Monday, September 13, 2010

"For all of you out there who still believe in fairies, heroes, second and trust."

There are many ways you could have chosen to mark the date of September 11th. Maybe you lit a candle and prayed for a far-too-large number of absent friends and the people who loved them. Maybe you sought out the significant people in your life and reminded them of what they mean to you. Maybe you went out of your way to show kindness to a stranger. Or maybe you just went about your normal day's activities and demonstrated to the universe that the whirligig of life keeps spinning no matter who wants to interrupt it. Really, and with utmost seriousness, there is no wrong way to spend this date, except for doing harm or hurt to your fellow human - and that would go for every day of the year as well.

As for me, in an environment that seems to be receding into xenophobia and division and self-righteous indignation - I chose to laugh. Despite one group of minds that keep trying to proclaim Death to Irony, and another group that abuses the notion so much that every noise from their mouth implies a punch line, what thankfully has not and will never change is our ability to take what frightens us and bring it to heel by mocking its power and laughing in its face. And I have a particular favorite film to refer to for a day like this.

THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE was probably director Philippe Mora's most ambitious narrative film project after his found-footage documentaries SWASTIKA and BROTHER CAN YOU SPARE A DIME, and his low-budget exploitationers MAD DOG MORGAN with Dennis Hopper and THE BEAST WITHIN. It is also, much like Mick Jackson's L.A. STORY, the kind of cheeky yet affectionate observation of and love letter to America that only a foreign-born-and-raised filmmaker can create.

As lain out through faux B&W newsreel footage, Captain Invincible (Alan Arkin) spends the '30's and '40's as the champion of American values, defeating gangsters and war criminals, only to be challenged and slandered amidst Cold War paranoia with spurious accusations of Communist sympathies for wearing a red cape and flying without a pilot's license. Disillusioned at his abandonment by the country he loved, he is found decades later in Australia in a constant state of inebriation and bitterness by local detective Patty Patria (Kate Fitzpatrick), whom he saves from an attack by street punks.

If this plot sounds strangely familiar to you, you're not alone. A few summers ago, as Peter Berg's HANCOCK with Will Smith was playing in theatres, I sent a few favorite websites a little comical nose tweak:
"Alcoholic drifter with superhuman powers and antisocial feelings -- check.
Saves good-looking stranger who dedicates themselves to superhero's career rehabilitation -- check.
Starring Academy-Award nominated actor in the lead - check.
Showstopping musical numbers written by ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW creators -- OOPS!"

Besides the bloggers I tipped off, a few others saw the connective tissue too.

Meanwhile, his oldest arch-enemy Mr. Midnight (Christopher Lee) has been implementing a diabolical three-stage plan called "Operation: Ivory" that begins with using thugs and vandals (including the very toughs who threatened Patria) to forment fear and disharmony among citizens, then with the help of a hypno-ray stolen from the U.S. military, convincing the already nervous city dwellers to buy overpriced homes in ethnically-themed planned communities ("Sicily Heights," "Israeli Acres") offering the illusion of familiar safety, but in fact facilitating a horrible finale. When the hypno-ray is stolen, the U.S. President (Michael Pate) remembers a childhood encounter with Captain Invincible and appeals to him personally to return to service. Touched by the support of his President and his new friend Patty, the Captain agrees to help - but he will have to relearn all the superpowers he allowed to atrophy in his alcoholism...

THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE is not a solidly constructed film, either in the 90 minute version released on VHS and laserdisc, or the full 101 minute director's cut released on DVD; much like the good Captain, it's quite flabby around the middle. The screenplay, co-written by Andrew Gaty and a pre-DIE HARD Steven E. deSouza, starts strong, then meanders a lot as it somewhat belaboredly explores the Captain's rehabilitation and culture shock and the evolution of Mr. Midnight's grand evil plan, but picks up steam as the two leads finally confront each other. And director Mora doesn't exercise the best of restraint in executing the comedy, inserting all manner of wacky sound effects and cutaways that sometimes accentuate the lull of a scene rather than hide it.

But these flaws are not very troublesome. As is the common structure for many cult films, one starts out laughing at the movie with a feeling of slight superiority, then gradually one starts laughing with the movie and getting involved in it, and finally the viewer becomes genuinely invested in the outcome and actively roots for the protagonists. And more often than not, the silliness is effective and infectious. Come on, anyone who doesn't grin a little at a bad pun or a gratuitous blouse burst is probably a long gone sourpuss already. In many ways, Mora's approach predicts the post-modern direction film comedy would go in decades later, whether its stretching the joke to being not funny and still stretching till its funny again (much like a recent "man out of time" comedy AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY), or calling attention to the limitations of the special effects (Patty Patria sits just a little too casually on the Captain's back as they "fly" to America), or randomly wheeling in a studio orchestra into the scene to provide the score for a character's big musical number.

