Saturday, March 5, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part VII, and Robert Zemeckis, part II: Is there anything honorable to destroy in Los Angeles?


The movie that finally explains why Spielberg finds it worthwhile to produce the Transformers franchise—besides those many hundreds of millions of dollars, anyway.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and John Milius
With Bobby Di Cicco (Wally Stephens), Dianne Kay (Betty Douglas), Treat Williams (Cpl. Chuck "Stretch" Sitarksi), Ned Beatty (Ward Douglas), Lorraine Gray (Joan Douglas), Sgt. Frank Tree (Dan Akroyd), John Candy (Pvt. Foley), Frank McRae (Pvt. Jones), Tim Matheson (Capt. Loomis Birkhead), Nancy Allen (Donna Stratton), Robert Stack (Gen. Joseph Stilwell), John Belushi (Capt. "Wild" Bill Kelso), Christopher Lee (Capt. Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt), and Toshiro Mifune (Cmdr. Akiro Mitamura)

Spoiler alert: mild

1941 is one of Steven Spielberg's three or four outliers—the movies which achieved pretty much nothing in terms of advancing their maker's legacy.  It was a deep financial disappointment.  It was critically panned.  And even now, thirty-seven years and one extended cut of the film later, you still have to look pretty damned long and hard to find someone who actually likes it—and Amazon blu-ray reviews don't count, given that they're from the self-selecting group of total weirdos who actually purchased this thing, with money.

Anyway, I don't like 1941 very much either, and yet for the first hour and a half, I was honestly wondering what the big problem with it was: it's goofy as shit, naturally, but it's also lively, and while something of a hot mess—mostly in a charming way—it had not yet become the fucked to death pile of burning garbage that characterizes its final phase.  Okay: this vastly overstates my feelings on the matter, but blame 1941 if I need to shout and swear, because I have no idea how else to be heard over the unending shriekiness of 1941's third act—or twenty-third act, really, but who's counting?

This is where we note that the version of 1941 available today and the one released theatrically in 1979 are two very different things, the former being a half-hour longer due to the restoration of a great number of little scenes, which Universal had demanded a flummoxed Spielberg cut from his picture.  The upshot is that the Extended Cut takes 28 minutes longer to end; whereas the Theatrical Cut, I presume, must be perilously close to wall-to-wall zany screaming.  However, having screened the longer cut, it's impossible not to recognize the rock and a hard place the Universal suits had found themselves between, and sympathize with their predicament.

But hark!  Did I say "zany screaming"?  That must mean we've finally gotten back to our other ongoing retrospective.  With apologies for skipping over this entry into their filmography, we once again find ourselves returning to those legendary Two Bobs—Zemeckis and Gale, Spielberg's proteges—whose veritable trademark, in these early days, was the kind of abiding zaniness that is measured best with three whole digits' worth of decibels.  The production history of 1941 can be quickly dispensed with: the Two Bobs had written a screenplay (which Red Dawn's John Milius subsequently punched up with more explosions), and Spielberg, who had nothing lined up after Close Encounters, simply shrugged, and put his friends' script into production.  He quickly received the blessing of Universal, who had made a zillion dollars with Jaws.  Wishing to do so again, they naturally gave Spielberg carte blanche to do whatever he wanted.

And 1941 turned out to be an indulgence on truly colossal scale; yet one gets the impression that this indulgence was mainly for the sake of Zemeckis and Gale.  It's actually kind of sweet when you approach it from a distance—the Two Bobs' first film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, had tanked (their next, Used Cars, would fare little better), and so clearly Spielberg wanted to deliver his friends a real hit, made in their own particular idiom.  Unfortunately, in the watching, while 1941 certainly feels all of a piece with itself, you can just palpably feel Spielberg's confusion with the material and the required Zemeckian style.  It's such an incredibly uncontrolled work—likely the most anarchic film he ever made.  Even in something like Jaws, where Spielberg had clearly bitten off more than he could chew (forgive the pun), he still wasn't so obviously ready to just surrender his ability to shape the footage he got into a coherent whole.  But then, it probably really is easier to fight against a giant robot shark than fight your warm feelings for your two buds.

It has to be admitted, though: there's a certain inutterable delight in watching a dumbassed comedy like this one just burn through so much Goddamned money—between the vintage aircraft, tanks, and cars, the extensive model work, and the fact that virtually every last thing we see in the entire film gets blown up, 1941 certainly puts its budget on the screen.  But, sadly, there is an absolute surfeit of moments where Spielberg, and his editor Michael Kahn, quite clearly throw their hands in the air, and simply let the shots fall where they may.  And by the final forty-five minutes, which are one giant chase scene, inelegant editing is about all 1941 has left.

