It Ain’t Over

If you are of a certain age, you probably heard the name “Yogi Berra” and thought “Yogi Bear? What?” because the rest of the sentence, about being one of the all-time great ball players wouldn’t really make any sense. If you’re a little bit older, you might know him best as the guy who was famous for saying things that didn’t quite seem to make sense (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it”) and to whom (like Mark Twain or Will Rogers) a great deal of pithy or silly sayings have been attributed to. You’d know he was a baseball player but you might not know how much of a player he was.

Well, Berra’s family and documentarian Sean Mullin (“Kings of Beer”, a 2019 documentary about Budweiser which might be worth a re-evaluation in Current Day) are here to set the record straight, and the result is the best documentary of the past several years.

The first thing that struck me here was that Berra was a mook. The reason this struck me is that in Painting With Fire, we learn that Frank Frazetta (whose Dark Kingdom just sold for $6M) was also a mook—and also a great ballplayer who wistfully recalled missing his tryout with a very interested major league team. (It might have been the Giants, and as I recall, he claimed to have missed it because he was “f*cking around”. So instead he just reshaped popular art.)

We need more mooks, in other words.

That’s a lot of rings.

But after the background stuff we get the early days in baseball, interrupted by World War II. Berra landed at Normandy and his job after that was fishing bodies out of the ocean. He was wounded two or three times. Small wonder he didn’t consider baseball to be “hard”.

After the war, we’re back to baseball and the pay is low. There’s some great stuff on Berra holding out to get the same pay his buddy Joe Garagiola did ($500 or something ridiculous like that) and the machinations of a team manager gone wrong. But anyway, they couldn’t afford benches to sit on at games, so they sat on the ground. Lorenzo Pietro (that’s “Larry Peter” to you) Berra sat cross-legged and someone commented, “Hey, you look like a yogi!”

And so it stuck. Yet, there’s something almost too aesthetic about a guy being nicknamed “yogi” and then becoming famous for aphorisms. Some say we live in a simulation; I say we live in a pulp novel.

One chunk of the movie is dedicated to honoring Berra’s record. For reasons that seem shockingly superficial—he wasn’t conventionally handsome and he didn’t have the gait of a, well, a conventional homo sapiens—the press delighted in calling him names (e.g. “The Ape”) and turning him into a clownish figure. Mostly, he didn’t seem to mind, noting that no ball player ever won a game with his face.

I find this face appealing.

Interestingly, the Yogi Bear thing did bother him. He didn’t like being turned into a literal cartoon character.

But as we learn, the only thing that made him mad—and this is hilarious—is a call that an umpire made where he tagged Jackie Robinson out at home plate and the ref called him safe. Decades later, people would wind him up by saying they thought Jackie was safe. (Interestingly, The Boy thought he was safe where I thought he was out. It’s really impossible to tell.) He and Jackie were friendly (and because it’s 2023, we have to know he was okay with The Gays, too).

The truth of the matter, the thing that stands out above all else, was that Berra took responsibility for the game. To a level it’s almost hard to comprehend. Like, obviously, as a catcher, you have to know everybody in the game, the strengths and weaknesses of the players and the pitchers and so on. That’s the job. (And Berra was terrible at it, until a coach drilled the bejeesus out of him.)

But as a batter, he took responsibility for hitting the ball. That is, I think—and forgive my ignorance of the game—the smart approach to batting is to only swing at balls in the strike zone. For Yogi, if it was possible to hit the ball, he hit the ball. (His batting average to home run ratio was amazing.)

But he would also coach players from the opposing team!

And wherever he went, pennants and series championships followed. As a player, he played in fourteen World Series and won ten. He had three more wins as a manager, and was on his way to a fourth (I’m guessing) when fired by Steinbrenner. As a manager, he turned around whatever team he was on. I attribute this, again, to his taking responsibility.

He loved the game.

