Thursday, July 03, 2008

Saturday Night Live (October 11, 1975): "Victims of Shark Bite" sketch

Last Saturday night (June 28th), NBC paid tribute to George Carlin, who died the previous weekend, by replaying the pilot episode of Saturday Night Live from October 11, 1975. Carlin, as a sure sign of his stature in the comedic world at that point in time, served as host for the show, and I was there. OK, not there in New York, but I did watch the show when it first aired.

I saw the first Saturday Night Live episode in a way that many would consider to be “on the sly". Owing to the fact that I was staying up incredibly late for an 11-year old, some would consider it that, but it really wasn’t that way. My parents, especially my Mom, let me stay up late on Friday and Saturday nights, and these late night vigils were aided by the very layout of our home in Eagle River. The parents upstairs, we three kids in our secluded basement fortress, with me spending some weekend nights in a sleeping bag in the playroom. Technically, I was supposed to shut the tube off at midnight (I begged and pleaded to get it moved from 11:00 p.m., to which my mother relented), but I was soon dipping well past that, staying up to watch music and video shows like The Midnight Special (with Wolfman Jack) and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert until the wee hours of the night. I would soon up this in the next couple of years to include any number of midnight matinee movie shows, The New Avengers and Kolchak the Night Stalker. But first, there was Saturday Night Live.

When SNL (then merely called Saturday Night, perhaps to distinguish it from Howard Cosell’s failed ABC series of the same season) showed up on my radar, I really had no idea what I was getting into. I just happened to stay awake (sometimes I didn't even make it), my brothers were asleep in the next room, my parents were asleep upstairs, and I had a burgeoning form of insomnia and a very obliging but quite hypnotizing television downstairs, which I was allowed to move to my room. I had seen the ads for the show throughout the week on NBC, and I even remember an article in the paper talking about the Battle of the Saturday Night shows (I recall a picture of a bunch of water-skiers in a pyramid promoting the Cosell show). While I had thought after I read the article in the paper that it would be cool to check both of these new shows out -- I was at a point in my youth where I had completely memorized the TV guide in the paper and watched any show at least one each season -- I really didn’t think that I would get the chance to see the late night version. The Cosell show, actually titled Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, arrived in our home near "the family hour" -- and we did our normal Saturday evening family pizza routine on the night it premiered, watching the ridiculous Bay City Rollers and the rest of the variety-style entertainment -- and then never saw it again. Cancelled -- gone -- and all but forgotten.

And then, a couple of weeks later, just flipping channels one night, there was George Carlin, whom my cousin Brad had already introduced to me, this time really "on the sly," beginning one of his routines. Since I had missed the opening of the show and the credits that followed, I had no idea what I was watching. So I checked the schedule, and there it read Saturday Night. I had stumbled upon the very show I thought I would never get to see.

Cut to last Sunday morning: living in a world already past the VCR, I was once again watching George Carlin describing to me the differences between baseball and football on the SNL stage. This time, though, I am seeing him work his verbal magic on my DVR player. I am able to burn through the commercials and the Janis Ian performances, and am able to watch the entire show in just under an hour. It's amazing just how much of the routine of the show, which our society has by now absorbed into its collective consciousness, was already built into that first episode, almost as if the structure -- outside of the individual characters and skits which would propel it to immense fame -- had risen fully formed out of the mire of that first Saturday evening in 1975. And another thing arose in that opening pilot of a show: the so-so skit based on an incredibly sketchy idea. The half-joke that almost feels like it was tossed together in a desperate attempt to fill time. Sometimes though, the joke comes off solely through the utter charm of the performers involved.

Following Ian's At Seventeen (which, I must admit, I have always secretly liked, so I rewound the show to watch her sing it later), we are shown a rough approximation of the famous rising-shark image from Jaws, and the words Victims of Shark Bite superimposed over it. The set-up is exceedingly simple -- a basic community talk show format. Jane Curtin, as she would steadfastly a thousand times it seems throughout her run on the show, plays the host. For her initial gig, she gives her name as Phyllis Crawford, and after welcoming the audience to Victims of Shark Bite, she introduces her "first guest," a "Mr. Martin Gressner of Long Island, New York." She begins the interview:

"Mr. Gressner, would you tell the audience just how you became a Victim of Shark Bite?"

The camera cuts to a shot of Curtin sitting next to John Belushi, still mostly unknown to the world, and seeming to strain hard to keep his wise-guy smirk at bay, much like many of the cast does in this initial show. At odds with his usual disheveled appearance, Belushi is wearing a tie and a brown blazer, and he is sitting in a chair, his right leg tucked comfortably under his other leg. What the viewer immediately takes in (as the audience clearly does judging from the massive giggling at large in the opening of the scene) is that Belushi seems to be missing his left arm. The effect is done in that time-honored, low-budget, improv way: by having Belushi keep from slipping his left arm through the sleeve of the blazer, leaving the cloth to spill unfilled down his side, and then selling the illusion by tucking the sleeve into his blazer pocket, while his arm remains inside the jacket. Belushi continues the skit:

"I'd be happy to, Phyllis. I was swimming about 50 yards offshore from my summer home in Montauk, Long Island. It was high tide, and all of a sudden, I felt this sharp, piercing pain in my left shoulder. I didn't know what it was at first -- my left arm felt numb. Well, my arm was gone, and since then, I've had to learn how to do everything with my right hand."
Belushi, the smirk mostly gone and delivering his lines like he really believes he has lost his arm, sells the illusion by hitting all of his marks. He points to the left shoulder, winces and nearly stutters when he mentions the arm, and even stretches his right hand briefly while stressing his predicament. The camera aids him greatly by slowly tightening its focus squarely on the comic's upper half. The bit has turned surprisingly serious to this point, despite the fact that Belushi clearly has his left arm inside of his blazer. Curtin then asks:

"Just when did this incident take place?"

