Sunday, August 21, 2011

Inglourious Basterds (2009): Two Years Later


So here I am, returning to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds exactly two years after its release. I have never written about the film before, but today I’m going to put my thoughts on Inglourious Basterds to rest with a definitive review, and then that will be that. To do this, I am going to have to be completely honest. And I will need to be clear on why I hated the film so much when it first opened on August 21, 2009.

Inglourious Basterds came out during a dark period in my life. My memories of the summer of 2009 are not fond. I had just graduated from high school, had found myself stuck in a demanding summer job and had watched all my friends venture off to faraway universities while I had to stay in town and attend the local community college. Our nation had elected a President I had faith in, but we were still facing the same political hardships every night: war in Iraq, torture at Guantanamo, a broken healthcare industry. I desperately wanted lasting peace—in my life and in my country—and it wasn’t happening. America was still wrapped in the blankets of political cynicism.

Now consider what happened when Inglourious Basterds came out. At the time, I was not yet sold on the concept of Quentin Tarantino being a great filmmaker, as I hadn’t yet responded strongly to any of his films. All I could see in his movies was the work of a filmmaker obsessed with violence, vengeance and buried right-wing fetishes. I was skeptical about the prospect of him directing a World War II epic. I had read an interview, conducted by Jeffrey Goldberg, in which Tarantino was asked his feelings about Holocaust films and had responded, “I hate that hand-wringing shit.” It sounded to me like he was quietly criticizing Schindler’s List (1993) with this comment. And I grew irritated after reading J. Hoberman’s early review of Inglourious Basterds in the Village Voice, in which he suggested that Tarantino was overturning the image of WWII as portrayed in Saving Private Ryan (1998). The more I read, the angrier I got.

So, you can imagine how angry I was when I finally saw Inglourious Basterds for myself on the night it opened. Oh, that was a bad night for me, indeed. I attended the film with a bloodthirsty audience that cheered at the onscreen images of Nazi soldiers being beaten to death with baseball bats and having swastikas carved into their foreheads. I could only interpret this as Tarantino’s apologia for torture and capital punishment; a crass attempt to appeal to the audience’s basest mob instincts. Was I supposed to feel guilty for not joining in the fun? I left the theater that night feeling miserable, furious and, above all, wounded. I saw Inglourious Basterds as a celebration of politics I despised and as an attack on movies I had loved. It was simply not a film I was ready for.

But then a funny thing happened. The movie wouldn't go away. People simply couldn't stop talking about it. How did I deal with this? Well, I began reading defenses of the film—one by Jim Emerson, another by Ryan Kelly—that helped me glance at Tarantino’s vision in a new light. I learned not only that Tarantino had, in fact, admired Schindler’s List, but that he had even cited Saving Private Ryan as an influence on his film. Fast-forward to Oscar season, and I was taking special notice of Tarantino’s unexpected appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show. He had suddenly acknowledged the credibility of the theory that his film was a partial response to Al-Quaeda terrorist attacks. And he reminded Maddow that his film was far from an infantile glorification of violence. “It would be easy,” he said, “to just set up a situation where we just go oh, kill the Nazis… rah, rah, rah in the audience. It would be like watching Rocky. But, you know, that‘s too easy for what I‘m trying to do.”

Now, it’s August 21, 2011. I’ve managed to see Inglourious Basterds two more times since then, and I like it much better now. It’s certainly a good film. But is it a great film? That, I don’t know. The movie is notorious for its violence; characters shoot each other, scalp each other and burn each other alive. How does Tarantino want us to respond to the material? One of the things I still find so maddening about Inglourious Basterds is how inconsistent the film’s tone is. In some scenes, Tarantino allows us to meditate thoroughly on the consequences of the violence depicted in the film. In other scenes, he seems to welcome our enjoyment of it—and our cheers. Is this simply because he felt like he had to adhere to the common rules of the WWII action movie genre? The film opens with a shot of a man burying an axe into a stump of dead wood, and ends with a shot of two men digging a knife into a living man’s forehead. It is, thus, a film in which matters of life and death are determined on the edge of a blade.


