“The World According to Garp, 1982”

“It can be a real adventure having a life.”

The World According to Garp, 1982 (Robin Williams), Warner Bros.

What is a “Garp?” According to Hume Cronyn (when informed of his grandson’s name), it sounds like a fish. He’s off by a consonant, but if the other side of the glass in his particular fishbowl is the world, it’s a world T.S. Garp is never permitted to enjoy. Various attempts to improve his condition are undermined by his attention-seeking mother, Jenny Fields (Glenn Close), who is inspired by Garp’s desire to become a writer by writing her own book – a speculative satire/self-help tome titled, A Sexual Suspect, that becomes an enormous hit and solidifies her status as a cult-like leader to millions of disenfranchised women all over the world.

Meanwhile, Garp marries and has children with high school sweetheart, Helen (Mary Beth Hurt), and tries to further his own writing career, but is overshadowed by Jenny at every turn. Interestingly, her legion of dedicated followers greet Garp with nothing but disgust, marginalization, and objectification due to his status as a man. These are oddly prescient themes in 2017; those that define themselves by their identities, lack of perceived privilege or status have now become the spirituous bullies of others. One does not have to imagine Garp’s frustration in his world to understand what he is feeling. Unfortunately, Irving’s story lacks a strong narrative focus, but this has always been a failing of his fiction.

In John Irving’s estimation, we (as characters) are tiny little chess pieces inhabiting an immense board. For every decision that Garp makes in the story is based upon the reactions or anticipation of either fellow characters (or pieces) observing him or situations that have arisen without his knowledge or consent. Aside from one tragic incident occuring later in the story, he is essentially blameless in everything that occurs. At least that’s how I interpret the story. There is a forever changing and evolving world, and then there are the forced masses, chained to ideals or weighed down by family that keep us stationary and stagnant. Garp is the embodiment of this stagnation.

Aside from the curious disconnect between the story’s collection of eccentric characters and the audience, Garp is a fascinating, unforgettable personal journey into one man’s private Hell. Robin Williams (in an early strong, dramatic performance) is immensely watchable, even as he tries to give us some distance from his comedic stage work. He’s not quite there yet as a credible dramatic lead. I think Williams learns more from his capacity for humor in creating a dramatic performance than the other way around. For reference, consider Good Morning Vietnam and Good Will Hunting and compare those characters to Garp. You’ll be surprised to see how much he had evolved as an actor.

Glenn Close gives the keynote performance for the film. The characters shift and the narrative turns on her character’s every decision. In fact, she’s so good in this movie that I absolutely hate her. She creates such a real person in the midst of all the catharsis that you’ll swear she’s a member of your own family. She has this irritating pleasantness and a robotic smile that you feel she’s patronizing her sycophants in addition to her family. Strangely, the most sympathetic performance in the film comes from John Lithgow portraying Roberta Muldoon, a one-time football star who had a sex-change operation and must negotiate the waters of her own fishbowl as “she” tries to connect with fellow human beings in a cruel, prejudiced world.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

“The Trouble With Harry, 1955”

“He’s asleep. He’s in a deep sleep. A deep, wonderful sleep.”

The Trouble with Harry, 1955 (John Forsythe), Paramount Pictures

Young Jerry Mathers hears gunshots and arguing in the idyllic Vermont countryside. He stumbles across a dead body. It’s a body everybody seems to know, with the exception of the strange artist Sam Marlow (John Forsythe). Along the way, he picks up various tid-bits, little nuggets of information with regard to the owner of the dead body, a disreputable sleaze from Boston named Harry. Introducing the cuddly, fiercely intellectual Edmund Gwenn, hunting for rabbits, mistakenly believes he has shot Harry dead when he comes across him. Along the way, he makes a date with neighbor Mildred Natwick for some blueberry muffins and elderberry wine.

Jerry runs home to tell his mom (cute Shirley MacLaine), and before Edmund can dispose of the body, they’re up to see Harry. Shirley seems awfully happy Harry has bitten the dust, as it were. Edmund can’t seem to get any work done, because the entire town trapses through; among them, an absent-minded doctor who trips over him, and a drifter who steals the dead man’s shoes. Enter the handsome Sam, who barters his art for supplies and food at the general store. Nosy sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano) aims to level a fine at whomever he catches shooting off guns on his “posted” land. You get the feeling this is a small town, because everybody knows everybody.

The Trouble with Harry is an unusual film, even for Alfred Hitchcock. He (and his writer John Michael Hayes) make sure not to make enemies of his leads, even the shifty Wiggs. It’s almost a slice-of-life about small-town folk who get to know each other in a more intimate way as a result of a body being dropped in their collective lap. Out sketching later, Forsythe comes across the body. Being an annoying artist-type, he sketches the body. Edmund confesses to the crime he possibly couldn’t commit, whereas Forsythe speculates Harry was destined to die at this particular place, at this particular time, and that Edmund did the Universe a favor. When we’re having discussions about existentialism, we’re not especially interested in a murder-mystery. The Trouble with Harry is a black comedy.

Forsythe makes an agreement with Edmund that they’ll dispose of the body if they can prove Shirley’s innocence in the matter. To that end, Forsythe gets chummy with her. They have a mutual attraction for one another, as much as she tries to dissuade his interest. She’s not good with men. That won’t stop Sam. He loves her and he loves her son. They have a strange, flirtatious first encounter. I wonder if this movie would be a good companion piece with Rope; wherein we have characters debating treacherous action under the guise of intellectualism. Where Rope was more in the vein of melodrama, this movie is played strictly for uncomfortable laughter.

Negotiating Shirley’s scatter-brained take on her relationship with Harry, Forsythe (probably against his better judgement) courts her, and bands together Natwick and Edmund to create a more appropriate death scenario for Harry so that no one will face criminal repercussion. It complicates matters when each character takes it upon themselves to conceal Harry’s body without telling anyone else their plans. Along the way, love stories develop; one young and one old, and these are very charming entanglements. If a less experienced, perhaps younger filmmaker were to tackle The Trouble with Harry, he would, almost certainly, be accused of not understanding the value of tone in storytelling. In the hands of a grand experimenter, The Trouble with Harry is great fun and makes perfect sense.

Two Davids Walk Into A Bar presents a very special episode devoted to the five “missing” Alfred Hitchcock films re-released to theaters in 1983, and on home media in 1984 and 1985: Rear Window, Vertigo, The Trouble With Harry, Rope, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

“The Ruling Class, 1972”

“The last time I was kissed in a garden, it turned out rather awkward.”

The Ruling Class, 1972 (Peter O’Toole), Avco/Embassy

The English system baffles me. From what I was led to believe, it has the more Socialistic financial trappings of most of Central Europe (even revising those standards in their entry to the E.U.) while retaining a matriarchy to keep up royal appearances and requiring heavy taxation of it’s working classes. Meanwhile, there is a Parliament; work-a-day politicians who keep the trains running on time and sustain a cock-eyed benevolent fascist dictatorship. You have to wonder how the well-fed higher-ups control this ridiculous England without losing their minds. In Peter Medak’s equally ridiculous satire, The Ruling Class, we are given an approximation of an answer: they have lost their minds. In the first few minutes of the film, one such man, the 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews) wears a variation of his uniform with the important modification of a dancer’s tu-tu and hangs himself.

At the reading of his revised will, his friends and enemies are horrified to hear that the estate will be passed on to his son, Jack (Peter O’Toole), who is also cousin to the Queen. Upon his announcement and arrival, Jack enters dressed as Jesus Christ, with robe, long golden locks, and beard, but it isn’t that he is merely dressed as Christ. He believes he is Jesus Christ. Though he locks horns with his Church of England relatives, an examiner diagnoses Jack as a paranoid schizophrenic. Hilariously, when asked how he knows he is God, Jack simply states that when he prays, he discovers he is talking to himself. His transformation is no different than the proverbial red-headed stepchild’s journey home to inform her family she has discovered Scientology, but since this is a young man of royal stock and lineage, poised to inherit an unimaginable clutch of power and privilege, his family agrees he must be destroyed for the good of the Crown.

Trading off one set of bizarre rubrics for another and unleashing hypocrisy in the form of off-putting musical sequences isn’t enough for Peter Barnes’ irreverent stage play (which he also adapted for the screen). When Jack insists his doctrine will be one of peace, charity, and love (What would Jesus do?), he puts fear in the hearts of the dogged politicians who really only want his power and wealth. They scheme to distract him with a woman (beautiful Carolyn Seymour as Lady Grace) who, with all her might, attempts to seduce Jack, but is instead seduced by Jack. She falls madly in love with him. It’s interesting how Jack (Jesus Christ) invents and improvises his belief system. Apparently it’s fine for our Lord and Savior to take a wife in Jack’s twisted interpretation. Whatever. I’m an atheist, but it’s quite charming to watch Seymour and O’Toole indulge in an impromptu rendition of “My Blue Heaven.”

When the dimwitted Dinsdale tries to alert Jack to his family’s treachery, he violently withdraws, sensing his strategically constructed walls of illusion coming down. As much as Jack wants (needs) to be Jesus Christ, and though he hangs from a fabricated crucifix in times of insecurity, he would never bring himself to strip to nakedness and pierce his flesh with nails. He marries Grace in an empty cathedral. At the reception, Jack puts party hats on all the miserable nobles. This is where the movie succeeds: as a tarring, jarring rebuke of the affluent – those who merely inherit their privilege and execute nothing of use with it. They are, truly, the most worthless of the world. Upon a visit to a sanitarium, he comforts the inmates with prayer and song. The examiner conducts psychological experiements. He passes a lie detector test. He then undergoes electro-shock therapy (in a method reminiscent of Return of the Jedi when the Emperor tortures young Skywalker). This sequence juxtaposes Jack’s “exorcism” with the birth of his child with Lady Grace, and it is truly terrifying.

However electrifying O’Toole is (Ha!), the film relies on his madness to carry it through the more mundane and tedious passages. Barnes is a writer in love with his words, and what The Ruling Class could’ve used was another pass at the screenplay, and more time in the editing room. Peter Medak’s direction is (perhaps appropriately) stagey, but also cold and emotionless. Maybe it’s because he shoots the movie from the point-of-view of the unlikable outsiders who view Jack’s madness as a form of eccentricity. Even after Jack is relieved of his demons, we spend nearly another hour trying to determining who he has become. He stutters, suffers Tourettes-like aphasia, and possesses murderous impulses. The Ruling Class would’ve been brilliant if the filmmakers had dispensed with the notion of shooting a stage play and instead focused on the strength of film. The aristocratic air and the manipulations of the power-mad in the film would make it an interesting double feature with A Clockwork Orange.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.