Those two years make all the difference. Turning 49 this year, The Boys in the Band is a work that has straddled Stonewall for its entire life. You might be surprised at how fresh she sounds. You’ll want to rush out and see it before it’s cancelled again, because this is a truly wonderful film, an ensemble of unforgettable performances, and a film that divides opinion and continues to pit friend against friend, just like the cruel party game at its heart.
So much has been written about the queer politics of The Boys in the Band that the discussion threatens to dessicate the film’s more universal qualities. In much of the criticism of the film, a division is imposed, pitting broad humanism against identity politics. Writer Mart Crowley boldly rejected the notion that mainstream audiences wouldn’t care about a play comprised primarily the banter of eight gay men. Some assumed that interest in this gay lifestyle play would be merely prurient. Yet in 2019, The Boys in the Band looks both more politically relevant and more universally humane than that other party that devolves into shouting, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which Mart Crowley admits inspired him to write this very personal story.
Peter Fonda’s Idaho Transfer is a strange and inventive little film that has gained something of a cult following over the years, though it remains stubbornly elusive. The Trylon, working with the Minnesota Historical Society, has gotten hold of the only known print of the film, making this something of an event. While it’s a flawed movie, it’s also an intensely interesting one: a parable of human frailty and stupidity, and an elegant eulogy to the shattered dreams of the 1960s.
I love Westworld. I want to state that quite plainly at the outset because, while I do love it, I also have a lot of very serious reservations about it. This was the first film directed by Michael Crichton, made back in the early days of his career, before he was seduced by The Dark Side; and as with most of his early work, Westworld is a warning about the perils of mankind placing too much faith in technology. However, the film fails as a message picture because its central premise is utterly untenable.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” — L.P. Hartley
The 1985 depicted in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future is as distant to us now as 1955 was to Marty McFly, the protagonist of this now-classic time-travel comedy. Looking back, the juxtaposed Eisenhower and Reagan eras of 1955 and 1985 seem to be suspiciously similar places, defined by a zeal for conformity and the acquisitiveness of their inhabitants. It shouldn’t be surprising that high school student Marty ends up in the 50’s, since at the time of Back To the Future’s release America had been trying desperately to get back there for three decades, and the election of Ronald Reagan was in many ways a referendum on transporting the entire nation there as quickly as possible. It is no small irony that Marty’s goal is to return to a future that itself was longing to escape into the past.
The original Tron, released in 1982, and starring Jeff Bridges and David Warner, is wholly of that era and yet it feels timeless. Some of that is the perpetual 80s nostalgia we’ve been living in for a good eight years (and codified in our daily breathing exercises in 2011, thanks to Drive). But some of it is also that the film’s politics, religion, and fear of technological inventions is an ongoing concern today.
Bridges is Kevin Flynn, a cool-cat former programmer with computer company ENCOM (The dude abides, even 15 years before The Dude is The Dude). He’s been sidelined by Ed Dillinger (Warner), a top executive at the company who made his way to higher echelons of power by stealing Flynn’s video game ideas.
Flynn’s been trying to break into the company’s main computer system virtually to find the proof of Dillinger’s malfeasance, but the autonomous, HAL-like Master Control Program has made sure not to allow such things to happen. Besides, MCP is too busy trying to break into the networks of the Pentagon, the Kremlin, and other consequential computer systems in an effort to absorb all of the software he can get into himself. He doesn’t need Flynn messing about.
Meanwhile, Flynn’s pal, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), has programmed security software called Tron. At one point, Flynn convinces Bradley and their friend and colleague Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan) to help him break into the ENCOM headquarters after Flynn’s own program, CLU, fails in its bid to find the secret files pointing to Dillinger’s intellectual property theft.
Flynn succeeds to a point. They break in and he finds himself in front of the computer, ready to implement some special hacking tomfoolery, when the MCP gets upset and beams Flynn into the computer world.
That point when he ends up in The Grid, ENCOM’s cyberspace, is a bit like that moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy wakes up and everything’s in color. In this case there are distinct reds, yellows, and blues contrasted against black, coloring strange wireframe objects, ribbons and other ephemera. But more importantly, the dour realm of Reagan’s 80s is left behind in exchange for this loco contrast that houses anthropomorphic computer programs who engage in some gladiator-style video game warfare, with some of the key programs played by the same actors who play parts in the “real world.”
Although Tron isn’t merely Oz updated for the 80s generation, that it is a product of its time is apparent. The oppressive MCP, while a mere HAL-like hacking program in the real world, in The Grid is a Stalinistic dictator and his second-in-command is a program that is a reliable party-secretary-in-waiting. Flynn and his cohort are the American liberators in the Soviet hellscape. Hell, the bad guys are even embellished with red neon if the distinction weren’t clear enough.
