seeming lack of concern about his financial predicament, Mark accidently knocks Karen off the bleachers. She lies on the ground, not breathing. Annie is ready to phone for an ambulance, but Ray’s eyes turn to the field. Young Archie Graham rushes to help. An instant later, the elderly Doctor Graham is tending to Karen. She was choking on a piece of hot dog, but the doctor revives her. Only then does Ray realize that Archie will not be able to play baseball again, but the doctor assures him that he doesn’t mind. He then walks off, disappearing into the corn.

Terence Mann is invited to explore the unknown with the baseball players through whatever spectral gate exists in the cornfield. Ray objects, but he is reminded that his family needs him. With the help of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ray learns that the man catching in the ballgame is his father, now young and living his dream of playing baseball. Ray introduces his father to Annie and Karen. The two men are seen playing catch as a line of cars is revealed approaching the field, carrying those people that Terence Mann promised would come.

The movie succeeds on many levels. The themes of baseball, finding one’s dreams, accepting alternate realities, and loving one’s family are skillfully intertwined. The movie is filled with memorable scenes: a debate between Annie and another mother about Terence Mann’s writings, Mann’s initial refusal to let Ray take him to a baseball game, Doctor Graham’s conversation with Ray in the doctor’s office, baseball players emerging from the corn and disappearing into it again, and Mark striding across the field oblivious to the baseball game happening around him. The script, the scenery, and the soundtrack are all superb. Many of the exchanges of dialogue are classic lines: Shoeless Joe asks Ray, “Is this heaven?” and Ray responds, “No, it’s Iowa.” Mann says to Ray, “You’re seeing a whole team of psychologists, aren’t you?” Ray, watching to find the gate in his cornfield protests that he has taken so many risks and done so much work to provide the ballfield, “and I’ve never once asked, ‘What’s in it for me?’” “What are you saying, Ray?” Joe asks him, and Ray shouts back, “I’m saying” (pause) “’What’s in it for me?’”

Even the casting is superb. Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella. Costner also played a minor league catcher in 1988 in Bull Durham, and he would go on to play a major league pitcher in 1999 in For the Love of the Game. Amy Madigan plays Annie, and Gaby Hoffmann plays Karen, one of several little-girl roles she portrayed around that time. Ray Liotta is Shoeless Joe Jackson, Timothy Busfield is Mark (Annie’s brother), James Earl Jones is Terence Mann, and Burt Lancaster is Doctor Graham.

Field of Dreams is based on a book, Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. The book is good, but the movie is excellent. The book includes several additional characters: Ray has a twin brother named Richard, whose location has been unknown for years until he appears at Ray and Annie’s door. Ed Scissons is the farmer who sold Ray and Annie the farm; he claims to have pitched for the Chicago Cubs and to be the oldest surviving member of the ballclub. Instead of Terence Mann, the writer whose pain Ray seeks to ease is J. D. Salinger. By replacing Salinger with a fictitious writer, the moviemakers managed to avoid a lawsuit and also were able to have some of W. P. Kinsella’s best lines in his book written or spoken by Terence Mann in the movie.

The book explains why Mark is eager to buy the farm from Ray and Annie. It is not merely that he wants to help his sister and her family; Mark and another investor want to take several small farms and make one large agricultural establishment, streamlining production by removing all the fences and farmhouses, and mechanizing farming. This sort of thing was happening at the time in Iowa and other states. The book also makes clear that Ray and Annie’s financial difficulties were not caused merely by an acre or so of corn being used for a baseball field—the real problem is that Ray used all the family’s money to buy supplies and equipment to build the field, and now they cannot pay their debts. In the book, Ray visits other ballparks on his way to Boston, and he and Terence Mann and Archie Graham also break into the ballpark in Minneapolis to frolic on the field late at night.

More significantly, in the book much time passes between the return to the farm and ballpark and the key events involving Mark, Terence Mann, Karen, and Doctor Graham. The movie condenses those events into a single day, which is important for a reason I am just about to explain.

