1970 was the first year that “New Hollywood” really made itself felt on major studio production schedules, as marked by such releases as M*A*S*H, Little Big Man, Catch-22, and Woodstock. Yet the biggest hits that year were almost perversely old-fashioned: Love Story, a creaky tearjerker updated only by a few cuss words, and Airport, a glossy soap opera with a planeload of aging stars facing peril (a potential suicide bomber) on a Boeing 707. The latter was square AF, but its particular celluloid comfort food seemed to strike a chord—a $44 million chord, then enormous box-office—with audiences who’d been frightened away by all that nasty new-style sex and violence in trendier films.
Strangely, Airport did not occasion much imitation…at first. (Except perhaps among TV movies, which was apt since it played like one.) One person who took note of that unexpected smash, however, was producer Irwin Allen, who’d gone from making B movies and Jules Verne-based children’s adventures to similar-minded mid-’60s fantasy TV series (Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, etc.). His specialty had become delivering novelty spectacle on a budget, with cut-rate “familiar faces” adding to the economical appeal.
A 1969 beach-read novel by Paul Gallico provided an opportunity to do “Airport underwater,” so Allen assembling a cast full of recognizable falling or not-quite stars (Ernest Borgnine, Carol Lynley, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowell, Stella Stevens etc.), their ranks lent a shiver of relevance by a glorified cameo from Gene Hackman, fresh off The French Connection.
Ergo 20th Century Fox’s 1972 Christmas present to moviegoers, released exactly 50 years ago, was The Poseidon Adventure—or The Poopside-Down Adventure, as MAD Magazine’s parody later put it. Corny, clanky but undeniably fun, its tale of a few survivors, and a whole lotta casualties, on an iceberg-sunk luxury liner a la the Titanic drew much critical scoffing in a year packed with such cutting-edge stuff as Cabaret, Deliverance, Sounder, Fritz the Cat, Superfly, The Last House on the Left, and Deep Throat. Yet it was the second highest-grossing film to come out that year, trailing only The Godfather—which would be the highest-grossing film ever. (At least until Jaws came along, then Star Wars.)
This time success was duly noticed, and much-imitated, so that 1974—in artistic terms the year of Chinatown, Scenes From a Marriage, Amarcord, and The Godfather Part II—was for mass audiences more dominated by Airport 1975, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno, the latter Irvin Allen’s magnum opus. (So big it required two major studios, as well as real first-rank movie stars including Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Faye Dunaway.) Now granted its own genre, the “disaster movie” immediately peaked, however. Nearly every subsequent Me Decade entry tanked, with Allen himself pounding in the coffin nails via 1978’s The Swarm (killer bees), 1979’s Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, and 1980’s When Time Ran Out (volcano).
These movies get made still—by directors like Roland Emmerich, with stars like Dwayne Johnson—but now nobody calls them “disaster movies,” and the destruction FX are all CGI. The original films are considered camp, which they are… but someday the 21st-century versions will look just as dated. As ginormous as The Poseidon Adventure was at the time, when a Castro tribute to some of its stars was orchestrated not that many years ago, all that could be found to screen was a worn 16mm print. (How many restorations and re-releases has The Godfather gone through in 50 years, by contrast?)
How could the movie that gave us an aquatic Shelley Winters and the memorable ad line “Hell, Upside Down” have grown so neglected, after entertaining millions? You can bet James Cameron will never let a similar fate meet the longer, loftier, considerably less fun Titanic, which just got a 25th-anniversary dustoff in advance of his new Mega-Ferngully sequel. By contrast, nobody is fussing over Poseidon’s 50th. But they oughta—silly as it is, it was probably the best of the cycle it started in earnest.
In contrast, a movie forgotten because nobody saw it in the first place is getting revived for a single show at the Alamo Drafthouse this Wed/14. It’s also a disaster movie in its way—the disaster being the movie, even if of its type it’s really no better or worse than every other colorful musical calamity of its era, a rollcall that would include Grease 2, The Apple, Earth Girls Are Easy, Shock Treatment, Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu.
