MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Monte Hellman, Les Blank, Dirty Movies, Lines of Wellington, Drunk History and more

The Shooting/Ride in the Whirlwind: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Les Blank: Always for Pleasure: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Traditionally, the one sure way to kill a genre film’s commercial appeal is for a critic to label it “existential” or “experimental” or compare it to the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and the novels of Albert Camus. This was especially true in the 1960s. No matter how much a Western or road picture was embraced by intellectuals, if it didn’t draw a crowd to the drive-in or local Bijou, no amount of arthouse revenues could save it or advance the career of the artiste. Monte Hellman broke into the movie business in 1959 with a string of genre films made under the Corman banner: Beast From Haunted Cave, The Terror and a pair of back-to-back collaborations with Jack Nicholson, Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury and The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. Five years would pass before Universal attempted to tap into the counterculture market with his “existential road movie,” Two-Lane Blacktop – also available on Blu-ray through Criterion – which featured curiously blank performances by musicians Dennis Wilson and James Taylor and a truly great one by Warren Oates, which would be honored by the New York Film Critics Circle. Forty years later, this unqualified financial disaster would enter the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, where The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind someday may find themselves, as well.

In The Shooting, Nicholson and Oates play prominent roles, alongside Millie Perkins (The Diary of Anne Frank) and Will Hutchins (“Sugarfoot”). Oates and Hutchins play a couple of likeable saddle tramps who get roped into a revenge scheme by a mysterious dark-eyed stranger (Perkins) and a slick gunfighter (Nicholson). Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. In an even less complicated setup, “Whirlwind” chronicles what happens when three decent cowboys are mistaken for members of an outlaw gang and pursued by a rope-happy posse, unlikely to parse the difference. Neither of the movies fit the Western template created decades earlier by Hollywood myth mongers, even if there’s plenty of shooting and the scenery wouldn’t be out of place in a John Ford classic. Besides Nicholson and Perkins, “Whirlwind” stars Cameron Mitchell and Harry Dean Stanton, in his first credited movie role. His presence, as “Blind Dick,” is worth the price of admission, alone. The Blu-ray package features new 4K digital restorations of both films, supervised by Hellman, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks; commentaries on both films, featuring Hellman and film historians Bill Krohn and Blake Lucas; conversations between Hellman and actors John Hackett, B. J. Merholz, Perkins and Stanton, assistant director Gary Kurtz and chief wrangler Calvin Johnson; a new conversation between Hutchins and film programmer Jake Perlin; a new video essay on Oates, by critic Kim Morgan; and a print essay by critic Michael Atkinson.

Like most people who cherish movies that challenge the imagination, I’ve spent several hours watching and re-watching Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Les Blank’s companion documentary, Burden of Dreams, both filmed under the most arduous of conditions in the Amazon rainforest.  Watch them alongside of Apocalypse Now and you may not step foot in another boat. It took me a while to catch up with Blank’s Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, in which the German filmmaker makes good on a bet he made with then-upcoming documentarian Erol Morris. But, once again, worth the effort. Criterion’s three-disc collection, Les Blank: Always for Pleasure, couldn’t be more fun to watch. I’d call it “binge-worthy,” except for the fact that viewers will want to linger over the short films and sample the featurettes that accompany them. Blank’s documentaries may have been the first to routinely merge regional pastimes and tastes, while telling stories that celebrated distinctly American culture. Several of the titles here are set in and around the bayous that extend from Texas to New Orleans. At the time these films were made, Cajon country may as well have existed on the moon. What’s remarkable about them is the purity of Blank’s vision. Just as Alan Lomax’s field recordings captured the music of Southern blues and folk music, at the source, Blank’s films introduced the rest of America to Cajun and Creole culture, 20 years before they were discovered by Paul Simon and the producers of The Big Easy. America was a much smaller place before satellite dishes turned our nation into one large shopping mall and the blackened-redfish craze nearly made the once-multitudinous specious extinct. Like a good gumbo, Blank’s films merged what he considered to be the essentials of any culture — food, music and dance – into something uniquely appealing and completely irresistible. Among the subjects covered here are bluesmen Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, cowboy artists, polka fanaticism, hillbilly pickers, Clifton Chernier, flower power, gap-toothed women and Afro-Cuban drummers. The Blu-ray package adds new 2K digital restorations of all 14 films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks; an excerpt from Les Blank: A Quiet Revelation, an upcoming documentary by Gina Leibrecht; new interviews with Blank’s sons, Harrod and Beau, documentary subject Gerald Gaxiola, filmmakers Skip Gerson, Maureen Gosling, Taylor Hackford, Tom Luddy, and Chris Simon and chef Alice Waters; several additional shorter short films; and an essay by film scholar Andrew Horton.