"Oh, I'd say... three, maybe four months ago. I've had to learn how to shave with my right hand, and eat with my right --"

The audience goes wild, for when Belushi counts down the months, he does so by sticking his left hand out from its hiding place inside the jacket to thrust three, and then four, fingers. Curtin's host immediately jumps on his transgression:

"Just a minute, Mr. Gressner, it seems as if you do have a left arm there." 
Having been found out, Belushi grabs the flap of his blazer and flips it desperately into the air.

"No, it's gone! See, shark bit it off! Nothing there!"

"Mr. Gressner, THAT is your sleeve. You DO have a left arm, and it looks perfectly normal!"

Belushi tries hard to dig his way out of this fix, and his eyes search about for anything that will divert attention away. He sees his right leg tucked up onto his chair and changes direction:

"Oh... it was... my leg! He bit my leg off! You see, I had to hop around on one foot -- I'm an invalid. I have a wheelchair...!"

"No, you DO have a leg there -- it's tucked under your other leg." She pulls his foot out and drops it on the floor. "You see, you're fine! There's nothing wrong with you!"

"Well, I saw that movie where the guy had his leg bit off --"
Curtin breaks away in frustration to announce to the audience that they will have their next Victim of Shark Bite on after a word from their sponsors, and the skit ends.

It's barely a joke, as I stated before, and it's almost the sort of gag a kid would pull goofing around with his friends. In fact, much of Saturday Night Live's material throughout the years is exactly that: juvenilia, the sophomoric stuff that most similar shows wouldn't touch unless it were to make an ironic statement of some sort. It doesn't make it any less funny, and as I said, much of the success of this material depends on the charm of the presenter. In Belushi, who built his every move on his scruffy, shambolic charisma, such a thin premise is almost guaranteed of success, because he allows the audience to be in on the joke from the beginning.

I find the skit most interesting, though, as a supplement to one of SNL's most famous characters, Chevy Chase's Landshark, which appeared in a handful of skits in the first two seasons of the show. That sharks played such a huge, early role in the development of this television landmark is surely a testament to just how pervasive our society's absurd fear of these creatures had overwhelmed popular culture in 1975, the year of the theatrical release of Jaws. The writers and producers of Saturday Night Live not only leaped upon lampooning this fear by introducing a character who would help them in capturing a devoted audience following, but even saw fit to include a rougher, more formatively child-like version of this humor in its opening show.

By testing the waters in this way, they may not have gotten a solid bite. But sometimes the slightest nibble can be a decent precursor of things to come...


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy (2005)

Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy (2005)
Director: Michael Oblowitz
TC4P Rating: 3/9 
Appearance: Mutant shark. As described in the film, a great hammerhead crossed with a human being that, incidentally, used to bang Hunter Tylo's character (the human being, not the shark. Don't be a sicko...)

I kept hoping a bucket would appear out of nowhere in Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy.

Not to catch the vomit that any discerning viewer would spew without pause upon attempting to watch this execrable exercise in shark terror. And not to catch any of the massive doses of arterial spray that douse the screen frequently within the film’s labored attempt to update The Most Dangerous Game by making the hunter a screamingly mad scientist whose weapon of choice is a mutant giant hammerhead shark-human being hybrid. No, the bucket is not for either of those reasons. The bucket is only for water.

I wanted a bucket with water to appear to see if the characters would react to it with the same fear that they apply to any body of water within the film: with the constant fear, reasoned or not, that somewhere inside that liquid there would be some form of shark ready to attack them. Inland, ocean, laboratory tank… it doesn’t matter. The thought of water in this film seems to drive certain characters into screeching fits.

Due to this, I wanted the ragtag group of victims to turn a corner of a shed at some point… and there they discover a seemingly normal, unthreatening bucket of water, sitting beside the shed in exactly the way that a seemingly normal, unthreatening bucket of water would. Doughy leading man William Forsythe, still able to wrangle action parts despite his span, would slip on a wet leaf, and his gun would fall into the bucket. “My God!,” leading lady Hunter Tylo would blubber through the mass of her wasp-stung lips. “Our only weapon! We have to retrieve it!” Then, much bickering would ensue, and it would finally be decided somehow through the machinations of ill-logic that the most expendable character (perhaps a she… usually a she in these things, probably the bimbo still running through the jungle on his four-inch spike heels, tripping every three feet) would be best suited to grab the gun out of the bucket. She would slowly work her hand towards the rim of the bucket, and the eerie, squealing music would slowly build, and she would get her hand even closer, and there would be a close-up of her face as she grimaces and starts to cry in fear, her hand shaking ever more as she starts to dip her fingers into the water…

…and, of course, she would get eaten by the giant hammerhead shark-human hybrid thing roaming about the island and infesting every single drop of water around the place. Without any explanation for how the giant hammerhead shark-human hybrid thing managed to cram itself into the relatively tiny bucket, he would leap from its bottom and devour the entire top half of her body, leaving her detached groin and legs to flail about for a split-second before collapsing to the ground. Forsythe, however, would recover the gun from the bucket during the attack, keeping his wits about him as usual, fire off a couple of useless shots, and then manage to corral the rest of his party while the giant hammerhead shark-human hybrid thing zipped off to leap out of another body of water. Perhaps a drinking glass this time…

The characters’ constant fear is completely justified. There is a hardly a scene in this film where the water, in any form, doesn’t have some threat with sharky menace attached to it. On an island that seems about as huge as all of Hawaii put together, no matter where the characters are, and no matter how split up they get throughout the film, that hybrid thing always seems to be around. And even in the early scenes where two playful swimmers decide to stupidly jump into waters filled with tens of real hammerheads, they get eaten by the hybrid thing instead. A girl slips on a slope beside some water, and the recognizable triple-fin back of the hybrid thing breaks the surface. One villainous lackey lays their hand beside a lab tank, and the hybrid thing takes off a finger. It just goes on and on like this for what must be days on end.

