One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic
journey through the early days of the pandemic
By Laurence Lerman
The Northeast COVID-19 quarantine was still a week away in early March when the first “Movies To Watch During the Pandemic” lists began to roll out. There weren’t many surprises in those early breakdowns—Contagion, anyone?—or even in the subsequent tip sheets, which ranged from the obvious (film-fests divided by genre, star, filmmaker) to the outlandish (films that begin with the letter P, sub-genres and sub-sub-genres along the lines of “top hand-drawn animated WWII films,” like Isao Takahata’s 1988 Grave of the Fireflies).
For my part, I consciously avoided the lists and prepared myself to be open to a kind of stream-of-consciousness curating should an opportunity for increased movie-watching be upon me. And so, it began upon my wife and I returning to our Jersey City home on the night of March 3 following an evening of jazz at the 44th Street incarnation of the legendary Birdland—our final trip to the city before the shutdown began.
Free my mind, I said to myself…and the films will follow.
I had recently bumped into a Woody Allen interview on YouTube from 2010 conducted by filmmaker Robert Weide, who asked him to name a film he always has to defend liking. Woody’s response was the Bob Hope starrer Casanova’s Big Night from 1954, which I only knew as a costume romp that was said to be the forerunner to Woody’s Love and Death. This would be a good place to start.
A lush Technicolor romp, Casanova’s Big Night finds Hope as a bumbling tailor who impersonates the renowned Italian lover, mostly to woo Joan Fontaine’s dignified, well-coiffed widow. Inked by two of Hope’s regular writers, Hal Kanter and Edmund Hartmann, the film is overflowing with one-liners that include Fontaine cooing to Hope that his lips are on fire and him responding, “I know. Saves a fortune on matches.”
I was never all that well-versed in Bob Hope films. Outside of the awful Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell, which I saw as an 11-year-old one Saturday afternoon in the early Seventies as part of a local matinee “kiddie show,” along with a handful of Hope & Crosby “Road” films, the biggest impression he had made on me was his cameo in 1985’s Spies Like Us.
Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd star in the John Landis-directed comedy, an homage to those aforementioned “Road” movies. Spies plays like The Road to the Soviet Union as Chevy and Dan’s decoy operatives bumble their way across the Pamir Mountains and manage to detonate a Soviet ICBM—but not before having sex with a Soviet counterpart and an American spy before the world almost ends.
A funny bit here and there and a bunch of inside joke cameos by filmmakers like Terry Gilliam, Sam Raimi and Costa-Gavras can’t save this one, which was originally written by Aykroyd and Dave Thomas to star Aykroyd and John Belushi. Chevy’s wiseguy smarm and silliness don’t work in Spies Like Us, not like it did in Season One of Saturday Night Live or his hits Vacation, Caddyshack and Fletch. I remembered how I had never actually never seen one of his notorious earlier entries, that critical and commercial disaster about a bunch of Little People who come to Hollywood to play Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. I’d heard a lot about it though…
Under the Rainbow from 1981 features Chevy, Carrie Fisher, Alan Arkin, Eve Arden and more than 100 diminutive performers who descend on the appropriately named Hotel Rainbow across from the studio where Oz is about to begin production. Chevy is a Secret Service agent, Fisher a studio assistant, Arden a near-sighted Duchess and the great Billy Barty is a Nazi agent on an undercover mission in Hollywood to procure a top secret map of America’s defense system. Would you believe me if I told you that wackiness ensues?
Hectically directed by Steve Rash from actor/writer Pat McCormick’s screwball script, Under the Rainbow worked for me—there’re enough frenetic chandelier-swinging, banister-sliding sequences and Tinseltown jokes to make up for the lack of chemistry between Chevy and Carrie. It inspired me to revisit what might be my favorite film to feature little people: Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 The Silence, the third film in what Bergman-ites consider to be the filmmaker’s “Trilogy of Faith” (following 1960’s Through a Glass Darkly and 1963’s Winter Light).
