Archive for December 1979

The Black Hole

December 21, 1979

At the mystifying end of Disney’s The Black Hole, a small probe ship sails through the titular tunnel, and the special-effects whizzes throw everything including the kitchen sink at us. The ship seems to pass through hell and then heaven, with accompanying images of damnation and salvation. And millions of nine-year-olds, like me at the time the film came out, experienced their first acid trip by cinematic proxy.

The Black Hole was certainly shinier sci-fi eye candy than anything else at the time — even Star Wars had a monochromatic black-on-white visual scheme, and this was five months or so before the decidedly richer Empire Strikes Back arrived. Revisiting the film tonight on DVD, I gave the plot a miss — as I must’ve done when I was nine — and focused on the movement and sound. The Black Hole was directed by one Gary Nelson, a TV veteran and, it’s safe to say, not exactly a visionary. He’s a competent if impersonal journeyman handed the keys to a project Disney had been developing since before Star Wars.

No, the movie was really made by Peter Ellenshaw (who designed the production and supervised the miniature animation), his son Harrison (who handled the mattes), cinematographer Frank Phillips, and composer John Barry, whose theme music lends this space odyssey the obsessive aural gyrations of Vertigo. These artists have pooled their considerable gifts to turn an overplotted good-vs.-evil play into, well, a piece of artwork — or at least pop art. The elongated ship where much of the movie unfolds is a sticklike riot of beams and tunnels and tubes, like some mad horizontal architecture. The Black Hole can’t create or sustain any sort of mood, but that ship does. And John Barry’s looping, heightened score, like a James Bond soundtrack gone dizzy, lends the movie an epic flavor.

So we have an elegant, if stubbornly unexciting, popcorn-muncher that flips into a chin-scratcher, with a crew of mostly bland heroes (only Anthony Perkins, as a scientist in fluttery thrall to the genius of a madman, brings something genuine to the proceedings). As in other hardware epics, the robots — the rather smug V.I.N.CENT (voice by Roddy McDowall), the chewed-up Old B.O.B. (voice by Slim Pickens), and the mute, evil Maximilian — are the only ones with personalities.

The heroes board the much bigger vessel of the aforementioned madman (Maximilian Schell), who wants to be the first to enter a black hole and come out the other side, or something. His entire human crew is gone, but that’s okay, because he’s got a bunch of robots working for him. I think you’d have to be nine years old not to figure that out, though it takes psychic Yvette Mimieux half the film to twig to it. Eventually it all comes down to our heroes going pow-pow with their laser blasters at the similarly armed robots, who clatter and fall fairly amusingly when hit. The pre-black-hole money shot, when a gigantic meteor crashes through the ship and narrowly misses the heroes, was probably more impressive when I was nine and goggling at it on the big screen.

Hard to believe it’s been twenty-eight years. Some of you — hell, some of my colleagues here — haven’t been alive that long. Just today, an acquaintance was telling me about watching an old war flick he’d loved as a kid; now all he saw was the same stock aerial footage repeated over and over, and he thought the movie was terrible. Well … okay … The Black Hole has no aerial stock footage. It has justifiably acclaimed visual effects, which still impress in the pre-CGI context of 1979. But I’m afraid that’s all it has.


December 14, 1979

Ah, the critics back there in 1979. They didn’t know. They hadn’t grown up on TV reruns of Our Gang and The Three Stooges and Bugs Bunny. Walking into Steven Spielberg’s epic slapstick farce 1941, they didn’t realize they were in for a live-action cartoon. They also didn’t know what was coming just two years later.

Perhaps it’s only because I first happened to catch 1941 on cable around the same time Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, but it has always been my belief that 1941 was no more or less than a dry run for the Indiana Jones films. It has the same look, the same sound (John Williams’ score is hysterically over-amped); with a tweak here and there, it could plausibly be unfolding in the same reality. Indy fights Nazis in 1936; five years later, one of them (Christopher Lee) turns up on a Japanese sub. One sight gag involving Lee and an apparent instrument of torture didn’t come off well and was deleted, but Spielberg later revived it for Raiders. Tim Matheson, one of the initial contenders for the role of Indy, turns up here and delivers the exact same sardonic “Ah-ha-ha-haaaa” laugh Harrison Ford does in the Well of Souls.

So if you go into 1941 looking at it as Indy’s scrappier younger brother, with its pants around its ankles and firing a pistol into the California night sky, you might have a better time with it. The movie is explicitly Spielberg’s attempt to wield farce on the level of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, stuffed with stars and chaos, a gigantic Mad-magazine parody of itself (Mad never parodied the film, perhaps reasoning that its work had already been done) with each frame jammed with Jack Davis or Mort Drucker caricatures. Everyone in the huge cast bellows and shrieks, and for good measure they all reprise their screaming during the end credits. 1941 is loud.