I am not going to deride the scientific thought behind the creation of this creature nor its justification for existence. Mad scientists are, by definition, mad, and they don’t really need reasons why. They just usually attempt the nigh impossible in order to provide the monster, and usually that is good enough. That's all I need in a horror film. This film does have a terrific mad thrashing about in it, though the portrayal is a tad bit lower, though still relentlessly hammy, than Jeffrey Combs’ brilliant initial cinematic success as the committed Herbert West in Re-Animator. I kept thinking that Hammerhead would have actually worked far better in black-and-white, Combs’ look and performance being almost perfect for an old Universal-style (or at least, Monogram) horror flick. Scratch the gore, of course, and make the hybrid thing a little more sympathetic – there is little or no attempt here to do so, and that is a major failing in the film, especially given that the human part of the hybrid thing is Combs’ character’s son.

Combs does have one great speech in the film, and if more of the dialogue were this hotly spat, it could have been a lowbrow classic. When questioned as to why he doesn't just use sharks that lay eggs, he replies without hesitation, in an almost staccato delivery: 

"Easier? Maybe. The giant Hammerhead isn't like other sharks. It's the pinnacle of shark evolution. Nurtures its young in placenta. What's a Great White? It's a machine - swims and eats. Doesn't think, like the Sphyrna mokarran. The Sphyrna is far more advanced. Much more capable of being genetically integrated with the human race."

Sure... of course. You have to buy into these things if you are going to get anywhere in a film like this.

If there is anything to like, outside of Combs and the usual reasons one watches these films -- monsters on a rampage, itself almost a reflexive action; you like them almost in spite of themselves, and if you don't, you don't -- the leads are fairly committed. Forsythe remains focused on the task at hand -- ignoring the fact that he is in Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy -- and continues to move at an action-movie pace despite his closer physical resemblance to the island itself. He is an underused actor, far better than the material he has been primarily trapped in since the early '90s, but I suppose he fills his niche. As for Hunter Tylo, longtime actress on The Bold and the Beautiful, her amazing body -- though not of work -- makes her at least one of the more comely specimens of the modern duck-billed woman. Lisa Rinna, your reign may be in doubt.

The shark himself, much like the giant-ass lips of Tylo and Rinna, is a preposterous mess, as hybrids tend to be, and he would be scary in a dream-like fashion if he weren't so damn funny. I think that Combs' scientist character was incorrect though in describing him as a cross between a giant hammerhead and a human (outside of the fact that the largest of the hammerhead shark species, Sphyrna mokarran, is actually called the Great Hammerhead). No, after watching attack after attack, filled with ridiculous close-ups of the supposedly frightening creature's visage (which somewhat reminds me of Sloth from The Goonies), I am now led to believe there is some Muppet DNA in the mix as well. It could very well lead to a very bloody day on Sesame Street. Elmo, watch your ass.

Of course, Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy the film crawled out of the Boaz Davidson cesspool, he of the Shark Attack series and numerous side attempts at bad shark-filled menace ad nauseam. To qualify that, I must state that I don't believe he has actually made any attempts at good shark-filled menace. He has now made the leap, however, after stocking Sci-Fi Channel for the next six decades with cheap "nature run amok" epics, to the big leagues. It is a telling thing, though, that one of those films sporting his name as executive producer -- 88 Minutes starring Al Pacino -- is almost universally being derided as one of the worst films of the decade, if not Pacino's career. I have not seen the film, so I cannot judge (except to say that Al's hair is crazy hilarious...)

But it is interesting to note, that after a career built on dozens of horrible but cheap, mostly straight-to-video flicks, Boaz Davidson only attracts the true ire of the critics when he ventures into their territory. Most of them are haughty enough, and too busy, to allow themselves the luxury of soaking in the hot, stinking bath that is his oeuvre. Now, with his name on other mostly savaged films like the remake of The Wicker Man and De Palma's The Black Dahlia, not to mention the upcoming Conan the Barbarian series restart, those critics can now wallow along with the rest of us in his highly undemanding pigsty. You can defend him and say "Aw, he's just a producer! You can't put all of the blame on him..." Well, yes I can, because after all, on Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy, he can't use that escape clause. He co-wrote the damnable thing.

And now I want to drown him in that bucket full of water. I knew it had to be sitting out there for a reason.


[Editor's note 2/6/16: Sci-Fi Channel is now called SyFy. SyFy has since aired a film called Ghost Shark where sharks attack people out of any object containing water, including the aforementioned bucket. I wonder if they read this review? Oh yeah... I still haven't seen 88 Minutes.]

Friday, May 02, 2008

TSFO Octopus Arm: Below the Sea (1933)

Below the Sea (1933)
Director: Albert S. Rogell
TC4P: 5/9
Appearance: Giant Octopus (of a species which doesn't occur naturally where this film takes place).

We get so used to modern special effects and buying the b.s. as to their effectiveness in filmmaking – when it really could not be further from the truth in most cases – that we tend to dismiss everything that came before. Modern audiences also like to scoff at what they consider “primitive” techniques. I would argue that those primitive techniques, however moldy they may seem to us, were often far more efficient at helping the director tell his story than many of the slicker, more recent attempts where the effects overtake the story itself. Overriding effects can make the films nothing more than mere spectacle, sapping any true feeling away from the proceedings (crappy studio-driven scripting, where the concern is more on pleasing focus group rather than let a storyteller spin his yarn, can also contribute in a major way). In an age where any action can be slickly rendered through the use of computers, filmmakers have to be careful to blend those effects to make us truly believe in them, i.e. those monsters are really in the same room and taking an emotional and physical toll on their victims.