Before I do, however, I must again marvel over the many little touches with give the movie depth and authenticity. In a store Ray asks another farmer if he has ever heard voices in the field; that farmer and the others in the store stare silently at Ray while the overhead radio plays Beverly D’Angelo singing “Crazy.” While Ray is fretting over hearing voices and wondering what it means, Karen is watching the movie Harvey on television—when he recognizes the movie, Ray quickly clicks off the television. As Terence Mann rides in Ray’s van at night after the ballgame, the neon sign with the word “Books” is briefly reflected off the windshield in front of the writer. From all these details, I know that the moviemakers did on purpose what I am about to describe.

In Chisholm, Doctor Graham tells Ray that he mildly regrets never getting to bat in the major leagues. He reflects that as the pitcher went into his windup, he would wink at the pitcher as if he knew something the pitcher did not know. In Iowa, when Archie Graham gets to bat, he winks at the pitcher, Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte. In response, Knuckles’ first two pitches are aimed at the vicinity of Archie’s head. Shoeless Joe gives some friendly advice to Graham, who swings at the next pitch, flying out to right field. His teammate at third base then scores, beating the right fielder’s throw to the plate.

In baseball, when the ball is hit in the air, the runner must then touch the base where he was when the ball was hit before advancing to the next base; otherwise, the fielding team can throw the ball to the fielder where he was, and the runner will be called out. Once he has touched the base after the catch, though, the runner can advance, hoping to make it to the next base before the ball can be thrown to the fielder at that base, who would otherwise tag the runner out. When a fly ball is hit and caught and the runner advances, the batter is not charged with an official at bat. In other words, Archie Graham still does not have an official at-bat although he has helped his team to score a run. This play is called a sacrifice—signaling what the good doctor will do shortly to save Karen’s life. J.

Arthur, King of Britain

The legends of King Arthur have extended through the history of the English language. Each generation, it seems, owns Arthur and his story; each generation, it appears, rewrites the story to suit its own challenges and values.

More than likely, Arthur did exist. If so, he was a Celtic warlord at the time that the Romans were withdrawing their troops from Britain. Arthur probably was trained by the Romans in military matters and in Roman law. Quite likely Arthur was Christian. His fame rested, at first, on his leadership of the Celts against the German tribes of Saxons and Angles who were crossing from mainland Europe to replace the Roman rule in Britain. Arthur seems to have won several victories before dying in battle; his legend was remembered, not only by the Celts who withdrew from southeastern Britain, but also among the German tribes who established the country called England.

Arthur is remembered as a Christian king. Many of the adventures of his knights took place when Arthur’s court met to observe Christian holidays (such as Christmas, Candlemas, Easter, and Pentecost). Some of the adventures, though, seem to be retellings of myths and legends from the pre-Christian religions of Britain. The presence of monstrous giants, fierce dragons, and the magician Merlin (sometimes identified as “son of the devil”) bears witness to Celtic beliefs. Queen Guinevere is kidnapped by enemies of the kingdom and must be rescued by Arthur. As the Norsemen (or Vikings) raided English and Celtic settlements, memories of King Arthur and his successes multiplied. Other local heroes became identified with Arthur’s court, and dreams of the Round Table encouraged people during this time of turmoil.

In the middle of the eleventh century, two kingdoms that had arisen from Viking settlements sought to claim England. The English army defeated the Danes, only to lose to the Normans, who came from Normandy, land previously granted to them by the king of France. The new rulers of England introduced a culture that was part Viking and part French, but which was able to incorporate the story of Arthur into its vision of England. A little less than a century after the victory of the Normans, Geoffrey of Monmouth included accounts of King Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain. Already Arthur was said to be the son of King Uther Pendragon and Ygerna, then wife to Gorlois, Duke of Cornwell. Uther dies when Arthur is fifteen, and Arthur is made king. During the following years Arthur consolidates his kingdom, first on the island of Britain, next extending to Ireland and Iceland, then to Norway, and eventually to Rome itself. Arthur defeats the Roman Emperor Lucius Hiberius, but before he returns to England his throne is seized by Mordred, a kinsman of Arthur who had been placed in control of the English government during Arthur’s absence. A bloody battle ensues in which Mordred is killed and Arthur is mortally wounded. He is taken to the island Avalon, according to Geoffrey, in the year 542, and the kingdom passes into other hands.

