Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My Weekend With Myra

Here I am, crashing the party otherwise known as the Camp & Cult Blogathon, presented by Stacia at She Blogged by Night. While I may often believe that those two adjectives should be relegated to the other forbidden C-words in modern conversation, I certainly do love a little celebration of the histrionic and the dementedly devotional, so there's no reason to be a sourpuss just because a few people don't understand that not every movie with overacting is automatically funny, and not every ultra-low-budget poverty production deserves to be ranked in the same company as those that earned their legions. Dare I say it, you don't have a good camp experience without a good counselor, so here I am with my whistle, though I'm more apt to blow on it to chant along with a Donna Summer song than to call stop. And in this situation, I think I have a rather amusing little story for the bonfire.

While I was never a particularly devoted reader of his books, I had a fine respect for the late Gore Vidal. I had grown up hearing him name-checked by people of many stripes whom I knew were smart, and coming across a money quote of his - "As I looked upon my life, I realized I loved nothing - not art, not sex - more than going to the movies." - I sensed that this was someone who had my number. But as an individual who also grew up being told "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him," and "If your mother says she loves you, check it out," I often found myself in disagreement with some of his pronouncements. So, with the help of some distance past his passing from the corporeal realm, I choose to commemorate his life by ruminating on my personal relationship to something he thoroughly detested: the film adaptation of his 1968 novel MYRA BRECKINRIDGE...because, to paraphrase what was once said about Led Zeppelin, I can only honor the great contrarian by destroying him.

For the uninitiated, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE was an amusing book by Gore Vidal that was turned into a harshly comic, proto-FIGHT CLUB rant on Hollywood by director Michael Sarne. The mysterious Myra (Racquel Welch), an inveterate lover of old-time movie glamour, comes to town to subvert and destroy all the trappings of new Hollywood -- overt macho, method acting, etc. She will run riot on her ersatz uncle-in-law, fallen cowboy star Buck Loner (John Huston), and seduce both man's man Rusty (Roger Herren) and his sugar-sweet girlfriend Mary Ann (Farrah Fawcett). The movie had instantly piqued my curiosity when my seventh-grade teacher, already savvy to my film obsession, lent me her copy of the Medved brothers' now-rather-harsh-and-easily-debunked book "THE FIFTY WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME," and it had a very detailed chapter about its notoriety. At the dawn of videotape rentals, I insisted my dad bring it home to watch, and it quickly became one of my favorite bizarre movies (and, if you wanna get technical, my first X-rated movie). As a child, I had embraced this as gonzo camp, under that unbearably hoary cliché of "so bad it's good" (which is so overused, it's done!), but over the years I've turned a corner (and I know I'm quite alone in this assessment) and openly declared this a misunderstood classic. Part of my reasoning came from reading the source novel it was based on a few years later as a full-fledged hormonal teenager: somehow, I just wasn't as entertained by Vidal's prose as I had been by the movie's repurposing of it. And I found the constant references to then-obscure-to-me-names like Pandro S. Berman and Francis X. Bushman to grow tedious. I could sense that this was subject matter that Vidal, through his protagonist, was not joking about, that he really was waging some sort of culture war against those damned hippie actors and their "Stanislavski" and their "naturalism" and wanted them all to get off of his Hollywood lawn. I found new cement for my reappraisal upon seeing David Fincher's groundbreaking FIGHT CLUB in 1999, because in its approach to adapting Chuck Palahniuk's best-seller, it was really following the exact same template: not only do both films satirize their target subjects, but they satirize their very own selves, reminding the audience that they are watching a movie and to not take anything seriously. Rather than treat the author's work like sacred canon, they openly challenge and exploit the flaws in the source material, an approach which a post-modern writer like Palahniuk seemed to enjoy, but which clearly rankled the comparably self-serious Vidal.

