Why Star Trek V Matters


So, I’ve been thinking a lot about Star Trek V and why I’ve been defending it all of these years. “Ugh,” you ask. “That stupid one where they go to find god?” WHY, YES, HYPOTHETICAL READER! That’s the one!

Now, why have I been thinking about Star Trek V? That I honestly don’t know. Though it probably has something to do with Twitter. You go and follow just a few Star Trek people on Twitter and suddenly your entire timeline is very, very Trekkie. And, when people gather to talk Trek, the conversation inevitably turns to Star Trek V and the extent to which is was or wasn’t terrible.

star trek v lee

How It All Began? Lee Sargent’s Star Trek 365. Day 104: Star Trek V Poster. Follow, And Be Happy.


Star Trek V is controversial among fans for a number of reasons, most of which boil down to William Shatner, who directed the film and contributed to the script. Personally, I’ve always thought this is a little unfair and last week I sat down and sketched out an essay explaining why. Honestly, for me it is all about the story and how it is reflected in the production design. Yes, I’m talking about that story. The one where beloved sci-fi icons wander over to the Planet of God. Because over its runtime, the film juxtaposes the difference between belief and reality, and how a personal commitment to belief can affect the real world.

On Nimbus III, the Terran, Romulan and Klingon governments have set up a planet where peace will prevail. Each government will rule equally, and everyone will have a say.

Okay, okay. Why they would do this on a desert planet and not one of the kazillion apparently un- or under-inhabited lush planets those governments have visited over the years is beyond me, because it is obviously doomed to failure if there are literally no resources to go around. Nevertheless, they slap the descriptor, “The Planet of Intergalactic Peace” on it, believing they have found the way to create harmony.

final frontier

Pictured: Perfect Location.


Predictably, this doesn’t work, to the point where we are told that the government had to take the extraordinary step of denying the inhabitants of the planet access to weapons. A lack of weapons would clearly lead to peace. Instead, people just made their own weapons and started threatening to pebble strangers to death over a bunch of holes (perhaps they were the exact number needed to fill the Albert Hall, and that’s why this character cared so much. YOU DON’T KNOW! HUSH UP!). Finally, planetary officials just gave up and started drinking themselves to death. Belief led directly to an unpleasant reality.

Enter Sybok. Think what you will about the character being a retconned brother to Spock, but Sybok, though his Vulcan mental abilities, injects fresh hope into the inhabitants of Nimbus III, and they, in turn agree to follow him. He believes that he knows where god actually lives on the physical plane, and given the evidence of what Sybok was able to do with their own spiritual pain, they believe him. Naturally, the resultant crisis means that the Enterprise and her crew must be called out of mothballs to save the planet and its supposed peace.


Without Circuit Breakers, As Usual.


It is significant that this is the first (and only) time that the crew was allowed to visibly age over their already clearly older bodies. Grey hair was embraced, and the makeup designs didn’t go completely out of their way to make everyone look smoother and less wrinkled. This was meant to be an older, more mortal crew. They were meant to be at a stage in life where humans are often described as seeking answers and seeking reconciliation with past choices. Previously, they only had themselves to lean on and offer each other reassurance — and, certainly, they still look to each other for that. Uhura and Scotty are taking a chance with a romantic relationship. Sulu and Chekov are best friends, and the traditional triumvirate are as close as they ever were.

When they meet their villain, however, Sybok shows even this indefatigable crew that, just maybe, they’ve been searching for more than just each other, that perhaps they need to pay more attention to their own spirituality and their own mortality. Sybok releases people from their torment by making them face their secret pain. We don’t get to see the pain of most of the crew members, but those we do see deal directly with these issues. Sybok allows people to come to terms with death and the circumstances of their own existence and releases the physical body from its spiritual trauma. From that standpoint, the supposed betrayal of Kirk by the rest of the crew is anything but. They’ve found answers to questions that, to one degree or another, they never even realized they had been asking and their desire is to share this with all of their friends. Further, their desire to help Sybok is justifiable compensation for what they believe he did for them. These responses are perfectly normal and human. But, again, belief doesn’t lead to a happy ending.

uhura feelings

Pictured: Documentary Evidence.


Throughout the rest of the movie, these dynamics play out to varying degrees of subtlety and obviousness. And, yes, certainly, the overall movie is clunky. But, it is unique in its production design, largely because of budgetary concerns, but also because those differences help tell the story of a very human crew asking some deep questions about human nature, faith and reality. And, for once in the series, Star Trek isn’t putting these aspects of humanity onto an alien culture to make it easier for us to distance ourselves from the implications. Even the status of the Enterprise itself, broken and barely holding together, meets the dual goal of easing budgetary woes and makes the ship itself emblematic of the film’s central idea: even the ship is incomplete and it needs and seeks more.

Of course (since Shatner wrote the script), it is Kirk who refuses to even listen to Sybok and, thus, remains unswayed by his empathic abilities. It allows Kirk to be the savior of the day, and the smartest cookie in the room. And that is … problematic, at best. Personally, I wonder what it would have done to the film if Uhura, always portrayed as a woman very accepting of faith, if not of deep faith herself, had been the one to ask, “What does god need with a starship?”



Artist’s Conception. Sort Of: Day 110, Janeway Has A Question. 


It’s a small change, but one with huge potential implications. it would have allowed Kirk to just as thoroughly fall into Sybok’s thrall, and it would have made all of the questions the film was pondering much more palatable. It would have allowed the one character who has been shown to have any experience in these matters to be the one to make the reality of the situation clear.

