Saturday, March 17, 2012

Canadian Front 2012: SUNFLOWER HOUR (2011)

After sitting through Sunflower Hour, the debut feature from Aaron Houston, it might be safe to say that it's about time for filmmakers, both commercial and independent, to retire the mockumentary. Traced back to Albert Brooks' Real Life (1979) and the many films of Christopher Guest, who transformed the style into an art form, pop culture has officially overdosed on shaky-cam, zoom-happy comic confessionals to a probing fake documentary crew. While popular TV sitcoms like "Modern Family", "The Office", and "Parks and Recreation" continue to flourish in the format, big-screen comedies seem stuck in mockumentary auto-pilot, which is the chief problem of many with Houston's film.

The premise of Sunflower Hour is simple enough: a popular Canadian children's TV show, produced by a former porno mogul, is seeking a new puppeteer and a camera crew is hired to document the contest. The four finalists are made up of a closet case (Patrick Gilmore, with a permanent grin on his face) attempting to appeal to his conservative preacher father, a goth high school girl who has adopted the pseudonym Satan's Spawn (Kacey Rohl in an effective performance), an Irish loser with an unhealthy attachment to the leprechaun puppet that never leaves his hand (Ben Cotton), and a genuinely talented geek (Amitai Marmorstein) tortured by his older brothers for his less-than-hip hobby. Comic gold? Not really. One of the benefits of the mockumentary style is bringing the audience closer to the characters on-screen, as we learn about their private lives and develop attachments to them. This doesn't happen in Sunflower Hour. The film is practically bereft of likable, original characters, which wouldn't be such a hindrance if they just weren't that funny, either.

This isn't to say that Sunflower Hour isn't without its bright moments, often found in the casting. Rohl is quite good, even playing such a predictable character, and Johannah Newmarch is appropriately dry as the jaded double-penetration video star now charged with the task of recruiting a new puppeteer. Amitai Marmorstein tries really hard, and shows some promise. The most memorable element of the film, for me, is the use of plentiful KPM library music, an effective cost-cutting move; the TV show's theme song is Johnny Pearson's "Pop March", most familiar from the Russ Meyer films Cherry, Harry & Raquel (1969) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). Thankfully the soundtrack was a pleasant distraction from the predictable shenanigans. A mere handful of outrageously hilarious moments, the best of which occurs during Gilmore's homophobic audition piece, doesn't make the entire feature worth your time.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

"You're a goddamn Young American Miss" - Michael Ritchie's SMILE (1975)

Anthology Film Archives, coinciding with their "Written by John Sayles" series, asked the veteran writer-director to select four films he felt were sterling examples of the art of screenwriting. Two Martin Ritt films (1967's Hombre and 1979's Norma Rae) were paired with two by the ever-underrated Michael Ritchie. Ritchie's The Candidate (1972) won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, but his follow-up, Smile (1975), sank like a stone at the box office and has attracted little attention since. Seeing the film on Anthology's schedule sent my heart soaring, hoping an audience of appreciative viewers would be eager to discover this buried American treasure. Sadly, the theater seats were mostly empty tonight, as I imagine they were in 1975. Released the same year as Nashville, Jaws, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, it's not surprising a film like Smile was glossed over at the time. But it's a tragedy that one of the greatest American films of the 1970s continues to be one that so few people have seen.

The plot synopsis of Smile might be considered simplistic. Ritchie's film takes place over a week in Santa Rosa, California, where a group of teenage girls come together to compete for the title of Young American Miss. Nestled in a straight-forward comic script about a small-town beauty pageant is an inspired commentary on social performance and the importance of ritual in American society of the 1970s, illustrated through the various teenage contestants, as well as the adults and children whose lives are touched and, in some cases, consumed by the pageant.

