Friday, August 16, 2013

I Phought Ptoo Much About THE PHYNX

THE PHYNX's epic saga of how our government manufactured a rock band to rescue celebrity hostages from a punishing dictator was too bizarre to even commercially offer in 1970, went on to flummox viewers like Steven Thompson during its days as a bootleg tape, and still leaves fellows like Paul Tabili of DVD Drive-In scratching their heads in its now wide availability. Perhaps the reason why Warner Bros. chose not to release a rock'n'roll espionage comedy called THE PHYNX - not in America anyhow - was because it seemed everything about it was unexplainable - from its title, to its use of relative unknowns in the leads, to its use of dozens of random cameos in its climax, to its point of view on its story and its audience. Was it supposed to be a riddle for the ages, as the title's homophonic cousin the Sphinx posed? Or was this riddle just a bad joke, and the title a deliberate misspelling to partially warn potential audiences that, much like the derided King from "THE WIZARD OF ID," that this collective was a band of finks?

In short, what the phuck were they phynxing?

Now, my close friend and longtime "BEAT THE GEEKS" dais companion Andy Zax could tell you the whole story, based on years of direct contact and conversations with people who were involved, and on his impressive collection of what little material from the film reached the public. Unfortunately for all of us, Mr. Zax and his luminous wife, The Lovely Lisa Jane Persky (yes, that is her official title), are incommunicado right now, no doubt blissfully relaxed in an undisclosed location taking the advice of Robert Fripp and watching the boring parts of Marguerite Duras' films until they are no longer boring. So, I guess it's up to me to attempt an explanation of this film, the better to prepare the hardy souls who either will be attending the highly-anticipated Los Angeles screening hosted by Patton Oswalt at CineFamily this coming Sunday, the 18th, or will later be inspired somehow to take the plunge and purchase the DVD released last fall by the genial fellows at Warner Archive.

It is impossible to talk about the origins of THE PHYNX (or, as William Ollier Jr. would have spelled it, "GHONX") without making the educated guess that Warner Bros. Records executive Stan Cornyn, credited as sole screenwriter of the film, was certainly trying to create a synergistic band concept for his label and parent studio in the same manner that Colgems Records (co-owned by Columbia Pictures and RCA) was able to exploit The Monkees on the three platforms available to them. Like the Monkees, the four members of Phynx were comprised of two nonmusicians - Ray Chippeway and Michael A. Miller, and two trained musicians - Lonny Stevens, a house songwriter for Motown, and Dennis Larden (nee Sarokin), founding member of Every Mother's Son, who released a popular single "Come On Down to My Boat", all four performing under their real names while creating caricatured versions of themselves. And as the Pre-Fab Four had assistance from respected songwriters and comedy writers for their series, Cornyn enlisted the legendary songwriting team of Mike Leiber & Jeff Stoller to write and produce songs for the band, and Bob Booker & George Foster, responsible for writing the #1-charting, Grammy-winning comedy album THE FIRST FAMILY with Vaughn Meader, to come up with a storyline to introduce the band. Notice these are the parties who get top billing in the opening credits, and not any of the cast.

Over the course of repeat viewings (and yes, to write this, I indeed watched the movie more than once), I have come to the conclusion that THE PHYNX is a movie that mirrors the evolving attitude of its creative process, in that it was conceived in cynicism but somehow stumbled into sincerity. The credits delineation of Booker & Foster recieiving only story credit while only Cornyn receives screenplay credit suggests that this may be less a philosophical shift and more of a studio salvage mission, but weirdly, these two conflicting ideas somehow do manage to flow into one another.