Around the same time that Geoffrey was writing his military history of Arthur, in France Chretien de Troyes was blending the romances of chivalry into the accounts of Arthur’s rule. Chretien is the first to mention the name Camelot; he is the first to tell of Lancelot’s affair with Queen Guinevere and the first to describe the quest for the Holy Grail. Stories of the Fisher King, somehow related to Joseph of Arimathea, were told earlier, but they were not linked to King Arthur until Chretien wrote his work. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, as the Italian Renaissance was already well under way, Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, probably the most famous compilation of the stories related to King Arthur and the knights of Camelot.

England’s importance grew tremendously during the rule of the Tudors, the Stuarts, and the Hanovers (as well as the time of the Puritan rule under Oliver Cromwell). An empire was established, and an industrial revolution began in England that changed the entire world. By the nineteenth century, readers of the English-speaking world favored a return to the romantic stories of earlier times. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, a series of poems about Arthur and his knights. Howard Pyle wrote children’s books to tell the story of Arthur and Camelot. (Pyle’s version is the first that I read as a child. Pyle is also known for his accounts of Robin Hood and for his stories about pirates, both strong influences on literature and storytelling to the present.) Well before Monty Python produced a comic film version of the story of King Arthur, Mark Twain explored the comic possibilities of Camelot in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s Arthur and Merlin are not the noble heroes of Malory and Tennyson. They are bumbling, superstitious, and easily awed by the scientific and technological knowledge of the time-traveling American.

The twentieth century is known for two World Wars, and in that time of gloom the legend of Arthur was rewritten again. T. H. White wrote The Once and Future King, highlighting the tragedy and foolishness of war. His book was the basis for Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot, which was an award-winning Broadway musical, later made into a movie. In fact, Arthur has been portrayed in more than a hundred movies since 1909, including a Disney cartoon and a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Perhaps the best movie version of Arthur’s story is Excalibur (1981) starring Nigel Terry and Nicol Williamson, and directed by John Boorman.

In the past fifty years, many fantasy writers have labored to rewrite the story of King Arthur. Some have sought to place him in the proper time, at the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Others have tried to recreate the late Middle Ages’ romance and chivalry of Malory’s tale. Still others have tried to expand upon the magic of Merlin, Morgan, and the Lady of the Lake, putting Arthur and his companions in a world far removed from the contemporary world of science and technology.

In most versions of the story, Arthur does not die, but when he is badly wounded he is taken by barge to the mystical island called Avalon. There he continues to heal, but he will return to support his kingdom at its time of greatest need. Thanks to Geoffrey, Malory, Tennyson, White, and others, Arthur and his legend has frequently returned, supporting England and the entire world in those times when we need a legend to sustain us. J.

23 Odd Facts about Man on the Moon

In 1999 the film Man on the Moon was released as a bio-pic of entertainer Andy Kaufman. Because today is the 67th birthday of Andy Kaufman, I plan to watch that film tonight. Even before I do so, though, here are some interesting facts about Man on the Moon.