In the end, the Planet of Intergalactic Peace telegraphs the absurdity of the film’s often described plot from the beginning. We begin on a planet that can’t possibly exist even in the relatively rosy future of Star Trek, and we end on one, as well. At the outset, the desires of mortals and the coldness of reality are at odds, causing the characters to struggle to reconcile the two. Are they really trying to find god, or are they trying to find themselves, hidden in their fresh ideations of god? This leads to a very different answer to the film’s central question: that is what god needs with a star ship. Not for his own sake, certainly, but for the sake of his children and their own betterment.

scotty tumble

Mind. Blown.


Star Trek V asked questions that the original crew had never really explored. Religion and what lies beyond really were The Final Frontier for the series. In the original series, anything vaguely supernatural would turn out to have a perfectly reasonable explanation. Religion was never even really a subject until The Next Generation and even then it was the kind of thing that aliens indulge in, rather than humans.

But Star Trek V tried to allow the crew an opportunity to explore aspects of their personalities we hadn’t previously been able to see. It gave us a fallible crew, in a fallible ship, caught in a trap that any of us might conceivably fall into, and it showed the way out. And, perhaps, a way to hold on to faith, when it might seem more reasonable to give up.

The series would return to this with Kai Wynn in Deep Space Nine, and, arguably, the subject is better and more thoroughly explored there. Sisko offers a human perspective on Bajoran beliefs, but, again, he doesn’t share them. Star Trek seems more comfortable leaving religion as an indulgence humans can’t afford. And, of course, Deep Space Nine explored this for seven seasons, instead of trying to cram it all into an hour and forty-five minutes. But Star Trek V tried, it really tried, to show the nature of human spirituality at the cusp of the 24th century.

Could it have been done better? The production was plagued by problems both internal and external. If Shatner had been able to get the special effects he wanted, if Shatner could have let go of what I’ve seen described as “A love letter to Kirk” — in fact, any change in the circumstances of production would have led to a different film, and it is quite possible that film would have been better. I feel, though, the movie that exists is more than capable of justifying itself — even if you might need to have a little faith to believe it. So, I’ve continued to champion it, Romulan cheerleader, boobied kitty-cat woman, water billiards and all. “But those are all shown in the same scene!” you say. “Right at the beginning of the movie! You have to push past all of them to even get started!” Yes, hypothetical reader, I know. I know.


Uh, Yeah. That’s The One.


Is this thing still on?

What is the most out of control film production you’ve ever heard of? Is it something more recent, like John Carter, or do you think of something a little further back like Casino Royale, or Cleopatra? Frankly, even if your mind goes all the way back to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, arguably the earliest total disaster in cinema history, whatever you think of probably wasn’t the most out of control, ever. And the reason why is simple.

Film productions can go off the rails for any number of reasons, but rarely do they actually go “out of control”. Usually, when we start hearing reports of troubled productions, the problem is the director, one or more of the film’s stars, or even a producer is trying to exert too much control.

The history of cinema is littered with these tales. From Erich Von Stroheim insisting on working doorbells on the set of a silent feature, to Alfred Hitchcock declaring that actors are nothing but cattle and treating them accordingly, a shocking number of filmmakers blur the lines between artistic brilliance and being dictatorial jerks. And then there are directors like Bryan Singer and Brett Ratner, who just rock that last bit without bothering with any of the first. (But more on that, later.)

Usually, though, however sketchy a filmmaker’s behavior is, the movies themselves either turn out fine, or at least make money. Some have even become classics, despite the negative publicity surrounding the production. Every once in a while, however, something very different happens. Such is the tale of Dau.

Dau is a very big production for what little is known about it. Reading most everything that is available on the subject takes less than an afternoon, and though there are a few more articles and photo sets available online, the following provide a decent overview:

In October of 2011, GQ published an article about a new feature from Russian wunderkind auteur Ilya Khrzhanovsky (assuming there are no proper, Russian terms for such concepts). The director had exactly one film to his credit and, though it was a well-received production, what he was working on at the time was easily the most ambitious project that any director had ever been able to mount. Working with complete autonomy, Khrzhanovsky was able to recreate a 1950s-era Soviet town, accurate to the tiniest detail, and insist that his actors actually live there, performing whatever jobs their characters would have been doing, while eating perfect replicas of Soviet packaged foods and using toilets that reproduced exactly the actual sound that flushing Soviet toilets would make.


The face of a genius, or just someone with serious obsessive issues?

By 2013, The Moscow Times reported that the film was in post-production, but described it as being “stuck” there.

In August of 2014, PRI ran another story about the film, this time from a reporter whose father worked briefly on the film.

And, finally, in November of 2015, Russia’s Ministry of Culture demanded that the film’s producers return the Ministry’s investment in the film plus interest, as no film had yet been produced.

Since then, the production has apparently remained in the editing stage thanks to a large investment from an anonymous backer. However, a firm release date remains forthcoming, as does any sort of description of what the project actually is. Originally sold as a film, people speaking on the director’s behalf are now insisting that, in addition to the initial film, it is also going to be a television series and some kind of multi-media presentation, as well. But, really, after reading just four articles, your guess is as good as anybody’s.

Whether the film is ever released remains to be seen, but the project nevertheless makes for a fascinating glimpse into a completely unrestrained creative process, and makes one wonder if such a process is ever a good idea.



“Say, what if we just burn it all? What would that be saying, artistically?”