The cynical atmosphere kicks in quickly after the animated opening credits, as hapless Super Secret Agency operative Corrigan (Lou Antonio filling what years later would likely be called the Hamilton Camp role), failing in the prologue to infiltrate Communist Albania, is brought into a meeting of all field agents - dressed as Klansmen, Black Power activists, Madison Ave. suits, hookers, Boy Scouts, and others, suggesting that the Government has extended its reach to every fringe group in America, ostensibly in the name of the public good, but more likely just to keep its foot in the door. The newsreel declaring that novelty stars like Col. Harlan Sanders, Butterfly McQueen, Edgar Bergen, and others are "World Leaders" is the kind of over-the-top sarcasm you find and tire quickly of about every 17 seconds on Twitter. When the anatomically suggestive supercomputer M.O.T.H.A. declares the strategy of collecting four random youths to form a rock band to get invited into Albania, the longtime music snobs' arguments about how anybody can be made a teen idol if enough money is thrown into the effort (a trope beginning with Stan Freberg and continuing in the noughts with MTV's 2gether) is milked heavily, right down to the po-faced "raves" from Dick Clark and James Brown. A sequence where mercurial producer "PhilBaby" claims he's conceived a hit single for months but pulls the title from a nearby newspaper almost exactly mirrors an incident involving Monkees' songwriters Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart bluffing Don Kirshner over what became the hit song "Valleri," an artistic subterfuge that possibly stuck in Leiber & Stoller's craw as they wrote the score. The band's SSA-muscled success, bizarrely enough, found intellectual company in Peter Watkins' scathing 1967 mockumentary PRIVILEGE, depicting a future London where business, church, and state unite in backing a sullen pop star in order to keep youth diverted from any subversive activity, so in all likelihood "Phynx" indeed meant that our interchangeable heroes are no better than narcs. As critic Graeme Clark wrote in his recent review, "For all its wackiness, for all its attempts to be down with the kids, THE PHYNX was all about The Man, by The Man, and who knows, possibly for The Man as well. Maybe Warners [buried the film because] we'd see right through it."

But just when you're about to share in the depicted exhausted exasperation of the bandmates themselves and bellow, "OKAY, WE GET IT," we get a good-hearted, if ham-handed, moment of empathy. Bandmember Dennis has escaped their literal musical boot camp and snuck back to his hometown, now attired in stereotypical but arguably zeitgeist-accurate hippie garb, and is shunned by all the citizens he remembered as friends, while a deceptively cheery song "Hello" plays underneath his rejection. He reluctantly returns to camp, where the other three guys, as if knowing all too well what happened on the outside, say "Hello." Where previously it would appear the creatives in charge thought little of hippies as a collective, this sequence suggests that they deserved common respect as individuals, and understood that for many, the only place where a man who looks against The Man (even when secretly working for The Man) can be treated like a man is among the men who get him. Okay, yes, it's as toothless a gesture as Pope Francis' "Who am I to judge" remark about gay clergy, but these establishment fuds were at least trying to be open-minded. After this sequence, the movie returns to its seen-it-all cynicism in a very sexist interlude, involving first a government-approved orgy, followed by a search for pieces of an Albanian penetration map justifying multiple sub-Mad Magazine-level sex jokes, but once the Phynx finally make it to Albania, the tone significantly changes.

The band discovers that, contrary to the limited intelligence the SSA has possessed, the Albanian President and his American wife are in fact virtual captives themselves to his Colonel Rostinov, because "he owns the tank." Taking advantage of their waning popularity in the States, the First Lady has in fact lured all the disappeared celebrities to her country to ease her separation hurt from America, since she is under the Cold War travel embargo of her Colonel, and appreciating the accommodations, the celebrities are in no rush to leave; much like Woody in TOY STORY 2, they are tempted to accept a sterile existence in a collection, feeling left behind by those who loved them first. The Colonel takes an roughly dim view of The Phynx, using them as publicity bait to pander to Albania's youth for the next likely-rigged election, not too far removed from the SSA's opinion of them as useful idiots. And amidst all this back and forth about the nature of fame and its outreach to people beyond a performer's home, followed by an ungainly curtain call of every former household name that's been cooling their heels in the President's company, Michael Barrett of Popmatters understandably posits, "...none of these cameos would appeal to the college crowd this film is supposedly courting or lampooning, and yet the whole project would turn off their parents too, and it did. So to whom did this barely released fiasco appeal except the 17 viewers who wanted bragging rights of having claimed that it wasn’t a hallucination?" But, I think I may just have the answer.

Imagine that you're an ordinary under-21'er in America, circa 1970. If you're lucky, you have five TV channels available to you - three network stations, an indie, and maybe a PBS affiliate. For all the "new" shows you're watching, you're probably also idly watching lots of reruns of old sitcoms and lots of Mid-Afternoon Matinee and/or Late Late Show movie broadcasts. You've got your own favorite stars of the present, to be sure, but you are getting a steady diet of images and performances of the past, of the people your parents and even grandparents grew up enjoying. You may not be into them, but if you watch enough TV like a typical '70's kid would, you're gonna know the faces. It's a cultural familiarity and osmosis we don't have today, when with hundreds of cable channels and programmable home video and online options, we no longer need to watch anything we weren't otherwise interested in just because "it's on right now."