Take the film’s brilliant opening sequence, set in Nazi-occupied France, in which the dairy farm of LaPadite (Denis Menochet) is invaded by Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and his stormtroopers. Landa, nicknamed “the Jew Hunter,” has reason to believe LaPadite is sheltering a Jewish family under his kitchen floorboards. Watch how Tarantino builds suspense when LaPadite invites Landa into his home. They sit down. They smoke pipes. They switch off from French to English—an “acknowledgment of the blockbuster audience's limited patience for subtitles,” writes critic Ed Howard, “and, it turns out, also a component of Landa's forward-thinking plotting, since the family beneath the floorboards can't understand English.” A glass of milk gleams in the sunlight, illuminated by Robert Richardson’s eerie cinematography. Juxtaposed close-ups of Landa and LaPadite’s faces, edited by the late Sally Menke, indicate that the game is up. And Christoph Waltz, a Lambert Wilson lookalike, single-handedly steals the show from this point onwards; not since Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of Amon Goeth had we ever seen such a memorably deranged portrait of a Nazi in an American film. “I’m aware of the tremendous feats human beings are capable of once they abandon human dignity,” Landa warns LaPadite. We know he is not kidding.


Another of the film’s stronger story threads involves the doomed relationship between Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) and Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Shosanna owns a French movie theater; her family was massacred by Landa’s troops, and she was the only one who escaped. Zoller is a war hero—the “German Sergeant York”—now starring in a movie, entitled Nation’s Pride, based on his own exploits. He is bored with his newfound fame. His true passion lies in film appreciation, and he delightedly makes conversation with Shoshanna outside her theater one night: “It’s been a pleasure chatting with a fellow cinema lover.” Shoshanna despises Germans and wants nothing to do with him: “If you are so desperate for a French girlfriend, I suggest you try Vichy.” Although Zoller tries to impress her by arranging to have Nation’s Pride screened at her theater, he mistakenly believes he will win her love in the process. Shosanna sees it, instead, as an opportunity for sweet revenge, and hatches a plan to burn the theater down on the night of the screening—and trap all of the attending Nazis inside. The subplot involving Shosanna and Zoller provides us with a most thought-provoking contrast: a woman, consumed with hatred, killing in the name of liberty; and a man, seeking love, who inadvertently serves evil.


The film’s third most successful story thread is unique in that it transforms a film critic, Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), as well as an actress, Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), into action heroes. As Hicox, Fassbender sports a memorable Errol Flynn accent and generally serves as a mouthpiece for Tarantino’s infatuation with G.W. Pabst; at one point, Hicox’ impressive knowledge of German cinema even saves him, when his familiarity with the work of Leni Riefenstahl allows him to pass himself off as a native of the Piz-Palu. Kruger, far more convincing here than she was in Troy (2004), portrays Hammersmark as skilled in the art of handling people but inexperienced in the craft of setting up a rendezvous. The scene that follows, in which Hicox and Hammersmark find themselves pinned down in a basement bar by the leering Major Hellstrom (August Diehl), has been criticized by some as being overly-talky. Actually, it mirrors the film’s opening sequence quite well, especially if returned to on repeated viewings. Of particular interest is how both Hicox and Hammersmark accidentally give themselves away. Hammersmark leaves some important evidence behind. And when Hicox holds up his fingers to order three glasses of whiskey, watch how Tarantino is quick to catch Hellstrom’s reaction. Only an English man would up his fingers that way.


Now we come to the most problematic story thread of the film: the Inglourious Basterds themselves. They are a Jewish-American commando ordered by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) to launch a campaign of terror against the Nazis—a campaign founded on scare tactics and threats of capital punishment. I have always held the opinion that the scenes with the Basterds are the most uninteresting and gratuitous scenes in the film. It’s a nice touch for Tarantino to name one of them, Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), after a B-movie actor, but did we really need that repugnant insert of Stiglitz shoving his fist down a Nazi’s throat? And why did Aldo Raine have to be reduced to such a ruthless, mean-spirited archetype? Pitt doesn’t have very many opportunities with the role, and the character is not likable.