Which, of course, brings us to this blog. I’ll admit, it does seem to fit with the theme of this film to promise a blog post in one week and then fail to deliver for a year. However, the truth is that I have not been holed up in an anonymous bungalow in London backed by some mysterious benefactor whilst I slaved away at the above paragraphs in an attempt to make them perfect. Though, it might have been nice. It is probably far more accurate to say that I’m not the world’s most constant blogger, and whereas I can’t say whether or not Khrzhanovsky’s Dau is still on, I can say this blog is, if only from time to time. Perhaps soon I will share something a bit more original than a post consisting mostly of links.


Keep watching this space. But maybe not this creepily.

Jerry’s Kids?

When I started this project, I mostly began knowing what it wouldn’t be. I wouldn’t be writing reviews of contemporary features. I wouldn’t re-post the original work of others in an attempt to keep something, anything on the blog. And I wouldn’t re-publish anything I had written previously.

You see, I’ve been doing this for a fairly long time, though I have been very selective about where I would place my articles. There are many reasons why I chose to do this, but the most important one was this: I wanted to. I did want to write about the cinema, from time to time, but I didn’t want to do it on the internet. There is a not insubstantial body of work that I have produced in the last ten years, but I was going to leave that where it was, because I wanted this to be different from all of that.

Sure, it has been over a month since my last post, but that isn’t necessarily an indicator that I haven’t done anything. In fact, I’ve been working steadily on what I think of as this blog’s next official post, but it has proven to be a very difficult thing to write. Five weeks later, I’m over 3,000 words in and I’m not even close to the end.

Which brings us to today. Perhaps I can mine some of those old articles and present them here? I mean, there’s no law against that sort of thing. And, perhaps, I can link to another article somewhere else. Again, this seems perfectly permissible in the grand, blogging scheme of things. So, in the interest of pushing my own boundaries, and giving myself a little more time to finish The Neverending Post, allow me to present the first in what will initially be two posts supposedly breaking my list of “Don’ts”. Perhaps this will be a good thing.

What follows is something I published on January 11, 2011. The subject recently started receiving some fresh press, and I will link to one of those articles at the end.

My previous article ended with a teaser for what I had planned:  “It’s horrifying.  You’re going to love it.”


jerry and kids

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

So much for the teaser, now onto our feature presentation.  I promised you something horrifying, which sounds like my typical level of hyperbole, I know.  This time, however, I’m not using hyperbole.  What follows is probably one of the single most hideous things I’ve ever come across, potentially the very worst thing that has ever been done in cinema history.  Worse than all of those Kate & Ashley movies combined.  Worse than Irving Thalberg intentionally destroying the only extant, full-length, ten-hour version of Greed.  Worse, even, than Erich Von Stroheim’s idea to make Greed a ten-hour epic in the first place.  Worse than that Moonie-funded biggest-flop-of-all-time Inchon!  Way, way worse than Battlefield Earth.

Still sounds like my typical level of hyperbole, doesn’t it?  Well, let me take that typical level and push it right into the stratosphere:  folks who’ve seen Salo?  This is more horrifying even than that.

I know, I know:  I’m overselling, here.  There is no way that what I’m about to tell you can possibly be as bad as a movie starring Mary Kate & Ashley Olson.  But, bear with me and we’ll discover together whether or not I’m really overselling.

A further word of caution, though:  remember what I said three paragraphs above.  I’m not using hyperbole.  Though I have, and will likely continue to make light of this project, its subject matter truly is the stuff of nightmares.  And if you find that you are especially sensitive to the subjects of Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and clowns you just might want to stop right here.  Oh, note that conjunction, too.  I said, “and”.

Let’s start at the very beginning.  Sometime in 1966, a project that had shopped around Hollywood for a number of years finally found a director who would sign to it.  Reportedly, such luminaries as Dick Van Dyke and Milton Berle had already passed on it.  And, eventually, so would the director who had signed on.  In 1971, however, producer Eli Waschberger finally found a director AND a star and shooting actually commenced, the film was completed and then … it was never released.

The project?  It was called The Day the Clown Cried, and followed the exploits of a clown named Helmut Dorque.  Helmut was once a great clown, travelling with Ringling Bros., but had since fallen on hard times.  After flubbing his act one night too many, he grows despondent and begins to drink in a local bar.  The camera pulls back to reveal that Dorque isn’t a clown in just any ol’ time; instead, he is a clown in Nazi Germany — and, after impersonating Hitler in front of a group of Gestapo agents who (like the rest of us) don’t really see why any of this would be funny, he finds himself a clown inside a concentration camp.

Oh, and the director and star of this picture?  Jerry.  Lewis.

Desperate to be taken seriously as an actor, Jerry Lewis actually signed on and made something which by all reports could be (and has been) described as “The Nutty Professor Goes Auschwitz”.  But, as Harry Shearer, one of the chosen few who has seen it has said, “If you say ‘Jerry Lewis is a clown in a concentration camp’ and you make that movie up in your head, it’s so much better than that. And by better I mean worse. You’re stunned.”

And that’s because The Day the Clown Cried isn’t just about a clown in a concentration camp.  No, it is about a clown who wishes to curry favor with his captors, and to do this, he performs for the Jewish children in the camp so they will trust him, and follow him in Pied Piper fashion into the ovens to their little dooms.

Okay.  It isn’t quite as cut and dried as that.  Initially, the Nazis don’t want him performing for the children, and he’s doing duckwalks to make them laugh while others are getting their brains blown out right beside him.  No, really.  And, well, once he’s done this for about a third of the movie, when the time comes to throw the children in an oven, hey, why not use the clown?  Or, so I guess.  The script doesn’t really make the Nazi’s reasoning very clear.  Because, well, first of all, they’re throwing children into an oven. And second of all, they’re throwing children into an oven using a clown who is apparently the only person on the planet they trust.  It’s a bit difficult to frame that concept in a manner that would, you know, make sense.