Stunningly shot in black-and-white by Sven Nykvist, this one’s a psychological drama (from Bergman—who woulda thunk it?!) that focuses on the troubled relationship between sisters Ester and Anna (Gunnel Lindblom and Ingrid Thulin) as they travel across an unnamed European country on the brink of war. Stopped at a hotel, Anna’s young son wanders about the hotel’s hallways, at one point stumbling upon a group of well-dressed, card-playing, cigar-smoking Spanish little people who are part of a traveling carnival. They’re actually having a grand old time in their suite—far friskier than any of the characters in Bergman’s “Faith Trilogy”—which they try to impart onto the boy. It’s a memorably light moment in one of Bergman’s most intense chamber dramas.
But it didn’t feature Max von Sydow, a key player in Bergman’s company who appeared in eleven of his films, including such Fifties landmarks as The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960). If I was going Bergman, von Sydow deserved some attention, particularly as he had died that very week at the age of 90. I then settled on The Passion of Anna from 1969, Max’s penultimate collaboration with Bergman (1971’s The Touch was still to follow) and one that I had never seen.
Also shot by Bergman’s go-to DP Nykvist in the muted color palette for which he was known in the 1970s (ever seen Polanski’s 1976 The Tenant or Louis Malle’s 1978 Pretty Baby?), The Passion of Anna finds the emotionally desolate Max living alone following the end of his marriage and meeting Liv Ullman, who’s still mourning the recent deaths of her husband and son in a car crash. Bergman regulars Bibi Andersson and Erland Josephson are also on hand for this one, a sadly engaging tale on overcoming grief, seeking truth and suppressing desire. Like many of Bergman’s films of this period, Passion was produced on the island of Fårö in the Swedish archipelago, where he had lived and worked for years. Though the island is a popular summer resort, there’s nary a beach to be seen anywhere in Passion. Seeking out some sand, I moved on to Hell in the Pacific, John Boorman’s 1968 World War II adventure starring Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune.
A tropically infused two-hander that could be considered the social distancing event of its day, Marvin and Mifune go to Hell as two unnamed servicemen, an American pilot and a Japanese naval officer, who are stranded on a small uninhabited Pacific island. War might be raging all around them, but after going a few rounds, the two realize that they’re going to have to put their own personal war to the side and cooperate if they hope to survive. As he was to re-confirm several years later with 1972’s Deliverance, Boorman knows what he’s doing when he’s wrangling the manliest of men in the great outdoors—and, in this case, in a largely dialogue-free beach romp.
Seeking some more relaxed fun in the sun—I reasoned that a bikini or two wouldn’t hurt after watching two middle-aged actors duking it out on the shoreline—I remembered the 1978 TV movie Zuma Beach starring Suzanne Somers. It first aired as she was on the cusp of super-duper stardom in Three’s Comedy, which had premiered the year before.
Written by John Carpenter (!) before he ascended into the horrors of Halloween and The Fog, Zuma stars Suzanne as a rock star (or so we’re told—we never see her perform) in a career slide who looks to clear her head and seek inspiration at the titular sandy playground. There, she enjoys some swimming, sand castle-building, chicken fights, beach volleyball and chilidogs with a slew of hormonal high schoolers played by a number of fresh faces who went on to become familiar in subsequent decades, including P.J. Soles, Tim Hutton, Rosanna Arquette, Steven Keats, Tanya Roberts and Michael Biehn (seven years before he would travel across time to save Sarah Connor in The Terminator). How do the kids know Suzanne is Serious with a capital “S”? Because she’s wearing a one-piece, of course…
As a faux Beach Boys song underscored Zuma’s end credits score and eased me out of an hour-and-a-half of the lithe Ms. Sommers and company’s cavorting in the waves, I was reminded of Michael Biehn’s co-starring turn as Demi Moore’s husband in the 1988 apocalyptic end-of-days drama The Seventh Sign. I was about to track it down but just as quickly reconsidered; at this point, a week and change into lockdown, who needs to stream the end of the world as we know it? Right outside the door I can catch apocalypse now.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about.