No less inspiring was his family life, having landed a beautiful waitress from a restaurant baseball players couldn’t really afford to eat at, Carmen Short (who blessedly passed her looks on to Berra’s daughters and granddaughters) and celebrating their 65th anniversary together before their deaths (18 months apart). More than a little nice to see a ball player with a devoted family—not that there weren’t issues, of course, just that Berra was apparently a good father and grandfather.

Granddaughter (and sports commentator) Lindsay Berra is interviewed a lot for the movie

Then there are the aphorisms. The best of them are a kind of Zen poetry like the “It ain’t over till it’s over” that gives the movie its name, or “You can observe a lot by watching”. Some is just good advice, like  “If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.”

It’s also fun that the anticipation of a Yogi-ism created many that weren’t really odd at all if you knew the context. The “fork” comment for example was just true: If you went to Yogi’s house you’d come to a fork in the road—and both paths led to his house. There’s even an odd little digression with a copy editor who wrote Yogi-isms (for commercials) and couldn’t really remember which were hers and which were his.

On the three point scale for documentaries:

  1. Subject matter: Wonderful, joyous, definitely worthy.
  2. Presentation: Mostly pretty good. There’s enough film footage and interviews to keep things from getting too static. There’s a sort of story arc of his granddaughter trying to get him the Purple Hearts he never filed for because he didn’t want to worry his mom, but there’s so much good stuff here, the focus on some recognition from a defunct government seems trivial.
  3. Bias: This is a hagiography straight up, and I am here for it. For all I know, the man was a saint (except for the whole Jackie-Robinson-being-out thing) and an inspiration, and just incredibly likable. Nothin’ wrong with that.

The Boy and I were enthusiastic, and he knows less about baseball than I do. Check it out!

“Carmen and Yogi, together again.”

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

These days, the theaters are in such disarray, even Angela Lansbury can’t get much love.

I say this as I look around for movies and all the things I’d like to see are squeezed between nearly half of all screens being taken up with Avatar Needs $2 Billion To Make A Profit and the other half full of incredibly unappealing Oscar-bait. I mean, The Whale seemed promising by comparison. But there aren’t even that many of those.

Avatar really needs that $2 billion, yo, and they’ll flood the theaters with it until you’ve seen it out of desperation, as if there was no such thing as streaming and home media.

I mention it because—well, first because I’m about to drive to Santa Monica to give the Bill Nighy film Living a view because literally nothing is worthwhile closer—but also because Angela Lansbury was enough of an institution in Hollywood where she could legitimately have had a week playing “best of” in a world where screens were not such rare commodities (even as the seats are mostly empty). Instead, we get not even a double feature, but just one movie The Manchurian Candidate.

Murder, She Plotted

John Frankenheimer movies are interesting. They’re so intense and serious, but also so dated. In this movie, Laurence Harvey plays Raymond Shaw, a Korean war vet who was captured and brainwashed by Communists (Chinese and Russian) and sent back to be an assassin in the US. Frank Sinatra is Bennet Marco, an army intelligence officer who was a troop mate of Shaw and who, along with other members of the troop, got Shaw a Medal of Honor by reporting back that he had saved them all—this also due to amazingly effective brainwashing.

Marco has to unravel the puzzle, which is challenging because he’s on the wrong side of the brainwashing, while Shaw goes around murdering everyone with Hollywood-level silencers, and somehow not really suffering any really negative consequences for it. (We saw this a bit before seeing Experiment in Terror, also from 1962, which featured Glenn Ford as a hard-working but somewhat hapless FBI agent, but the similarities were enough to remind me of the various intelligence agencies’ PR pushes involving Hollywood.)

Even 60 years later, the movie has a lot of energy. The acting is top-notch. Noted Italian-American Henry Silva would begin his lifelong career of playing Asian baddies with his role as Chunjin, a Chinese assassin who can smash coffee tables with his hand but who is no match for a skinny, sweaty, 47-year-old Sinatra. Actually, I shouldn’t single out Sinatra for being sweaty: Sweat deserves a supporting actor nod for its work here.

