movies

Going to Sunday School on TV

king_of_kings_jesus_3830

Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus in “King of Kings”, giving us all blue steel.

This past Saturday ABC aired the Cecil B. DeMille classic The Ten Commandments. They’ve been running this movie for hte better part of half a century, and it is as much of a tradition as when CBS used to show The Wizard of Oz every October, or NBC’s annual spring airing of The Sound of Music. The latter two have fallen by the wayside over the years, with police procedurals and reruns of America’s Got Talent drawing more viewers. I didn’t watch it and haven’t in a while, mainly because four-hour Biblical epics are not always my thing.

At one point, though, they were.

Now, I didn’t grow up in some sort of extremely evangelical household, but I was subjected to a fair amount of religious programming in my childhood. This ranged from kids’ shows to movies like the aforementioned DeMille classic. Sure, I watched Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which were decidedly secular in nature, but the counter-programming to that was stuff like Davey and Goliath, the stop-motion animated show where this kid and his talking dog would get into some sort of trouble or moral quandary and often would learn a lesson, whether it was from their parents or some other authority figure. I know I watched a fair amount of that show when I was very little, probably either before or after church on Sundays because nothing else was on television except for other religious programming and I wasn’t the target demo for the Hour of Power.

Meanwhile, my parents owned a VCR and began acquiring movies pretty early in the 1980s, one of the few times in my entire life where they were on the forefront of new technology. I usually used the VCR to watch my copy of Star Wars, but also on occasion, I would watch one of three two-tape movies: The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and King of Kings. When it came to The Ten Commandments, I can tell you that I only ever remembered the film’s opening and closing–large swaths of the middle of the film are blocked from my memory. Ben-Hur was a film I may have watched through once but can only remember him knocking a roof tile into a passing parade on tape one and the chariot race on tape two. Of course, who doesn’t remember the chariot race?

King of Kings, though, was my Biblical epic of choice. Released in 1961, it stars Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus and is known for the good looks of its star (in fact, the phrase “I was a teenage Jesus” showed up in at least one review) and the fact that it was the first time Jesus had a discernible face in a movie and wasn’t “written around.” At seven or eight, when I was watching it, I didn’t know much about the film’s background and it would be a couple of years before I discovered that Jeffrey Hunter played Captain Pike in the original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage”, I just wanted to see the guy play Jesus in a two-tape movie. More than once, too, to the point where i had particular parts of the movies as memorized as Star Wars.

The tapes themselves were kind of a curiosity to me because they were legitimately purchased tapes–unlike the Star Wars films I owned, which were dubbed from laser disc, these had MGM’s labels on them. But for some reason, they were not in the official cardboard box or whatever other packaging you expected from a VHS tape. No, it was in a brown plastic case that you would get at the video store, so that meant my dad or mom willingly bought this film from a store’s inventory. I can imagine that they got it at a discount because this was back when buying a movie on VHS could run you upwards of $79.95.

The tapes themselves had this idiosyncrasy of musical inserts at the beginning and end of each tape. I don’t know if they were part of the original theatrical release, although the film was done as a “roadshow” when it came out in 1961, a type of release where the studio would put it on tour and that presentation often included overtures and intermissions. I remember that these segments were stills of some sort of Biblical image with orchestral music over them, although the title card that said “Overture” was block lettering similar to what you would see on a baseball game in the early 1980s, so my guess is that it was reformatted for television.

The tapes were as well, but not in the best way. Whereas later in the 1980s and into the 1990s, movies like this would be given a widescreen treatment, the King of Kings VHS of the early 1980s was classic pan and scan with some parts of it having that Gumby Vision effect where shots were stretched vertically to get as much on the screen as possible. I remember this being especially noticeable in the scene where Jesus meets John the Baptist because there are a couple of very tight close-ups and you can see how stretched out things are. Otherwise, the film looked like just about every other Biblical epic of the era. I’m not sure if they simply used the Roman Centurion costumes that MGM had stashed in a storage closet from every other sword-and-sandals epic filmed in the California desert, but it I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

Anyway, the film pads out what is not exactly an action-packed story. Instead pho simply starting with Jesus’ birth or the Immaculate Conception, we open with Pompey’s sack of Jerusalem and that allows for both a subplot centering around Herod’s reign in Judea and another one of Barabbas leading a band of rebels against the Roman occupiers. This was what I found most interesting, probably because it was significantly more violent than the Sermon on the Mount. I also remember that John the Baptist gets more characterization and we practically get a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome halfway through the film. Even Pontius Pilate is more than just the Roman bureaucrat that oversees Jesus’ execution.

The film probably didn’t need its enormous running time, especially when it didn’t seem to do more with Jesus’ actual story than my Sunday School primer. And honestly, I wonder if it’s depictions like that which people get so used to that make movies like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ so controversial. But 1961 was still an era of big historical event epics, so you went big with Jesus or you didn’t go at all.