Part of the charm in searching out old films that one has never seen before is discovering moments that not only look incredible to the immediate eye, even today, but also cause one to be amazed that such a moment or story was even attempted, especially in the earlier days of the cinema. Even if the moment doesn’t really work or looks kind of jerky or static, it still can seem amazing through the sheer chutzpah it must have taken to try it in those less technologically advanced days. Most often, these moments are in films already considered to be part of "the canon": the films we are told repeatedly since we are kids that they are great, and it just waits for us to discover those classics for ourselves. 

Early on in my youth, I felt this with Keaton and Chaplin, and then Fairbanks’ The Thief of Baghdad (Fairbanks films in general, really…). Murnau’s Sunrise, which as a teen I thought at first to be just another boring silent drama, until it slowly revealed its epic intensity and loveliness to me through some surprising 1927 camera effects. Orson Welles took me to another planet – not literally, but his films opened the breadth of the film canvas for me, and well, you should know the score there yourself. And need I mention how Strangers On A Train became my favorite Hitchcock film via its carousel-gone-wild sequence, which I was not anticipating at all, and which then burrowed itself into my mind the way only the most thrilling scenes can? To top all of this was that moment when I met King Kong – it wasn’t just special effects to me; then and now, the Mighty Kong lives fully in my mind and heart as a character as real as the human ones on the screen. To this day, my mind still reels over the balls it took to make that film, let alone to pull it off.

These films loom far, far above the film subject of this particular post, but that vague sense – that “Eureka!” moment of personal discovery – is precisely the same. Smaller, quieter, less ambitious films can have those moments too, and silent films and the films of the 1930s are top-loaded with these moments. They had to be exceedingly clever and resourceful to pull of these impossible scenes. To find them, you just have to know where to look. TCM makes it easier to find them than it used to be. Their Forbidden Hollywood series focusing on pre-Code delights contains scads of these types of scenes, and not all of them are hot girls in ultra-clingy '30s lingerie. (Those scenes certainly count, though, towards the same effect…)

Also on a special night on TCM, where Robert Osborne was concentrating in tongue-in-cheek fashion on films with octopi in them, came this tiny, extremely flawed but somehow entertaining sideshow: Below the Sea, a Columbia “B” from 1933, featuring Ralph Bellamy in the hero’s role getting all gooey – understandably – over that living doll, Fay Wray. The girl of my lifetime dreams, to be sure. The mechanics of the plot of Below the Sea are so ridiculous its not even worth going over it, but in a nutshell: a German U-boat laden with a chest of gold bars worth $3 million goes down in the sea during WWI, sunk by a Norwegian ship, but the German captain and his first mate survive. Crawling to shore, they make a map of the gold's whereabouts on the ocean floor, but in a stunningly done murder scene almost worthy of Hitch himself, the captain pushes the unsuspecting crewman off a cliff, which he bounces down satisfactorily (for the audience, not for the bouncing guy).

Years later, the captain teams up with the top deep-sea diver in the game, played by Bellamy, and through the auspices of a third party, a lusty wharf madam with a cache of coin, they make attempts to retrieve the gold. Only the captain will not reveal the whereabouts nor even show the map to anyone else. Through a series of double-crosses, Bellamy eventually forces the captain into a pact by stealing one-half of the map (why he doesn’t take the whole thing and do away with the obviously crazy German I don’t know, except that it would cause Bellamy to no longer perform effectively as the eventual hero of the piece, given the standards of the day).

And thus we see another attempt to retrieve the gold, this time on a ship owned by the family of a high society flibbertigibbet portrayed by Ms. Wray. Naturally, she falls for Bellamy, but only after making use of his diving equipment for her own photo shoots, including making him jealous by openly kissing her photographer inside the diving bell. Scenes of Wray scrambling to fit her tiny little self into his giant diving suit are also a delight. After the darker drama of the treasure hunters, this romantic interplay is, for once, a good deal of fun, especially as a build-up where the film is ultimately leading. Wray matches Bellamy jibe for jibe, and even dive for dive, with a very buoyant spirit unfettered by thoughts of inequality between the sexes. She simply is who she is and never apologizes for it.

I must be honest and say that, even though they were showing it on a night devoted to octopi, I was watching this film to hopefully catch an early film glimpse of a shark on screen. Sadly, there is none, but while I was expecting an octopus to show up at some point, I didn’t realize to what extent it would. Especially, in 1933 (even though though there are earlier films with octopus attacks). While Ms. Wray was also in that year’s King Kong, that film was made by Merian C. Cooper over at RKO, a man with serious drive and attitude, and I didn’t think that Columbia Pictures had it in them to try their own monstrous attack film in that same era.

While the octopus is not insanely huge, it is big enough to encapsulate fully the diving bell in which Ms. Wray and the photographer are trapped. The octopus wraps its arms about the instrument, and eventually causes the capsule to disengage from the air tubes that give continued life to its mortal occupants. I would judge that each of the creature’s arms, taking the size of the bell into consideration and the size of Bellamy fighting the creature in his suit, were anywhere from 12 to 18 feet in length. And while it is not a real octopus for the most part on screen, the methods used are still most effective in creating a bumbling, almost accidental though spooky menace.