Pulling the strings behind the event is Brenda DiCarlo (Barbara Feldon, 'Agent 99' on Get Smart), an organization dynamo whose motto is "Keep smiling!" Her dedication to the pageant's unchallenged success distracts her from coming home to face her crumbling marriage to Andy (Nicholas Pryor), a trophy business owner who is growing increasingly disenchanted with the superficial happiness of suburbia. Andy's best friend is "Big Bob" Freelander (Bruce Dern, in one of his finest performances), Santa Rosa's celebrity used car salesman and chief judge of the pageant. His son, "Little Bob" Freelander (The Poseidon Adventure's Eric Shea), is an enterprising capitalist, realizing the business potential of the pageant and recruiting his two buddies to build a nude contestant Polaroid empire in the middle school yard. Enlisted to teach the girls to sing and dance is professional choreographer Tommy French (the late real-life choreographer Michael Kidd), who goes head-to-head over budget concerns with Jaycees adviser Wilson Shears (Geoffrey Lewis).

The Young American Miss contestants (theatrical lobby card)

The Young American Miss contestants are a fascinating bunch of ladies, best described by their talents. The opening scene introduces us to Connie (Colleen Camp, the year after her starring role in The Swinging Cheerleaders), whose talent is packing a suitcase. An astute sitcom writer recycled this joke in an episode of Parks and Recreation recently. Dizzy Shirley (Denise Nickerson, 'Violet Beauregard' in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) sings a seasonal medley; Maria (Maria O'Brien) is the ambitious Mexican-American who makes endless guacamole dip to butter up the judges and who has a flaming baton act to die for; Judy (Kate Sarchet) does Lily Tomlin and 'Edith Bunker' impersonations; among the many musical acts, Helga (Caroline Williams, later of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) plays the French horn; we never see Karen (Melanie Griffith)'s talents, but the fact that the actress went on to bigger and better things helps her stand out. Let's not forget the accordion player, the Shakespearean actress, and the Tiki dancer, either. But the moral center of the line-up is Robin (Joan Prather), a naive but perceptive girl from a one-parent household who functions as the eyes of the audience, her reactions to the falsities of pageant politics echoing our amusement and disbelief. Her roommate, Doria (Annette O'Toole), is the yin to her yang, a grizzled beauty pageant veteran at 17 who knows all the tricks of the trade and takes it upon herself to educate Robin in "the way things work."

It's a little too pat to say Smile is a satire of beauty pageants, as cult classic Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999), which borrows heavily from Ritchie's film, is. While the pageant makes up the meat of the narrative, the concepts of public performance and social ritual are at the core of screenwriter Jerry Belson's near-perfect script. Post-Watergate films in the 1970s began to play with the idea of dismantling and questioning roles and institutions in the American social scheme. Everyone in Smile is playing a role. Brenda "keeps smiling" in public to hide her shame at being married to an alcoholic, the contestants put Vaseline on their teeth to keep their facade of smiling teenage beauty and perfection intact, and the men in town are all members of a social group, the Bears. Challengers to "the way things work" or "should be" are viewed with suspicion or dismay. When the Polaroid scheme of "Little Bob" & Co. is discovered, his father's solution to the problem is to send the young boy to a psychiatrist, his adolescent interest in the opposite sex an indicator of perversion in need of suburban suppression. During the judges' interview of the contestants, Robin has to be coaxed by Bob to properly answer the questions as the judges wish, focusing on helping others and the greater good over personal gratification. Town drunk Andy is, in fact, wise to the ridiculousness of participating in the group rituals of the Bears, namely a coming-of-age ceremony wherein 35-year-old men-children are made to kiss the ass of a dead chicken.

Bruce Dern as "Big Bob" Freelander (theatrical lobby card)

Performances in the film are all-around superb, but special attention should be paid to Bruce Dern, Joan Prather, and Annette O'Toole. Their characters are the most central in Belson's social commentary, and all three performers give some of the strongest work of their careers. As the most recognizable face in the cast, Dern is amusingly cast against type as the used car dealer approaching his job as chief pageant judge with deep seriousness. We sympathize with Dern's Bob, his good nature winning us over as it wins over his customers and the people of Santa Rosa. The key moment in his relationship with best friend Andy is when he visits him in jail, after the drunk takes a shot at his wife with a pistol. After spouting "Up with People" rhetoric from the Young American Miss brochure to Andy in an attempt to cheer him up, Andy calls Bob on his bullshit. He finally sums up Bob in one simple phrase: "You're a goddamn Young American Miss!" Bob is stunned into virtual silence for the remainder of the film. The mirror has been put in front of him and he finally sees the inherent phoniness in being "Big Bob" Freelander, used car salesman, doting husband in a loveless marriage, active member of the Bears. None of it means anything, much like the pageant ultimately means nothing to its eventual winner's existence. After the pageant is over, Bob attempts to engage other ritual participants, the color guards removing the flags from the auditorium, and they ignore him in favor of discussing one of the teen girls' impressive bosoms.

