Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Spectrum Files: Powers Boothe & Southern Comfort

This is the one I missed the boat on.  Every night "Southern Comfort" aired during the month Spectrum carried it, we weren't home.  If memory serves me right, it was only shown about 3 or 4 times to begin with.  Due to the description in the guide that showed up in our mailbox on a monthly basis, and the trailers that ran between the features on Spectrum, it was a movie I desperately wanted to see.

It would be many years before I found it on a $5.99 DVD shelf in a Shopko kiosk. It is now, somewhat ironically, one of my more valuable films.

I was terrified of Powers Boothe, star of Southern Comfort, during this era due to the horrifying Emmy-winning performance as the piece-of-crap, murderous demagogue Jim Jones in the TV biopic, "The Guyana Tragedy".  The concept of one person's ability to get a group of people to knowingly do themselves in with only his influence scared the bejesus out of me.  He would ironically and eventually become one of my favorite screen stars.

In "Southern Comfort", the 1980 Walter Hill-directed drama, Powers' character with Keith Carradine in tow, was the closest thing to a good guy in the movie.  A branch of the Louisiana National Guard winds up at the whims of mother nature and revenge-seeking cajuns in the swamp due to the idiotic behavior of one of the group's lesser brains.  A lot of 80's stalwarts, including Fred Ward, Alan Autry (one-time Green Bay Packers quarterback named Carlos Brown before taking on a show biz name), Peter Coyote, and T.K. Carter, among others appear alongside Boothe for a ride down the drain of a soggy, gray corner of hell.

This film is bleak and disturbing, and I have never been able to take my eyes off of it.  Most of the characters are difficult to root for, and their pursuers really cannot be blamed for their reaction to the principals' stupidity.  Another example of interlopers jacking with the strength of an unknown and often unseen adversary.  In that respect, this film could easily be seen as a Vietnam allegory.

Powers Boothe just passed away this week, and I'm not ashamed to admit I wept.   He had a long and varied career that deserved more than the recognition it got, and I watched closely the whole way.  Aside from the Emmy I mentioned earlier he didn't garner much hardware, but he was always a bright spot in a dark sky.  Through the 80's he was also brilliant in Walter Hill's Extreme Prejudice,  as well as The Emerald Forest, and as the lead in HBO's series Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.  In the 90's he brought up the bar on films where it would normally be low.  His supporting turn in Rapid Fire gave a young Brandon Lee a much needed anchor, and his tuxedoed terrorist's acerbic wit and quick menace brought Sudden Death much higher than it deserved to go.  (However there is that moment, played straight for some reason, where Jean-Claude Van Damme fights a Pittsburgh Penguin mascot, but I won't go there.)  I'm not going to describe his Curly Bill Brosius in Tombstone.  I want you to go in unprepared for the sting.  It's that damn good.

He spent the 2000s on both the large and small screen.  He and fellow Texans Matthew McConaughey and Bill Paxton were the trifecta that gave Frailty it's grim but electric atmosphere.  To this day I regard that one as one of the most underrated horror films of all.  (And by the way, God Rest Bill Paxton, another of my favorites that I will wax nostalgic about here soon.)  Boothe's Senator Rourke in Sin City has a paranormal malevolence to it not really seen previously from Powers.   His turn on Deadwood as Cy Tolliver is just amazing work.  I've been told he was terrific on shows I've not seen like 24 and Nashville, but I don't doubt the accounts for a second. No one could ever say he wasn't always straight 100 at all times.

If I had to make a list of my favorite actors, Mr. Boothe would surely be on it.  His imposing presence and rumble-of-God voice made him a great villain, but there was a softness he could sell at the right times you could believe in.   I'm going to miss him, but I luckily have a stack of his work to look back on, as I did last week when I watched Southern Comfort for the 28th time.   Part of me still wants revenge on the cinema demons that kept me from seeing it way back when.

God Rest you,  Powers Boothe.  And thank you.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Bound to the Past: Blue Ribbon Digest

As a kid my main hero was Batman.  Hands down.  I went through different phases where my focus of the moment may be a different pop culture phenomenon, maybe Angus Young here, Bruce Lee there, Burt Reynolds for some golden months, but for much of my pre-adolescent youth, Batman was the go-to guy. 