But even menace brought about solely by the natural curiosity of a large cephalopod checking out an object which has dropped into its territory is automatically an outright attack by human terms. Especially terms as identified by human movie characters, who are often even more ridiculous than the real thing (but not always). South Park’s “It’s coming right for us!” hunting attitude regarding monsters and animals of all types is perfectly apt for this film, where the dive-suited Bellamy uses the only weapon at his disposal – an underwater welding torch – to do away with the massive creature. Honestly, it’s an approach I never would have considered – a knife or spear seemed most reasonable – but its spark-spitting underwater flashiness is certainly a far more visually intriguing sight than someone simply plunging a rubber knife into a rubber costume.

After a couple minutes of struggle, there is finally an explosion of – what? Ink? Blood? A combination of the two? Whatever causes the dark cloud to erupt around both diver and attacker, it is remarkable to see. The octopus collapses to the ocean floor, the tubes are reconnected to the bell, and the future of Bellamy and Wray as a couple is assured. At least, for a happy ending to the film.

And for me, regarding Below the Sea, this fight is one of those moments of which I spoke. Going into the film, I did not know that a movie combining these various elements even existed --- and here it was. Did I need a film in which a giant octopus molests a diving bell containing Fay Wray which ends in a breathless fight between a giant sea monster and a welding torch? Well... yes, I did, and I don't blame the octopus for putting the moves on the diving bell either. After all, it's Fay Wray.

And I am glad that my own stumble-footed, octopoid ways led me to wrap my tentacles around Below the Sea. I certainly won't let go of it.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Goggle-Fishing Bear (1949)

Goggle-Fishing Bear (1949)
Directors: Preston Blair and Michael Lah
TC4P Rating: 5/9
Shark appearance: cartoon shark (undefinable species), able to roar and growl, no sense of humor.

So, who has it worse? Sharks in the movies -- where they are employed mainly to threaten the lives of the (usually) human characters in the film, or at the very least, imply that said characters are in mortal danger -- or sharks in cartoons?

Certainly, the answers is "in the movies," since sharks almost always end up dying onscreen for their sins, and in some films (in the dark, olden days of the industry), really dying for our entertainment. Their menace is perceived as far more real, naturally, and the potential harm to the reputation of sharks in the real world is that much more immense.

Cartoon sharks, on the other hand, not being flesh and blood, have a cakewalk. Or is that "cake-swim"? Sure, they show up, flash their pearlies, frighten the protagonist(s) and generally have a fine, evil time of it as the contracted villain of the piece. They do what is expected of any shark in a film: be evil, get your comeuppance, end of story. Except cartoon sharks, given that they are in a piece where death is a rare (if ever) occurrence, don't get blown to smithereens (as a final blow, that is) or get a bullet through the head or get harpooned or electrocuted or spear-gunned. Cartoon sharks, though actually one of the rarer species on earth, most often survive their appearances in their films. The twist is that they often face a different sort of living death...

In Goggle-Fishing Bear, an MGM short from 1949, the shark in question literally and ultimately becomes the butt of the joke. Accompanied by the usual compliment of lush backgrounds, detailed closeups and sharp character work that was a hallmark at MGM in the '40s, ursine dope Barney Bear takes to his rowboat for a spot of fishing relaxation. Of course, anyone even remotely familiar with poor ol' Barney, or cartoons in general, knows that relaxation is definitely not in the cards. Even if he had opted to stay home and actually play cards instead, relaxation would not be ready to be paired with the misbegotten Barney. In much the same manner that sharks have their place to play in cartoons, so is Barney burdened with the yoke of playing the eternal lummox.

The opening third of the short concerns Barney's attempts at enjoying a day trident-fishing off his outboard motor boat as being initially thwarted by the intrusion of a typically cute sea lion pup (not a seal, though people will immediately see him and shout, like a small child would in delight, "seal!). The pup gives Barney the sort of hard time that one expects, but these frustrations immediately cease once the third character of the film is introduced: the shark.

His entrance is grand, far grander than the film itself deserves. As Barney and the sea lion pup go through their cutesy struggles with one another, at the point where the pup has been so fully shunned by the bear that he mopes away sadly on his own, a huge, looming shadow falls over him. The pup glances off to see what is causing the circling shadow, and as he does, a huge green and yellow shark turns about and makes a beeline for the pup. Panic ensues, but the pup retains just enough of his senses to try and warn his would-be playmate, Barney, of the impending doom. He zips between the bear's legs, sending the ursine spinning about and accidentally releasing the fish Barney has just caught. The pup barks madly in desperation. Barney is so annoyed by the pup by now that he ignores its warnings, and continues back to his trident-fishing. As the shark continues drifting forwards, closer and closer, the pup has no choice but to give up on his friend, scream frantically and head for the hills. Or the boat. Whatever the case may be.  

So, now I ask, which is of more murderous intent? The natural hunger that continues the great "Chain of Life," wherein a shark might instinctually seek out his prey, or a bear seeking to vent a few holes in a wholly innocent sea lion pup's head with a trident? When the shark pulls up and bumps Barney Bear in the bottom twice, the bear, believing it to be more goading from the pup, doesn't hesitate to stab his trident several times over into the snout of the shark. It slowly dawns on Barney what he has just done, and he steps away from the giant shark and acts sheepishly. The shark, angered, pulls forward and roars tremendously, its jaws fully open to allow its breath and sound waves to crash over Barney. The bear stands calmly and smartly shows the trident to the shark as if to display that it couldn't possibly do any harm, and then jabs himself in the chest as an example. Of course, it hurts Barney, and as a last desperate measure, Barney thrusts the trident over the shark's snout, pins it to the ocean floor, and makes a break for the boat, where the sea lion is already waiting to escape.