Robin (Joan Prather) during the judges' interview

Playing Robin as a complex girl learning the ropes and not sure she's enjoying the lessons, Prather is an impressive ingenue who, surprisingly, went on to very little of note outside of a recurring gig on Eight is Enough. She's reportedly the person who introduced John Travolta to Scientology after the two met on the set of the enjoyable Devil's Rain (1975). Robin is, at face value, a naive newcomer to the pageant world, as we the audience are, but she makes increasingly wise observations as her character progresses. When Doria makes the argument that "boys get scholarships for making a lot of touchdowns, why shouldn't a girl get one for being cute and charming", Robin quizzically ponders, "Yeah but...maybe boys shouldn't be getting money for making touchdowns..." And then there's Doria. O'Toole seems to be having a ball with this character. She dumbs herself down when talking with the dirty old men ogling her at luncheons and regales Robin with a rather heartbreaking tale of winning Miss Teen Complexion, a contest given in a hotel room by a horny pedophile dermatologist. Doria does reveal how bright she really is during her performance piece in the talent portion of the contest. While Robin is learning how ridiculous the politics of pageantry truly are, Doria comprehends this concept all too well. The sexual appeal of pageants is winked at by some of the men in the film, and wholeheartedly embraced by Little Bob, but Doria's performance is essentially a strategically patriotic strip tease. It is a brilliant move on the character's part because it appeals to the men in the audience who wants to see her disrobe while also appealing to the women who want a beautiful girl to acknowledge the importance of inner beauty.

There are so many wonderful scenes in Smile, but one is a particular favorite, the aforementioned judges' interview scene. Seated in a semi-circle, the judges essentially cross-examine each girl with a line of questions ranging from "Why do you enjoy your talent?" to "What would you like to be when you grow up?" A montage of the contestants answering the questions reveals they all have one thing in common: they apparently all want to help people. When Robin takes the hot seat, she does not adapt well to the aura of the room. Ritchie places Prather in shadow, not to paint her in a sinister fashion, but to make her practically unknowable to the judges. Her answers puzzle them. When asked "Did you find it hard to work and also go to school?", her simple answer is, "Of course." Bob softly guides her through prodding and gentle words to finally giving them what they want. An expert at playing the role of who people want him to be, he is the best teacher to help Robin adopt the Young American Miss character she seems uncertain she wants to inhabit.

Ritchie injects some brilliant little moments into the pageant brouhaha. Cutaways to little girls imitating the "Ol' Bamboo" routine and old women oohing and aahing over the girls on-stage create a lineage of women, from childhood to the golden years, participating in the ritualized spectacle. After the winners are announced and the curtains close, the camera lingers on the previous Young American Miss California, tears staining her face, as she stands forgotten back-stage, surrounded but ignored by the excited new champions and their well-wishers. Robin sees the "has-been", as former winners are called throughout the film, and it dawns on her that the ritual is over and the lessons she learned from the experience are more valuable than how to answer questions correctly and how to impress the men around her in hopes of winning money and prizes. She is reborn as tomorrow's woman, embracing her mother, who has raised her alone, and leaving Doria with a trophy in her arms and a wistful look on her face. It's moments like this that make Ritchie and Belson's collaboration so special. Nat "King" Cole's "Smile", book-ending the film with its lyrical request to "Smile, though your heart is aching, smile even though it's breaking," is an ode to the ritualistic nature of American life, the subject of such beautiful pointed satire in not only one of the best features of 1975, but of the entire damn decade.

Go to 18:00 in this Barbara Feldon interview to hear her memories of making Smile with Michael Ritchie.