I currently have a significant aversion to religion, which began when I was a teenager and became much more pronounced as I watched it poison large swaths of our politics and society. But I still have fond memories of being seven or eight when I used to watch King of Kings all the way through.  I’m not sure if it’s because the memories are of my rather comfortable childhood or because because along with the science fiction flicks I was re-watching, it helped me develop a love of stories.  But I think I’m good on remembering how much I liked them then instead of setting aside a weekend to watch Charlton Heston part something or Jeffrey Hunter smolder.

I am Lobo. I hunt alone.

mv5bztviztm2mzktyjllni00ntiwlwe5mzqtytzmodbjmzywy2q3xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjkwntg3ndy40._v1_So I’m about thirteen or fourteen and my dad’s in the den watching a movie during the middle of the day, which he only did if he’d fallen asleep watching it the previous night and had to return the tape to the video store so he wouldn’t get charged a late fee. I walk into the room and he’s laughing at a scene where Shelley Long is serving Jamie Gertz some really disgusting-looking thing called “jellyfish salad.” He keeps laughing and talking about how hilarious Shelley Long is, something I agree with it because by that time I had seen the majority of the Diane episodes of Cheers, so I stick around and finish the film.

That is my Don’t Tell Her It’s Me origin story, and while I have no substantiated research to back up this claim, I bet that if you were to talk to a number of people, they would have a similar story because while this movie bombed at the box office in 1990, I’ve run into quite a number of people who have seen it. In fact, just as I finished streaming this on Amazon Prime, my wife asked what I had been watching and when I said “This movie with Steve Guttenberg and Shelley Long”, she replied, “Is that the one where he had cancer and became a buff dude? I’ve seen that!”

I don’t know if I could better sum up the premise of the film, but I will go slightly more in depth. Based on the novel The Boyfriend School (and currently streaming under that title), Guttenberg plays Gus Kubicek, a cartoonist who has just finished treatment for cancer. He’s bloated and bald as a result adn is wallowing in depression. His sister, Lizzie (Long), who is the alter ego of the best-selling romance novelist Vivian Leroux*, decides that she’s going to cheer him up by finding him a woman. Enter Emily Pear (Jami Gertz), a journalist, who after she interviews Lizzie at a romance fan convention (yes, there’s a rom-con in the rom-com) becomes the woman Lizzie’s going to set up with Gus. Emily kind of sort of has a fiance, Trout (Kyle MacLachlan), but Lizzie’s a professional at meddling in others’ lives as much as she is at writing romance.

The setup doesn’t go well. Emily vomits up the jellyfish salad I mentioned in my intro and while she thinks Gus is nice, she isn’t attracted to him at all. This causes Lizzie to take drastic measures. She helps Gus get in shape and then creates an alter ego for him–Lobo, a New Zealand biker who “hunts alone”. Lobo and Gertz meet at a gas station where the two of them accidentally wind up foiling an armed robbery.

Naturally, Emily falls for Gus’ bad boy alter ego and as it is with comedies like this, things get complicated. Gus is reluctant to keep things going because Emily has fallen for Lobo and she even breaks up with Trout (who was cheating on her anyway with their co-worker, Mandy, played by a twenty-year-old Madchen Amick). Eventually, the entire thing comes crashing down, but because this is a romantic comedy from 1990, Emily realizes that she actually was in love with Gus.

If I’m thinking with my modern sensibilities, I’m not supposed to like this movie. The entire plot centers around deceiving a woman for the sake of romance and/or sex. Even with my writer’s sensibilities, I’m not supposed to like this movie. The characters are pretty formulaic–Gertz is the typical “mess” woman character, Gus is the down-on-his-luck nice guy, Trout is a PG version of MacLachlan’s sleazy Showgirls character, and Long is kooky–and the plot resolves itself so quickly I had to rewind it in my head. Plus, this came out right around the time of When Harry Met Sally, a movie that is the golden standard for modern romantic comedies.

The movie, though, works because of the actors’ performances. Shelley Long dials up the kookiness but gives Lizzie depth. Guttenberg is surprisingly appealing and it reminded me why he was a pretty big star in the late 1980s. I mean, the guy was not just in the Police Academy movies and the first Short Circuit film, but had bona-fide box office hits in Cocoon and Three Men and a Baby (and their sequels). I’d even posit that his career at that point mirrors Tom Hanks’, but the Nineties would take both actors in very different directions. And while my favorite Jami Gertz film is The Lost Boys, she’s making a pretty good effort to step out of the teen flick role and into something a little more adult.