The Giver: Blu-Ray
Compared to what we see every day on the evening news reports, the totalitarian post-apocalyptical society imagined in The Giver doesn’t look half-bad. In a world where cops are given free license to murder unarmed teenagers, Ebola claims the poorest of the poor and fundamentalist Muslims behead harmless aid workers for no comprehensible reason, it’s difficult to get too worked up about a group of survivors who prefer colorlessly obedient lifestyle to barely contained chaos. If I didn’t know better, I’d think author Lois Lowry modeled her 1994 Newbery Medal-winning novel on what America might be like under a Mormon dictatorship: incredibly boring and colorless, but more or less peaceful. Anyone who didn’t dig it, could find refuge in Canada or Mexico. As in Divergent, all the young people we meet in The Giver are required to accept pre-ordained career postings and raise their own children to be obedient citizens of the state. Once again, given the choice between accepting such strictly enforced restrictions and living in fear of chronic unemployment and unaffordable health care, how many Americans would raise an objection? If it weren’t for the vows of pre-marital chastity that come with the territory, the choice would be a no-brainer. There’s always a rub, isn’t there? In fact, though, by medically inducing memory loss, the Council of Elders of the Communities – a blandly designed city/state built on a mesa, not unlike the Hopi pueblos of northeastern Arizona – have diluted post-pubescent “stirrings” to near non-existence. In the two decades since “The Given” became a best-seller, the possibility that teen libidos could be controlled by an authoritarian government probably gave its young-adult readers the best of all possible reasons to question authority. Their parents and grandparents were taught similar lessons in “Animal Farm” and “1984.”

Upon his coming-of-age, the story’s protagonist, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), is assigned the responsibility of being the community’s one and only Receiver of Memory. Although it contradicts the whole point of maintaining a memory-starved society, Jonas is thus required to absorb the knowledge of things past as interpreted by the incumbent Giver (Jeff Bridges). This not only includes everything that led to “The Ruin,” but also the subversive powers associated with kissing and falling in love. Meryl Streep’s imperious Chief Elder has already seen one Receiver of Memory fly the coop after studying under the Giver, so she wants him to keep Jason on a tighter leash. The curious thing about knowledge, of course, is that a little bit only makes one hungry for more. In The Giver, the only place to find such truths is in the land beyond the mesa, from which no one returns. To its credit, the movie isn’t nearly as violent as Divergent, The Hunger Games and other dystopian thrillers. In its absence, director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence) is able to demonstrate how Jason’s inability to limit his gift of curiosity to conversations with his mentor causes seeds of dissent to grow, even in the infertile imaginations of his friends. Bridges, who’s nurtured this project for almost 20 years, is always a joy to watch on screen. As Chief Elder, Streep is only asked to look alternately stern and distressed, and she does it well. Scientology survivor Katie Holmes plays Jason’s mom, while, as his dad, Alexander Skarsgård is given a bit more substantial to do. The Blu-ray adds footage from an elaborate press conference, staged for foreign reporters; highlights from the original script reading, 20 years ago, featuring Lloyd Bridges and other family members; “Making ‘The Giver’: From Page to Screen,” which chronicles the challenges of getting the story made into a movie; an extended take on “Jonas’ harrowing journey”; “Ordinary Human,” with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, on his contributions to the soundtrack; author Lois Lowry discusses life events that shaped the story and things she would have changed in the original work; and a “Study Guide,” for viewers who want to experience the film interactively.

