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January 06, 1979 - Image 5

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The Michigan Daily, 1979-01-06

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F1

The Michigan Daily-Saturday, January 6, 1979-Page 5
ying the frien sies wi Superman

I

By OWEN GLEIBERMAN
It's been said countless times that the
seventies are the fifties in disguise.
While that sort of catch-all charac-
terization generally distorts as much as
it brings into focus, it's becoming the
newest banner of American movies.
Star Wars, if you'll recall, has
something besides fun special effects;
hearkening back to the Flash Gordon-
Buck Rodgers corny space epic for
serious inspiration rather than as a
camp mine, it offers its frenetic thrills
glazed over with self-consciously
nostalgic charm. Though creatively
light-years ahead of Star Wars, Close
Encounters of the Third Kind boasts a
storyline right out of a thousand pulp
science fiction plots of the fifties. And a
'large chunk of the current enthusiasm
over Grease, Animal House, and the
wave of war movies is nothing if not
nostalgia - or, at least, the
homogenized brand of nostalgia that
came into its own with American Graf-
fiti, where everyone could wax ecstatic
over a time through which none of them
actually lived.
Consequently, nothing strikes me as a
more appropriate choice for Block-
buster of 1979 than the story of Super-
man. In this shiny new version of the
Man of Steel saga, attention to the kind
of modern ingredients George Lucas
and Steven Spielberg mixed into their
galactic formulas - the Force in Star
Wars, say, or the awesome visual gran-
deur of the end of Close Encounters -
has been all but thrown to the winds. In-
stead, we have the classic Adventure of
Superman, straight from the comic
book and television show - a pure,
unadulterated nostalgia fix. We don't
have to worry about the story or the
characters; taking off from what we
already know about Krypton, Lois
Lane, and other fragments of pop
mythology, Superman strives to make
up for what it lacks in flourish and in-
vention by reassuringly delivering just
what we expect.
OF COURSE, some of the details
have been given a modern twist, in the
tradition of the disastrous 1976 King
Kong remake: Metropolis is a thinly-
disguised New York City; Lois Lane is
sexy, and dizzy in an attractively up-to-
date way; and Clark Kent, seeking a
hiding place for a quick change of
costume, can only find a modern, open
phone booth. But these are merely
amusing trifles in a film that preserves

refusal to abandon stale old concepts, I
doubt extensive modernizing would
have been very feasible. When our hero
informs Lois that he's here to fight for
"truth, justice, and the American
way," his stalwart patriotism rings so
feebly in the cynical seventies that one
realizes the only way to do Superman
justice is to deal with him as he was
created, or not deal with him at all.
Word has it that the original script
(by Bonnie and Clyde screenwriters
David Newman and Robert Benton)
was a paean to high camp, with inciden-
ts such as Superman scouring the city
for a bald villain and mistakenly
swooping down on Telly Savalas, who
greets him with a resounding "Who
loves you, Baby?" But that concept was
abandoned. The film includes several
lame attempts at camp humor, as well
as some dumb sexual innuendoes (Lois
to Supes: "How big ... er, I mean, how
tall are you?"), but they don't add up to
a coherent comic style, because the
story has been played straight.
ARGUABLY THE film's strongest
part, in fact, is the quasi-ecclesiastical
opening sequence on Krypton, with
Superman's father, Jor-El (Marlon
Brando), swathed in glowing white robe
and mouthing pithy God-like incan-
tations to the planet's council of elders.
Two things happen in the opening:
three treasonous Kryptonians are sen-
tenced and carted away by a magic'
mirror (supposedly, they reappear in
Part II), and Brando sends his superson
to Earth before his doomed planet is
destroyed by a nearby nova.
Director Richard Donner's Krypton
is one of the few strikingly original con-
ceptions in the movie; the planet is a
foreboding fortress of crystal
palisades, a futuristic society in
which wondrous technology and raw
nature have fused with awesome and
elegant mystical power. Some of the
Krypton scenes are inexplicably shod-
dy; the spaceship in which Jor-El and
his wife (Susannah York) bundle their
infant son resembles nothing more than
a huge plastic Christmas. tree or-
nament. But the aura is ethereal and
other-worldly next to Star Wars' stolid
technology. When Brando begins ran-
ting about dispatching his only son to
save the earth, it's clear enough that
we're in Heavenly territory.
THE CURRENT reigning objection
to Superman concerns its stylistic
schizophrenia, which is undeniable.
Immediately after the impressive
opening on Krypton we are plunged into

the Portrait of the Farmhand as a
Young Superman, with Clark Kent
modestly entrenched in a placid coun-
trified existence that is a bit of
wholesome Americana. Clark's
homespun Earth parents (Glenn Ford
and Phyllis Thaxter) might have come
straight from "American Gothic," and
their brief humble scenes together are