That's right, we still have to address that this is a full-blown musical. Its two lead actors, not widely known for carrying a tune, are fully qualified for the task: Arkin had a major hit singing "The Banana Boat Song" with The Tarriers and a minor hit with "I Like You (Cause You Don't Make Me Nervous)" from the ABC teleplay "THE LOVE SONG OF BARNEY KEMPINSKI," while Christopher Lee was trained in classical opera and performed on the soundtrack to Robin Hardy's original THE WICKER MAN. The songs come from a diverse collection of writers, from jingle artist Jan Bunker to Broadway composers Beth Lawrence and Norman Thalheimer, and three by '70's pomp-rocker Brad Love, including what is clearly an amusing parody of the infamous "Can You Read My Mind" soliloquy from SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. And while they're not memorable, they are diverting, and the actors sing them well: Arkin strikes dignified melancholy, Lawrence (singing for Fitzpatrick) provides cheery optimism, Pate serves hilarious bluster. But the best known-and-loved compositions in the film are the three songs written by ROCKY HORROR creators Richard O'Brien and Richard Hartley, including the jaw-dropping "Name Your Poison," where Mr. Midnight zeroes in on the Captain's shaky state of sobriety:

It may technically be a huge spoiler to say so, but it's safe to say that I would not be recommending a movie like this for an occasion as this if the Captain didn't pull through and save the day. And this is where the movie's most effective heart-tugs take place. First, as the Captain seems at his lowest point, an inspirational sound arrives to boost him - Patty sends a dormant radio signal of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America." Accompanied by performance footage from Michael Curtiz' THIS IS THE ARMY that works even more effectively here than it did in Curtiz' original, it's a moment that pierces into the audience's soul in the tradition of Wendy Darling breaking the fourth wall to ask if people believe in fairies; a moment that a nervous Mora had to personally ask Irving Berlin to approve (which he did for the tiny sum of $10,000, check made out to the Boy Scouts of America).

And then, the finale. Captain Invincible addresses an adoring crowd in Times Square (likely just repurposed stock footage of a typical New Year's Eve street party), hovering above front of the Twin Towers...and delivers a message to the populace...

"We've been through a lot together. And most of it wasn't your fault...but some of it was. That's because a lot of people, including myself, have been made to feel like we're all alone in the world. Alone, or part of some helpless little group. And that's what makes us such easy marks for the bad guys.
But together, we're not alone, we're not helpless. Together, we're part of the roughest, toughest, biggest, kindest, fairest...bestest darn gang in the world! So okay, everybody: this time, let's do it right!"

You can affix whatever retroactive juxtaposition you like to this moment in light of what would follow after filming, but for me, I get teary-eyed because it's a legitimately moving message delivered with just the right tone by Arkin, and when delivered in front of such an iconic touchstone of modern loss, it is a reminder that we are better than our wounds, and we will thrive again with the right mindset of unity.

Ultimately, whatever it lacks in consistency, THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE more than makes up for it in originality, its committed performances, its overall good cheer, and especially in its cockeyed brand of golly-gee-whillikers America love. It's a movie that allows you to feel patriotic without feeling jingoistic. The story may take us to task for being too quick to leap to military solutions, or for jettisoning our heroes when they become inconvenient, or being easily hypotized into acting against our better instincts, but it also recognizes what our country has meant to the world. The use of real archival footage of immigrants of all countries and colors arriving at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty during the closing credits helps drive that point home, and suggests that while he used the Irving Berlin song, Mora is also very much a Woody Guthrie "This Land is Your Land" acolyte.

And Philippe Mora (pictured to the left) is a fine source for that message. The son of a high-ranking French Resistance fighter partnered with Marcel Marceau in spiriting refugees across the border during WWII, Philippe made his first big mark in film with SWASTIKA, a documentary that used then-never seen color footage of Hitler and Eva Braun in banal domesticity interspersed with other period footage to show how the Nazis swayed the public. That was followed by BROTHER CAN YOU SPARE A DIME, which similarly used period footage of the Depression scored to contrastingly upbeat songs of the era, to illustrate the disconnect between fantasy and reality in American history. Though one would think the man responsible for such piercing documentary would be incompatible with the man responsible for unabashed fluff like HOWLING II and III or THE BEAST WITHIN, much like the artist partner of his father, who cultivated his mime and comedy in the most devastating circumstance imaginable, Mora has found the peaceful medium of being both a social critic and genial clown. Even today, in interviews and in his side gig as columnist for Australia's National Times, he knows how to discuss serious material with a smile.

Full disclosure: he is also a friend and longtime supporter of my work.

THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE has had some misfortunes in reaching the public. Jensen Farley Pictures (a spinoff company from legendary exploitation outfit Sunn Classics, who had previously released PRIVATE LESSONS, TIMERIDER, and THE BOOGENS), was supposed to release it in America in 1983, and a few test runs were done under the title LEGEND IN LEOTARDS (in the shorter 90 minute cut). However, three days before a national, 400+ screen release, complete with TV advertising, Jensen Farley went bankrupt and the film never got a proper theatrical run. A tape and laserdisc release followed from Danny Kopels' Magnum Entertainment, also of the truncated cut. In 2001, Vini Bancalari's Elite Entertainment released the full 101 minute director's cut on DVD, and I helped get the film a belated U.S. theatrical premiere in Los Angeles in 2002. While the DVD is out of print, copies are generally easy to find and very affordable, either on its own, or in a 3-pack with Mora's other films COMMUNION and HOWLING III: THE MARSUPIALS. Likely due to its failure to secure a theatrical release, a soundtrack album has never been issued, though "Name Your Poison" did get a singles release in Europe, ROCKY HORROR collectors tend to have high-quality bootlegs of the O'Brien compositions, and strangely, you can purchase William Motzing's main title theme recorded by the Czech Symphony Orchestra as an mp3 download from Amazon.

Some happy endings are sadly confined to the movies. But others are in our hands. And as the good Captain will remind us, we don't need otherworldly powers to be heroes.

1 comment:

  1. Despite its uneven pacing and its meanderings, "Return"is one of my favourite films. The emotion displayed in some parts of the film (eg: "for all of those who believe in fairies, heroes etc") brought a lump to my throat. As an Australian who is always cynical about America's self obsession this peculiar Australian film temporarily renews my childhood faith in America. Oh, and Christopher Lee is at his sexiest.