  • The title of the movie comes from a 1992 song by R.E.M., portions of which are heard several times during the movie; it is heard in full during the closing credits.
  • Jim Carrey, who portrays Andy Kaufman in the movie, was born on January 17, 1962, Andy’s thirteenth birthday.
  • Andy Kaufman’s granddaughter plays Andy’s sister Carol in the movie.
  • The real Andy Kaufman can be heard in the movie, singing the song “Rose Marie.”
  • The opening monologue of the movie, in which “Andy” tells the audience that there is no movie, is based on the opening of Andy’s TV special, in which he tells the audience that there is no special.
  • In the opening monologue, “Andy” tells the audience that “all the most important things in my life are changed around and mixed up for dramatic purposes.” The most significant change is that Andy’s Carnegie Hall performance took place several years before he was diagnosed with cancer.
  • The film presents Andy’s TV special as a condition for him to play a character in Taxi, but the special was actually filmed before Andy was invited to be part of the Taxi cast.
  • Jerry Lawler, David Letterman, and Wendy Polland are among about a dozen people in the film who play themselves.
  • Paul Giamatti plays Andy’s friend and co-conspirator, Bob Zmuda, and Bob Zmuda plays Jack Burns, the director of Fridays, who fights with Andy during the live show.
  • Danny DeVito plays Andy’s agent, George Shapiro (DeVito’s character in Taxi is ignored), and George Shapiro appears in the film as a nightclub owner who tells Andy that his act is not funny.
  • Courtney Love plays Lynn Marguiles, who was Andy’s girlfriend from 1982 to 1984, and Lynn Marguiles is briefly seen during the funeral at the end of the movie.
  • The movie shows “Andy” wrestling Lynn on the Merv Griffin show, but the two did not meet until long after Andy began wresting women as part of his act, and the two never wrestled each other in public.
  • The movie only mentions Lynn’s last name once, when Andy answers the telephone in the house they are sharing.
  • In the movie, “Andy” reads the entire novel The Great Gatsby, to an audience. Actually, Andy never read more than the first lines of the book to an audience. That skit ended with the recording of Andy reading the book after the audience has been asked to choose between hearing Andy read the novel or hearing a recording. However, when this skit was part of Andy’s act, his associates successfully spread the rumor that Andy had read the entire novel in his previous performance, making the audience’s reaction to his reading more genuine.
  • In the movie, “Andy” has already apologized for wresting women as part of his act and apparently has ceased doing so before the Carnegie Hall performance, but Andy actually did wrestle a woman as part of the Carnegie Hall performance.
  • The filmed version of the Carnegie Hall performance omits showing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the New York City Rockettes, probably because the real Choir and Rockettes did not appear in the show; their names were used by a different choir and group of dancers. As a result, Santa Claus is seen only in the background while Andy invites the audience out for milk and cookies.
  • In the movie, “Andy” reveals Eleanor Cody Gould’s age, but in the Carnegie Hall performance Eleanor Cody Gould refuses to reveal her age.
  • In the Carnegie Hall performance, Eleanor Cody Gould claims that the short movie “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle” was made in 1931, but the copyright date of 1946 can be seen in the film itself.
  • As shown in the movie, Andy Kaufman was voted off Saturday Night Live in January 1983, by a vote of 195,544 to 169,186; Andy’s career was considered a flop at that time, not because of the difference of 25,000 votes, but because nearly half a million people had participated in a similar stunt the previous October, in which the question was whether to cook or release a lobster. Having more people care about the lobster than about Andy made a larger impression than the results of the vote.
  • When he imitated Tony Clifton, Andy never broke character; the movie’s scene set in a restaurant kitchen (in which “Andy” allows “George Shapiro” to recognize him) never would have happened.
  • As of this movie, five performers have imitated Tony Clifton: Andy Kaufman, Bob Zmuda, Michael Kaufman (Andy’s brother, at the end of the Carnegie Hall performance), Jim Carrey, and Paul Giamatti. Zmuda has probably imitated Clifton more often than the other four combined.
  • While filming Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey demanded that he always be addressed as Andy, both on and off the set.

Six Christmas movies

Of the dozens (if not hundreds) of movies that are connected with Christmas in some way, a few have become family favorites and holiday classics. I’m sure everyone who celebrates Christmas has his or her own list of favorite Christmas movies. These happen to be six that my family and I try to watch around Christmas most years.

A Miracle on 34th Street (1947) begins with the Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City and ends on Christmas Day. A gentleman who looks like Santa Claus also claims to be Santa Claus. A mother and her daughter are skeptical of his claim, for obvious reasons, but when the man is committed to an institution for his belief, their neighbor (an attorney) takes up his defense. The movie tackles commercialism and cynicism in the modern observation of Christmas. Although it has no distinctly Christ-centered message, it still inspires a sense of genuine holiday spirit. Starring Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, and Natalie Wood.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) lost money at its original release, but it gained popularity when it was shown repeatedly on television each December due to a failure to protect the movie’s copyright. A man is in despair over a large amount of money missing from his business. His guardian angel views a summary of the man’s life, then intervenes to rescue the man from attempted suicide by showing him how poor the world would be if he had never been born. Elements of this movie are widely imitated in movies and television shows. Although the movie completely fumbles the truth about angels, it is still an enjoyable production, and it does provide some cultural history for the first half of the twentieth century. Starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.