Coming as it did during the late-’70s era of excess — The Blues Brothers and Heaven’s Gate were right around the corner, and critics had already boggled at Apocalypse Now and New York, New York — it became a stick with which to slap Spielberg down. He’d had two big hits in a row; now he would be made to eat dirt. But really there’s nothing to be ashamed of here. There’s a surfeit of diversions here, legions of characters chasing each other around, locked into their own violent, fearful or sexual obsessions. The perversity runs wild: the movie kicks off with a goofball riff on Jaws (the nude swimmer is even played by the same actress, Susan Backlinie); the then-hot comedy team of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd are in the movie but never share a scene; if there’s an actual protagonist, it’s hoofer Bobby DiCicco, who just wants to enter a USO dance contest. (Whatever happened to Bobby DiCicco? He was a great dancer and not a bad comic presence. His last credit, according to the IMDb, was as a voice in 1996’s All Dogs Go to Heaven 2.)

If, on some level, you can’t relish the scenes between Christopher Lee and sub commander Toshiro Mifune — especially when Slim Pickens drops in for some cornpone scatological yucks (Mifune’s crestfallen “This has not been honorable” always cracks me up) — well, I don’t know what to tell you. Similarly, the meeting of Belushi’s deranged Wild Bill Kelso and Warren Oates’ equally deranged Colonel “Madman” Maddox — two grizzled icons of different generations squinting at each other and taking one another’s demented measure. (The sequence always makes me envision Belushi in a Peckinpah film.) Or Treat Williams’ scummy corporal who has a thing against eggs. Or Ned Beatty allowing an anti-aircraft gun on his property, to the consternation of wife Lorraine Gary. Or the way Aykroyd looks perfectly at home as a sergeant rattling off tech specs. Or Robert Stack’s Major General Stilwell — the film’s only voice of sanity — shedding tears during a screening of Dumbo. Or the truly weird combo of Murray Hamilton, Eddie Deezen and a ventriloquist dummy atop a ferris wheel, which eventually gets unmoored and rolls out of control, which a lot of critics adopted as a metaphor for the film itself, which I do, too, but not disapprovingly.

There’s no way a movie this massive, this dedicated to craziness, and this fun needs to justify itself on any level. It is — unless you count Catch Me If You Can — Spielberg’s sole official comedy to date, although he did go over the top into physical farce in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, emboldened by the success of Raiders. There’s a lavish, colorful entertainer at work in 1941 and the first two Indy films that now seems long lost. Until he remade West Side Story decades later, 1941 was the closest Spielberg had ever come to mounting a full-fledged musical, and I wish it had done better at the box office if only so that we could’ve gotten more brilliantly inspired sequences like the jitterbug number, which degenerates into a messy brawl, which a lot of critics adopted as a metaphor for the film itself, which I do, too, but … well, you know.

1941 is chaotic because it seeks to tell, in slapstick terms, a story of American hysteria — the script by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis was based loosely, in part, on the actual “Battle of Los Angeles,” in which a still-unknown thing in the sky led to the Army pretty much losing their shit and perforating the night air with shells. 1941 shows that Spielberg was not always the somber WWII chronicler of Saving Private Ryan, prostrating himself at the graves of the Greatest Generation. Here, the Greatest Generation is a bunch of morons. America is stupid. But Japan is stupid, too — they don’t even have a working compass on their sub. Everyone (except Stilwell) is stupid. It’s a farce, an anti-patriotic farce post-Vietnam.

Is it, uh, perfect? Getouddahere. The women tend to be floozies, ditzes or straight-up nymphos (Nancy Allen as a reporter who gets wet when she’s up in a plane, much to Tim Matheson’s delight). The racism of the day is exploited for laughs (more so in the extended cut on DVD, which fleshes out the conflict between Frank McRae and John Candy). But, again, pretty much everyone in the movie is a suitable case for treatment. Charges of sexism/racism don’t stick to a happy clusterfuck like this movie, which sprays everyone with the same mix of soot, slime and raw eggs.

I love 1941. I don’t apologize to you, or my fellow critics, or even Spielberg for that. I saw it at precisely the right time, eleven years old, grew up on the Little Rascals and “Nyuk nyuk nyuk” and Looney Tunes, and therefore knew what I was watching. Does the rest of the world know what this film is? I guess not.