What If: Blu-ray
If there’s nothing new about the romantic entanglements in Michael Dowse’s adaptation of the play, “Toothpaste and Cigars,” the chemistry between actors Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan makes it fresh enough to savor. Free to portray contemporary adults after a decade working on Harry Potter’s farm, Radcliffe plays a medical school dropout, Wallace, broken-hearted over the loss of his girlfriend to an anatomy teacher. No sooner does he vow to swear off dating for a year than he meets a woman, Chantry, at a party that bores the hell out of both of them. In movie shorthand, that’s equivalent of saying they’re perfect for each other and, by all rights, should find someplace close to talk and have sex. Because What If is only 10 minutes old at this point, however, something immediately comes between them to squeeze another hour-and-a-half out of the proceedings. In this case, Chantry already has a live-in boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall), who’s kind of a dick but too familiar to take a chance on leaving for an unemployed guy she met at a party. Now, one thing leads to another and Wallace and Chantry become best friends and confidantes. When his goofball roommate, Allan (Adam Driver), decides that it’s time settle down with his similarly eccentric girlfriend, Nicole (Mackenzie Davis), they commit themselves to making Wallace and Chantry grasp what’s already obvious to everyone else around them. Things get even more complicated when Ben takes a job in Ireland and Chantry decides to give the benefit of a doubt. Being a Canadian/Irish co-production, What If doesn’t always play out as expected. Even so, no one should expect the same sort of fully developed British rom-coms as Love Actually and Notting Hill. Some folks might recognize Dowse’s name from such offbeat indies as It’s All Gone Pete Tong, Fubar and Goon. The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes and several making-of and background featurettes.

A Free Bird
All slacker comedies share certain attributes and archetypes, not the least of which are the consumption of vast quantities of marijuana and beer and minute amount of time reserved for finding jobs or cleaning the basement. The characters we’ve met in such movies as Up in Smoke, Half-Baked, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Pineapple Express, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and Friday have come in all shapes, sizes and ethnic backgrounds. If any single group is underrepresented, however, it’s rednecks and hillbillies. Brad Pitt, James Franco and Nicolas Cage have all portrayed lower-caste characters, who might have been raised in a trailer courts by alcoholic parents, but, generally speaking, they’re reserved for the kinds of horror flicks in which tourists are turned into sausage or threatened with power tools. Independently made on what must have been a miniscule budget, A Free Bird is a comedy made by rednecks, about rednecks, for the amusement of rednecks and set on Florida’s Redneck Riviera. J.T. Broadrick (Russell Durham Comegys) is a rock-star handsome slacker, who’s dumb as bag of rocks and can’t hold on to even the simplest of jobs. Before being fired for stealing eggs from the salad bar at the Panama City Steak House, he somehow managed to set fire to the cigarette shack at which he worked. When asked to fill out a form listing his skills for job placement, J.T. can’t come up with anything. An ex-con buddy suggests that they break into the steakhouse at night and raid the meat locker. If the four men enlisted for the job pooled all of their brain cells, the collective intelligence wouldn’t amount to that of one chipmunk collecting acorns for winter. How dumb are they? Well, how about storing all of the boxes of stolen meat in an unrefrigerated van and, instead of handing it off immediately to a fence, getting blind drunk in a strip club? They’re awakened the next day by the sound of dogs barking wildly outside the van, where the blood leaking from the boxes is dripping through the rear doors and onto the pavement. Despite the fact that J.T. is cheating on his endlessly patient girlfriend, Tammy (Karen-Eileen Gordon), with a waitress named Ladonna, she adheres to the advice of her namesake, Tammy Wynette, by standing by her man. In only his first film, writer/director/editor/producer Gregg Russell somehow manages to maintain a firm grasp on the frequently flimsy narrative and imbue A Free Bird – a reference to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s redneck anthem – with a professional sheen most freshman projects can’t afford.

