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March 25, 1981 - Image 5

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Text
Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1981-03-25

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ARTS
The Michigan Daily Wednesday, March 25, 1981

Page 5

'Melvin and

Howard' has

bad aftertaste

By CHRISTOPHER POTTER
Jonathan Demme's Melvin and
Howard is a shamelessly entertaining
motion picture. Made on a shoestring,
this determinedly low-profile film
reigns as 1980's darling of the high-
brows - winner of ecumenical raves,
winner of Best Picture from the
National Society of Film Critics, plus
multiple Best Director honors for
Demme.
MVlelvin and Howard has also gone vir-
tually ignored by 99 percent of
American filmgoers. In six months it
has coaxed in less than a million dollars
nqtionwide (an impecunious sum by
Hollywood standards), and remains all
but unknown outside the New Vork=LA
*media orbit, and was pointedly
overlooked in nearly every nominating
category by the Academy Awar-
di (usually a good barometer of
n itonal acceptance).
ALTHOUGH POOR distribution par-
tiajly explains this dichotomy between
tatemaker and public, it's also
possible that the masses are wise to
sipniething the connoisseurs aren't.
1Melvin and Howard fancifully tells of
0 the life and times of Melvin Dummar, a
prQfessional job-hopper who gained out-
of-the-blue renown by being named the
beneficiary of 156 million dollars in
Howard Hughes' notorious and
ultijmately discredited "Mormon Will"
of several years ago.
Demme's "What-if?" narrative
makes for a funny, unpretentious and
beautifully crafted film; yet Melvin and
Howard is also an unrelenting
philosophical potshot at Middle

America which, like a sugar substitute,
ultimately leaves an obnoxious taste in
your mouth. Though Demme earnestly
strives for a mode of gentle good
humor, his film remains an elitist's-eye
yiew of all those rubes living west of
New Rochelle. It's a laconic trip across
Archie Bunkerland, through which
Demme's genius at wringing out
audience laughter over his dorkish
protagonists proves his greatest
liability; after a while you begin to feel
ashamed every time you let loose with
another patronizing guffaw.
Demme and screenwriter Bo Gold-
man construct their scenario around
the assumption that Dummar was
telling the truth about how he met and
befriended Howard Hughes. As the film
opens, circa 1967, we watch the eccen-
tric billionaire (wonderfully played by
Jason Robards) crack up his- motor-
cycle in the Nevada desert.
CUT TO MELVIN Dummar (Paul
LeMat) driving his pickup truck home
from a late-night factory shift. Stopping
at the side of the road to relieve him-
self, he notices Hughes' crumpled form
lying a short distance away.
Dummar helps the stranger into his
truck, assuming this long-haired, wild-
eyed old man to be a crazed and pen-
niless derelict. When Hughes asks to be
driven to Las Vegas and then identifies
himself, Melvin generously replies that
he believes a person has the right to call
himself anything he wants. He cajoles
his companion to join him in singing an
endearingly awful Santa Claus song
that Melvin has written. At first morose
and hostile, Hughes gradually loosens

tacky to a fault: He longs to win his
company's Milkman of the Month
award, complete with a "Zenith 190-K
with a triple scope screen," as he un-
ctiously describes it to one and all. He
worships the TV game show "Gateway
to Easy Street" (a grotesque synthesis
of Let's Make a Deal and The Gong
Show) as the ultimate metaphor for
success.
WHEN HE AND Lynda win the
show's jackpot, the spanking new mod
house they buy with the prize money
rests in a desolate, grassless under-
development. Melvin buys his cruiser,
then sits on the foredeck hours on end in
his driveway, pretending he's at sea.
His values reek of media unreality;
Melvin hungers for success, but he's a
small-time idol worshipper, his
promised land extending no further
than the display windows at J.C. Pen-
ny's. If he'd ever garnered Hughes'
millions, he wouldn't have known what
to do with it.
This underlying sneer is terribly at
odds with Demme's easy, graceful film
style, and with the warm performances
by Paul Le Mat, Mary Steenburgen,
Pamela Reed, and a faultless suppor-

ting cast. Melvin and Howard could
have been an ode to the commoness of
human foibles had Demme only taken
to heart the notion of "There but for the
grace of God. ..". As it stands, the film
is an inventive, often hilarious exercise
in cultural snobbery. It'll make you
laugh, but you won't leave the theater
with a clear conscience.
TOP YOUR MORNIN'
WITH THE DAILY

Jason Robards (left) is Howard Hughes and Paul LeMat (right) is Melvin
Dummar, the man who saved Hughes from death in the desert and the
beneficiary of over $150 million from Hiughes' Mormon will in the movie
'Melvin and Howard.'

up and begins to enjoy the trip.
Eventually he sings a song of his own
- a slow, almost inaudible rendition of
"Bye, Bye Blackbird" so tender that
you feel you're looking right into this
haunted celebrity's soul - into an old
man's longing for a life that might have
been simpler, kinder.
BY JOURNEY'S end in Vegas,
Melvin and Howard have become
soulmates of a sort. Their moonlit
camaraderie is not only the best
sequence in the film, but also the an-
tithesis of the condescension that

U.