A Christmas Carol (1951) is the classic story by Charles Dickens that has been filmed a number of times. Ebenezer Scrooge is a dedicated and driven businessman who has no use for Christmas and little regard for his fellow man. The ghost of his dead partner arranges for Scrooge to be visited by three spirits representing Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas future. His experiences with these spirits entirely changes Scrooge’s personality, including his enjoyment of Christmas and his concern for his neighbors. The 1951 version is vivid with its depictions of the Christmas spirits. Starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge, with a small part played by Patrick Macnee, who also introduces my family’s recording of the movie.

A Christmas Story (1983) is based on the writings of Jean Shepherd, writings which I read in elementary school before the movie was made. The first time I saw the movie, the events in the story seemed strangely familiar, until I remembered reading parts of the book. A Christmas in the late 1940s is remembered by an adult Ralphie, with all the exaggerations that a child’s mind contributes to perception and memory. The movie does a splendid job of taking literally the descriptions from the book. The visit to Santa Claus at the store is almost identical to the visits to Santa I remember from my childhood. Starring Peter Billingsley as the young Ralphie.

The Lion in Winter (1968) takes place on and around Christmas, but there is no Santa Claus, no guardian angel, and no sudden change in personality after dealing with Christmas spirits. The year is 1183, and King Henry II of England has gathered his family for the Christmas holiday with consideration toward choosing an heir among his three sons: Richard, Geoffrey, and John. (Two of the three will reign after Henry.) King Philip II of France also attends this family holiday, as does Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Filled with rivalry, deception, and plans within plans, the family gathering reveals the darkness of the human heart. The script is rich with vocabulary and rhythm that seem appropriate to the medieval setting. Starring Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Terry, and Timothy Dalton.

The Passion of the Christ (2004) helps my family and I to remember the reason for the season. (Before this movie was available, we watched Jesus Christ, Superstar, for the same effect.) From his prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, to his death on the cross and his resurrection, Jesus Christ is shown bearing the sins of the world to defeat evil and rescue humanity. Some critics complained of the realistic depiction of Christ’s sufferings, but for many believers the reality of the suffering makes the point of the movie more convincing. Directed by Mel Gibson (whose hands appear as those of the soldier nailing Jesus to the cross), and starring Jim Cariezel as Jesus.

Many more movies could be listed, but these six are those that I am trying to see this Christmas time. J.

Guilty pleasures

In my collection of movies are five movies from the mid-1980s that I describe as “guilty pleasures.” None of them is a great movie, and each of them contains scenes which I would be embarrassed to watch with either my mother or my daughter. None of these movies could compete with Amadeus or Gandhi for awards for excellence. I enjoy watching these movies on occasion, not because of the R-rated scenes, but because other elements of each movie have captured my fancy. No doubt that time period is part of the reason for my fondness for these movies.

The first is Body Double, made in 1984. The director, Brian de Palma, is known for intricate plots and clever twists, and this film is no exception. It tells the story of a struggling actor who accepts an offer to house-sit, only to use the opportunity to spy on a (female) neighbor. When she is murdered, the events he witnessed are vital to the case. Although the movie contains elements of horror and a strong portrayal of a crime investigator, the real focus of the film is levels of false reality. Beginning in the opening credits, the movie plays with the mind of the viewer, changing perspectives and along the way changing facts vital to the story. Critics have called it uneven, but it aims to be uneven; its purpose is to keep the audience bewildered.