He's aiming for the negative!

The plot is a difficult wrangle, so forgive me if I treat it with broad strokes.  Until the finale makes its attempt to tie all the various stories together, what we're looking at in 1941 is something like four or five different intersecting arcs, united in tone, but often hacked up so completely that when we do return to (for example) the story of the Japanese submarine, we've practically forgotten that a Japanese submarine is even what the movie is nominally about.

So: it's 1941, of course—December 1941, to be precise—and the Japanese Empire has inspired terror up and down the whole West Coast.  The seat of fear must be Los Angeles itself, where the city's uniformly stupid inhabitants currently expect an attack at any moment.  This has led to a great deal of false alarms, but in the midst of the panic, a real Japanese sub actually surfaces off the coast, its commander dead-set on attacking the city in order to attain the honor he was denied at Pearl Harbor.  (Incidentally, this movie is either mildly racist, or it is incredibly racist; and your estimation of just how racist it is depends on your tolerance for the 1,001 period-appropriate "Japs!" that get thrown around during the proceedings, along with its historically-precise but frustrating lack of engagement with what Japanese-Americans were going to go through just a few short weeks later.)

The sub commander engages in petty arguments about these plans with the Japanese Navy's guest, an observer from the German Kriegsmarine—and, yes, the fact that there are both IJN and KM officers in this movie about the War in the Pacific gives us an immediate taste of how unbelievably overstuffed everything is soon going to get.  Either way, the Japanese are here to raise some hell, and target Hollywood itself—but when their compass breaks, they also have a heckuva time trying to find it.  (You know, for my money, the best gag in the whole movie is when a landing party, "descended from ninjas," sneak through the countryside to find a guide, all while disguised as Christmas trees.)

Am I a terrible person?  Let me know.

But while Toshiro Mifune plots our downfall from beneath the waves, we meet a whole host of other colorful characters, too.  The most important of these is Wally, a young man who has failed to volunteer, and whose indifference to the war with Germany and Japan gets him into an immediate scrape with his nemesis, a dickheaded Army corporal nicknamed "Stretch."  Their enmity is only deepened when Stretch gets it in his head that Wally's lady friend is his girl.  You win no points for guessing that this plot culminates in a cartoonish rape attempt, and that Wally subsequently discovers that serving his country is pretty cool too—a turn which partly eviscerates the madcap anti-war themes of the film, sure.  But since it also gives Spielberg his opportunity to talk about how awesome it would be if we could all team up to fight fascism, it isn't that bad of a message, and thus it's easy enough going down.

And then there are all the rest: "Wild" Bill Kelso, the insane rogue P-40 pilot; Captain Birkhead, a lothario; Donna Stratton, Birkhead's feminine target du jour, a woman who literally wants to fuck WWII-era airplanes, the bigger the better, and therefore a woman after my own heart; Sgt. Frank Tree, who keeps decrying all the self-defeating public hysteria while dealing with it in the most incompetent manner possible; and General Stilwell himself, the only even-keeled motherfucker in all California.  Oh, there are still about two dozen further members of 1941's dramatis personae—look at that Goddamned cast list at the top if you don't believe me, and it is not exhaustive—but just reciting their roles and functions would already take us far beyond our word limit.

I basically just wanted to mention that this is the movie where Nancy Allen's panties start to melt whenever she gets around a B-17.

I'd love to say that if you're on 1941's wavelength, you'll have a good time, but I'm not at all sure I can: see, I was on 1941's wavelength for the first three-fifths of the picture, and still I wound up with exceedingly ambivalent feelings about it.  But the thing is this: if you like Zemeckis-and-Gale-style zaniness, only directed with a slightly surer hand for comedic pacing (and cinematic pacing in general) than Zemeckis evinced in his first film—and perhaps in his second film as well—then the first three-fifths of Spielberg's movie are pretty much golden.  Not every joke lands—the opening riff on Jaws is flat, for example, and the bit where the Japanese need to make Slim Pickens poop (roll with it) seems to go on forever—but there's always a new joke to replace the duds, and some of them are genuinely fantastic, while also serving a real point.  You see, 1941 devotes itself in a rather admirable way to running its pyrotechnic-laced physical comedy as a commentary on the terrifying effects of paranoia in wartime.  (Something which I suspect works much better in a post-9/11 world than it ever could have in 1979.)  But everything that's honestly kind of great about 1941 seems to reach an absolute crescendo during the USO dance, the clear centerpiece of the film, which in fact does take place in the center of the film.  It's also quite obviously the one sequence in the film where Spielberg exceeds mere cool competence and really enjoyed what he was making.