Rhymes for Young Ghouls
I thought about including Jeff Barnaby’s impressive debut feature, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, on the list of slacker and stoner movies representing different ethnic backgrounds, but what began as a comedy soon evolved into a creepy First Nation revenge/horror flick. This isn’t to suggest that it is devoid of humor or that the characters aren’t in the same league as Bill & Ted, Harold & Kumar and Jay & Silent Bob, because most of the Red Crow Mi’gMaqs we meet are world-class stoners. In fact, the funniest line of dialogue hat I’ve heard this month belongs to Aila (Devery Jacobs), the pot-dealing protagonist, when addressing two of her flunky couriers: “You’re the two dumbest Indians since Bugs Bunny put on a headdress.” In fact, though, Barnaby’s story plays out against the background of a 1976 Canadian-government edict requiring Aboriginal children under the age of 16 to attend residential schools, where they’re force-fed the ways, language and distorted history of what they consider to be a foreign nation. This wouldn’t be so completely onerous if it weren’t for the fact that native children weren’t allowed to speak to each in their native tongue, given Anglicized names, forcibly shorn of their long hair and braids, required to embrace Christianity and deny their own religious rituals. Cases of sexual, physical and mental abuse at the boarding houses in Canada, the U.S. and Australia have been well documented and subsequently elicited the apologies of government and church leaders.

In “Rhymes,” a brutal and corrupt Indian agent, Popper (Mark Antony Krupa), makes life miserable for everyone on the rez, especially the kids forcibly removed from their modest homes. When Aila’s father, Joseph (Glen Gould) is released from prison, Popper recognizes him as a potential threat to his authority. This includes extracting bribes from Aila and administering regular beat-downs on anyone he thinks deserves one. He refuses to believe that Joseph saw the light in stir and is as disturbed by the rampant drug dealing and alcoholism ravaging the community as anyone else. What he can’t abide, however, is the routine harassment, brutality and payoffs demanded by the agent. Joseph’s return sets up an inevitable series of showdowns with Popper, as well as an uprising by the young people still carrying the scars of institutionalized torture at the school. What makes “Rhymes” especially interesting is the integration of Aboriginal mysticism into the story, including the occasional resurrection of unsettled spirits of ancestors, who, having been buried in a mass grave, wander the reservation at night like so many zombies. It was well-received on the festival circuit, but, as far as I can tell, received no distribution in the U.S., even in communities with significant Native American populations. It’s definitely worth finding. The Blu-ray adds a very good making-of featurette.

A Life in Dirty Movies
When the history of 42nd Street and the sexploitation industry is finally written, Joe Sarno’s name will stand tall as an example of a filmmaker who, for years, bucked the tides of convention and sleaze, but finally succumbed to the realities of the marketplace. Throughout the 1960s, Sarno produced dozens of pulpy features that bridged the gap between Russ Meyer’s nudie-cuties and the soft-corn porn of Radley Metzger. In such pre-porn classics as Sin in the Suburbs (1964), Moonlighting Wives (1966), The Bed and How to Make It! (1966) and Inga (1968), he employed psycho-sexual dramatics to sell stories that addressed the erosion of sexual mores and taboos of the times. While these films clearly exploited the female form, Sarno was practically alone in his insistence that women are capable of enjoying sex every bit as much as his male characters. It seems to be a rather obvious point, a half-century after the fact, but it was the rare filmmaker who treated female orgasms as something other than a rumor. As difficult as it might be to imagine, then and now, some people mentioned Sarno’s name in the same breath as Ingmar Bergman and other Euros. After all, Swedish audiences had fallen in love with newly legitimized sex films and actors didn’t seem to mind taking off their clothes. One of things we learn in Wiktor Ericsson’s admiring bio-doc, A Life in Dirty Movies, is that Bergman once toyed with the idea of collaborating on an adult picture with Sarno, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa. Even if only half-true, it makes for a delightful anecdote. The documentary also succeeds as a more or less traditional love story. Sarno and Peggy Steffans, his wife and collaborator, maintained a marriage of 40 years amidst countless distractions, temptations and obstacles. Among the roadblocks was Peggy’s wealthy, if imperious mother, who disapproved of Sarno’s business, personality, age difference and previous marriage. One way they overcame mom’s resistance was to spend extended vacations each year in Sweden and cultivate friendships with artists who didn’t equate sex with scandal. It’s appears to have been one of those unlikely couplings, in which the words “husband” and “wife” couldn’t adequately characterize their relationship. Sarno’s greatest challenge would come when audiences abandoned soft-core and sexploitation films for those that left nothing to the imagination. Running out of money finally convinced him to push his qualms aside and make hard-core films under assumed names. Some of them were quite good, in fact. Except in discussions in featurettes included in the bonus package, A Life in Dirty Movies doesn’t linger very long on this phase of Sarno’s career. Because Ericsson was accorded extensive access to the couple in the last years of his life together, the Swedish filmmaker was able to capture the delight in Joe and Peggy’s faces in advance of career retrospectives at the New York Underground Film Festival, the Torino Film Festival, Cinémathèque Française and the Andy Warhol Museum. It also chronicles his failed efforts to complete one last film before his death, at 89, in 2010. The DVD adds additional interview material and sequences from Fabodjantan and Young Playthings.