Despite the Basterds’ similarities to Al-Quaeda, Tarantino doesn’t appear to show much disdain for anything they do in the film—in fact, he practically exonerates them. And he never establishes them as anything less than heroes we’re meant to root for. Take what I consider to be the weakest sequence in the film, in which Raine and the other Basterds play mind games with a German sergeant named Werner (Richard Sammel), threatening to have him executed if he doesn’t cooperate with them. “You can’t expect me to divulge information that would put German lives in danger?” Werner muses, respectfully declining to cooperate. This allows the Basterds the satisfaction of summoning the Bear Jew (Eli Roth) to beat Werner to death with a baseball bat, in what is perhaps the film’s most controversial moment of violence.

I was offended by this scene when I first saw it, and I still feel the same way today. On one hand, Tarantino instills some audience identification into Werner by having him stare up at the Bear Jew without blinking an eye, proudly insisting that he won his iron cross for bravery—not for murdering Jews. On the other hand, when the Basterds continue to harass Werner, he launches into a pathetic, anti-Semitic tirade, which exists for no other purpose except to relieve any lingering guilt the audience may have over their enjoyment of his death. The logic presented here is that he is an anti-Semite and, therefore, deserves to die. It’s like Tarantino is trying to have it both ways: to satisfy liberals who believe he is satirizing gung-ho American “justice” in war, and to satisfy conservatives who would cheer at the scene, happy to see a Nazi getting his brains bashed in.

The Basterds’ storyline doesn’t fit in very comfortably with the other three narratives, which begs the question: what kind of WWII action movie was Tarantino trying to make, exactly? Further research shows that Tarantino is particularly enamored with two films: The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). Certainly the Basterds have a lot in common with the superficial American criminals Robert Aldrich gave us in the latter. Like the Basterds, the Dozen enjoyed killing, had no regrets about their actions and appealed to the basest mob instincts of audiences. But in The Guns of Navarone, J. Lee Thompson and Carl Foreman gave us a band of heroes who were sick of the war and tired of fighting; at one point, they even despaired when faced with the task of having to kill a prisoner of war. Characters like Shosanna, Zoller, Hicox and Hammersmark certainly fit that description in Tarantino’s film. But this, then, is perhaps the biggest problem with Inglourious Basterds: Tarantino has tried to merge a pro-war perspective with a more complex, apolitical perspective, and the result is a film that doesn’t know what kind of WWII action movie it wants to be. It’s because of this defect that I’m still not sure if Inglourious Basterds is a great film.


And yet, the movie has so many pleasures to offer—for cinephiles and for common moviegoers alike—that one need not ponder for an eternity over such a question. Tarantino has always had a knack for wacky humor, and Inglourious Basterds offers plenty of laugh-out-loud moments: Colonel Landa’s insistence that Shosanna “wait for the cream!” before digging into her breakfast strudel; the outrage of Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) at the mention of “Lillian HARVEY!”; the Bear Jew’s endless pronunciation of “Margheriti!” at Landa’s request; or Landa’s boyish squeal of “Ooooh, that’s a bingo!” when he makes an offer Aldo Raine could never refuse. An appearance by Mike Meyers, as General Fenech, is more impressive than I had initially feared; and Rod Taylor, fondly remembered from Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), has a wonderful cameo as Churchill. As expected, Tarantino packs the film with references to films engineered for the Third Reich, but he doesn’t stop there: his range extends from Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong (1933) to Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982), the latter allowing for an amusing (if arbitrary) excuse to smuggle David Bowie onto the soundtrack.