Into the Night (1985) is a minor masterpiece of John Landis. Twenty-four Hollywood directors, including Landis, appear in the film, as well as Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dan Aykroyd, Richard Farnsworth, Irene Papas, David Bowie, and Carl Perkins. The story is about a man who cannot sleep, so he goes to the airport where he inadvertently becomes involved with dangerous criminals. Into the Night could also be accused of being uneven, drifting between violence and comedy. Using the element of surprise to startle the audience, Into the Night succeeds at being entertaining if only slightly thought-provoking.

Purple Rain (1984) is essentially an extended music video featuring the artistry of Prince, as well as Morris Day and the Time and Apollonia. With probably the most wooden acting of any movie I have seen, Purple Rain succeeds at telling the story of a rock star on his way toward success. Prince is portrayed as a flawed character, self-centered and misogynist. Although I have never been a big fan of his music, I find this portrayal of life in the entertainment industry oddly interesting.

Streets of Fire (1984) also tells the story of a rock singer, although she is fictitious and is portrayed by an actress. When she is kidnapped from the stage during a concert, her friend contacts the friend’s brother, an ex-lover of the singer, to rescue her. The adventure is set in an urban environment with elements of the 1980s and elements of the 1950s. The characters constantly converse in snide sarcasm, which becomes annoying quickly, but the story is strong if stereotyped, and the cast is excellent: Michael Pare, Diane Laine, Rick Moranis, and Amy Madigan.

Tai Pan (1986) is based on a novel by James Clavell, who is known for writing about China and Japan by taking a few scattered historic events, blending them into one story, and then creating characters of his own to populate the new version of history he has invented. This movie focuses on the British traders who brought about the territory of Hong Kong, as well as the Chinese citizens who deal with these traders in various ways. The story itself is outlandish, and the acting makes it more outlandish yet. Still, the filming and the score are beautiful. With Bryan Brown, John Stanton, and Joan Chen.

As I said at the top, these are not great movies. I find them intriguing and entertaining, but that probably says more about me than it says about the movies themselves. J.

Five more back-to-school movies

Breakfast Club (1985): In this movie, John Hughes gets it right. Five high school students in a wealthy Chicago suburb are forced to serve detention in the school library on a Saturday. Like many other John Hughes movies, this movie portrays the stereotypes associated with teenagers in the 1980s. Unlike other John Hughes movies, the students address and challenge these stereotypes. All five of these students could have attended my high school, and the assistant principal and custodian would also have blended into the scene. When I want to remember what high school was really like, this is one of the two movies I choose to watch.

But, before I go on, I do have one comment. John Bender is being punished for pulling the fire alarm. Andrew assaulted a classmate in the locker room. Brian had a flare gun go off in his locker. (He was planning to kill himself because he got an F in shop class.) Claire ditched school to go shopping. Allison says that she came only because she had nothing better to do, but in another scene she says she is a compulsive liar. What do you think is her true story? Might there be a clue in the opening credits?

St. Elmo’s Fire (1985): This movie also portrays college graduates, although in this case the characters are in the autumn right after their graduation from Georgetown University, each trying to find his or her own way in the post-college professional world. All seven of them are spoiled and whiny, yet for all that their problems are real and their efforts to handle their problems are real.

I have one question: What career is Leslie (Ally Sheedy) pursuing? It’s important that she succeed at her career before she marries Alex, but just what is she doing? Architecture? Interior design? Some key scene or dialogue must have been cut from the movie.

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986): This is a time-travel movie with much more depth and subtlety than the Back to the Future franchise. At her twenty-fifth high school reunion, Peggy Sue is somehow swept back into her high school self, though possessing all the memories and emotions of her adult life. Some memories she is glad to relive, others frighten or distress her, and she discovers some things about her life and surroundings she had not noticed as a high school student. Kathleen Turner plays the complex Peggy Sue character convincingly, her once and future husband is played equally well by Nicholas Cage, and much of the rest of the cast also succeeds, including a young Jim Carrey.

Lucas (1986): This is the other movie I watch when I want to remember what high school was really like. The title character is a nerd, scientifically brilliant, but the object of ridicule from most of the athletes in the student body. He befriends a new girl in town, but soon she is on the cheerleading squad and dating a football player. Lucas tries to reinvent himself to gain her attention. In the near future, I will write a lengthy, spoiler-filled, review of this movie. Suffice it to say that many scenes from this movie put me right back in high school again, for better or for worse.