Touch of the Light
If this uplifting Taiwanese drama about a blind piano prodigy isn’t as rousing a success as Taylor Hackford’s Ray, the story it tells offers many subtle charms of its own. Touch of the Light extends director Chang Jung-chi and writer Nyssa Li’s 2008 award-winning short film on the same musician, Huang Yu-Siang, who plays himself here, as well. It’s a simple story, really. Siang was born to a rural family that found it extremely difficult to raise a handicapped son on the parents’ meager earnings. Even so, the boy’s natural curiosity and latent talent pulled him along, until he was able to attend a university dedicated to the arts. Other challenges would await him in the sighted world, but, again, his determination to succeed made his musicianship the least of his problems. Indeed, once Siang finds his footing among his fellow students, Li’s story expands to take on the issues facing a young working-class woman, Jie (Sandrine Pinna), who desperately wants to become a dancer, but is held back by her own lack of self-confidence, resources and personal issues. After a chance meeting, Jie follows Siang around the city on his daily rounds, which includes instilling a love of music among blind children. By this time, viewers will begin to wonder if their mutual admiration society allows for romance. They won’t find it overly taxing to stick around to discover what happens in that department.

Lines of Wellington
Americans have enough trouble keeping track of their own wars, without also having to recall the details of the conflicts that have enflamed Europe throughout its post-Roman history. If it weren’t for HBO and Showtime, we’d be hard-pressed to understand the forces that shaped the continent going into the world wars, upon which most of us have a pretty good handle. The Napoleonic Wars ring a bell, but only to the extent that they informed the phrase, “met his Waterloo” (also a song by Abba), and gave us the “1812 Overture,” which Americans have appropriated to commemorate our own War of 1812. It explains why stateside distributors gave a pass to the epic historical drama, Lines of Wellington, which was begun by Chilean director Raúl Ruiz and completed by his widow Valeria Sarmiento. The star-studded Franco/Portuguese production, also cut for use as a television mini-series in some markets, opens with the Battle of Bussaco and extends through the retreat of French Marshal Masséna from the Lines of Torres Vedras, thus relieving Portugal from the threat of occupation. The title refers to the line of defense built by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, whose brilliant strategizing confounded the larger French force and assured his place in British military history. While most of Lines of Wellington’s accurate, it includes several historical groaners. Among them, it repeats the likely apocryphal story of the creation of the first Beef Wellington. That duty fell to John Malkovich, an internationally renowned American actor who seemingly was born to mock the massive pomposity of European aristocracy. While there are several battle scenes shown in the film, the emphasis is on the toll paid by the poor folks caught between the constantly changing front lines, along with various camp followers, ordinary soldiers and royals too lazy to get out of their own way. Refugees streamed toward Lisbon as the sides advanced or they were displaced by Wellington’s scorched-earth policy in his strategic retreats. Fans of historical epics should find plenty to enjoy throughout the 152-minute length of Lines of Wellington. Others, not so much. The Portuguese locations add to the fun, as do virtual cameos by such prominent European actors as Mathieu Amalric, Elsa Zylberstein, Vincent Perez, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Michel Piccoli and Chiara Mastroianni. The DVD arrives with a separate disc dedicated to a making-of featurette.