Being more than a match for a mere trident, the shark dispenses with the tool and snaps sharply onto the tips of Barney's flippers. The flippers stretch out to ridiculous lengths as Barney frantically swims for the surface. He reaches the boat, and the seal grabs his hands to pull him aboard. The boat tips upward with the weight of the bear, and when Barney grabs the slats serving as seats in the tiny craft, the boards are ripped out, and Barney zips back underwater and towards the waiting jaws of the massive shark. The fish takes a huge snap at Barney's backside, and scrapes off the poor bear's swimsuit and fur in the process, leaving Barney either bare-bottomed or bear-bottomed -- take your pick. Barney hides amongst some underwater weeds, and uses his trident to pull off a hastily improvised impersonation of King Neptune. He halts the shark with one steady hand, and then points away from him. The shark departs, but as Barney runs off in the opposite direction, the shark immediately turns about. There follows a series of snaps as Barney's person, but each snap is thwarted by the fact that Barney is running on a series of underwater moguls, and so he goes up and down with each attempted bite.

The shark swims far ahead, rests on the bottom, and opens his jaws wide like a cave. Naturally, Barney runs right in with his momentum, and the shark closes his mouth in triumph. Barney continues to run, and the shape of his body is seen walking to the end of the shark's tail. Barney realizes his mistake and turns around to run the other way. He smashes right through the teeth of the shark, leaving a silhouette of his body in the remainder of the shark's surprised grin. Barney finds a small rock and somehow manages to hide his own massive body underneath it. The rock sprouts eyes all of a sudden, but they aren't Barney's. As the shark pulls up to investigate, we find that the rock is actually an octopus, which screams at the sight of the monstrous fish and stretches up on its six legs (yes, this octopus only has six legs, not eight) in fright. It zips away, leaving an unaware Barney at the mercy of the shark.

Luckily, the sea lion pup comes to the rescue. As the shark closes its teeth in on the bear, the pup zooms into the shark's mouth and holds the jaws agape. As part of the struggle between pinniped and shark, the fish's teeth are shown to prod Barney in the rear, and the bear turns his head, presumably in anticipation of his own demise. Instead, he espies the brave little pup, straining mightily to keep the shark's jaws from snapping his would-be pal to pieces. Barney turns tail and exits the scene, only to return -- in a reminder of precisely why one indulges their mind with cartoon logic in the first place -- with a highly convenient car jack. He jams the jack in the shark's mouth and cranks it upward. The pup is no where to be seen, until it peeks out from underneath the huge tongue of the shark. The bear grabs the pup just as the shark breaks through the jack's resistance and slams its jaws shut.

Barney and the sea lion make their escape, the bear literally running upward through the water to the surface, with the shark close behind. Perhaps a bit too close for the pup's comfort, as once he sees the shark breathing hot on their necks, jumps out of Barney's grip and carries the bear himself all the way to the boat, finishing the effort with a massive leap far beyond what one expects from a tiny little sea lion pup encumbered by the weight of a portly ursine. They start the outboard engine and take off, but the shark soon catches up and uses his dorsal fin to saw the boat in twain. Barney pulls the halved pieces back together, but they sink immediately. The pup starts to bail water out, which is truly an impossible task if one is already completely underwater. But -- via that sweet cartoon logic again -- he manages to succeed. The boat pops back on the surface, somehow completely intact. The shark, not to be outdone, spins his tail section into a propeller and launches himself towards the boat like a torpedo. He strikes the boat full on, and a massive explosion ensues. Barney, the pup, the anchor and the myriad pieces of the wrecked boat fly upward, and then start to fall back to the surface of the water. The shark pops out and strikes his best pre-Jaws, mouth-agape, waiting-for-his-prey pose, a hungry smile formed on his cruel face.

But, did you really think that Barney Bear and an innocent and playful sea lion pup would really get devoured in a cartoon from 1949? In the days of "the code," would what is recognizable as evil by the bulk of the public at that time go unpunished? Of course not, and the shark receives his due according to this absurdly moral center: a faceful of anchor, a wrapping by the anchor line, and a newly outfitted yacht body courtesy of the remaining pieces of the boat, mysteriously nailed and perfectly aligned along the shark's back. The pup comes out wearing Barney's diving set and sporting the trident, which he pokes into the shark's rear, causing the fish to emit an anguished "Ooh!" Barney decides it would be fun to pantomime driving their new craft while the pup tortures the shark with a series of jabs to the rear. As they float off into the island sunset, the sharks cries are heard over and over again: "Oh!" "Ooh!" "Oh!"

As I said, our boy has become the butt of the joke. Maybe it would be better to get spear-gunned.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Shark! [aka Caine] (1969)

Shark! [aka Caine] (1969)
Director: Samuel Fuller
TC4P Rating: 4/9
Species: appears to be a tiger shark in most shots, though it seems like it flashes to other sharks briefly here and there.
Downside: actual death of a stuntman used in the film.

Just before the opening credits end on this early Burt Reynolds starring feature, the following dedication appears:

"This film is dedicated to the fearless stuntmen who repeatedly risked their lives against attacks in shark infested waters during the filming of this picture."

The film then gives up the Samuel Fuller's name as the director, and within about half an hour, the viewer will come under the realization that Shark! (also sometimes known as Caine, the name of Reynolds' character) is perhaps in that small but not so intimate circle of the worst releases ever to be lensed by a renowned international filmmaker. That it is available enough for low-budget schlock house Troma to gain the rights and release it as part of their DVD line might be testament enough as to its haggard status in film history. Fuller, the creator of bona fide cult classics such as Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss, Pickup on South Street and The Steel Helmet (this is an unreserved call for any and all to check them out... he was truly an amazing and original director), famously quit the production after the studio decided to use the death of a stunt diver to promote the film.