This is, at best, a piece of its time, and a reminder of the random movies you’d come across while flipping channels or at the video store when you’d watched everything else. And yet, even watching this for the first time in nearly 30 years, I found this charming and remembered why I liked it when I first saw it in junior high. Yes, the Lobo deception is cringeworthy, but it’s more As You Like It or Twelfth Night than it is Revenge of the Nerds, and when I was that age I spent a lot of time wondering if any girl was going to like me. Gus Kubicek is an adult Ronald Miller from Can’t Buy Me Love, the type of guy who I identified with and even rooted for even when he made boneheaded decisions**. And even if I never rode a motorcycle and got an epic mullet (seriously, the Guttenmullet is insane), I can still appreciate any movie that gives down-on-their-luck guys a chance no matter how crazy the idea.

*Btw, props to … uh, the props department on this movie.  At one point, Lizzie gives Emily paperbacks of all of her books.  I noticed that they were all “published” by Avon Books, which was a huge historical romance publisher–and incidentally, the publishing company I interned for in 1998.

**I guess I have to clarify that I don’t approve of what are now considered cringey or even gross storylines like this, but I will say that I understand the mentality of male characters like this, and a lot of pretty awful male behavior.  In 2020, it’s grown into a “know the enemy” thing on my part, and I probably can write an essay about it but that’s not the type of thing anyone wants to read.

Pop Culture Affidavit 101: Retrospecticus

Episode 101 Website CoverIt’s the most self-indulgent, ultra-sized episode of Pop Culture Affidavit EVER!!!

Join me as I take a look back at the history of the blog and podcast; giving you its origin story; and respond to both emails and past blog comments on topics such movies, comics, music, and random stuff.  Then I share never-before-heard outtakes and conversations with Michael Bailey, Stella, Donovan Morgan Grant, and Andrew Leyland before Amanda joins me for a brand-new segment about music from 1997 and 1998.

Plus, I introduce and preview my newest miniseries, which premieres in November!

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Here’s where you can find all of the guest spots …

0:17:40 Michael Bailey and I talk about cast members from How I Got Into College and Summer School and then talk about the syndicated show Super Force.

0:42:00 Stella and I discuss our initial reactions to Alien Covenant.

1:16:05 Donovan Morgan Grant and I talk about Roboetch (in footage that did not make the final cut of our episode).

1:43:00 Andrew Leyland and I talk about Nineties music.

1:52:05 Amanda and I disuss music from 1997 and 1998.

After the cut, you’ll find links to posts mentioned in the episode as well as some extras:

(more…)

In Country: Marvel Comics’ “The ‘Nam” — Episode 98

IC 98 Website CoverTwo episodes and a wake-up are left!

This time around, I take one last trip to Vietnam at the movies by looking at the final film in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, 1993’s Heaven and Earth.  I review the film and also take a look at its source material, two memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War Woman of Peace.

You can download the episode via Apple Podcasts or listen directly at the Two True Freaks website

In Country iTunes feed

In Country Episode 98 direct link

Some extras for you.

First, a link to Thrive Networks, Le Ly Hayslip’s charitable organization that began as the East Meets West Foundation:  Thrivenetworks.org

The trailer for the film …

Heaven & Earth

 

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 100: Deeds Not Words

Episode 100 Website CoverAfter nine years of blogging and 99 podcast episodes, it’s time to take another look at the movie that started it all:  MEGAFORCE!  In this episode, I take a look at the 1982 Hal Needham film, which stars Barry Bostwick as Ace Hunter, the commander of a super-elite international military unit.  I give a summary of the movie, talk about my Megaforce origin story and re-evaluate my opinion of it.

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Some extras for you …

(more…)

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 99: Livin’ Well in 1999

Episode 99 Website CoverIt’s the second of two “milestone year” episodes as Amanda sits down with me once again for a talk about 1999!

Over the course of our (much shorter this time) conversation, we talk music, movies, and television, but also delve into news, politics and culture.  We’ll look at the rise of and importance of Millennials, Woodstock ’99, teen pop, The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense, Office Space, the dawn of the age of reality televisionWho Wants to Be A Millionaire?, the Food Network, and MTV’s Undressed, among other things.

Plus, we talk about what it was like to graduate from college in 1999 and how we somehow survived our early twenties, and we also talk about how the issues and serious events of 1999, such as Columbine and the Bill Clinton impeachment still affect our culture and politics today.

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

In Country: Marvel Comics’ “The ‘Nam” — Episode 93

IC 93 Website CoverSeven episodes and a wake-up!

This time around, I take a break from my regular coverage of the comic to bring you one of the landmark films about the Vietnam War, 1978’s The Deer Hunter, which stars Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep.  For my look at the film, I’m joined by fellow TTF podcaster, Luke Jaconetti.  We talk about Michael Cimino’s Best Picture winner by looking at the plot and characters but also its symbolic/metaphorical meanings; and its reputation and resonance as a film about Vietnam, war, and America.

You can download the episode via iTunes or listen directly at the Two True Freaks website

In Country iTunes feed

In Country Episode 93 direct link

Some extras for you …

A trailer for the film:

The theme to The Deer Hunter, which was composed by John Williams:

Deer Hunter