What’s the T?
Snails in the Rain
The Third One
Before some people hit rock bottom, they’re given an opportunity to tell their stories. These usually take the form of cautionary tales, but, sometimes, the forums provide one last opportunity to show off before an audience. In Twink, washed-up gay-porn star Kayden Daydream (a.k.a., Quinn) is motivated chiefly to give the middle finger to the world one last time. Before he does so, however, Kayden describes the highs and lows of the skin trade in frightening detail. He gleefully pushed the limits of debauchery and unnecessary risk. The arena in which he practiced his craft was one that fetishized youth and discarded its stars when they passed a certain age or lost their looks. Not one to be easily dismissed, Kayden greased his slide by allowing drugs and alcohol to numb his mind and body to physical and emotional pain. In his painfully transgressive and confrontational interview with the unseen documentarian, Kayden demands of the audience that it wallow in the muck of his life and listen to the contradictions and lies he’s told himself hundreds of times. His slovenly existence tells us that the presence of the filmmaker has only forestalled the inevitable for a little while. It’s a harrowing thing to watch, but I think Twink probably would work better on stage, where its rawness could have more direct impact on the audience. It’s hard to fault Wade Radford’s interpretation of such an unpleasant character, though, because Kayden truly is repelling. Co-director Jason Impey has collaborated with Radford on such micro-budgeted gay-punk films as Boys Behind Bars, Lustful Desires, Tub Boy and Sex, Lies & Depravity and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a loyal following.

The sight of transgender actors and characters on television is becoming less of a novelty – or provocation — with every new cable-TV series intent on pushing the envelope or drawing attention to itself. Laverne Cox plays Sophia on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” Chaz Bono strutted his stuff on “Dancing With the Stars.” “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” is practically mainstream. ABC’s “Ugly Betty” and “Dirty Sexy Money” featured transgender actors in the same season. And, Unique Adams joined the “Glee” club. They’re not alone. Cecilio Asuncion’s 2012 documentary, What’s the T?, explores the challenges, successes and daily lives of five attractive trans-gender women who represent the “new normality,” of LGBT life in some parts of the U.S. By now, it almost seems boring.

After watching documentaries and contemporary dramas about how swell it is to be gay and Israeli in Tel Aviv – gay and Palestinian is a different story – I found Snails in the Rain to be oddly anachronistic. But, then, I missed the part where viewers are made aware of the 1989 setting. That we’re still getting stories about how difficult it is to come out of the closet, especially in one of the world’s most un-closeted cities, also was disconcerting. Boaz (Yoav Reuveni) is a linguistics student awaiting word on a grant that would allow him and his girlfriend Noa (Moran Rosenblatt) to move to Jerusalem, where his cloying mother would find it more difficult to hassle them. It isn’t until Boaz begins getting unsigned mash notes from another man that he begins to question how straight and dedicated to Noa he really is. It also reminds him of his time in the army, which, according to some movies I’ve seen, may be the single most inclusive gay bar in Israel. This new-found uncertainty bothers Boaz so terribly that he begins to turn his angst on Noa, who doesn’t deserve his shit. When we finally arrive at an answer as to who’s sending the letters, even more questions are raised. But, that’s 1989 for you.