Now, now: in Lewis’ defense, the idea of humor and Nazis getting together and having a bit of fun has a rich history, from Bugs Bunny cartoons, to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, to Hogan’s Heroes.  But did I mention that this movie is about a clown who leads children into an oven?

I don’t really think that statement can be over-emphasized.

But, wait.  Let’s take this just one horrifying step further, again in Lewis’ defense:  who’s to say that the Nazis never did anything like this?  Who’s to say that they didn’t, at some point, use a clown to gain the trust of children just so it would be easier to kill them?  Personally, I’d think that anyone willing to do anything like this to another human being probably wouldn’t take too much time to worry about the victim’s ease and comfort.  But, clearly, this is the kind of thought that Lewis was hoping would drive the story:  we might be seeing some actual horror that really happened.  Which makes it all the more horrible.  And, somehow, funny?

Really and truly, I have no clue.  The producer’s rights to the story expired just before the film started shooting, which meant that the rights would have to be renewed before the film could be released.  Upon seeing the final product, the story’s original writer refused, suggesting that what Lewis had filmed bore no resemblance to her original story, which was meant to be a tale of redemption.  Her Helmut Dorque (strangely renamed “Doork” in the final script) was an odious man, who rolled everyone he knew over in an attempt to save his own skin.  In leading the children into the ovens, and thus sparing them the psychological trauma of that, he redeems himself and becomes a good person.  (Whereas I’d say any destination that lies at the end of a road on which you lead children to their deaths is probably “damnation” and not “redemption”, but perhaps that’s just me. . . )

Lewis, however, had re-written the script into a dark comedy surrounding a far more likable character.  Clearly, Lewis’ Helmut Doork is a character with whom we are supposed to identify; just a normal guy doing the best he can and, like the rest of us, failing to meet the lofty goals he’s set for himself.  Far from ratting out everyone he knows when confronted by the thought of being placed in a concentration camp, he pointedly refuses to name names.  He is, at turns, reprehensible and likable, something which might be said about anyone.  He is Everyman, in a concentration camp.  Being funny.

To this day, Lewis maintains on his official website that it is the legal wranglings around this project that keeps it unreleased.  Reportedly, he keeps the only known VHS copy of the film locked in a safe in his office, and snarls at people who have the temerity to mention the project in his presence.

And for good reason.

Because I’m such a nice guy, I’m going to include a copy of what purports to be the final shooting script.  That way you can experience the pathetic beauty of this project for yourselves.  (Note: I’ve removed the script for what should be obvious reasons, but it is readily available online.)  I’ve also found something claiming to be the original script by the writer who was so horrified at the treatment her script received … but I don’t see many differences between the two.  In the supposedly earlier one, a reason is given to explain why the kids must die, but, really, the lack of this in the latter doesn’t really mar the story any more than it already was.  As one of my co-workers put it, “You had me at ‘Clown in a concentration camp’, but to add that it’s a comedy?”

To be fair, I’ve seen Lewis deliver serious roles, and he isn’t all, “WAY-HEY Prutty laydee!”, but it is seriously difficult to read the script without keeping Lewis in mind — and if you’re thinking “Lewis”, there is no way to think of the performance charitably.

Read the script, or don’t.  Either way, if you are anything like me, just knowing that not only does the story exist, but so does the film, will make the world a slightly crueler place. . . .

And, so it was, five years ago. A few days ago, The AV Club published a short piece on this movie, which includes a video of all of the footage that has surfaced online. They also mention that Lewis has given the film to the Smithsonian with the stipulation that it not be shown until June of 2024. Perhaps seeing the finished project will encourage me to eat some of my words. Perhaps not. See you in 8 years to find out. . .

jerry and nazi

Charge of the Leit Brigade

Film has a language. I’m not talking about the words that come out of the actors’s mouths. Obviously, that’s a language and if it’s a guy in a rubber suit stomping on a city, the people screaming and running away are probably doing so in Japanese; meanwhile, if Olivia Newton John is flirting with John Travolta, they are probably using whatever form of English old people think teenagers used in the 1950s.

No, I’m talking about something far more fundamental than that, because there was a time (in the grand scheme of things not so long ago) when the actors in movies couldn’t even speak. Well, of course they could speak, because even back then most everybody could, but no one could hear them. Well, most people could, but—wait. Let me start again.


Of COURSE we talk. Don’t everybody?

Film has a language, above and beyond whatever you hear on the soundtrack. For those who study such things, the sum total of the technical aspects of filmmaking constitutes a type of grammar, which can be combined in near infinite ways — but also in proper and improper ways. For the most part, it is expected that this language well remain more or less invisible to the average theater goer, taking no more time to parse than would be used in decoding the words of a person talking to you.

But, it want always so. When film was in its infancy and still little more than a novelty, people had a very hard time with it. While modern audiences are aware that when Mary, Queen of Scotts loses her head no one in the screen has actually died, earlier audiences weren’t so savvy. There are tales of people fainting, of running in fear at the sight of a train pulling into a station or diving for cover when the bad guy in Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery fired his gun directly into the camera.

File created with CoreGraphics

No actual demons were harmed in the making of this picture.