Dead Poets Society (1989): I attended twelve years of public school before going off to college, so I cannot exactly relate to the rich young men in an exclusive east-coast boarding school designed to prepare them for success in college and in their careers. In fact, I relate much more to the teacher, played by Robin Williams, who challenges the students to think for themselves in an environment that presses them to conform and to stifle individuality. More than Aladdin or Mrs. Doubtfire, this is the movie that comes to mind when I think of Robin Williams—not least because this movie also deals with the tragedy of suicide. Dead Poets Society is beautifully filmed, and the ending is as haunting as any final scene of any movie I can remember.

By the way, yesterday and today’s posts were created and posted from a computer I am still struggling to use, given this week’s update to Windows 10. J.

Five back-to-school movies

When I was a boy, school didn’t start until the middle of the last week of August. We had half a day, and then a full day or two, and then a weekend before the school year really got rolling. Of course these were the days when I walked to school, uphill, even in the snow, twice a day. Gasoline was forty cents a gallon, milk was $1.32 a gallon, you could buy a loaf of bread for twenty-four cents and mail a letter for six cents. No, I did not have a pet dinosaur!

Anyhow, certain movies from the late 1970s and from the 1980s remind me of going back to school. The movies on my list are based in high schools and colleges rather than elementary school, and some are more true-to-life than others. A lot of other movies are set in schools, but the following movies mean the most to me this month as children, teens, young adults, and teachers are on their way back to their respective classrooms.

Grease (1978): This movie is nothing like my high school memories. I did not attend school in the 1950s, none of my fellow students were in their twenties or thirties, and only a few of them regularly broke into song and dance. (Some of those who did, though, were pretty good.) The “Summer Loving” bit of the movie, though, perfectly captures the feelings of the end of summer vacation and the start of the school year. My favorite memory of Grease will not be shown on the screen—I remember a ten-year-old girl who had just seen the movie trying to explain its plot to me. Priceless!

Animal House (1978): My college was nothing like this movie, but some students there definitely tried to reproduce this movie on campus. We had fraternities and sororities, excessive drinking and partying, in the setting of stately buildings and droll professors like Donald Sutherland’s character. Many of the guys wished they were John Belushi. This movie is raunchy enough that I would be embarrassed to watch it with my parents or my children, but it has its moments. “Seven years of college—wasted!” “Did we give up when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!”

Fame (1980): Based on a real school in New York City, this movie shows scattered events from the lives of a few students and teachers at a high school dedicated to the fine arts (music, dance, and theater). Fame is more a collection of short stories than a movie with a single plot or theme, but the characters and their situations are entirely believable. Every song-and-dance number fits the movie. When I was in high school, I was involved in music and in theater, so some parts of this movie strike close to home.

Big Chill (1983): I saw this movie in a theater when it came out. All my friends saw this movie too. We were certain that we would keep in touch with each other, care about each other, and support each other. If it wasn’t for Facebook, most of us wouldn’t even know where the others are today. Not one scene in this movie takes place in a school, but this movie still reminds me of the intangible things that mattered most about college. It makes me think of the times we said to each other, “This is what college was meant to be.” Every fall I try to watch this movie the weekend of my alma mater’s homecoming celebration.

Footloose (1984): A young man from the big city must attend high school in a small town, a town where the council has banned dancing. Footloose is a typical coming-of-age, teen angst movie from the 1980s, but it is one of those movies that gets it right. Kevin Bacon shines as the central character, and John Lithgow is brilliant as the minister opposed to dancing, but the two of them are surrounded by smaller characters who are thoroughly convincing. Although the fist fight near the end of the movie seems contrived and unnecessary, every other scene builds the story, and the soundtrack is notable as well. I haven’t seen the recent remake, and I don’t want to see it. This movie is nearly perfect just the way it is.

Tomorrow: five more back-to-school movies from the 1980s. J.