I should mention, too, that despite the cruel images layered throughout the film here and there, Tarantino does not allow Inglourious Basterds to revert into a one-dimensional, anti-German horrorshow. “Tarantino's Nazis,” writes critic Jason Bellamy, “are something that Nazis are almost never allowed to be in American movies: intelligent.” And true to his word on Maddow’s show, Tarantino tries not to go for easy Nazi villain cliches. He goes to great pains to point out that Wilhelm (Gedeon Burkhard), a drunken corporal unfortunate enough to get stuck in the middle of the confrontation between Hicox and Hellstrom in the basement bar, is just a man providing for his wife and his newborn son. When he holds Hammersmark hostage and Raine comes down to negotiate, we hope that—as Raine claims—“you’ll go your way, we’ll go ours, and little Max gets to grow up playing catch with his daddy,” but it is no use. We know he is going to get shot. But Tarantino also finds other, subtler ways to humanize the film’s Nazis. Watch how moved Goebbels is, for example, when Hitler himself (Martin Wuttke) tells him that Nation’s Pride is his best work yet. We know that they’re both going to get sprayed with bullets in the film’s finale. But when that moment comes, we’re fully aware that we’re seeing humans, not cartoons, being slaughtered.


Let me explain what I mean by that. I must admit that despite my ugly experience with Inglourious Basterds the first time I saw it, I vividly remember how greedily I anticipated the film’s infamous final sequence, which attempts to revise history as we know it. I don’t know what it was, but I remember wanting to see what would result from barbecuing the Nazi high command in one giant auditorium. If I respond differently to this sequence than I do to Werner’s execution earlier in the film, it’s because I think the two scenes are dealing with two different issues. Werner’s execution is the result of pointless, vitriolic capital punishment—it’s unnecessary, it accomplishes nothing, and it saves no lives. On the contrary, the burning of the theater in the film’s finale arguably does save lives. No doubt humanity is capable of better, and wars are certainly never, ever won in such a crude fashion. But what if they were? Some of the most memorable movies show us things we may only get to witness once every millennium—or things we may never expect to see at all. “But,” as Colonel Landa explains, convincingly, “in the pages of history, every once in a while, fate reaches out and extends its hand.”


Of course, there’s a catch. In Tarantino’s alternate universe, villains usually don’t get off scot-free, and sometimes the heroes don’t, either. Hicox and Hammersmark both die because of their own carelessness. Both the Bear Jew and Ulmer (Omar Doom) die willingly, with dynamite attached to their legs. Marcel (Jacky Ido), Shosanna’s black projectionist, presumably dies in the explosion right along with them, but dies knowing that Shosanna has a place in her heart for him. Shosanna herself dies because she overreaches herself in her obsessive attempts to secure vengeance. Zoller dies because he cannot decide if he wants to embrace his own celebrity or disown it. “My exploits consisted of killing many men,” he confesses to Shosanna at the screening. “Consequently, the part of the film that’s playing right now… I don’t like watching this part.” In one of the purest moments in the film, Shoshanna and Zoller wind up shooting each other dead—but their faces are still up there on the screen, in Nation’s Pride. They will no longer be able to deliver “a message for Germany” in real life. But in cinema, they still can.


I have one more detail to gripe about. It concerns the film’s final scene, in which Colonel Landa strikes a deal with Aldo Raine to help accomplish “Operation Kino” and end the war. Landa is recognized by the U.S. government as a double agent and is rewarded with a Congressional Medal of Honor, American citizenship and a lush property on Nantucket Island. Then, Raine and the “Little Man” (B.J. Novak) have Landa’s driver, Hermann (Michael Kranz), shot and scalped—deliberately going against the terms in the deal Landa and the U.S. government made with them. One wonders: why does Raine have to murder Hermann at the end of the movie? What point is he trying to prove? Is it to show off to Landa? Is it so that he can get one last scalp to add to his collection? Or is it for a reason I suspect: that Tarantino is offering Hermann’s death as collateral for sparing Landa, so that the audience can have the pleasure of seeing just one more Nazi getting shot and scalped, for one last bit of catharsis to top off a film that already has more violence than it needs?


I could go on and on complaining, but it wouldn’t do any good. To be fair, it is undeniably brave of Tarantino not to kill off Landa, of all people, at the end of the film, despite all the atrocities we’ve seem him commit and condone. Part of the reason why I intensely disliked Tarantino’s previous feature, Death Proof (2007), was because he intended for the film’s highpoint to be a scene in which a suffering, screaming villain was kicked to death. Surprisingly—and thankfully—he doesn’t do that again in this film. While we do get a rather disturbing shot of Raine and the Little Man carving a swastika into Landa’s forehead while he screams in pain, we understand why they’re doing it; it is not, as I once believed, an apologia for torture. “He’s a Nazi,” Tarantino explained, in the interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. “They’re giving him a scar. I don’t know if I would even go so far as to call that torture. He’s scarring him. He’s not torturing him.” Interestingly—with the exception of the Little Man, of course—Landa and Raine are the only two major players to emerge all in one piece at the end. And they’re the two most ruthless people in the movie.