And, honestly, who could blame them? This was genuinely something new, different from any other at form which preceded it. Unlike a painting, which still exists as a painting whether anyone is looking at it or not, a motion picture relies on a trick of the mind to be perceived. Without a human sitting down to contemplate it, or even just use it as an excuse to eat popcorn for a couple of hours, a motion picture is simply a collection of still photographs on a strip. As such, film is unique as a form of artistic expression, explicitly requiring audiences participation whether they realize it or not. Today, it is so familiar a child can do it. But one hundred years ago, our entire species was in the process of learning a new trick.

Even so, it took quite some time before anyone really bothered to talk about this new language, much less codify it. Although the industry as a whole abandoned the technique of simply placing a camera in front of something and filming it rather quickly, the pace of improving the art further wasn’t as swift as one might think.

It wasn’t really until the 1930s, when (for some reason or another) the entirety of Europe decided to hide in a dark room for the better part of twenty years and take a really good look at it, that the language of film began to be understood. This is one of the reasons why so many of the film terms you see bandied about are French, and almost certainly why none of them are in English. America didn’t care about the art. She was always far more concerned about how housewives in the Midwest would react to these new-fangled close up things than whether or not the close ups in question were in any way artful.

Don’t get me wrong: filmmakers in America were very responsible for many of the artistic achievements and improvements in film, and had been from the very beginning. But, for all of their innovation, it took the French to notice what was happening. Concepts like mise en scene, which held that the position of objects within the frame on screen was just as important as the cinematography itself were revolutionary when they were first described. The idea that American films from the war era constituted a unique form, film noir, likely came as a surprise to filmmakers who had honestly been doing the best they could during a blackout.


Pictured: A concept that pre-dates Wes Anderson by a wide margin.

But these theorists weren’t just having pretentious conversations about how extensive that Expressionism thing the Germans experimented with really was. They were putting their ideas into practice with films of their own. Things like Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bette, and Jean Renoir’s (son of that Renoir) The Rules of the Game, which some have called the greatest motion picture ever made. Personally, I tend to shy away from such pronouncements for the simple reason that the best of anything is constantly changing and more than a little subjective. It is certain, though, that the The Rules of the Game is an excellent example of how one goes about properly putting a movie together in much the same way as Moby Dick is an excellent example of how to bind a bunch of words together in sequence. To modern audiences, it might all seem like so much over blown malarkey, but it is hard to deny the effort and the artistry that went into making it.

There is a reason why discussions of film rely on toity sounding technical terms, and it isn’t (just) because the people using them want to sound smart. The language of film may have largely been developed in the states, but the words used to describe that language were mostly coined elsewhere.

So, the next time you see an article pontificating about a movie’s light motif, remember that you are so much smarter than that author. And, also, that you are a part of a long tradition in an art that honestly couldn’t exist without you. Just because it has become more familiar doesn’t mean it can’t be better understood and, personally, I’ve found that pursuit to have made the whole affair just that much more irresistible.

Critical? Mass.


Pictured: A Horrible Movie

Box office receipts have become largely meaningless in today’s economy. Once upon a time, studios had to rely on their output to stay afloat. Even then, however, there were ways deal from the sleeve.

The 1927 film Metropolis is now widely considered a masterpiece. When it was released, however, it received scathing reviews.

Metropolis is often credited with ruining the company which made it, Universum Film A.G., or UFA. There is little doubt that the film strained UFA’s finances. Its original budget of four million reichsmarks was unprecedented, and the fact that the film’s director, Fritz Lang, managed to spend another million on top of that didn’t help. But, UFA’s financial problems began before Metropolis even went into production.

In 1925, UFA entered into an agreement with Paramount Pictures and Metro Goldwyn-Mayer designed to bolster their capital. Paramount and M-G-M would get exclusive rights to release UFA films in the US – along with the ability to alter the films in any way they deemed necessary. Meanwhile, UFA had to agree to release Paramount’s and M-G-M’s films in Germany, to the tune of reserving most of their theater capacity exclusively for American films. The deal was, to put it lightly, a bit one-sided. But, UFA desperately needed the cash.

The reception of Metropolis just made a bad situation worse.

In the US, Paramount decided to chop nearly an hour from the film’s running time, making the complicated plot impossible to follow. Adding insult to injury, the person responsible for the American edit then went on to give the film an unfavorable review.

Metropolis definitely contributed to UFA’s eventual downfall. But blaming Metropolis is putting the cart before the horse. UFA sowed the seeds of its own destruction long before Metropolis came along to reap the rewards.

Likewise, the 1980 film Heaven’s Gate is known as a perfect example of directorial excess and was directly responsible for the demise of United Artists, a studio which had been founded in 1919. The film’s director, Michael Cimino, was out of control on the set, demanding costly retakes and set revisions. Before he turned in a finished film, he had overspent by a staggering 30 million dollars.

Except, none of that is true. Cimino has stated that he brought the movie in on time and under budget and has cited his contract as proof. The script featured a lengthy introductory sequence set at Oxford University, and Cimino’s agreement stipulated that he could not film these scenes unless the rest of the film was completed in accordance to the original schedule and budget.

As the Oxford introduction was clearly filmed, and is in the final cut of the film, Cimino must have had some sort of self control on set. Furthermore, while it is true the film only made about a tenth of its reported budget back at the box office, that didn’t matter at all. United Artists had stopped being simply a film studio long before. In 1967, UA was purchased by insurance company Transamerica, which used Heaven’s Gate as an excuse to take a very lucrative write off on their taxes before the film was even released.

In a very real sense, Heaven’s Gate never lost a dime. It certainly didn’t hurt Transamerica’s profit margins at all. But the story of the film’s failure was very powerful, indeed. It created the notion of directors who could destroy companies on a whim, which gave the studios the ability to more tightly control their talent.

In an industry which had long been known for the excessive eccentricities of its directors, this was seen as a very good thing.

Erich Von Stroheim once famously waited for a flock of geese to spontaneously take off in flight in precisely the manner he wanted in the finished film. While the geese just sat there, so, too, did the crew. For weeks. This tale (if true – and having lived with geese, I can tell you they are perfectly capable of just sitting there and staring at you) was used by studio executive Irving Thalberg as an excuse to cut Stroheim’s epic film Greed from eight hours to a paltry two and a half hours.

And who could blame him? An eight-hour movie? How could that possibly work? Stroheim suggested a two-day viewing experience. The price of one ticket would allow someone to see the first half one night and the second half the next. Thalberg disagreed and not only cut the film, but he then ordered the excised material destroyed.

That is less the actions of a responsible manager than it is an act of revenge.

The complete Greed is a lost film thanks to studio control. And, ultimately, the revenge might have been Stroheim’s. The extant version was declared the greatest movie ever made by critics in the 1940s. And later, the idea of two-day screening was used to great success by the French epic Children of Paradise.

A company which also owns AOL, Time publications, HBO and DC Comics isn’t going to fail simply because Jupiter Ascending crashed after take off. In fact, a well-placed flop can go a long way towards bolstering the failures of other aspects of the company business. But, never does it go in the opposite direction. And if box office returns have little bearing on company finances, they certainly don’t have any relevance to the overall quality of a film.

If critics hate it, or ticket sales are spectacularly low, remember that more is going on than meets the eye. Citizen Kane and Fantasia both did very poorly at the box office, yet went on to be considered classics.

Hollywood magic extends beyond what one sees on the screen; it bleeds into the real world, too, creating a narrative in which the biggest hits of all time have never made a dime, while some of the biggest failures of all time should have.

We are, all of us, unwitting character actors in the story Hollywood is telling to justify their practices and standards.

You are under no obligation accept the overall wisdom that Vertigo is the best thing ever produced within the Hollywood system, or that John Carter was terrible. John Carter was just fine. And no one was forcing Disney to spend hundreds of millions on a movie based on a pulp novel that featured full frontal nudity on almost every page. But changing the focus of attention onto the box office, or onto the excesses of the director makes for a powerful smokescreen.

Hits, flops, box office receipts or budgets are all irrelevant.

That movie you love? It is probably just fine. You don’t have to accept the Hollywood story. Follow along, and you’ll have more than enough knowledge to see through the hype and experience film in an entirely new way — which is to say, entirely on your own terms.


Pictured: Awesome.



Critical? FAILURE.

coming to america

Pitcured: A Flop.

Film critics follow weekly box office returns as if they actually matter, comparing the disparity between the informed opinions of their reviews and the sheer number of tickets bought by the laity and despair. It is so unfortunate that Guy in Tights Hates Guy in Body Armor: They Slaughter Thousands Before Becoming Friends has made so much money despite its poor reviews. Everyone wonders what kind of message this might be sending to the studios.

The answer is: none. There is no kind of message being sent to the studios at all. If everyone in the country goes to see a movie, it won’t make a difference. If they stay away in droves, it likewise changes nothing.  That’s because most everyone has the wrong idea of what the film industry is and what it does.

Hollywood isn’t in the business of making money. It never has been. Because no movie has never actually made any money.

In 1990, what had long been an inside joke in the industry landed on the front page – or, on any page in any newspaper at all, since this kind of story doesn’t usually get reported. Art Buchwald sued Paramount pictures for breach of contract. Buchwald claimed to have written the treatment for Coming to America, which was subsequently filmed as a comedy vehicle for Eddie Murphy. Murphy was credited with having written the story in the credits, but Buchwald claimed that the movie had been based on his work and that his contract stipulated that he would get a percentage of the profits.

The filmmakers were reportedly dismissive of Buchwald’s claim. One went so far as to indicate that it didn’t matter whether or not the claim was true, as Buchwald’s contract only awarded him “chump points”, that is a percentage of the film’s overall profits. True to this, Paramount’s defense was that Coming to America had never made any money, despite earning hundreds of millions at the box office. The case was settled after the judge sided with Buchwald, but this wasn’t an isolated incident. It was just the most visible.

There are all kinds of signs that money doesn’t really matter in Hollywood. Roland Emerich’s version of Godzilla is thought of as a disaster. Except, it wasn’t. It was actually the top movie at the box office the weekend it premiered and, if you look at the budget versus the world-wide receipts, it was actually a successful film. On the other hand, Tron:Legacy was a massively successful movie going by the numbers, but had its sequel cancelled in the wake of another movie’s perceived failure – that would be Tomorrowland, which, it must be emphasized, also earned more at the box office than its reported budget.

Hollywood is a shell game. In an industry that never makes a profit, massive failures must happen to offset the successes. And if the massive failures don’t happen, they must be created. Oh, Hollywood doesn’t deliberately make bad movies. They tried that, and learned a costly lesson when their intended failure, a romantic movie featuring the two most unattractive people they could find, not only went on to become a massive success, but also won four Oscars.



No, bad movies can’t be created, they must happen organically. But, bad publicity can make a decent movie look bad every time.