Tons of my most vivid memories of ages 6 to 11 involve that 4-color avenger.  He took many different forms at the time.  Irv Novick was responsible for the bulk of his representations in that era, but from time to time he came in the guise of the pencils of Neal Adams, Jim Aparo, or my personal favorite of that time period, (though it seems like he didn’t draw him that often then) Dick Giordano.  There was something about this era of comics, frequently titled The Bronze Age.  The stories often were dark and creepy, but not quite as nasty as today.  A friend of mine once called them “family-friendly disturbing”.   On the covers of these monthly joys, the heroes were frequently fraught, trapped in some horrifying predicament, often with that incredibly discernible facial expression that heroes weren’t supposed to have.  That of fear.  For crying out loud, Batman wasn’t supposed to be afraid of anything!  

That’s what made me buy them. (or more so my parents).

It disturbed me to see Batman with that visage on his face.  I needed to make sure The Dark Knight was going to be alright. 

I had other comics of course.  My collection was littered with tomes from The Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, House of Secrets, and Justice Society among others, but the bulk of my stack was Batman.  A decent fall-back at this time was The Brave & The Bold, a monthly drawn by Jim Aparo featuring Bats partnered up with another lesser super-hero, but I preferred the original.  Oddly, they were tough to find which made their acquisitions that much more exciting.  Occasionally my mother would find one of those drug store poly-bag specials with 3 issues inside that made her the most grandest of dames on the planet for the next week.  These discoveries were largely responsible for the growth of my prized Batman compendium. 
That, and the time my parents bought me a subscription for one year as a birthday gift.  Once a month a black mylar-wrapped issue of the greatest detective’s adventures would wind up in our mailbox.  For 12 months, I checked the post daily beating my parents to the punch, racing Ginger, my beloved dog, to the mailbox.  

The golden nugget of my Batman-obilia was a Blue Ribbon digest.  Every month, DC put a new Digest out dedicated to a different hero in their arsenal.  What the Digest was was a small omnibus of stories from different eras in the character’s history.  You usually found them in the “impulse buy” section of a grocery store as you were checking out.  Let’s see, I need some Chap-stick, a Bit-O-Honey, and 5 stories about The Green Arrow.  

In December of 1980, they ran with Batman.  The weird thing was how my Mom would come home with something like that and act like it wasn’t a big deal.  This was the golden ticket, woman!  This was the Holy Grail of Shit Rob Wants!  How can you just walk in the door with bags of food from Kohl’s and just toss that out there as a secondary thing, like “oh, and I picked you up a pack of Fruit Stripe.” 

This was the most incredible thing ever!!  Except for maybe that “treasury”-sized issue with that unsettling cover.  You know the one.  Comic book dorks know the picture.  It was the nightmare fuel image of a kneeling, screaming Batman with what appears to be a dead Robin the Boy Wonder lying motionless in front of him, super-imposed on a grainy image of a laughing Ra’s Al Ghul’s face behind him…  Getting That book was tantamount to finding the ark of the covenant.  It appeared in the ads every damn month, but never on the newsstands. It passed it’s release dates without me able to acquire it, and now fetches a quarter of a million dollars on eBay. 

But the Blue Ribbon Digest was as good.  I carried this thing around with me everywhere.  On trips it was packed with my matchbox cars, Tigger, and my underwear.  At school, it was in my Batpack, checked frequently at random inspection points throughout the day.  Had to be done.  I became suspicious of schoolmates that may want to get their grubby little digits on my prized book.  I knew Everyone wanted my Blue Ribbon Digest, damn it. 

The 4 color messiahs were a guide.  They were quietly there all day long. When I found out in January of 1979 that my dad wasn’t long for the world due to that Cancer asshole, they stood up behind me and held up my middle finger to the world.  They listened when I complained and provided answers.  The newsprint of the bronze age comic was analgesic to a soul looking to dull the edge of what was presented.  There were a lot of heroes in my life, and there still are. 

But Batman, that dark cowled vigilante, was the first.  Despite the god-awful fear implanted on his face on the covers of those monthly challenges, he was back again in 30 days. 

Today he’s still there, standing in the rain looking over my shoulder, offering the calming whisper of turned pages and the glory of pencil and ink.