The night I left that initial screening of Inglourious Basterds, I wondered how the movie would age. And I wondered if I would ever start liking the film a little better than I did. Two years later, to my relief, I have. I still hesitate to proclaim the film a masterpiece—as several of my colleagues have already done—but that’s not what’s important. This is a good movie. It has ambitions—some of them dubious—but most of them exercised in an attempt to encompass all that has been said about World War II in cinema’s history. And all that has been said about the Allied efforts. And, yes, the Nazis, too. "I sure as hell didn’t come down from the goddamned Smokey Mountains, across 5,000-mile water, fight my way through half of Sicily and jump out of a fucking aeroplane to teach the Nazis lessons in humanity," barks Aldo Raine, in an early scene. "Nazi ain’t got no humanity." But Quentin Tarantino has made a film that believes otherwise, and Aldo Raine is wrong.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Please disregard my old Yahoo Movies reviews

We've all Googled ourselves. Admit it. I do it all the time. Rarely am I ever proud of reading the stuff I wrote millions of years ago on the Internet. In fact, I've been publishing "reviews" on the Internet ever since 2004 -- when I was 13 years old.

President Obama has warned our nation's children that much of what they post on the Internet is going to be permanent. Listen to your President, kids. Seriously. In the future, we'll all probably have special archive machines allowing us to find things other people posted eons ago. So if you're going to pursue a career in politics, be especially careful.

Now, for all us wannabe filmmakers/film critics, the stakes aren't so high. Nobody much cares what we've said in the past about movies -- except, of course, our own rivals.

Because of that, I wince when I think of what my own "rivals" are thinking when they've Googled my own name (which they probably don't, but you never know) and have found some seriously old reviews I wrote for Yahoo Movies, from 2003-2006. That is not a moment in my amateur career as a film critic I am proud of. The reviews were terrible, I didn't know what the hell I was saying, and I mindlessly tried to make up my own memorable catch-phrases. Worse, I can't go back and delete those reviews. Even worse is Yahoo's despicable crime of changing the dates on those reviews, to make it look like I wrote some of them in 2008.

I'll stop rambling though, and provide some of the links to these awful old reviews of mine. As a bonus, I'll include some of the hilarious things I wrote in the reviews. If the dates on the reviews are correct, I'll leave them unchanged. If not, I'll let you know when I really wrote them.

I'm sure my "rivals" will probably go to town with this stuff. Erm... be my guest.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

-Published in May 2005

"As long as HAL is talking or as long as someone is referring to HAL, this movie is able to stay on track and avoid boredom."

Alien (1979)

-Published in Summer 2004, though Yahoo incorrectly claims April 2008

"Alien is a much better experience than AvP, a MUCH better one. And to think that this masterpiece was created in the late 70's!"

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

-Published in June 2005

"The battle of Hoth begins, and the soldiers fight gigantic, four-legged steel machines called AT-ATs. This incredibly visualized battle is given life by Joe Johnston’s visual effects and Dennis Muren’s effects photography. The good guys win the battle, and when it’s over, Luke and the droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) set off for Degobah."

[What's particularly embarrassing about the review above is my 14-year old self claiming that the rebels win the battle of Hoth, even though -- if you watch the movie -- they clearly do not.]

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)

-Published in June 2005

"E.T. is today the third highest-grossing film of all time. I wonder why so many people wanted to see it? Maybe they loved Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark so much that they wanted to see more from the director who was at the time just beggining. People don't seem to think that today though, because not everybody wants to see his new films and they're not afraid to critisize them. Why would anyone ever do that? Every one of Spielberg's films are perfect."