The pain of having to pretend a punch from Sinatra could hurt you.

Leslie Parrish is at her loveliest (and the only surviving member of the cast, now that Silva has passed, I believe). John McGiver, James Gregory and Whit Bissell show up in various roles: You may not recognize their names, but certainly their faces will ring a bell. (Bissell is uncredited for some reason. I think our hosts explained the reason but I have forgotten it.) Janet Leigh, fresh off Psycho, picks a sick, delusional Sinatra up on a train and dumps her fiancée, which is hardly the least plausible moment of the film.

The least plausible moments, I suppose, involve the army intelligence guy being so absolutely clueless about brainwashing that he allows Shaw to run amok. MKULTRA was still under wraps, of course, but the core concepts of brainwashing were certainly well known by the time of the movie, right? I think the implication is that the election is the 1960 one—needless to say, the evillest character in the movie is Raymond Shaw’s mother, the very Republican Eleanor Iselin, played to perfection by Lansbury.

Strangers on a train.

Which is the point, after all. Eleanor’s so thoroughly and cartoonishly evil, you’d have to be alive in 2023 to believe such excesses are possible by public figures. And her husband (Gregory), the future President is such an inept puppet, so incompetently stupid, why, I can’t even imagine how they would expect him to win a nomination to the Presidency. (They don’t, actually, that’s where Shaw comes in.)

Nonetheless, Lansbury’s performance is tremendous. She’s nuanced, even if her character is not. (She’s also 37, and Harvey is 34. But she always had an older look about her.)

I suppose there’s something edgy (at least in 1962) to making the conservative Republican the tool of Communists, although in this telling, Eleanor figures she’s using the commies and will take care of them once she controls the Presidency.

I don’t know: Viewing things in the context of the American Myth, you can see here a major shot fired in the destruction thereof. At some point (pre-WWII, pre-Wilson) Americans had a view of themselves as independent, and the government’s powers were more rightly restricted to international affairs and wars. Here, if some maniac gets a hold of the Presidency, all is lost. And I think that’s been the dominant myth in the past 60 years, really.

Ironically, it undercuts the power of all future American movies.

They would switch from the Queen of Diamonds to “Catcher in the Rye” after this.

Bubba Ho-Tep

When he introduced this at the Jamboree, Joe Bob described the backstory as: Joe Lansdale (Cold In July) was having trouble getting his work produced by Hollywood and so, when tasked to write a story for an Elvis anthology commemorating the anniversary of his death, he wrote the least filmable story ever written.

Don Coscarelli (Phantasm) read it and thought, “Perfect.” I mean, I’m assuming. Because he somehow got this movie made, and more spectacularly, it’s a really fine and ultimately serious reflection on age.

The premise is that Elvis (Bruce Campbell) is living in an old folks home in East Texas. Apparently, tiring of the crazy fame, he decided to swap places with one of his imitators and it was the imitator that ended up killing himself in Graceland. The real Elvis, unfortunately, had a terrible accident that put him in a coma for years, and he’s never really recovered. When our story begins, an Egyptian mummy has escaped from a travelling exhibit and is feeding off the seniors at Shady Rest (where Elvis is staying).

The women in Elvis’ life.

Elvis begins to suspect supernatural goings on, but of course no one will take him seriously, so he enlists the help of his friend, Jack (Ossie Davis). Jack, as it turns out, is JFK. Apparently LBJ put his brain into the body of a black man, or—I’m fuzzy on this, honestly—maybe turned him black with all the post-assassination shenanigans? Hardly matters. (The original story also had John Dillinger, but after a sex change.)

The two of them join feeble forces to fight one of the feeblest undead critters in cinema. The mummy, as it turns out, is pretty weak, and sustains himself by siphoning off the life force of the living. He’s targeting seniors because no one will notice. But they’re not exactly rich in elan vital, so the mummy never gets up to full force—though he’s fairly formidable nonetheless, sending scarab beetles to do his dirty work.