Preservation Hall gets feet tapping

By JANE CARL
Footstomping, a good time, and New
Orleans Dixieland jazz - that's what
the crowd ordered and that's what the
Preservation Hall Jazz Band delivered
* Monday night in their concert at Hill
Auditorium.
The group's music, a mixture of low-
down spirituals and good-humored
blues, reflected a turn-of-the-century
riverboat ambience. Three of the band
nembers who appeared MVfonday really
did play on riverboats early in the
1900's: Percy Humphrey, trumpet,
Willie Humphrey, clarinet, and Narvin
Kimball, banjo. And pianist James
"Sing" Miller's circa 1929 looks are
remarkably like that of the late Duke
Ellington with a paunch.
WITH TWO STOMPS of the foot the
band launched into the Dixieland
classics of yesteryear, which sounded
as fresh and vital as if they had been
written yesterday. New Orleans jazz is
made up of many loose, interweaving
parts that make no sense by them-
selves, but when fit together they
create a very satisfying whole.
A controlling factor in this unity was
clarinetist Willie Humphrey. A sof-
tspoken, articulate master of theory
and harmony, Willie has fingers and
lungs that just won't quit. Truly an all-
time great musician, he knows how to

keep the crowd entertained. Whether he
was sustaining high notes for incredibly
long periods of time, belting out a
strong falsetto, making the audience
howl at his impromptu combination
shuffle/tap dance in the old standard
"Little Liza Jane," or leading onto the
stage for the grand-slam encore,
"When the Saints Go Marching In," the
audience was at Willie's mercy, and
they loved it.
Willie's brother, Percy, the trumpet
player and leader of the group, was a
master of understatement. Carrying
the melody most of the time, Percy
used nuance and color to give each
piece exactly the desired hue. The two
other duets between Willie and Percy
in "Basin Street Blues" were musical
standouts. Percy also contributed his
growling, raspy vocals (very similar to
the style of Louis "Satchmo" Ar-
mstrong) to "Ice Cream," where the
memorable lyrics were "You scream, I
scream, we all scream for ice cream,"
and also on "When the Saints Go Mar-
ching In."
"SING" MIILLER, the Duke
Ellington look alike, is a self-taught
pianist and a very good one. His honky-
tonk solo in "Basin Street Blues" was
driving and inventive. "Sing" also has
a vocal style that some FM soul stars
would do well to imitate, which was
especially evident in the spirituals

"Amen" and "His Eye is on the
Sparrow."
NARVIN KIMBALL'S banjo
changed from placid strumming to per-
cussive plunking and back again in the
wink of an eye. At one point he launched
into "Somewhere My Love," better
known as "Lara's Theme" from Doctor
Zhivago, in the middle of an entirely
different piece. He also doubled as a
singer on the old Tin Pan Alley tune,
"Memories," displaying a mellow,
Mills Brothers kind of sound.
Drummer Frank Parker provided a
steady, driving beat that contracted to
the barest of pulsations to fit in the
mood in "Just A Closer Walk With
Thee," and he literally exploded, sticks
flying, in some well-deserved drum
solos containing hints of the sound that
one is likely to hear on Saturday after-
noons in the fall at Michigan Stadium.
Tuba player Allan Jaffe made some
nice punctuations now and then, but
was often too loud and obscured more
important moments. Trombonist Frank
Demond was fine once he warmed up;
one could see the influence of the late
Jim Robinson on his style, but his early
numbers were just white boy blues full
of raucous glissandos and a lack of con-
trol. Once his solo efforts got underway,
however, he became a vital, integral
link in the mystery that is New Orleans
jazz.