Why? Naturally, this stunt diver was killed by a shark, and as we know by now, if there are two things that go well together, it is the media and a shark attack. Even years before Jaws, this was a solid rule. Fuller was apparently upset with a great deal during the production, but this was the final straw. When the film was released, Fuller saw a drastically reedited version from the one he had envisioned, and though he asked for his name to be removed from the print, he was refused this courtesy. (The film was, no surprise, re-edited and released once Jaws-hysteria struck the world.)

This is not to say that the film is not of interest, outside of the fact that someone is shown actually being killed in Shark!, which is a natural, sick draw. The pre-cultural icon Reynolds (who, according to Fuller, also threatened to quit the film) is already fully practicing his "what the hell... I'm a handsome guy" off-kilter humor, and he radiates the charm that would serve him well over the coming decade as a leading man. Arthur Kennedy, an old favorite of mine, is far too over the top as a drunk doctor, but he does have a couple of nice moments. And the fight scenes are engaging and sharp, with Burt going crazy with the full leaps into his opponents, and often into the food and trinket stalls lining the streets of whatever Sudanese port in which this film (shot in Mexico) is supposed to take place. There is also a mildly kinky vibe to his "romance" with legendary Mexican actress Silvia Pinal, as they both intend to seduce one another for, ultimately, the same purpose. All in all, there is a definite rough edge to every character within the film, which squarely is a sure sign of Fuller's involvement; even with his eventual denial of the film on whole, its toughness certainly conveys the feeling that it is one of his making.

But, the print is entirely shoddy, most of the key scenes are far too dark to even know what is going on, and the sound quality is inferior as well (it's loud enough, but much of the dialogue is garbled). All of this serves as a serious detriment to the key reason both you and I are here on this page, which is the shark scenes. If you are watching this movie for the death scene with the stuntman, it is hard to tell which underwater scene it is. There is a shark attack scene in the prelude to the credits, and there is one at the tail end of the film. At first, I thought it was the same shots shown twice. Checking back on it, there are differences in each scene. There is, however, a shark attacking a stuntman and a resulting stream of blood spewing forth in each shot. It is possible that these shots are both from the same attack, but from different angles, but without any further knowledge to back this up, it is hard for me to say.

But, the death scene is not the only time that the editors have their way with continuity or cohesion. Not just switching back and forth throughout the movie amongst a series of reused shots, the menacing shark also switches species on more than one occasion. If they were trying to give the impression that there were multiple sharks surrounding the actors, then they have failed as they never show a single shot where there is more than one shark at a time. I know there is some compulsion to live up to the phrase "shark infested waters," but... an infestation of just one shark and one shark alone? If this is the way you must portray it, apparently the waters where they were diving were equally "ray infested," as the same shot of a single bottom-drifting ray is used more than once as well. By the same token, you could argue the film is "Silvia Pinal or Burt Reynolds infested."

The only thing that Shark! is not infested with (in the single digits) is Samuel Fuller. He swam away from its creepily voyeuristic legacy long ago, and with good cause and forethought.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Open Water 2: Adrift (2006)

Open Water 2: Adrift (2006)
Director: Hans Horn
TC4P Rating: 4/9
Shark appearance: quite surprisingly, in dialogue only -- and the constant implied threat that they may show up, which they never do...

I understand. Really, I do. I get the basic appeal when an Open Water or a Saw comes out, and the world flips out because, by and large, the genre films we had gotten for the brief period preceding the respective debuts of those films had been a soggy lot overall. Something slightly off-kilter from that with which we had been deluged seemed refreshing -- it's the reason why the world shat bricks when The Blair Witch Project went "Boo!," giving half the audience the chills, and the other half motion sickness.

Me? Open Water was indeed a breath of fresh air... for a very short while. But then a pair of completely self-absorbed lead characters brought me to the early conclusion that mere death by exposure, hypothermia and drowning was simply too nice a way out for these people -- so, bring on the sharks, by all means! I was inventing gods so that I could momentarily believe in them long enough to be able to pray for the deaths of these egotistical idiots. Render them to shreds, finny ones, and torture those assholes until they are left spitting fear and half-mad from exhaustion and blood loss. Too harsh, you say? Clearly you are the sort of person represented by the characters in Open Water. You just don't know how wrong you are...

Here is where I am confused by the introduction of a sequel to that film, appended with the numeral "2" and followed by a colon, after which we are given a subtitle: "Adrift." On my end of things, I love sharks, so it would seem that I love films that would feature sharks. (Hence, the reason for this blog.) The problem is that when sharks are featured in these films, it is generally as agents of man's destruction. The sharks come off as evil, which they aren't, and the people, with the rare exception of an outright villain, come off as the hapless victims of these intruding and terrible creatures, which neither one is at all. As with Jaws -- a film that as a fan of both genre film and great movies in general, I adore unreservedly -- sharks can come up on the losing end of the deal in a very major, nature-crippling way when too much negative media attention causes the public to backlash against an imagined threat to humanity. (For this very same reason, it is surprising that the Black-Eyed Peas are still alive for all the damage their music has done to our culture. Quick, Time Magazine! Put up a cover article about that form of terrorism! Let's get our fishermen trying to haul in Fergie...)