You might say, “Well, ‘gique, this sounds like goofy fun,” and I’d agree with you. But it does transcend its own budgetary limitations to become a fairly serious reflection on age, celebrity, even the meaning of life. The goofy, weird, mildly exploitative aspects of it all ground it in such a way that when it goes for an emotional note, it hits with surprising effectiveness.

Old people wandering in the dark looking for trouble.

Bruce Campbell has a lot to do with this. When I saw it in the theater (they had to shuffle around the few dozen copies they had, so it never played long anywhere), I was surprised to find that he could act. And I don’t mean that as a knock: Campbell has legitimate star power, which is a rarity in B-movies. He’s not someone who has to act, he just kind of has to be Bruce.

Here he does a very fine job as Elvis—without coming off like an Elvis impersonator. Part of it is the makeup, which is a much older an Elvis than ever was. (And probably older looking than it should’ve been.) Part of it is the idea that it’s maybe not actually Elvis. After all, Ossie Davis’ belief that he’s JFK is even more outlandish—and our Elvis doesn’t believe him!—which makes us question the whole premise, .

Ossie, of course, is great in one of his last movie roles. Joe Bob called out the nuanced performance of Ella Joyce as The Nurse, which I had not appreciated before. I’m not sure if she was supposed to be a Nurse Ratched-type, but she has a kind of condescending kindness that’s almost worse. It’s richer, anyway.

Anyway, I saw it once at at the time and I think once more a few years later, but not in over a decade. I was pleased at how well it held up.



Only In Theaters

The Laemmle Theater chain is a local Los Angeles area institution going back to the ’30s, when it was founded by one of Carl Laemmle’s cousins. (Carl Laemmle founded Universal.) The Laemmle theaters were a major player in getting movies seen in the place where they most needed to be seen, and this is a documentary about their historical involvement in making foreign luminaries like Ingmar Bergman luminous. At least to the point where Americans could see his light, anyway.

And if that’s not your cup of meat, in 2003, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room got its world premiere in two (no longer extant) Laemmle theaters, the Fairfax and the Fallbrook (the latter I came to regard as “mine” for the 15-odd years of its existence, and whose employees sometimes commented that the Boy and I were there more often than they were).

Greg Laemmle pretends to watch a movie.

I wanted this documentary to be primarily about that. The Laemmle was a fixture in my childhood, not all that much less than Greg Laemmle’s it sometimes seems, and its history is the history of movies—movie exhibition which, after all, is how movies were mostly seen until relatively recently. Under Greg’s control, the chain expanded to more screens than ever—and contracted a little as well recently.

It’s not actually that difficult a formula: They try to keep the prices low, both on tickets and concessions, the concession quality high, and their employee quality high, too. Impossible for one of the big chains, I guess, but pretty consistent for Laemmle. They show foreign films, sure, and weird one-offs, and even mainstream movies that they think will appeal to their audiences.

I mean, check it: I’ve got a dozen AMCs within a short drive from here and they’re all showing the same freakin’ movie. The Laemmle on the West Side shows different movies from the Laemmle in Encino which shows different movies from Newhall (which is more mainstream) and so on. Same with all the Regency theaters and the Regal theaters as well. (In fairness to the local Regal, it does show Indian movies, and the AMC shows Chinese movies in Chinese neighborhoods. But around here, it’s all the same superhero crap.)

In 2019 (or late 2018), they started looking for a buyer. And the documentary, which was in process, talked about how receipts were down and how it wasn’t making sense to keep going as a business, just in terms of the profit being delivered to the family.

Is this irony?

I’d never looked into it, but receipts being down didn’t surprise me at all. After about 20 years of having my moviegoing (100+ movies a year, recall) dominated by Laemmle, I’d struggled to find anything worth seeing in recent years. And I knew that was going to happen all the way back in 2016.