ney to the North Pole, has a pseudo-
religious encounter with his long-dead
father via a giant all-ice video cassette,
and we are suddenly in the buzzing of-
fices of the Daily Planet, where rapid-
fire reporter chit-chat and low comedy
reign supreme. Christopher Reeve's
performance as the mild-mannered
Clark Kent, played here as the con-

forts to wring laughs out of a character
whose funniest quality is believing he's
smarter than anyone else.
I wasn't as bothered by Superman's
stylistic disruptions as much as some
people were, but I thought the film'
stumbles in an area that has received
nothing but the most glowing praise:
the special effects. The sequences with
Superman's figure matted onto the
Manhattan skyline (with a few crane-
and-pulley shots awkwardly mixed in
for good measure) are doubtless a vast
improvement over the laughable flight
tactics on the television series, but
they're still nothing to get excited
about. Maybe I'm being unrealistic to
ask for special effects as convincing as
those in Star Wars or Close Encounters,
but at four bucks a shot, I demand per-
fection.
STILL, THE wizards over in special
effects obviously gave their all. One
wonders if the same can be said of the
screenwriters. Along with the dynamic
duo of Newman and Benton, Mario
Puzo (The Godfather) and Leslie
Newman worked on the screenplay. It's
surprising that these talented in-
dividuals concocted a story with no
more finesse or invention than a good
episode of Mission: Impossible. Lex
Luthor's plan is to divert an American
missile to a strategic point along
California's flimsy San Andreas Fault,
so that half the state falls into the ocean
and he can reap the profits by
developing the useless land east of the
fault (whic he's bought at rock-bottom
prices) into the "new California." By
trapping Superman with deadly Kryp-
tonite, Luthor lands the missile and
starts a major earthquake. But Super-
man escapes, saves a small community
from an impending flood, then dives to
the earth's molten core to replace the
faulty fault.
Working with a virtually limitless
budget, it is a shame that the makers
could not have devised a story (or
criminals) more befitting the movie's
grand scale, instead of a predictable,
protracted television show. (Perhaps
they simply went overboard in their
judgement of how much tackiness is

endemic to the Superman saga.) But
for all its flaws, Superman is enjoyable
and intermittently exciting, and even
the cheapest laughs are obviously not
the work of an exploitive manipulator
like Foul Play's writer-director Colin
Higgins.
AND SUPERMAN has something
else going for it. While the need for
myths like this one is certainly long
dead - American mass culture, drivel
as.much of it is, has become too cynical
and sophisticated - there remains
something inexplicably appealing
about the simple idea of Superman. One
of the film's highlights is the first time
Clark Kent dons his red-and-blue jum-
psuit and journeys through the air over
Metropolis to right some wrongs. First,
he saves Lois from a deadly fall, then
indulges in such acts of
supergoodwill as rescuing a tree-stuck
kitten and trapping a slimy thief on the
side of a skyscraper, Batman-style. A
scene with Superman flying Lois
around with a birds-eye view of the
Western Hemisphere is intentionally
corny, too much so, in fact - the poem
Lois recites in voice-over sounds like
vintage Rod McKuen. In his other
scenes with Lois, however, Christopher
Reeve's ludicrously confident Ladies'
Man stare amusingly belies the stam-
mering of Superman's other identity.
Superman is, and probably always will
be, a vehicle for vicarious greatness.
Perhaps the one legitimate extension
of the 1930s Superman comes at the end,
when Superman is trapped by a hefty
philosophical dilemma: Should he let
Lois die by obeying Jor-El's command
that he never tamper with human
history, or should he reverse time and
heed his earthly father, who claimed
his adopted son was sent here for a pur-
pose? The end has Superman defy Jor-
El's dictum, and presumably the
See SUPERMAN, Page8
i
e%.A O
k ~a6 n1 e

Christopher Reeve pays a call on Margot Kidder in "Superman," the latest $3()
million epic currently playing at the Fox Village Theater.