Naturally, not every massive film failure in Hollywood can be chalked up to bad publicity. But it is important to note that not every film is, in fact, Hollywood. So-called independent films are lurking everywhere. Just because Warner Bros. released Battlefield Earth doesn’t mean they actually made it. They released the box office darling Amadeus, too, but they didn’t produce that one, either.

But let’s talk about something Warners definitely made. Let’s talk about the flop that proves me wrong, and shows that people staying away in droves does matter. Let’s talk about Jupiter Ascending.

Much has been expected of the Waschowskis since the release of The Matrix. That film was an unexpected, unqualified hit. But, their recent follow up, Jupiter Ascending, was a complete failure. Critics hated it and theaters stood empty — except neither of those statements is true.

The movie made back its budget. And whereas I would never suggest that I’m disappointed that we will likely never see the other two films in the (I’m assuming) trilogy, Jupiter Descending and Jupiter Maintaining a Stable Altitude, I will say this: I saw no fewer than three critics who declared, upon its February release, that there was no way the movie wouldn’t be on their list of top worst of the year. It is important to note that this was a year which had yet to see the release of both Fifty Shades of Grey and Jem and the Holograms. Neither fared well with critics at all, though one did well at the box office and the other you didn’t even remember until I mentioned it.

Originally slated to open in the summer of the previous year, the release of Jupiter Ascending was mysteriously pushed back. Rumors swirled and a disaster was made. But, Jupiter Ascending wasn’t a disaster in any sense of the word. It wasn’t, perhaps, particularly original (it was, in fact, a reworking of The Waschowski’s earlier hit The Matrix with a fresh coat of paint and the latter’s often overlooked anti-capitalist message writ large with a cudgel to the nose), but it didn’t make any less cash than any other Waschowski movie — excepting The Matrix. That doesn’t sound like a horrible movie. That sounds average. The Matrix remains the outlier in the Waschowski’s catalog, not Jupiter Ascending.

I believe that Jupiter Ascending was deliberately buried by the studio, for reasons only they know. Which means, of course, that I have clearly lost my mind. Everyone knows that one bad movie can ruin a film company. In fact, it has done so many times. Why in the world would Warner Bros. risk such a thing?

Yeah, about that. First of all, there’s literally no risk involved. And second of all, we’ll find out more in Blog Post 3: The Revenge.

Oh, you might think this is getting tedious, but sequels are guaranteed sells and our research shows that this is trending very well in the Midwest.


Along with this.



The Author, Circa 1995.

I was a bit more pretentious when I was younger. I say “a bit”, because it is easy to underestimate one’s own level of pretension. Note how I cling to outdated rules of grammar which suggest that just because Latin couldn’t do a thing, English shouldn’t either. But, despite this I think I was really far more pretentious when I was in college, not that I can hope to prove it. When I studied Film Theory (a super-useful subject, that; every financial job I ever had waited with bated breath for my reports on “Out of Currency: Banking Misconceptions in It’s A Wonderful Life”), this obviously meant that I knew more about film than you. If a movie didn’t play in a dank, cramped art house, I couldn’t be bothered with it. No subtitles? How pedestrian. And what’s that? Did I just call a cinematic experience “a movie”? My younger self is so embarrassed by me, right now.

In many ways, none of this is particularly surprising. With maturity comes perspective. But, sheesh. I was super-full of myself, at least when it came to film. I bring this up not so we can all laugh at how naive I used to be (though, if you really want to, I won’t stop you), but, rather, to let you know what we’re getting ourselves into, here.

A few weeks ago, I launched into this project with a post on Xanadu. I learned one thing after making that post: seriously, don’t throw something online early in a misguided attempt to be “topical.” I really hadn’t intended on publishing anything until I had more things written. Experience is educational!

And, well, that post’s subject should have warned everyone playing at home that I wasn’t really going to be toeing the accepted critical line, here. And the reason for that is rooted in just how snooty I used to be (and, to be perfectly honest, how snooty I continue to be, but that is a subject for a different time).

This space will be many things, but one thing it will not be is a place to post reviews of current films. The internet is so full of those, anyway, and although I am perfectly willing to go on record as calling Jurassic World “the worst major sequel ever produced by Hollywood” (and, yes, I’ve seen whatever example you just thought of that was worse), doing so isn’t going to help anything, either. Listen: bad reviews are fun to write. They are witty, zippy, funny and oh! so urbane.

They are also lazy.

It takes far more effort to find the good in projects you otherwise hate than it is to lambaste everything for failing to live up to your personal expectations.

It should go without saying, then, that when I was younger I wrote many, many bad reviews. Once I left school, however, I started to wonder why, if every movie is so terrible, had I bothered to spend so much of my life studying film? In this case, a little introspection went a long way and I developed a fool-proof system to determine whether or not a movie could be considered “good”. It consists of three simple questions:

  1. Do the filmmakers establish an internal logic to explain what we are watching?
  2. Is that internal logic then consistently applied?
  3. On the whole, do the filmmakers get more right than they do wrong?

That’s it: My Handy-Dandy Guide To “Good”.

Initially, I included one more question, which asked, “Does the film contribute to the art of cinema as a whole?”, but I jettisoned that one for what should be obvious reasons. The other three have remained, and they have served me well, even though using them means I must concede that even movies I don’t personally like are, in fact, perfectly fine. Well made, even.

Whereas I might want to launch J.J. Abrams into the sun for what he did to Star Trek, in applying those questions to his reboot, the answers are all, “Yes.” I could go on and on about how nothing in the reboot followed the established cannon of the franchise, but that would be missing the point, because Abram’s version wasn’t supposed to. It might be very hard to admit, having been such a fan of the series for so long, but the new Star Trek wasn’t made for me. And the reason why is very simple: the fans don’t matter, and the industry doesn’t give a tinker’s cuss about what I think – or, in fact, what anyone thinks — about their product.