So, it would seem that I would not want shark movies to be out there in the abundance that they are. Yes, we have twenty years of Shark Week helping the public understand the role of sharks in our world, but our primary impulse when shown a picture of a great white or mako is instant fear. I love sharks, but if I walk around a corner and there is a giant shark statue or poster staring me square in the face (as has happened most recently at Disney, and previously as several other locales such as aquariums), despite my admiration, I still jump. Despite my knowledge that it is a mere representation, I still jump. Certainly, fear is our most primal instinct; certainly, fight or flight are our two most necessary reactions. It doesn't surprise me that people reacted in the way they did to Jaws, though for reasons pertaining to my own agenda, I like to chalk it up to the fact that most people are basically morons. And it doesn't surprise that there is an audience for films and shows that continue to play off this fear, even in an age where we really should know better.

I know better. So, why do I watch and even anticipate shark movies, even when I shouldn't according to my own politics. One would be I like to see people get eaten. I don't want the shark to get hurt at all, but I don't mind someone sliding down something else's gullet. But, here's the chief, A-Number-One reason: I am simply waiting for another really good shark movie. There is Jaws... and then that is pretty much it. I kept going to the sequels, because I kept waiting for that magic to strike again. Ugh. What a waste of time that proved to be. If you corner me, I will tell you why I own a copy of Deep Blue Sea: because, despite the fact it is a bad film, it's actually a great time at the movies. The script is so crazily constructed, with half-assed concept on top of another half-assed concept on top of yet another half-assed concept -- a tower of klutzy half-assedness that equals the size of the massive underwater shaft the protagonists have to negotiate through within the film's plot -- that it becomes rather lovable, like a lost, drunken puppy. Plus, there is a completely unnecessary but perfect strip-down-to-her-scanties scene, a handful of good, amusing lines, an amiable hero, some half-swell and half-horrible special effects, and a great though thoroughly ridiculous Samuel L. Jackson death. And LL Cool J plays a preacher/cook who closes the credits with a song about how his "head is like a shark fin!" C'mon, it's so pathetic and stupid, I have to love it.

But, it's still not a good film. And that is what I was hoping for in the original Open Water. This, you may have surmised, it turned out not to be. Still, I am not one to instantly dismiss the chance that a sequel can outshine its predecessor. (I am an Empire Strikes Back and Mad Max II guy, after all.) It's rare, but it can work out. But, even though it goes against what I just espoused above, there was one thing I was completely expecting out of Open Water 2: Adrift... friggin' sharks!

Screw spoiler alerts! I don't care if it pisses anybody off, because if you get to a certain point in the film, no matter who you are, no matter what you feel about sharks... there will come a moment about midway through the film where you casually say, "I wonder where the sharks are? I mean, gee, it's great that someone has expressed their concern about sharks showing up, but... when do they show up?" Then, about ten minutes later: "Boy, those sharks should be here by now!" You will tap your watch, and then check to see if it matches the time on your DVD player to make sure the universe hasn't gone out of whack, and that you haven't got caught in some sort of time loop where you are stuck endlessly watching a six-pack of complete douchebags who have stupidly leapt off a yacht anchored in Mexican waters without first creating available access by either rope or ladder to get out of the water, float about and slowly go crazy trying to figure out another way out.

Ten more minutes, you'll be checking the disc envelope to see if it actually does mention there are sharks in this film so you can sue someone for false advertising (it doesn't -- you are sooooo lucky, Netflix!). Five more minutes, you start frothing at the mouth. You will jump off the couch and over the coffee table in one magnificent leap, yelling "Here's your fucking shark! I'm your goddamn fucking shark!," and then you will start to chew your way through the television in the hopes that you will take out one of the remaining whining cast members with your own gnashing jaws, mastication skills learned from all of the shark movies you rented where the sharks that were implied to show up did show up. Then, you will need someone to call an ambulance for you, since your mouth is now full of shards of glass, and your face and upper torso are possibly covered in second degree burns. And you won't ever know if sharks actually do show up in the last ten minutes. Which they don't.

No one renting this film is doing so with the belief that there aren't any sharks in it. People are renting it because they have either seen the first film, and either liked it or were at least entertained just enough to feel like checking out the sequel, or they have heard second-hand from someone who liked it the first movie and were told how scary the shark scenes were, and now find themselves faced with a late-evening nothing-else-on-the-store shelves choice between this and a Mary Kate and Ashley shopping caper. "Well, this one has sharks in it, so I will rent it!," they might say. They will hear a character impart her fears early on that sharks may come, and they will also view a scene not much later where there might be a shark or something else large and unseen bumping someone's leg underneath the water.

And then, half an hour later, each and every one of these misled people will attack the television in the manner which I described earlier. Somewhere, in that mythical TV land that we hear so often about (and where Nickelodeon makes easy money off of suckers), televisions huddle in fear over a story about a legendary DVD that causes human beings to try and chew their way through a screen in complete raving madness because the disc didn't actually have sharks in it when it was implied through the simple marketing of a title that there were. It will become known as the TV Land version of The Ring, where a television has 70 minutes from the time the disc is inserted in the player before it is trashed to pieces. All because of a shiny, seemingly harmless little disc called Open Water II: Adrift, that doesn't mean to lie to us, but causes untold destruction from its inability to follow through on its inherent implications.

Open Water 2: Adrift is actually well-shot, not too badly acted by most of the cast, creates a fair amount of suspense, sticks to its initial intentions, and isn't really exploitive. It was filmed independently without really being intended as a sequel to the first film, and was released internationally as simply Adrift. So it is probably not the filmmakers' fault for its ultimate disappointment for mere association with what is widely and famously known as a shark movie, but rather the studio that released it. 

Imagine Jaws: The Revenge actually being about a bunch of dentists stuck in the middle of the ocean, where they just talk about sharks the whole time, never see one. "Water, water everywhere, but none with which to rinse and spit!" would be the tagline. The dentists would float about until they devoured each other out of starvation and boredom. 

Actually, this might have made a better movie...