effectively juxtaposed with Krypton's
glowing brilliance.
The movie's second half is beset by
bigger disruptions yet. The most
glaring of these is an unheralded shift
in tone from serious story-telling to
wacky comedy. Young Clark Kent
takes a portentous philosophical jour-

far more than it updates.
the claim that Superman

And despite
sinks by its

R-ECORDS

summate shy bumbler, is extremely
amusing - by far the most polished and
affecting comedy in the movie. On the
other hand, his constantly befuddled
presence, not to mention Superman's
thinly disguised sexual banter with Lois
Lane (Margot Kidder), is at odds with
the stoic seriousness of the first half.
THE THREE villains Superman
faces - criminal mastermind Lex
Luthor (Gene Hackman), his blub-
bering idiot assistant Otis (Ned Beat-
ty), and concubine-mistress (Valerie
Perrine) - make even the Daily Planet
scenes look like the essence of high
drama. Hackman and company
operate out of a luxurious spacious
headquarters in what looks like a
discarded basement of Grand Central
Station, and their flippant little scenes
are the film's worst. They are not sim-
ply pure Batman, but worse than Bat-
man, because there is no comic focus to
them, no central gimmick. All we get
are Beatty's tiresome facial ticks
(method: the more the funnier),
Perrine's by now tedious satire of a
sultry bimbo, and Hackman's vain ef-

The Bramble and The Rose
Mary McCaslin and Jim Ringer
Philo 1OS
BY ERIC ZORN
It says a great deal for their mighty
talent that Jim Ringer and Mary Mc-
Caslin couldn't even spoil their latest
album for all that they played the pimp
to plastic tastes. The Bramble and The
Rose, released in late December on the
Philo label, exhibits, for the most part,
sweet and catchy folk songs sparked by
precise and interesting harmonies.
When Ringer and McCaslin sang
together at the Ark in early November
of last year, they only needed the ac-
companiment of their two guitars to stir
the crowd with the raw power and
grace of their music; somewhere along
the line they decided that it takes a
touch of slickness to sell vinyl, and ad-
ded relentless drums, a string backup
no doubt stolen from the Longine Sym-
phonette Society, and the sliding sounds
of that most irritating of acoustic in-
struments, the dobro.
MARY MCCASLIN said that she and
her husband have been touring together
for the past six years, singing
separately and together afterwards.
"Over the years, we've sung together
more and more, yes, but we'll never be

a duo," she added firmly. The recor-
ding and concert market may be bigger
these days for a single artist, and the
possibility for mercurial rise more
definite, but The Bramble and The Rose
confirms what a Ringer and McCaslin
concert suggests: These two belong
together behind the microphone.
The title cut, a special arrangement
of a traditional love song, is easily the
best song on the album in spite of
numerous instrumental offenses. The
melody is infectious and McCaslin's
voice rides effortlessly over Ringer's in
harmony: It's the kind of song that
might be very popular with the youmgger
set if not for the "country" effect of the
drums and syrupy strings which drive
so many to the brothers Gibb.
"GERONIMO'S Cadillac" is another
great song which carries a nasty stret-
ch of pedal steel guitar, leaving the cut
somewhere in that nebulous middle-
ground between folk and country, in-
deed dangerous territory because good,
hard country tends to make lousy folk.
Herb Pederson's "Copperfields" suf-
fers somewhat less at the hands of the
pedal steel and artless fiddle accom-
paniment, but it has a sensational
melody and snatches of the slightly ar-
cane lyrics are wistful and provocative.
Someone slipped up at the studio,
because "Oh Death," the penultimate
song on the album, is scathingly clever
in its vocal and instrumental
arrangement. A synthesizer buzzes in
the background as McCaslin frails her
banjo tuned to sound two major note
drone strings against the eerie, modal
melody. The drums add the proper
funereal touch to this traditional
dialogue-song between the Grim
Reaper and his victim, and there is no
attempt here to add a dash of the old
Porter Waggoner.
YES, EACH song on The Bramble.
and The Rose is pleasant and worth
hearing over and over again (with the
exception of Ralph Stanley's tired old
gospel tune, "Rank Strangers," which,
for my money, should be laid to rest

along with Carter Stanley). From the
purity of the a capella "Canaan's
Land" to the bluesy guts of "Mama
Lou," Ringer and McCaslin impose
compelling vocals upon excellent
songs. Even "I Don't Believe You've
Met My Baby," sounds like a very good
song if you've never heard the Louvin
Brothers do it right, and you don't care
that Jay Ungar's mandolin work is
lifeless and unimaginative.
See FOLK, Page 8

JOHN HUSTON'S 1941
THE MALTESE FALCON
Brigid (MARY ASTOR): "I haven't lived a good life. I've been bad." Sam (HUM-
PHREY BOGART): "You're good. You're very Qood." impressive debut for Director
Huston and a fine adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel. Bogart is as tough
as hard-boiled good eggs come. With Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet.
Short: Superman-Max Fleischer
Sun: Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS
* Winter Cinema Guild Schedules Available Everywhere *
TONIGHT AT OLD ARCH. AUD.
CIN7EMA GUILD :&.:05 $1.50

I

CINEMA "lq
presents
SH A MPOO

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