Whether or not a movie is good, bad or indifferent is irrelevant. And far too many critics are laboring under the impression that their opinions matter.

In fact, I’m not entirely certain that critical opinion ever did.

While it is true that a bad review once had the power to severely limit a film’s release, even a complete critical drubbing hasn’t been able to stop any given film from going on to be considered a classic. Likewise, critical acclaim has done little to help a film’s reputation in perpetuity. Cimarron got outstanding reviews, was the first film to sweep nominations for the Oscars, won Best Picture of 1931 … and still didn’t manage to make money.

And, isn’t that the entire point? Making money?

Funny you should ask that. Because, honestly, I’m not entirely certain even that is important. There may be many reasons why you have or haven’t heard of Cimarron, but it isn’t because of its reviews, and it isn’t because of its box office returns.

No, there is something different going on, and that is —

You know, I had planned to have these max out at about 1,000 words, to make them easier to digest (and finish). So, before I go on any further, let me just greenlight this post for a sequel, before anyone has even seen it. That should go over well.


Please, Universal Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Im.



THAT Movie.


Wait. Wrong movie.

When my brother died, he did so with only one regret. I know this, because he told me. “I only regret one thing,” he said. “I’m so sorry I introduced you to Xanadu. That one was all my fault, and you should probably just blame me for it, from now on.”

Now, let’s make one thing perfectly clear: my brother was laboring under a misapprehension. He clearly believed that my love of Xanadu was in some way a painful thing for me, perhaps in much the same way as coming to grips with his own homosexuality was for him. It represented a point of shame, a thing which was best dealt with by trapping it in a closet, lest the horrible secret be learned. But, by the time he died, I was as comfortable with my admiration for what was one of the splashiest flops of the early eighties as he was with his attraction for other men. It was a thing I had grown to own, despite the sidelong glances I would occasionally have to suffer once people learned the truth.

Granted, it wasn’t always so. There was a time when I tried desperately to convince people that Xanadu was, in some way, actually a good movie. The effort was, as anyone could presume, completely in vain: Xanadu was not a good movie, and it remains something of a clunker to this day. Yet, I have loved it since I first found it, not so much for what it was, but for what it represented to me the first time I saw it.

By the time I was born, cinemas had already begun to develop into multiplexes, although nowhere near as multi- as they currently are. In my hometown, theaters maxed out at six different screens, and this is what I was used to when it came to going to the movies. Except, we didn’t go to see Xanadu at any of the usual spots. Instead, we went to see it in an old theater which had been built in a very different era, the kind of place that could only be described as a Movie Palace. Realistically, the building must have been starting to unravel at the seams, but I couldn’t see any of that. Instead, I was dazzled by gilded statues lining the entryway and lobby, with frescoes and flocked wallpaper, a curved staircase with a polished balustrade, employees in uniforms, brass everywhere – and above it all, a chandelier suspended in a painted dome surrounded by swirling plaster ornaments. This was a building like none other I had ever seen, clearly an important place, where important things happened. I wasn’t about to see a movie like I might see at any other, normal theater I had ever attended. This was a special theater, for special movies.

And that, honestly, was all it took. At that age, I couldn’t really separate the grandeur of the building from the activities that went on within. My entire world had been conveniently divided into special and mundane. Church was a special building, where I should always be on my best behavior and pay very close attention. School was a mundane building, where, for some odd reason, the same rules applied. My friend’s houses were normal places, where I could run and screech. My grandmother’s house, however, was special and filled with very old things I could look at, but never touch.

I could say that it was simply my misfortune to have seen Xanadu in such an impressive venue, but, really, that simple accident changed my life. For better or worse, it was impressed on me that day that movies could be more than simply an afternoon in a dark room with popcorn. Movies could be special, heaped with pomp and circumstance. Movies could be important. Movies could be art.

And, frankly, there are far worse movies to have at the center of such a lesson. At its heart, Xanadu is a tribute to an earlier time, and a love song for a kind of movie that had long since gone out of fashion. Okay, fine: even as a tribute, it managed to miss the mark. Nevertheless, something started for me, that day: a lifelong love of the cinema and the artistic expressions shown there. Xanadu was a kind of crossroad, which put me on a completely different path.

And everyone who loves film has that movie. So, mine is Xanadu. My favorite professor in film school had a particular affinity for the Hammer horror movies he grew up with, but that didn’t mean we ever had The Satanic Rites of Dracula on our syllabus. That was simply his unique introduction to a special world which featured Christopher Lee at his hammiest, but could also include the likes of Fellini’s Satyricon, Renoir’s Rules of the Game, or Welles’s Citizen Kane, as well.

Though my brother might have regretted it, I never did. I wouldn’t have given up that day for the world. In fact, I couldn’t have given it up and remained the same person. And if I continue to relish the movie and all of the memories surrounding it, that is nothing to be ashamed of, and certainly nothing requiring an apology. When my brother told me of his regret, I just laughed and shook my head, and it gave us another opportunity to remember just how much we had impacted each other’s lives, a reminder of how strong our love had always been. That was something special, and, well, so was Xanadu. How could I not be grateful for that?

Besides, he could have waited until November and taken me to see The Apple, instead. That would have been a move I probably couldn’t explain away, even for the sake of filial harmony.