Now, consider what we mentioned earlier - the "World Leaders" that are disappearing from America in this tale are not our most august, valued artists. It's not Helen Hayes, Arturo Toscanini, or Norman Mailer that's gone missing - it's past-their-prime folks like Leo Gorcey & Huntz Hall of the Bowery Boys, Ruby Keeler, Andy Devine, Dorothy Lamour, Georgie Jessel, etc. Performers who subsisted for years off of one character role or their entertaining manner on talk shows, and whom were now considered "disposable." Just as disposable as handsome teen pop stars were being regarded, often by the exact same power brokers that were casting TV shows, making movies, and serving as our cultural arbiters. For that matter, how much difference is there really between a manufactured band of the '60's and, say, an untrained pretty girl in the '40's who got hired by a studio and received a new name and backstory and became, for a few short years, a movie star? If their intended audience ultimately takes pleasure in the work, does it matter if the performer's talent was organic or indoctrinated?

Thus, in its convoluted and schizophrenic manner, THE PHYNX is attempting to send an message of cultural rapprochement within the generation gap. Saying to that mythical bewildered teenager looking at the parade of has-beens, "These folks you've seen on the Late Show, that you don't get the appeal of? They entertained us once upon a time, made us forget our troubles for a while. Which is what I think you must feel when you listen to one of these bands that I don't get the appeal of." Saying to the parent stuck accompanying their kid to this movie, "Remember how much you liked these people you don't get to see anymore? That's how your kid will feel when the stars of their formative years are displaced. Their nostalgia is just as fond as yours, even if right now it's not nostalgia yet." Even to the performers themselves, most of whom indeed had not had any high-profile exposure in years until the stunt casting of this movie, there was a message - when the band opens their command performance to this audience saying, "America needs you," they're effectively saying, "We have not forgotten you. We're making our fans happy the way you did yours. We're the same." Whereas JFK spoke of "passing the torch" to the new generation, the filmmakers wanted to have the new generation say "Thank you. We won't let you down."

And after that big lovefest has taken place, naturally, we get to see our parade of guest stars eagerly sneaking out of Albania hidden in radish carts (Albania's best export hiding America's best export?), while the Phynx perform for the Albanian youth. No matter what their intended purpose was before, they have legitimate fans here now, and their sunshine pop takes on the quality that Sunday night's screening host Patton Oswalt so memorably admired about '80's heavy metal: it blows a hole in the walls surrounding the country so that our entertainment elders can get out, and the influence of future flavor of the month stars can come in. Of course it is naive to think that only killjoys with military hardware don't enjoy a good dog-and-pony show - after all, you should see the videotapes in Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin's collections - but this was made in a more innocent time. And they may have been on to something. Why was Deborah Raffin just another blonde on American TV but treated as a virtual goddess in China?

None of this admittedly way-too-deep analysis makes THE PHYNX a good movie, but almost every review I've read over the years wants to know what the point of this production was, and this is what I came up with. Perhaps if and when you decide to watch it, you will agree. After all, I managed to find one unabashed rave in my research. Or perhaps you'll phynk I'm a phlat out phoole. Whatever; I'd rather stick with my foolishly generous opinion. After all, if, say, I found my 1.5-game-show-years-of-fame self being absconded to Chechnya and forced to share living quarters with Stacey Q., Klinton Spilsbury, and that "Oi!" Jacko dude, I have the sad feeling nobody will be sending a rock band to retrieve my has-been ass.

So, for Lonny Stevens, mentoring under-the-radar actors in Studio City; for Dennis Sarokin, still making music somewhere in Nashville; and for Ray and Michael A., wherever they are: I'll gladly give a hand to the Boys in the Band. And say thank you as well, from one temporary solution to the leisure problem to another.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if you'll be getting more responses to this three year old review now that TCM showed this movie (at 4:00 a.m.) this morning? I'd just like to say THE PHYNX doesn't deserve all the knee-jerk condemnation it gets. Parts of it are quite phunny.