How, Blake? How could you possibly know that in advance? Because—and the kids all remember me telling them this, repeatedly—with a Republican in the White House, all the indie Death Star lasers would be devoted to anti-Republican, anti-Conservative, anti-Christian propaganda.

And the thing is, nobody wants to see that. Much like other spaces activists like to occupy, they don’t actually wish to partake of the culture, they just want to control it. But if you agree with it, you don’t want to see it because it’s boring. And if you don’t agree with it, you don’t want to see it…because it’s boring. And also irritating.

Seriously, from 2002-2008, there was a similar issue, with W in office. It wasn’t going to be extreme because everything is more extreme these days. (The Paradox of Tolerance and all that.)

Greg Laemmle is as liberal as you would expect a Jewish movie guy in Los Angeles to be, a sincere believer in all the right causes with biodegradable straws, far left wing documentaries dominate—but he didn’t, e.g., pull a Russian movie out of the theater when we were all (apparently) supposed to start hating Russia. I think he’s a good guy and an honest, hard-working businessman trying to make it in a hostile environment—but he can’t do that when the content doesn’t appeal to anyone.

I only mention it at all, really, because after deciding not to sell the chain, we had the lockdowns which, of course, were another terrible blow to the movie industry generally. And the movie details the struggle of keeping everything running even as the world was imploding, but at no point does Mr. Laemmle ever deviate from the establishment line.

Maybe that’s unfair; I don’t know. I’d be pissed if the government shut me down.

Anyway, it was fun to see all the theaters we’ve visited over the years that have come and gone, and the staff we knew who got small cameos. And the real drama of Laemmles, who seem like a great family with, uh, Mrs. Laemmle (Tish) worried about her husband, who’s just obsessed with the family legacy and what the theater chain means to L.A.

Which brings up another sore point: Here’s a genuine L.A. legacy and the doc is full of glowing interviews about how important it was—Ava DuVernay, Cameron Crowe, James Ivory—but when the chain falls on hard times, there’s crickets from the selfsame community. It should be a freakin’ slam-dunk for the Laemmles to get a low interest loan from, y’know, Hollywood. Tinseltown should be embarrassed that they: a) can’t support an indie movie chain; b) can’t supply content for an indie movie chain; c) can’t even muster charity for an indie movie chain. Item (c) doesn’t even seem to have occurred to anyone.

OK, enough. It’s a good doc. It’s more personal and more immediate than the historic one I wanted, but it’s still good, even if you’re not a regular. On the three point scale:

  1. Subject matter: I’d say important, but that’s a very personal grade. Right now, there are over 100 screens that I consider “near”—near enough to go to see a movie at—and the big chains are all showing the same 14 movies. Of the 14, I’ve seen 3 (at the Laemmle). I have a mild interest in three others. Of the eight remaining, five have been out since November! Even with the lackluster flow of content, I’d be downright screwed without the hard-working Greg. (Seriously, too, I’d never get to see all the weirdo stuff that makes moviegoing fun.)
  2. Bias: It’s totally biased toward the Laemmle and the Laemmles, as am I. Greg and Tish are natives to the city, and I felt a kind of loss when they moved to Portland. It was almost funny to see this sunny, healthy looking couple turn into brooding Portlandians, as they moved from a city where it’s sunny 330 days a year to one where it’s cloudy 300 days a year. I hope the change of scenery helps them enjoy life more. Even if it is life in Portland.
  3. Presentation: Super-plain. There are some nice early photos but it’s mostly interviews. The material gets dramatic and tense at times, as they try to negotiate a sale, and then try to negotiate a lockdown, but it’s fairly plain stuff. This may be the first full-length directorial effort long-time actor Raphael Sbarge and it can’t have been easy trying to navigate the twists and turns over the at least 4 years this was in the works.

Obviously a special event for me and perhaps especially The Boy, who has preferred the Laemmle for as long as he’s been going to the movies. Worth a look.

Yup. ’bout sums it up.