At 70 minutes, The Third One barely has enough time to tell a story worth hearing. As it is, though, I don’t think Argentinian writer/director Rodrigo Guerrero had much of an idea where he wanted to go with his sophomore film, anyway. It opens with 22-year-old Fede (Emiliano Dionisi) cruising various Internet chatrooms to find an interesting hookup. He accepts an invitation from a gay couple, presumably in their 40s, for dinner at their nicely appointed pad. Once dinner is cleared, the trio spends the next half-hour getting even better acquainted. The next morning finds Fede in his class at the university daydreaming about night things. That’s it. This one is only for people who enjoy eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.

Comedy Central: Drunk History Seasons 1 & 2
PBS: Rise of the Black Pharaohs
PBS: Nova: First Air War
PBS: Nova: Ben Franklin’s Balloon
If there weren’t so darn many channels on TV and the Internet had yet to been invented, some people might consider a show such as Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” to be a sinfully frivolous waste of time … or whisky. As it is, the “Funny or Die” offshoot has developed a loyal audience of viewers in the key demographic that the broadcast networks might envy. If “Dancing With the Stars” can thrive, after all, why not “Drinking With the Stars.” The web series, which was created by Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner in 2007, features well-known actors re-enacting various historical events as related by a guest narrator, who’s several sheets to wind. No matter how badly the narrators misconstrue the anecdotes they’ve been asked to interpret, the actors are obliged to repeat them verbatim – slurred words, cussing, burps and all — often to hilarious effect. You can even try it at home, like Mad-libs. Typically, the chapters focus on cities where auspicious events have taken place or such broad topics as “American Music,” “First Ladies” and “Sports Heroes.” Among the celebrities on display are Jenny Slate, Luke and Owen Wilson, Alfred Molina, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera, Connie Britton, Winona Ryder, Bob Odenkirk, Juno Temple, Paget Brewster, John Lithgow and Emily Deschanel.

It’s a function of institutional racism that the accomplishments of non-white cultures have, until lately, been minimalized or doubted by archeologists and historians. Certainly, that’s the case in pre-colonization Africa, where great tribes ruled vast sections of the continent and the victors of terrible wars drew borders that reflected reality on the ground, not European politics. Around 800 BC, Kush, a little-known subject state of Egypt, rose up and conquered the Egyptians, enthroned its own pharaohs and ruled over the empire of King Tut for nearly 100 years. Even when surrounded by evidence, archaeologists refused to believe that dark-skinned Africans could have risen so high. Today, in the heart of Sudan, archeologists Geoff Emberling and Tim Kendall are bringing the truth about the “black pharaohs” to life. In PBS’ “Rise of the Black Pharaohs” viewers are invited to investigate a royal tomb located beneath an ancient Kush pyramid and climb a stone pillar sacred to both Kushites and Egyptians. It’s an amazing story.

Far better known, but no less interesting, is the “Nova” presentation, “First Air War,” which not only dramatizes the rise of the biplane as a crucial element to modern warfare, but also employs history re-creators to demonstrate how the machines evolved to reflect the lessons learned in battle. When World War I began, in 1914, the air forces of the opposing nations consisted of handfuls of rickety biplanes from which pilots occasionally took pot shots at one another with rifles. By the war’s end, the essential blueprint of the modern fighter had emerged. “Nova” producers join members of New Zealand’s Vintage Aviator club, as they reveal the secrets of classic World War I fighters, such as the SE5A and Albatros DV.

Also from “Nova,” “Ben Franklin’s Balloon” corrects the notion that human flight first became a reality when the Wright brothers lifted off at Kitty Hawk. In fact, 120 years earlier, the Montgolfier brothers built a hot-air balloon that thrilled French witnesses with its ability to soar 3,000 feet into the clouds. If it weren’t for Benjamin Franklin, who was serving in Paris as our ambassador to France, Americans might still believe that the first such balloon trip here was the first one anywhere. Instead, Franklin’s dispatches piqued the imaginations of his readers across the Atlantic. “Nova” re-creates key flights of manned and unmanned vessels, which were constructed of cotton and paper and propelled by the gases released by burning hay. Joining the team is a descendant of the Montgolfiers.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon