Film Review: Swan Song (dir by Todd Stephens)

Once upon a time, Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) was one of the most important citizens of Sandusky, Ohio.  He was the town’s leading hairdresser.  He was the man who the wealthy trusted with their appearance.  When he wasn’t cutting hair, he performed drag as Ms. Pat and when he wasn’t cutting or performing, he built a nice home with his partner.  He often remembers the two of them working in the garden.

All of that is in the past, though.  Pat’s partner died years ago and Pat was reminded of his place in the community when some of his wealthiest clients didn’t even bother to come to the funeral.  Pat lost his business.  He lost his home.  He’s spent the past decade or so living in a nursing home.  Pat may be the best-groomed and best-spoken resident of the nursing home but he’s still definitely a man who is waiting for death.

One day, a lawyer shows up at the home and informs Pat that one of his most faithful clients, Rita Parker Sloan (played by Linda Evans), has died.  Rita had one last request.  She wanted Pat to do her hair and makeup for the funeral.  At first, Pat is hesitant.  His memories of Rita are not particularly pleasant.  But finally, he decides to do it.  He escapes from the nursing home and starts to walk to the funeral home.  To do Rita’s makeup, he’s going to need supplies, some of which haven’t even been existed since the 80s.  Unfortunately, he has no money and, as he soon discovers, his old home no longer exists either.  The world has changed.

As quickly becomes clear, there’s more to Pat’s journey than just wanting a final chance to do Rita’s hair.  As he walks through the town, he tries to reconnect with his past, just to discover that much of his past has been torn down.  His old beauty shop is under different management.  His old house has been torn down.  Few people seem to remember or recognize him.  One of the few people who does remember Pat is his former protégé, Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge), who now basically hates his guts.  Meanwhile, Rita waits in the funeral home, her hair and makeup a mess.

Released last year, Swan Song is an imperfect but ultimately touching movie.  The shadow of death hangs over almost every scene.  It’s not just that Pat is doing one last favor for the deceased Rita.  Nor is it just that Pat is haunted by memories of his dead partner.  (The scene where Pat visits his grave is one of the most effective in the movie, thanks to Kier’s heartfelt performance.)  It’s the fact that Pat himself knows that he’s getting older and he only has a certain amount of time left.  His walk across Sandusky is not just about traveling to the funeral home.  It’s also his final chance to see the world, remember the past, and experience how things have changed (or not changed as the case may be).  The journey is about Pat coming to terms with his anger, his sadness, and his past.  It’s also about Pat’s desire to go out the same way that he’s always lived, on his own terms.

As I said, it’s not a perfect film.  There are a few scenes that threaten to get a bit mawkish.  But even the most overwritten scenes are saved by the brilliant lead performance of Udo Kier, who gives a wonderfully complex performance as Pat.  Since the 70s, Kier has been a mainstay in European exploitation cinema.  He stared in Flesh For Frankenstein and Blood For Dracula.  He had key supporting roles in two Dario Argento films.  He appeared in art films, horror films, dramas, comedies, and thrillers.  He’s appeared in blockbusters and small indie films.  At times, it can seem like Kier is one of those actors who basically accepts anything that’s offered to him, regardless of whether the material is worthy of his talents or not.  Kier has appeared in good films and bad and, perhaps because he’s been such a ubiquitous cinematic presence, he’s often been unfairly taken for granted as an actor.  In Swan Song, Udo Kier gives one of his best performances as the sometimes brutally snarky but ultimately kind-hearted Pat Pitsenbarger.  If for no other reason, watch this movie to appreciate the often underrated talent of Udo Kier.  A lesser actor would have turned Pat into a cliché.  Udo Kier transforms Pat into a complex and rather heart-breaking character.

Swan Song is currently streaming on Hulu.

Moments in Television History #17: Charles Rocket Nearly Ends SNL

On this day, 41 years ago, Saturday Night Live was nearly canceled.

In 1981, Saturday Night Live was in its 6th season and things weren’t going so well.  Lorne Michaels had left the program and he had taken what was left of the original cast with him.  The new producer, Jean Doumanian, had hired an entirely new group of writers and performers.  Doumanian felt that her biggest star would be a former news anchorman-turned-comedian named Charles Rocket.  In order to prop up Rocket, she surrounded him with a cast that included Gilbert Gottfried, Denny Dillon, and Joe Piscopo.  (Among those who auditioned but were not selected: Jim Carrey, John Goodman and Paul Reubens.)  Seeking a black comedian who could take over the roles that were previously played by Garrett Morris, Doumanian tried to recruit a performer named Charlie Barnett.  When Barnett skipped his second audition, she then considered hiring Robert Townsend before she finally settled on a 19 year-old stand-up comedian named Eddie Murphy.

To no one’s surprise, the initial reviews of the new Saturday Night Live were brutal.  Everyone knew it would be difficult, at first, to win over the critics who were used to Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Belushi, Aykroyd, and Lorne Michaels.  What no one expected was that the reviews would never get better and that, instead of Charles Rocket, it would be Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo who would emerge as the new fan favorites.  Reportedly, a few of the cast members resented Murphy and Piscopo’s success.  No one was happy with the way Doumanian was running the show.  It didn’t take long until Season 6 was better known for its backstage tension than for it comedy.  As ratings plunged, there were even rumors that the show might not be renewed.

On February 21st, 1981, those tensions went from being backstage to being on thousands of televisions.  The night’s episode was hosted by Charlene Tilton, a cast member of what was then the most popular show in prime time, Dallas.  Everyone in the country was debating who had shot J.R. Ewing.  Saturday Night Live decided to do its own tak on the phenomenon by asking, “Who shot Charles Rocket?”  Over the course of the show, Rocket was shown having a conflict with every member of the cast.  Finally, towards the end of the episode, Rocket was shot.  During the traditional goodbyes, Rocket appeared sitting in a wheelchair and smoking a cigarette.  With the rest of the cast surrounding him, Tilton asked him how he was feeling.

Here’s what happened:

“Oh, man.” Rocket said, “I’ve never been shot before.  I wish I knew who the fuck did it.”  It can be difficult to hear him in the video above but you can tell from the reactions of the cast that everyone immediately knew what Rocket had said.

This may not seem like a big deal today but this happened in 1981.  This was before HBO started producing their own shows.  This was before anyone had ever heard of a streaming service.  This was when there was only three major networks and they were all closely watched by the FCC.  Dropping an F-bomb on live television, with no tape delay or chance to bleep it out, was a big deal.

Later, Charles Rocket would say that he didn’t even realize what he had said.  That could have been true but the look on his face after he said it suggests that Rocket was aware of what he was saying.  Before Rocket said it, there had been reports that NBC was planning on firing the entire cast at the end of the season.  Did Rocket make an honest mistake (one that has since been made a few more times by cast members and guests on SNL) or was he going out with a bang?  Was this Rocket’s way of getting back at a network that didn’t appreciate him?

The reports about NBC planning to make changes were true, to an extent.  The plan was to fire Doumanian and replace her with Dick Ebersol.  Most of the cast was going to be fired but NBC was specifically planning on keeping the three performers who it was felt were the strongest members of the ensemble: Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, and Charles Rocket!  Needless to say, after Rocket’s bit of improvisation, NBC changed its mind.

At first, it seemed like the show itself might also get canceled as a result.  In1981, the networks had to deal with people like Jerry Falwell leading crusades to cleans up network television.  Just as Fredric Wertham once blamed juvenile delinquency on comic books, all sorts of problems were being blamed on television.  Jean Doumanian was fired after one more episode, along with Charles Rocket, Gilbert Gottfried, and cast member Ann Risley.  Tragically, Charles Rocket’s career never recovered from this moment.  Today, it probably wouldn’t be as big a deal.  NBC would get hit by a fine but the moment itself would go viral and lead to even bigger ratings.  But in 1981, saying the F-word on national television was a career killer.  Rocket did appear in several movies, usually playing smarmy villains.  But he never reached the stardom that had been predicted for him and ended up taking his own life in 2005.

In the end, the only thing that saved Saturday Night Live was that the Writers Guild went on strike and production on every NBC show shut down.  By the time the strike was settled, the season was over and Dick Ebersol had managed to convince NBC to let him keep the series going by focusing on Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo.  When Saturday Night Live returned for its seventh season, Murphy was the undisputed center of the show.  He achieved the stardom that had originally been predicted for Charles Rocket.

Previous Moments In Television History:

  1. Planet of the Apes The TV Series
  2. Lonely Water
  3. Ghostwatch Traumatizes The UK
  4. Frasier Meets The Candidate
  5. The Autons Terrify The UK
  6. Freedom’s Last Stand
  7. Bing Crosby and David Bowie Share A Duet
  8. Apaches Traumatizes the UK
  9. Doctor Who Begins Its 100th Serial
  10. First Night 2013 With Jamie Kennedy
  11. Elvis Sings With Sinatra
  12. NBC Airs Their First Football Game
  13. The A-Team Premieres
  14. The Birth of Dr. Johnny Fever
  15. The Second NFL Pro Bowl Is Broadcast
  16. Maude Flanders Gets Hit By A T-Shirt Cannon

Great Moments In Comic Book History #21: Captain America For President

In 1980, John Anderson was briefly a viable third party presidential candidate so it made sense that Marvel would come up with a storyline in which a group of activists attempt to convince Captain America to make a third party bid of his own.  When The Daily Globe broke the news that Captain America was being courted by the New Populist Party, both the Democrats and the Republicans offered to nominate him.  The Beast offered to be his campaign manager.  (Imagine that!)  The Wasp said that Captain America was the people’s choice.  Iron Man warned that the red tape would get frustrating while the always logical Vision argued that, other than having a patriotic spirit, Captain America knew nothing about politics and international relations.

As a patriot, Captain America was tempted though, in typical Marvel fashion, his actual positions were kept vague.  Ultimately, Cap turned down their offer because he felt that it was important that he remain above the pettiness of partisan politics.  Captain America was meant to protect all the people of America, regardless of whether they voted for Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, John Anderson, Ed Clark, Barry Commoner, or even Gus Hall!

(In the end, the activists approached the wrong Avenger.  Despite what he told Cap, Iron Man would have done it in a heartbeat.)

A later issue of What If… revealed that, if Captain America had run, he would have easily been elected President.  Then, he would have been assassinated because almost every issue of What If… ended with everyone dead.  It’s a good thing he didn’t run.  By not running, he not only saved his own life but he also set a precedent that has kept a countless number of super powered individual from taking the plunge into electoral politics.  It didn’t stop J. Jonah Jameson from running for mayor of New York but I doubt anything could have.

Could Captain America win the election if he ran today?  As a fictional character who has a history of making questionable decisions and who is now over a hundred years old, it’s doubtful.  Despite what happened in What If, it was probably just as much of a lost cause in 1980.  If Howard the Duck couldn’t beat Carter and Ford in 1976, it’s doubtful Captain America could have beaten both Reagan and Ed Clark in 1980.  Still, who better to rebuild America than America himself?

Captain America Vol. 1 No. 250 (October, 1980)

“Cap President”

  • Writer(s) Roger Stern, Don Perlin, Roger McKenzie, Jim Shooter
  • Penciler(s) John Byrne, Ed Hannigan
  • Inker(s) Josef Rubinstein
  • Colorist(s) George Roussos
  • Letterer(s) Jim Novak
  • Editor(s) Jim Salicrup, Bob Budiansky

Previous Great Moments In Comic Book History:

  1. Winchester Before Winchester: Swamp Thing Vol. 2 #45 “Ghost Dance” 
  2. The Avengers Appear on David Letterman
  3. Crisis on Campus
  4. “Even in Death”
  5. The Debut of Man-Wolf in Amazing Spider-Man
  6. Spider-Man Meets The Monster Maker
  7. Conan The Barbarian Visits Times Square
  8. Dracula Joins The Marvel Universe
  9. The Death of Dr. Druid
  10. To All A Good Night
  11. Zombie!
  12. The First Appearance of Ghost Rider
  13. The First Appearance of Werewolf By Night
  14. Captain America Punches Hitler
  15. Spider-Man No More!
  16. Alex Ross Captures Galactus
  17. Spider-Man And The Dallas Cowboys Battle The Circus of Crime
  18. Goliath Towers Over New York
  19. NFL SuperPro is Here!
  20. Kickers Inc. Comes To The World Outside Your Window

Bad Medicine (1985, directed by Harvey Miller)

Jeff Marx (Steve Guttenberg) is a smart but lazy pre-med student whose grades are so bad that he can’t get accepted to any of the good medical schools.  His father (Bill Macy), who is also a doctor and who wants Jeff to one day take over the family practice, arranges for Jeff to attend medical school in a fictional Central American country.  The head of the school, Dr. Ramon Madera (Alan Arkin), is also the country’s dictator.  Dr. Madera is happy to make money off of desperate Americans but he still enforces strict rules of behavior at the school.  He also makes it clear that none of the medical students are to treat the poor villagers who live near the school.

When Jeff arrives at his new school, he discovers that his classmates are, like him, all screw-ups.  They’re also played by a cast of actors who, like Guttenberg, epitomize the 80s ensemble comedy craze.  Curtis Armstrong, of Revenge of the Nerds and Risky Business, plays Jeff’s best friend.  Fast Times At Ridgemont High‘s Robert Romanus is the Italian medical student who is loved by all the ladies.  Airplane!‘s Julie Haggerty is the idealistic medical student who wants to take care of the local villagers.  Even Gilbert Gottfried is in this movie!  He plays Dr. Madera’s main assistant and hatchet man.

Bad Medicine was released in between the first and the second Police Academy films and it basically tells the same sort of story that made those two films unlikely hits.  Guttenberg and his fellow students start out as a screw-ups but, by the end of the movie, they’ve proven themselves as doctors.  Perhaps because it was based on a novel that was written by an actual doctor, Bad Medicine is a little more sincere than Police Academy.  In Police Academy, the scenes of the recruits doing police work were the biggest jokes of all and, even after he helped to save the city, you still never bought the idea that Steve Guttenberg would have stuck around after graduation so that he could wear a uniform and walk a beat everyday.  Though Bad Medicine is full of the usual Police Academy-style hijinks, it doesn’t treat the work that the doctors are doing as a joke.  Though regrettable stereotypes abound (this is a film that features Gilbert Gottfriend playing a character named Tony Sandoval, after all), Bad Medicine treats the villagers with respect.  Guttenberg gives a relaxed and likable performance, without making Jeff into as much of a wiseass of Police Academy‘s Cary Mahoney.  Julie Haggerty brings her usual spacey charm to her role.  Not surprisingly, it’s Alan Arkin who steals the film, though you do have to wonder how Dr. Madera has time to run both a country and a medical school while also falling in love with Julie Haggerty.  Give the man some credit for knowing how to multitask.

It ends, much like Police Academy, with the med students giving a chance to prove themselves in a crisis situation.  Unlike Police Academy, Bad Medicine was not a hit at the box office, though it did make a small profit.  As a result, there was never a Bad Medicine 2, which is unfortunate because we could always use more good doctors.

4 Shots From 4 Sam Peckinpah Films

4 Or More Shots From 4 Or More Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today would have been Sam Peckinpah’s 97th birthday.  No one raised Hell like Peckinpah so in honor of the day and his legacy, here are 4 shots from 4 of my favorite Peckinpah films.

4 Shots From 4 Sam Peckinpah Films

Ride the High Country (1967, directed by Sam Peckinpah, Cinematography by Lucien Ballard)

The Wild Bunch (1969, directed by Sam Peckinpah, Cinematography by Lucien Ballard)

Straw Dogs (1971, directed by Sam Peckinpah, Cinematography by John Coquillon)

Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974, directed by Sam Peckinpah, Cinematography by Alex Phillips, Jr.)

The Piquant Covers of Ginger Magazine

Ginger Magazine was a pin-up and fiction magazine that was published from 1928 to 1932.  It was considered risqué at the time.  Today, it’s mostly just sought for its covers, which often mixed sex appeal with humor.  Each cover promised stories that would be “Piquant, Pungent, Peppery, Pleasing.”  The magazine’s other tag line was “Ginger will be preserved.”

Here are a few of the covers of Ginger Magazine.  Where known, the original artist has been credited:





1929, by Enoch Bolles



1930, by Chris Schaare

1930, by Chris Schaare



I Watched Angels In The Outfield (1951, dir. by Clarence Brown)

Major League Baseball could use some angels right about now.

When this year started, I was so excited for the start of Spring Training at the end of this month.  Finally, I thought, football will be over, baseball will be starting, and maybe my Rangers will finally have another winning season!  Instead, for the last 80 days, we’ve had a lockout while the owners and the players negotiate the terms under which the season can begin.  The start of Spring Training has been delayed.  Opening Day could be delayed.  All I want to do is to enjoy some baseball but who knows when that’s going to happen.

At least I can still watch baseball movies.  The original Angels in the Outfield is about the general manger of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Guffy McGovern (Paul Douglas).  The Pirates are having a terrible season.  They’re last in the league.  Guffy starts fights with the umpires and shocks the media with his unprintable language but he just can’t put together a winning season.  Things are so bad that an orphan named Bridget (Donna Corcoran) stops praying for a new family and instead prays for the Pirates  Then, one night, Guffy hears the voice of an angel who tells him that if he stops cursing and stops fighting, the Pirates will get some heavenly help.

Guffy cuts back on his cursing and learns to control his temper and the Pirates start winning.  Is it because of the angels or is it because Guffy has become a better manager?  He falls in love with reporter Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh) and they make plans to adopt Bridget but then the voice tells Guffy that, when it comes to the Pennant, he’s going to have to win that one on his own.  Can Guffy lead his team to victory without the help of the angels?

For many baseball fans, Angels in the Outfield is all about wish fulfilment.   That’s especially true if you’re a fan of a team that lost two World Series in a row and who hasn’t had a winning season in a while.  There’s been a lot of times when I’ve watched the Rangers and wished for some heavenly intervention!  Maybe if our coaches would stop cursing or yelling, the Rangers would actually finish somewhere other than in last place.  It’s worth a shot, guys!

Angels in the Outfield is a sweet movie.  I especially liked the scenes where Guffy used Shakespearean language to argue with the umpires so that he could avoid having to curse at them.  Angels in the Outfield captures the excitement of watching your team win.  I actually got jealous of the fans in the movie because it’s been a long time since I’ve seen anyone get that excited over baseball.  When Angels in the Outfield calls baseball “America’s pastime,” you believe it.  I also liked that the angels themselves were never seen.  Instead, all that is seen are the fantastic catches and the home runs that come about as a result of their help.

I’d love some angels to come down right now and talk to the players and the owners for all of us.  Get it worked out, people.  Don’t take away our opening day!

Scenes That I Love: Jack Nicholson’s Freeway Performance in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces

Today, the Shattered Lens wishes a happy 89th birthday to Bob Rafelson, who was one of the first directors to not only truly recognize the genius of Jack Nicholson but also one of the co-creators of the Monkees.  (In fact, Rafelson brought the Monkees and Nicholson together when he made his directorial debut with 1968’s Head.  The Monkees starred in the film while Nicholson wrote the script.)  After getting his start on television, Rafelson became one of the leading figures of the Hollywood counterculture that came to power in the late 60s and the early 70s and a business partner of producer Bert Schneider, Rafelson also played a role in the creation of such classic films as Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, and Hearts and Minds.  Like Nicholson, Rafelson was never a hippie.  Instead, his vision was closer to the vision of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.  Rafelson and Nicholson brought the sensibility of the Beat Generation to Hollywood and, for a while at least, they changed the face of American culture.

In honor of Bob Rafelson’s birthday, today’s scene that I love comes from his 1970 film, Five Easy Pieces.  In this Oscar-nominated film, Jack Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea.  Born to a wealthy and music-obsessed family, Bobby currently works in an oil field and is alternatively angry, cynical, and idealistic.  (That both the main character and the director shared the same first name is probably not a coincidence as Rafelson also came from an artistic family.  Though many of Bobby’s famous outbursts — especially the famous one involving a chicken sandwich — were based on things that had actually happened to Nicholson, the character was equally based on Rafelson.)  After Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-nominated turn in Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces featured Nicholson playing the type of role for which he would be best-known in the 70s, the wayward rebel who must choose between being a part of society or being forever an outcast.  

In this scene, Bobby and his oilfield co-worker find themselves stuck in a traffic jam.  Bobby gets a chance to show off both his temper and his talent.  It’s a great scene and Nicholson gives such a strong performance that it’s only later that you realize that Bobby’s anger didn’t really accomplish much.  That was a recurring theme in Nicholson’s early films.  With this scene, Bob Rafelson captures both a man and a country in conflict.

Five Easy Pieces would be nominated for Best Picture, though it would lose to Patton. After his supporting nomination for Easy Rider, Nicholson received his first best actor nomination for this role here. (Again, Patton triumphed, though George C. Scott famously refused to accept his Oscar.) Sadly, Bob Rafelson was not nominated for Best Director.

Equally sadly, Rafelson’s subsequent films received mixed reviews (though most have been positively reevaluated in recent years) and struggled at the box office. With Hollywood becoming more concerned with finding the next blockbuster than producing films about existential wanderlust, Rafelson often struggled to bring his vision to the screen. He hasn’t directed a film since 2002’s No Good Deed. However, his work lives on amongst serious film students and historians of the 70s. If any director’s work is worthy of rediscovery and reevaluation, it’s Bob Rafelson’s.

Music Video of the Day: My Way by Frank Sinatra (1974, dir by ????)

This was filmed at Madison Square Garden, back in 1974. I’m sharing this on Presidents Day because I’m sure this is the song that most presidents would probably sing while being kicked out of the White House. We really should consider using My Way as the new national anthem.