I stumbled into opportunity by meeting the movie's embattled director Michael Sarne in 2003 at my then-workplace. Sarne, whose career never truly recovered from the debacle that was MYRA, came into town from England, where he was working steadily as a character actor, to record a commentary for the then-upcoming DVD release. I gushed to Sarne like the excited movie geek I was, telling him how much I enjoyed MYRA and how underrated I thought it was. He in turn told me about his good fortune and that he was recording his commentary that Friday afternoon. He said he had never done one before, and was unsure how to go about it. I mentioned my experience with Tamara Hernandez and recording the commentary for MEN CRY BULLETSGUESS WHO GOT TO SIT IN ON THE COMMENTARY RECORDING THAT FRIDAY AFTERNOON? (Yes, that moment still delights me that much that I needed the color emphasis on that rhetorical question.) Besides myself, Michael invited Stanley Sheff, an old friend, apprentice to Orson Welles, and director of LOBSTER MAN FROM MARS, to give him pointers as well. This setup was nice -- my first time in a soundproofed room, with timecode, synchronized recording with the master tapes -- way more pro than the D.I.Y. manner in which I had done Tamara's recording. Only Michael would be miked however -- we could prompt and comment during dead spots, but it would not be included -- the final audio is a complete stream of talk from him, though on occasion, you can tell he is answering a question one of us asked. And it was great, with good dishy details on the fighting and studio politics that went down during production. I was happy to be a part of it, however small. Afterward, the three of us went to brunch at Du-Par's, and I got to hear great tales of how long ago, when Sheff was working at the Whisky-a-Go-Go, he would raid movie lab dumpsters for stuff to run as loops behind bands and dancers, and how it became a mini-phenom there. And how he got to work under Welles on some of his later projects. I then gave Sarne a lift back to where he was staying, and he invited me in for a quick drink. We talked, I told him some of my film ideas and how at that point of my residency, despite four years and the big ups and downs I had taken, I loved this place and never regretted coming. He made me feel really significant. And he gave me an invite to watch the reediting later that week.

Oh, I should elaborate. In an extremely interesting turn of events we shall not likely see from a major studio again, 20th Century Fox not only commissioned a de riguer commentary track, but they allowed him to make minor reedits to the film. MYRA punctuates it's story points with classic film clips (a la DREAM ON if you remember that HBO series), and initially certain clips were denied him despite being in a workprint that tested well in San Francisco. Most notoriously, a MYRA character's fantasy sequence would have been followed by a clip from REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, where Shirley Temple attempts to milk a goat and gets sprayed with the white stuff. She was not amused at the juxtaposition, and used near-Presidential influence to have it removed. While Sarne was still not allowed to use that clip, he was allowed to use a similar substitute (if one could be found), to smooth out and fix transitions between the film and the clips, and to make a key alteration to the film's ending in the manner of the DVD-only, "easter egg" B&W opening sequence on THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. So now, I had not only sat in on the recording of an aural history of one of my favorite films, I was going to watch it get reedited, an enormous privilege!

So early one afternoon, before going to work, I politely blustered my way into the telecine/color correction session for MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. When I arrived, the work was already underway, just Sarne and a computer colorist named Sheri. The primary task at hand was to sort through the miscellaneous B&W clips interspersed within the film, and provide appropriate tinting to help them match the color scenes they bisected. This was NOT "colorization," like Ted Turner was trying to foist in the '80's, but just tinting the image so that if the color scene happens in a beige, muted room, that the B&W scene doesn't jar the viewer -- instead, it would have a similar color injected, warm the image from cold grayness. Sarne had always suggested that since the story could only exist as fantasy, that the clips should suggest that Old Hollywood was present in the "New" environment as these events were happening, and making commentary upon it. Watching the process, and having seen MYRA a few times, the tints made dramatic sense, and made the snippets more organic, less distancing. Actors and photos looked to have more fleshtone, were not so harsh. And it was amazing what the computer could do. For example, for some inexplicable reason, in the original theatrical print, a clip featuring Tyrone Power as Zorro had a weird, deep red tint applied, even though the scene it was interrupting was not dominated by red. While it could not be completely eradicated, the operator was able to mute it down, take it to a more palatable tan. I am unable to make vidcaps from my DVD to show you the specifics, and this detail seemed to elude DVD reviewers who watched both versions and failed to notice these subtle changes, but you can play this Zorro excerpt in each version on your home unit and see the difference for yourself.