Blade Runner (1982)

-Published around Summer 2005, though Yahoo incorrectly claims May 2008

"Blade Runner is a very enjoyable movie that has only one flaw that keeps it from quite becoming great. I was disappointed with the way Leon was killed off."

Return of the Jedi (1983)

-Published in Summer 2005, though Yahoo incorrectly claims February 2007

"Return of the Jedi is the greatest Star Wars movie, in my opinion. It is one of my all-time favorite movies, and it’s one of the very best times you’ll ever have watching science fiction in your life. Not a movie that a moviegoer should be without. Great finale, it is. See it, you must. That’s what Yoda would say."

The Color Purple (1985)

-Published in Summer 2005, though Yahoo incorrectly claims April 2008

"Variety reviews did not love this movie. They quoted, "Over produced, overly manipulative Spielberg drama is saved by outstanding performaces". WHAT A TERRIBLE THING TO SAY! This film is not over produced OR overly manipulative."

The Name of the Rose (1986)

-Published in May 2005, though Yahoo claims May 2008

"Christian Slater’s performance as Adso is remarkable; he was 15 when he performed it. I know, you’re probably wondering how, at that age, he was able to do that sex scene. The truth is, he didn’t know that that was what he would be doing (only Valentina Vargas was instructed about what would happen in it), and so Christian was not really acting in that scene. Strange, huh?"


The Untouchables (1987)

-Published around Fall 2004, though Yahoo incorrectly claims March 2008

"Yep, this is a glorious movie. One of the hottest mob movies out there. And definately Brian De Palma's greatest achievement ever."


Rain Man (1988
)

-Published sometime around Summer 2004, though Yahoo incorrectly claims December 2006.

"It makes sense that Rain Man was the Best Picture winner of 1988, because the story is great, the acting is great, and I just loved it!"

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

-Published in Summer 2005, though Yahoo incorrectly claims August 2006

For a while, I thought that Cruise' best performance was in "Jerry MaGuire", but today, on the Fourth of July, I saw Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July", and my opinion has been turned around."

JFK (1991)


-Published in May 2005

"It’s easy to disbelieve the Warren Commission report, but “JFK” also dares to claim that Lyndon Johnson may have also been part of the conspiracy. Not very many people would take that lightly. I do believe that Johnson was a part of the conspiracy, and there even is a possibility that J. Edgar Hoover was also involved, which the movie does not suggest."

Hollywood Homicide (2003)

-Published around late 2004, though Yahoo incorrectly claims August 2006

"This movie was not well-received by critics because of the whole action/comedy thing. But actually, you'll get very entertained around when the movie reaches 50 minutes or something."

Friday, August 5, 2011

Mary Badham's Memories of Robert Mulligan


When I realized, last year, that one of my all-time favorite American filmmakers was the late Robert Mulligan, I became obsessed with wanting to find out more about him. From 1957 to 1991, he made at least a dozen great American movies before his death in 2008 at the age of 83. I was curious about that long gap between the completion of his final film, The Man in the Moon (1991), and the time of his death. I wanted to know why he spent the last 17 years of his life away from filmmaking, and who better to ask than Miss Jean-Louise Finch herself?

I was thrilled when I learned that Mary Badham, who played young Scout in Mulligan's To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), would be coming to my college on May 1, 2011. Most people, I figured, just wanted to be there to listen to her stories about Gregory Peck. I must have been the only kid (well, the only person) who wanted to hear her talk more about the filmmaking aspects of the movie. Now, I should have known from my previous experiences with meeting a director and an actor that you're normally supposed to asks these sorts of questions to directors, and NOT actors, but what the hell: it's Mary Badham. I went ahead and tried it anyway.


I've spent all summer procrastinating on sharing the full details of that afternoon when I drove out to Meramec Community College, so to make a long story short I'll just stick to the important details. The event started out in the Meramec Theatre, with the Meramec Symphonic Band, conducted by Gary Gackstatter (pictured above), performing the theme from The Great Escape (because the late Elmer Bernstein once insisted to Gackstatter that no matter what Bernstein themes the Band performed at various concerts, they had to perform that amazing Great Escape theme). Then the Band quietly segued into the true purpose of the event: to perform Bernstein's lovely Mockingbird music, from beginning to end.