Or maybe it's just that big band music makes any live action Tex Avery cartoon just a little zippier.

After that, things seem to come to a thematic conclusion with Sgt. Tree's big speech about coming together.  And it is unmistakable: this feels like the end of the movie.  But that three-quarters-of-an-hour-long chase is still waiting for us—and it is bludgeoning.  It is so long, so inexpertly cross-cut, and so chocked full of so many different characters, doing so many different things, so stupidly, and so fucking quickly, that it all becomes nothing but an assaultive blur of blaring action.  And even the good jokes that remain in this dire mix all get chopped up, largely bled dry of their humor.

1941 wraps up well enough, though, with one of its most enjoyable and iconic gags; and there's nothing really that wrong with any of its many, many moving parts on an individual basis—it's just that they keep smashing into one another, destroying the machine while its creator was still trying to build it.  That it was met with hostility in 1979 is hardly any kind of surprise, insofar as even the uncut version still ends up disastrous.  Furthermore, it might well be the ugliest movie Spielberg ever made, even including his late-career forays into self-parody with Janusz Kaminski: William Fraker might have some solid entries on his resume (Rosemary's Baby, Bullitt), but many cinematographers great and small alike were brought low in the late 70s and early 80s by daylight glare, and Fraker is surely no exception.  Until night falls on L.A., this movie is simply inexplicably unpleasant to look at, harsh and sun-smashed in all the wrong ways, especially given that it's a stupid slapstick comedy.  (And night's not even that much better.)

But luckily for Spielberg and Zemeckis and Gale—and luckily for everybody—they'd come back stronger.  The Two Bobs had Used Cars in front of them; and after that, they at long last made a movie that people paid any kind of money to go see.  As for Spielberg—well, Spielberg was about to make one of the greatest movies of all time, so we can surely cut him a little slack on this one.

Score:  5.01/10


  1. I absolutely refuse to cut Mr Spielberg some slack on this one because it strikes me as in general one of the most appalling wastes of time and talent put to the Silver Screen: reading something about the production history of this film makes me suspect that it badly needed somebody who could, and would, do with the director & scriptwriter(s) what Mr Tohsirio Mifune did with his submarine crew.


    Quite frankly the Good Bits (and, as you note, there ARE good bits) just make me all the more angry that the rest of the film was allowed to become such a slovenly tangle of half-baked notions that one can only just see the glories that might have been through the jumble (For my money, the best version of this piece would have started and finished in Serious War Epic mode - with the middle pure cartoon anarchy in Live Action - rather than starting looney and thrashing about in various registers of slapstick thereafter: in fact I would have suggested more systematic use of actual historic figures as the Eye of the Storm around which cartoon lunacy can revolve, all the better to give audiences a chance to get their bearings and get a little rest from some rather overpowering buffoonery*).

    *There’s a bit of this in the deployment of General Stilwell, which is why he’s objectively one of the Best bits in the picture, but I’m not sure he’s used to his fullest advantage.

    Anyway, to get back to my original point, I refuse to cut Mr Spielberg slack over this film precisely because his next one proves that he **** well knew better!

    1. Yeah, the last time I rewatched Raiders I was struck by how it's not a complete departure for 1941 (though the least successful things in Raiders, notably the first part of the Cairo brawl, are what resemble 1941 the most). But it's like Spielberg had a much steadier hand for it. I'll cut him some slack because it's kind of his very first proper action movie (in an era where he was, somewhat, inventing the modern action movie). Though it's definitely sloppy.

      After all these years, however, I *still* need to watch the theatrical cut to see if distilling this, even roughly, is to its benefit. And I really should, considering I've owned the blu-ray for like five years with that specific purpose in mind.

    2. (I mean, there's Duel and parts of Jaws, but these are more "thrillers" than "action," a very, very nebulous distinction, I agree.)

    3. The line between ‘Action’ and ‘Thriller’ can be a very fine one, it’s true - though to my mind the best of their breed are very distinct, since a Thriller’s raison d’etre is to chill your blood, while a good Action Movie’s purpose in existence is to turn the heat all the way up! (-;

    4. "Fine" is true enough: I mean, what is Predator?