Released to an unappreciative world in early 1984, Voyage of the Rock Aliens was the last of several attempts to make a movie star of Pia Zadora, a former child actor turned big-haired pixie with a Broadway voice. Her Israeli-financier husband funded all four tries: Lurid potboilers Butterfly and The Lonely Lady (the latter based on a Harold Robbins novel), barely-seen crime comedy Fake-Out (in which she was torn between Telly Savalas and Desi Arnaz Jr.), and this energetic whatsit, improbably directed by James Fargo, the Clint Eastwood ally who’d made his chimpanzee comedy Every Which Way But Loose.
It opens with a de facto music video for Pia and Jermaine Jackson, who is never seen again. Then we get to the “plot”: A group of space aliens played by Tom Nolan and the band RHEEM (their look as well as their music owing a great deal to Devo) visit Planet Earth. They land in the beachside community of “Speelburgh,” which is dominated by the tempestuous romance between “high school students” Dee Dee (30-year-old Zadora) and Frankie (24-year-old Craig Sheffer, later of A River Runs Through It).
The latter is a rock band/gang leader who won’t let his girlfriend have her turn in the spotlight—though god knows that doesn’t stop her, or anyone else, from breaking out in song every couple minutes. Subsequent wacky hijinks also involve Harold & Maude’s Ruth Gordon (who’d die the next year at 88) as the local sheriff and The Hills Have Eyes’ Michael Berryman as one of two escaped homicidal lunatics.
Voyage is a comingled parody of beach party, sci-fi, and slasher movies, all done as a New Wave take on Grease. The incessant musical numbers likewise run a bewildering gamut, from generic ’80s dance songs and synthpop to rockabilly revival. Most of them are at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but the standout is “Nature of the Beast,” a pokerfaced homoerotic interlude with shirtless Sheffer supposedly pining for Pia as he flexes around a forest, trailed by a mountain lion (presumably his spirit animal). There’s also a moment even the Village People movie wouldn’t have dared, in which UFO hoodoo briefly makes all the young heterosexual male Earthlings pantingly hot for each other.
What can be said about Voyage of the Rock Aliens? What were its makers on, that they imagined it might be commercially viable, or that this would be the vehicle that would finally make Pia Zadora (whose genuine vocal abilities get shoehorned into some awkward fits here) a movie star? It is a deliberately daft entertainment, not exactly inspired but not quite a dud, either. It was a flop, yet it also screams “Eighties” in a way worthy of being placed in a time capsule to enlighten future generations about the era in which A Flock of Seagulls, pubescent Madonna-wannabes, and this celluloid artifact all made a certain sense.
Also looking backward this week is the latest (17th!) edition of archivist Rick Prelinger’s Lost Landscapes, at Herbst Theater Tues/13 and Wed/14. The first show is already sold out, but a presstime tickets were still available for the second (go here), and there will also be a public livestream (signup here) on Mon/19.
This latest incarnation of the popular program departs from the usual city-specific focus of prior ones to cast a rear-view glance at California as a whole, albeit with emphasis on San Francisco. Entitled “Bay and Gateway: Past Glimpses and Possible Futures,” it pulls together vintage home movies, advertisements, feature-film outtakes, government and industrial shorts, et al. to weigh the Golden State’s perpetual role in suggesting directions the country—even the world—might want to head in. As ever, all proceeds go to benefit the Prelinger Library.
If you’d rather just stay in the present tense, however, there are some new movies just out for your home streaming pleasure:
Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle
With another COVID surge seemingly inevitable, some folks are retreating into (or worried about) varying degrees of social isolation yet again. It’s not so bad: You could be one of the protagonists in this fact-based drama, Imperial Japanese Army soldiers who were left behind to “defend” a medium-sized (48 sq. miles) island in the Philippines towards the end of WW2. They were so well-trained at survival, eluding capture, and resisting the enemy, that they failed to believe the war was over—even though their absence was duly noted, and myriad attempts were made to draw them out of hiding. (They dismissed everything from the evidence of magazines and radio broadcasts to in-person relatives’ loudspeaker pleas as cunning propaganda.) This went on for 30 years, by the end of which only one man was left.