Sometime after Mary Badham came onstage, she told a story to the audience that I absolutely cherished. As you can probably tell from the pic of Mulligan above (in which he poses with Gina Lollobrigida, star of his Come September), he was quite the chain-smoker, and could rarely ever be found without a cigarette on his sets. On the Mockingbird set, a bit of mischief swirled when young Philip Alford (who plays Jem in the film) began secretly putting out Mulligan's cigarettes with water. This happened for a while until Mulligan began to catch on as to who was committing the sneaky deed.


Then, on the day the crew began filming the scene by the jailhouse (when the kids flank Atticus Finch from the angry mob), Mulligan gleefully turned the tables on Alford and the rest of the kids. Once the scene was finished, Mulligan quickly whispered to Gregory Peck that he step aside. Before the kids could react, a bucket of water on top of the jailhouse was dumped forward and Alford, Badham and John Megna (aka Dill) were all completely soaked!


We watched clips from that making-of documentary that's now on the film's DVD, and we listened to Badham's stories about the production (she still refers to Gregory Peck as "Atticus" to this day). As icing on the cake, she finished by reading from Scout's final monologue in the book. At one point, I recall conductor Gackstatter telling the audience about just how much he loved To Kill A Mockingbird in general: "I can't name a better movie. I can't name a better book."

Forgive me for bursting the bubble here momentarily, but I feel like I ought to express how I, personally, feel about such a broad statement. I know, I know: we're all entitled to our own opinions, and I'm being a jerk for pouring rain on the Meramec Band's parade. But, as an amateur film critic who's reviewed To Kill A Mockingbird in the past, I couldn't help but wince at this dubious praise for Mockingbird as being the best of all books, the best of all movies.

Hell, the movie that beat it at the Academy Awards was better. Hell, Mulligan himself made a handful of movies that, I might argue, were better: The Stalking Moon (1968), Summer of '42 (1971) and The Other (1972), for example. Don't get me wrong: I love To Kill A Mockingbird, the movie AND the book, but it's hard not to look past the painful flaws in Harper Lee's story. I read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man for the first time this year, and couldn't help but see how much more superior it is as a treatment of racism, tolerance and the problems of vigilante justice. Case in point: Invisible Man ends with the unnamed hero accepting the story's villains (Dr. Bledsoe, Ras the Destroyer, Brother Jack) without letting them ruin his life; To Kill A Mockingbird can't end without the piggish Bob Ewell getting a knife stuck up his gut before everyone can be happy.


This is just me going on a pointless rant, though. A rant that will probably have to be saved for another day, and another Mulligan-related discussion. To wrap up my memories of this particular event, I'll get to the best part. After the concert ended (and, I tell you, I almost didn't want it to end; I can't get enough of Bernstein's Mockingbird score), many of us lined up outside the lobby to meet Badham. As I neared the table, I discovered, to my dismay, that autographs were $20. Here, then, was when I learned the sad truth about retired actors/actresses: this is how many of them make their living. Not that I wanted Badham's autograph; I wanted a picture taken with her, since I've always preferred pictures. Since I didn't want to look like I was planning to walk away with a free lunch, however, I went ahead and planted my $20 bill on the table and asked somebody in line to snap a pic for me.

Of course, I needed just one more thing. I felt awkward doing this, but I lowered myself to Badham's level (since she was sitting down), told her I was a huge fan of Mulligan and asked her if she knew why he left Hollywood after 1991. She showed an expression of uncertainty on her face as I was asking this. Which, I'm sure, is a natural reaction: Why the %#@& is this kid asking this question to me, of all people?

Admittedly, as I expected, she couldn't give me a definitive answer. Part of it might have been because there was a long line of people there, and she hadn't the liberty to give too much thought to the matter during that moment. Part of it could have been that she simply didn't know. Still, she gave me an answer of some kind, and it's the only professional answer I've heard from anyone to date.


"I think he was just done with the business," she said, "and wanted to live a quiet life."