follows. Demme seems to be saying
that the universality of human feeling
can cut a swath through class and
social barriers: The unaffected blue
collarite gets the blueblood sophisticate
to sing and laugh with him.
The remainder of the film archly
rejects the communality it has so
engagingly just established. Melvin
drives back to his trailer home and
straight into situation comedy country,
where the movie descends into an
elongated ode to American kitsch.
Demme's ingenuous characters live
their lives immersed in the pink neon of
gauche tastes, virginally oblivious to
the glitziness which consumes their
sensibilities.
. We follow Melvin's misadventures
for nearly a decade as he hops from job
to job and place to place. His wife Lyn-
da (Mary Steenburgen) leaves him,
then remarries him. Melvin becomes a
milkman in California; Lynda wins a
$10,000 jackpot on an inane TV game
show, with which they make a down
payment on a house. When Melvin
blows the rest of the dough on a new car
and boat, Lynda and their two kids take
off again.
MELVIN MARRIES Bonnie (Pamela
Reed); a milk company employee who
has worshipped him from afar. Along
with Bonnie comes a Salt Lake gas
station, and the new couple settles down
into Rocky Mountain bliss. Yet Melvin
still walks his chronic financial
tightrope, until one day he is
mysteriously given the infamous
"Mormon Will."
Suddenly Melvin is famous, and with
his sudden eminence comes an army of
moochers and sycophants, all claiming
to be long-lost friends. The Hughes will
eventually bogs down In court, and the
prospects of Melvin ever seeing any of
his 156 million seem increasingly bleak,
yet Melvin takes the disappointment
philosophically. At least "Howard
Hughes sang my song," he recalls
proudly.
Director Demme wants us to love
Melvin as an American Everyman, yet
paints his protagonist with an elitist's
brush. Melvin fervently pursues the
American Dream, but his dreams are
MANN THEATRES
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Daily Discount Matinees
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Michigan Ensemble Theatre

Kesluefn l"i

DEBUT PRODUCTION

Henrik Ibsen's
STAR RING
Barbara eda-Young from "Serpico"

Erik
Fredricksen
March 25-29,

Kay E.
Kuter

David
Little

Phyllis
Somerville

8 pm Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre
Sunday at 2pm and 8pm

Tickets at PTP

Call 764-0450

Theatre dept. awaits MET debut

(Continued from Wage 1)
Guthrie nearly made Ann Arbor thg
home of the nationally celebrated
theatre which bears his name,
Eysselinch said.
Eysselinck brings to MET a wide
range of experience in theatre both in
the United States and abroad, including
a stint as chairman of Carnagie
Mellon's Drama Department and Ar-
tistic Director and Managing Director
of its Theatre Company.
Comparing the different attitudes
toward theatre in American and
Europe, Eysselinck said, "The
American viewpoint is that subsidies of
the arts are a right and not a service. In
Europe it goes the other way around."
"AT ALL TIMES there has to be a
healthy balance between what is ear-
ned and what is supplementary in-
coiie," Eysselinck said. "In the end
MET can succeed only with the support
of the community."
Eysselinck hopes to have a solid in-
come base established for MET by the
end of the 1982 season, although he ex-
pects that MET will receive 30-35 per-
cent of its subsidy from the University
after that time. Currently, the company
is"financing its operations through the
Professional Theatre Program.
{ A Doll House is a logical choice for a
debut production, Eysselinck ex-

plained, because it heralded the begin-
ning of twentieth century or "social"
drama.
"There is so much in the play about
beginning, which is why it makes it so
appropriate for us," Eysselinck said.
Many critics see A Doll House as a
feminist work because the principal
character, Nora, decides to leave her
husband and children to establish a life
on her own. But Eysselinck said he sees
the play as "not just (about) the
liberation of Nora but everyone in the
play." And the issue of liberation is
such a major issue in contemporary
society that the play is pertinent even
today, Eysselinck said.
In order to create a company setting,
the ann arbor
film cooperotive
TONIGHT TONIGHT
PRESENTS
WOODY ALLEN'S
MANHATTAN
7:00, 8:40, 10:20
Aud. a, Angell Hall
Admission: $2

the entire season will occur in Septem-
ber and October since it is difficult to
book the same group of actors to work
for an extended period of time.
For the first few years, MET will
feature a combination of contemporary
and classic works. The 1981 season con-
sists of Carlo Goldoni's Venetian
comedy, Mirandolina, the Mid-western
premier of South African playwright
Athol Fugard's The Blood Knot, and Ar-
thur Kopit's Wings. Eventually,
Eysselinck hopes to perform more ex-
perimental works and productions by
student playwrights.

a u wwww ti

i----

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valid thru 3/26/81 "M"
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