Monday, April 21, 2008

Sometime in the Near Future

The double feature at the New Beverly on Friday night for the Dante's Inferno festival seemed to be a pair of films focusing on a subject that is very personal to Joe Dante, the director of the extremely controversial HOMECOMING episode of "Masters of Horror". What we got was a pair of satires set in a vaguely defined “near future”, both of which focus on our government, the media and what these two forces might allow to happen within the United States in the years to come. Or maybe they already are. More than any such pairing I’ve seen in a while, it was a bit tough to get them out of my head afterwards.

Set “in that elusive time between now and later” WRONG IS RIGHT, directed by Richard Brooks and released in 1982, stars Sean Connery as Patrick Hale, a hot-shot television reporter who finds himself in the middle of a world crisis consisting of a President whose approval ratings are falling, chaos in the middle east, suicide bombers, rising gas prices, a Presidential election, the cutthroat business of television news, an African-American female vice-president, the battle for oil and the very real possibility of war breaking out. I should mention that the World Trade Center plays a role as well. To say that the film is prescient about certain things is putting it mildly (Well, maybe there haven’t been any suicide bombers in Times Square, but the point still stands. Incidentally, judging by the theater marquees, it looks like SCANNERS and POPEYE was playing when these scenes were shot). WRONG IS RIGHT is a comedy where the laughs are difficult to find, mostly because they don’t really play as jokes anymore. One of the things always said about NETWORK is that everything has already happened except for the live execution. In the case of WRONG IS RIGHT, everything it portrays really has already happened so the result while watching it is that the laughs don’t really happen. It can’t be considered a cautionary satire because, well, it’s too late for that.

It would be great to say that WRONG IS RIGHT is a hidden masterpiece which shines a great satirical light on the world due to its prescience, but the honest truth is that it’s not all that good. Joe Dante’s program notes for the festival say that when it was released in 1982 it was considered a “confused jumble” and that’s pretty much what it still is, even if it has become a much more fascinating jumble. It’s too consistently interesting to be considered outright bad but I never found myself fully able to get a grip on what the film was and that may be the fault of Richard Brooks, who as the man responsible for THE PROFESSIONALS and IN COLD BLOOD may not have been the right person to direct a comedy. And while some of it may have become even more prescient than either DR. STRANGLEOVE or NETWORK, it still doesn’t come close to belonging on the same level of those great films.

At one point Sean Connery has to deliver a long monologue about the nature of his job and what it means for the world. I kept imagining it spoken by William Holden in full NETWORK mode and it became very clear to me that the words here weren’t up to that level and even Connery felt unsure delivering them. In fact, the bulk of his performance in this film is possibly one of his shakiest as if even he weren’t sure about the type of film they were making. The amount of access the character has to various world leaders makes him sometimes seem more like a troubleshooting secret agent that a television reporter and it’s one of the things about the script that makes it feel like the jumble it was said to be back in the 80s. Certainly it feels like Brooks was more interested in exploring the goings-on at the White House than in establishing any plausible satire of a television newsroom and this has to be considered a main failing of the film. At the very least, the film has a amazing cast, many of whom well-used, including John Saxon, Robert Conrad, George Grizzard, Katharine Ross, Henry Silva (again!), Dean Stockwell, Rosalind Cash, Hardy Kruger, G.D. Spradlin, Robert Webber, Leslie Nielsen and a very young-looking Jennifer Jason Leigh.

John Saxon turned up for a Q&A after the film in which he commented on how the studio essentially buried the film because it was thought that it was too far out. I might have asked a question, but I honestly felt a little flummoxed by the whole thing. Good or bad, it’s tough to get a full handle on what WRONG IS RIGHT is. The world has gone beyond the supposed comic lunacy portrayed here which means that it almost can’t be considered a comedy anymore. So, what exactly is it? I’m still not sure.

The second half of the double bill was advertised as a “Secret Movie” and it was a pleasant surprise when it turned out to be Dante’s own THE SECOND CIVIL WAR, a film he made for HBO about ten years ago but since it was released theatrically in Europe he fortunately has a 35mm print of it to screen. Set “sometime in the near future”, the plot deals with the Governor of Idaho (Beau Bridges in an Emmy-winning performance) choosing to close the borders of his state as a wave of Pakistani orphans are about to arrive after a nuclear attack has occurred. Meanwhile, the Governor is attempting to deal with the breakdown of his affair with a Hispanic television reporter (Elizabeth Pena) who is herself dealing with the head of her own network (Dan Hedaya) who has his own hands full covering the situation. The president (Phil Hartman) is also monitoring things with opinions coming at him from all sides, the most persuasive voice coming from a fat-cat lobbyist (James Coburn). Meanwhile, as the situation on the Idaho border, being covered by a hot-shot producer for the news network (Denis Leary), grows more tense, the possibility that a second Civil War could break out begins to become very real.

“When I saw it in 1982 I said, “I don’t get it. It’s just a bunch of… stuff. But now all that stuff has coalesced into our dangerous present. There’s so many elements of this picture that ring true today that I really think it’s worth rediscovering.” That’s Dante speaking about WRONG IS RIGHT in the interview on Dennis Cozzalio’s excellent site Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. I quote that here because I can vaguely recall an “It’s just a bunch of stuff” reaction to Dante’s own film about a decade ago. But now, as Fox News has taken hold and elements of the world becoming more and more insane, much of it has not only gotten funnier, it’s gotten darker as well. Technology advancements aside, THE SECOND CIVIL WAR has aged in a way that is almost frighteningly close to reality. And unlike WRONG IS RIGHT it feels crystal clear in terms of what it truly wants to say. The movie becomes shockingly serious as it goes on, but it doesn’t take an abrupt turn to do so. In retrospect, I can pick out how it gradually darkens from broad comedy to a very dark look at the future. Which maybe now is closer than we realize.

In his introduction, Dante called it “the best cast I ever worked with” and a remarkable cast it is. In addition to Bridges, Hedaya, Hartman, Pena and Coburn, there is also excellent work from Joanna Cassidy, James Earl Jones, Denis Leary, Ron Perlman, Kevin Dunn, William Schallert, Kevin McCarthy, Brian Keith, Roger Corman (as a network exec complaining about the budget, of course), Jerry Hardin, the expected appearances of Dick Miller and Robert Picardo, along with many others. All of the names are well-used and it’s great to see such people involved in a comedy with such serious issues on its mind.

WRONG IS RIGHT was made when studios would still occasionally attempt a serious comedy for adults. By the time THE SECOND CIVIL WAR was made, that concept was beginning to be relegated to cable, where by now this sort of thing is becoming a rarity as well. It’s a shame and I really wish that Dante could make more films like this one. WRONG IS RIGHT may be more interesting than good, but THE SECOND CIVIL WAR is terrific and by the end of the evening I felt charged from watching two movies about media and the world which at least seemed interested in the exchange of ideas. On Saturday I stopped in at Amoeba records and found myself right next to an array of protesters picketing CNN over things Jack Cafferty had recently said about China. Right then I felt like I was back in the middle of that double feature. That’s what the near future looks like in the year 2008.

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