While vaguely similar tales from Robinson Crusoe versions to 1968’s Hell in the Pacific (in which enemy WW2 combatants Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune had to share an island) emphasized isolation and ingenuity, Arthur Harari’s film is quite eventful—even at nearly three hours’ length. Despite their fears that they may be doing the wrong thing, the soldiers remain in a constant state of military readiness, wary of potential attack, censuring one another’s perceived weaknesses. (For a long time there are four of them, then eventually just two played by Endo Yuya and Tsuda Kanji.)
Not all of this is compelling, but the movie does convey a poignant depth of denial and disorientation when “the last soldier of the war” finally meets a young Japanese backpcker who gradually, painstakingly convinces him that it’s OK to rejoin the larger human race. Another whole movie might be made about his post-island life (he died just eight years ago), which in its way was equally eccentric and high-principled. Darkstar Pictures releases Onada to On Demand platforms this Tues/13.
By contrast, it takes just 75 minutes for Joseph Sackett’s first feature to plumb a very up-to-the-moment mix of fantasy and gender exploration. Though only eight or so, Johnny (Tre Ryder) already appears to be edging towards a gender fluid identity via long hair and a fascinated, admiring identification with babysitter Melanie (Colby Minifie). She’s about to leave the gig as his frequent minder for a new career as a midwife, which abandonment is very upsetting to Johnny. In a considerable imaginative leap, he watches a weird instructional video on “free spirit meditation” that suggests one can project oneself into another’s body—and suddenly he is duly occupying Melanie’s female adult form, his dream come true.
But naturally it soon turns very complicated, not least because Melanie is shortly expected to attend an actual birth. So Homebody goes from Freaky Friday-like comedy to something queasier, even a little frightening (because Johnny’s fumbling ineptitude might impact a baby’s arrival), only to somewhat disconcertingly end on an innocuous note dismissive of all serious consequence.
Still, the film deserves credit for its odd, original intersection of Ma vie en rose and conventional body-switching farce. Better yet, Minifie is terrific at aping a child’s clumsy attempt to “act grownup,” mining Johnny’s mingled delight and terror at abruptly finding himself in an adult vessel, with adult responsibilities. Homebody is now streaming on the subscription platform Fandor, which relaunched under new ownership last year following the demise of its original, decade-long incarnation.
The Bay Area is pretty sophisticated in the realm of animal services and rescue, something I’m pretty well acquainted with as a longtime dog volunteer. That this is really not the case everywhere gets underlined by Samantha Wishman and Christina Thomas’ documentary, which starts out by noting that “millions of dogs” are routinely transported out of the US South by rescue organizations these days. Why is that? For one thing, Hurricane Katrina wound up being “the national kickoff of relocation,” bringing emergency attention to a preexisting problem. For another, the more temperate weather in that region means breeding season is longer, and the canine population—stray and otherwise—that much higher.
What Free Puppies! never quite comes out and says is that it’s also an economic issue—Southern states have some of the poorest areas in the country, so many people simply cannot afford to spay or neuter their pets. Nor can cash-strapped counties afford to fund such services…or often even have shelters and animal control operations, at all. Ergo concerned citizens step in, as illustrated here, taking their own time and resources (with the help of private donors) to find and “fix” dogs in one sort of neglected circumstance or another.
Even at under 70 minutes, Free Puppies! has some longeurs, including spending too much time with a couple elderly, RV-dwelling backwoods brothers who can barely care for themselves, let alone the pack of dogs that neighbors keep dumping on them. (They are colorful, but the movie would be better off presenting a wider range of characters.) We hear heartbreaking stories of mutts kept chained up their whole lives—one is found near-dead, having wrapped that chain around the tree it’s tied to, starved and dehydrated—as well as inspirational ones of private spay/neuter enterprises that stubbornly carry on despite “no funding at all.” (I could have done without the graphic brief surgery footage, however.)
While itself often giving the impression of a DIY effort with more heart than finesse, Free Puppies! is worthwhile for anyone who cares about pets, as it demonstrates how far animal welfare has yet to advance in parts of the country. First Run Features releases it to On Demand platforms and DVD this Tues/13.