The contrast of America’s political system and that of Russia’s is also on display in the response to some programs’ religious devotion to their “user,” the human in the real world who — at minimum — gives the program instructions, or has even created the program. MCP and his comrades mock the “religious” and seek to undermine the credibility of the false gods. The Americans are the pious and the Russians are the heathens. Oops, I mean the good guys are the pious and the bad guys are the heathens. There. That’s better.
The other element — fear of our own creations, or our own creations’ inevitable awareness and revolution against us — is also on display. The MCP, echoing HAL, is a malevolent creation. He originally started out as a chess program and become more powerful but maintained some benevolence. When Dillinger came into the equation, he set MCP on an ignoble path.
MCP’s conquest of various important computer networks foreshadows the artificial intelligence prowess of Skynet from The Terminator, although MCP isn’t yet ready for mass homicide. It also echoes the ongoing fear of the era of the Soviets somehow getting control of the American defense network, or just a general fear of the unknown harm that could be perpetrated by the relatively new technology of personal computing and widespread networks.
All of those considerations, which make it an 80s film, don’t necessarily date Tron. Neither do the somewhat laughable special effects, a then-groundbreaking mix of back-lit animation and computer graphics. Today, the graphics are co-opted frequently by musicians and graphic artists in the 80s retrosynth/synthwave scene as part of the overall tour-de-force of nostalgia for the decade.
The political contrast, though altered somewhat, is still a concern: Although we’ve grown tired of the news about Russia invading the Ukraine, that event overall solidified a renewed breakdown in Russo-American relations — much to the pleasure of pols and pundits rendered obsolete by “The End of History.” Nowadays the religious battles are scarier than ever, what with ISIS and Al Qaeda and their lot.
The funny thing is that for an 80s film, and one of this character, the soundtrack is utterly lacking in the synthesizers sacred to the eras premiere composers, such as John Carpenter, Giorgio Moroder, and Harold Faltermeyer. This is legitimately ironic, given that Tron composer Wendy Carlos was a pioneer in using synthesizers for classical compositions.
Ultimately, Tron isn’t a bad movie. The Disney touch, responsible for Carlos using predominantly symphonic instruments in the score and the reason for the film’s ending, ensures that it can’t be a great one, though. Despite that, it’s still a classic. It’s still a film to return to occasionally, especially when you have the time to watch it and its Daft Punk- and Lebowski-infused 2010 sequel. –Aaron Vehling
Much is made of the fact that Ralph Bakshi’s first two animated features — Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic — received the “X” rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. What’s really remarkable, though, is that the “X” rating existed at all. Before the early 1970s, not only would these films not have been cleared for theatrical release, they would probably have been illegal to exhibit publicly in most places; but as the last vestiges of the old studio system crumbled away the last vestiges of its censorship arm went with it. Newly liberated filmmakers were now able to do the projects they wanted to do. You can feel that exuberance throughout Bakshi’s Heavy Traffic, his most personal film, and his best.
Heavy Traffic tells the story of Michael Corleone, an underground comic-book artist and 22-year-old virgin living in a seedy New York apartment with his bickering parents. His Jewish mother, Ida, is unhappily married to his Catholic father Angelo “Angie” Corleone, who is a low-level mob lackey, and in a series of absurdist comic bits, Ida and Angie attempt to kill each other with various kitchen implements.
While Angie works desperately to get Michael laid — hiring a local prostitute at one point, to no avail — Michael trades his sketches to brassy local bartender Carole (Beverly Hope Atkinson) for drinks. This lands Carole in trouble with her boss and she quits her job. Out of work and being stalked by Shorty, the bar’s (legless) bouncer, Carole moves in with Michael; but because Carole is black, Angie hits the roof and the two of them are forced to strike out on their own.
Unlike Fritz the Cat, which was based on characters created by R. Crumb, the world of Heavy Traffic seems closer to Bakshi’s heart. The neighborhood is filled with mobsters, drug addicts, hookers and low-lifes, but far from being something that Michael seeks to escape, his surroundings nurture him and serve as inspiration for his art.
Like most of Bakshi’s movies this one makes heavy use of rotoscoping and still photos as backdrops. In too many of his films use of these techniques seem driven by low budgets but here they serve to tie the action to the real world, as does an interesting frame device in which a live-action Michael (Joseph Kaufman) plays pinball in a seedy bar. The movie returns again and again to the pinball machine to punctuate and separate the episodic story elements; like most of Bakshi’s projects this one is rather haphazardly plotted.
Overall, this is an arresting and experimental film, one of the most audacious animated features ever made. –Michael Popham
HEAVY TRAFFIC screens Monday and Tuesday, August 24 and 25 at 7:00 and 9:00 at the Trylon. Tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.