But then, there was the big task. As I said before, there was the matter of that payoff to the dream sequence and the Temple clip was still off limits. But Sarne had permission to replace the mundane "cannon fire" clip that had been ultimately inserted in the original version. We had discussed during a break in the previous commentary recording why that scene was so funny in it's original conception. It wasn't just the juxtaposition of a face full of milk to an physical body reaction, it was that it was Shirley Temple, America's sweetheart and paragon of purity and virtue, getting the mess. So the best way to try to get the same effect would be to find a clip of a similarly beloved movie star looked to for her "virtue". At the session, only two movies had been provided by the Fox archivists for us to search for clips -- AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, and MOVE OVER DARLING. (Interestingly, MOVE OVER DARLING had originally been intended as a Marilyn Monroe film -- the unfinished SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE -- and footage from that abandoned shoot does appear in MYRA, in a scene where Marilyn appears to meet the characters in another scene shot at the same poolside). When I arrived, they were trying some scene from AFFAIR, involving Deborah Kerr reacting with mock revulsion at Cary Grant over some affront while swimming, as the replacement clip. I could see the logic, but we all agreed quickly it wasn't doing the job. So we put MOVE OVER DARLING in the deck and fast-forwarded looking for stuff. Doris Day certainly fit the bill as the kind of "good girl" archetype that could provide our punchline, provided we find the right clip. First, there was a scene of her peeking behind bushes at a romantic encounter between James Garner and another girlfriend, and her facial expressions of shock and huff played well, as if reacting to the event it would be preceding. But we wanted to keep looking. And then, comedy gold fell into our laps. A chase scene led to Doris driving a tricked-out Chrysler Imperial convertible into a car wash. And by nervous fumbling with the auto controls, down went the windows and water began to rain into the car. Then came the soap and wax dispenser (0:46-0:49)...


As John Ritter said in SKIN DEEP, "THERE IS A GOD! AND HE'S A GAG WRITER!" Instantly, all three of us were nearly out of our chairs; we didn't even need to try inserting it to know we had our, sorry but I gotta say it, money shot. We did a bit of fine-tuning to figure out when to start and stop the clip (ideally, it was supposed to use the exact same number of seconds as the clip it would replace), but for all purposes, we were very happy. A test screening a week later for friends and video department brass had everyone laughing at the new edit.

However, much as with Ms. Temple Black, the former Doris Van Kappelhoff  was not amused either by this editorial choice, and would not sign off on its use. The fact that the bulk of her career consisted of many innuendo-laced comedies opposite the biggest closet case in Hollywood history would have implied to me she oughta have a more developed sense of humor about such things. In the final cut that made it to DVD, Sarne used a good-but-not-as-good Laurel & Hardy moment for his punch line. But o! what a fine moment that was. The thrill of discovery, the belly laughs, the ability to say "I was there, I saw it happen." I got a preview of what it would likely be like to edit my own movie, and find a moment on that bench that really works, that you know is solid. And though it could not survive in reality, it survives in my head, and now in this account.

So, Mr. Vidal, I hope you can respect the notion of agreeing to disagree on this movie. Not like you're in any position to castigate me now, you the children say nowadays.  


  1. Awesome story, Marc! Sarne sounds like a good dude, and what luck to be invited to take part in the commentary and reediting! I knew of MYRA but never really bothered searching it out, but you've convinced me to find the DVD and give it a chance. And when that fantasy sequence, ahem, comes up, I'll be sure to imagine Doris Day getting it in the face at the right moment.

  2. So fabulous. I am absolutely delighted with this post and that you chose to join in the 'thon, Marc!

    I have watched my MB DVD about, I dunno, a thousand times I guess, so it's a real treat to read your experiences about recording the commentary. The whole reason I started blogging was to write a lengthy post about Myra, and to that end I bought the Playboy with Rex Reed (haha) and some books and went to work, then never did the post. That's why I am thrilled someone else took the challenge, and with such a terrific post as well.

    You're so right that many of these stars should have had more of a sense of humor about their work; Loretta Young in particular always irked me with her holier than thou attitude regarding MB, because her pre-code stuff is about as salacious as you can get! Check out the backseat scene in Midnight Mary for a good example. To clutch her pearls in anger when clips were used for satire? Just too much.

  3. Nice work! I saw a DVD with that Shirley Temple moment and wondered why it was missing from the one I recently reviewed from my own post on old Mya. here

    But has there really been two different DVD releases? Did I see an early one? (This was c. 2003)....

    1. There has been only one DVD release, but that has BOTH versions on it. One side has the standard theatrical cut w/ Welch commentary, the other side has the new "director's cut" with Sarne commentary. Unless there's been a repressing that omits the new cut, you should be able to just flip your disc over and give it a look/listen.