Sunday, June 16, 2013

Parallel lines: Same basic story, two different movies...


A few years back, a daffy but intriguing theory made the rounds on the Internet claiming that The Blues Brothers (1980) has the same basic plot as The Sound of Music (1965). It sounds implausible at first, but then you start to examine the evidence and it almost adds up. Jake and Elwood, like Maria, are sent on a mission by a nun, assemble a musical group, sing some songs, run afoul of Nazis, and have to make a hasty retreat from their big show at the end. I searched for an attribution for this particular theory so that I could give its creator the proper credit. All I could really find, though, was this fairly recent blog post and a 2004 A.V. Club interview with Blues Brothers director John Landis, who discusses the issue candidly:

O: There's kind of a long-running thing on the Internet comparing the original Blues Brothers and The Sound Of Music, on a point-by-point plot basis. Were you aware of that? 
Elwood and Jake Blues
JL: No, but that's funny. I think you could do that with any movie. I saw Galaxy Quest and A Bug's Life, and both of those films are completely, plot-point-by-plot-point, a movie I made called ¡Three Amigos! 
O: Did you bring that up with anybody involved with those films? 
JL: No. People don't understand this: Ideas are important, but they're not essential. What's essential and important is the execution of the idea. Everyone has had the experience of seeing a movie and saying, "Hey! That was my idea!" Well, it doesn't mean anything that you had that idea. There's no such thing as an original concept. What's original is the way you re-use ancient concepts.

And he's right, of course. There are a finite number of basic stories out there, and writers have been doing variations on them for generations. But, still, it's interesting and illuminating to see the parallels between stories and how the same essential idea can be executed (Landis' word) in very different ways in very different settings. We're all probably familiar with the notion that Hollywood movies come in pairs. It happens every year: two films with very similar subjects and ad campaigns are released within a very short span of time. Buzzfeed has done a nice roundup of these so-called "twin movies." That's just part of the motion picture business. What's more intriguing, though, is when these plot similarities occur among films which are released years or even decades apart and which are not all that similar on the surface. Here, then, are some of the strange cinematic doppelgangers I've noticed.
NOTE: None of this is meant to imply plagiarism or copycatting on the part of any directors or screenwriters. I'm just pointing out some interesting connections between dissimilar movies Readers should know that SPOILERS abound in this article. Proceed with caution.

Se7en (1995) and No Country For Old Men (2007)

Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones are cops who have seen too much for too long.

The common thread: A grizzled old lawman, disillusioned and reaching the end of his career, suddenly finds himself confronted with a criminal unlike any he's ever known, a seemingly unstoppable psychotic killer who operates by his own twisted moral code. While the old-timer is justifiably wary of this extremely dangerous criminal, a brash younger man directly and heedlessly challenges the killer, with tragic results both for himself and his wife.

What do you do when you've spent a career in law enforcement and have only seen the world around you get worse in the time you've been on the force? Do you surrender before what's left of your soul is destroyed, or do you keep fighting against longer and longer odds? That's the conundrum facing Detective Lieutenant William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), a homicide cop in some unnamed metropolis in David Fincher's Se7en, and Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a sheriff in a West Texas border town in Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men. "I feel overmatched," says Ed Tom, and it's likely William would agree. These battle-scarred veterans think they've seen it all, but they're proven very wrong by two of the most terrifying psychopaths in screen history. For Somerset, it's John Doe (Kevin Spacey), a sanctimonious self-styled avenger who cruelly tortures, mutilates, and (usually) kills his victims for their perceived sins. For Sheriff Bell, it's Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a merciless black-clad bounty hunter who believes in Destiny and Fate and will kill people on "general principle" even if there is no material gain to him. Doe and Chigurh are shadows, phantoms, seemingly impossible to trace. They're only spotted when they want to be, and generally, those who see them are sorry they did. So confident are these men that being in the middle of a police station (Chigurh is once arrested, Doe turns himself in) does not even hinder their plans.
Se7en and No Country: Two doomed couples.

We should definitely be afraid of these men, yet in both Se7en and No Country, there is a brash young guy, essentially decent if a bit bullheaded, who is not nearly scared enough. In Se7en, it's Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), Somerset's cocky new partner. Mills is no stranger to violence, having worked homicide in other cities, but he soon finds himself out of his depth here against John Doe. Over in No Country, meanwhile, we have welder and hunter Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who very foolishly decides to run away with $1 million he finds at the corpse-strewn site of a drug deal gone very wrong, thus incurring the unholy wrath of Chigurh. Moss is not unfamiliar with violence either, having served in Vietnam, but he's no match for Chirugh. Both Mills and Moss taunt the killers, the former in person (Mills says Doe is "a movie of the week, a fucking t-shirt at best"), the latter over the phone (Moss says he's going to make Chigurh his "special project"). Without revealing too much, our headstrong young men soon learn these threats were ill-advised. What's especially fascinating to me is that in both films, the young man has a justifiably worried young wife -- Gwyneth Paltrow in Se7en, Kelly MacDonald in No Country -- who ends up as collateral damage in the escalating war. These women pay dearly for the mistakes of their respective husbands, but not before expressing their worries to the older, supposedly wiser men (Freeman and Jones), who ultimately cannot help them.



Further similarities exist. Both Somerset and Bell have developed deadpan, morbid senses of humor to cope with their work. Each does a bit of narrating in their stories. Both, astonishingly, comment on the ironic expression "a crime of passion." When another cop in Se7en describes a murder as a crime of passion, Somerset responds, "Yeah, just look at all the passion on that wall." And in his opening monologue from No Country, Bell describes the actions of a killer he helped convict and execute: "Papers said it was a crime of passion, but he told me there wasn't any passion to it." Weirdly, like Desperate Living (1977), both films use the corpses of dogs as ominous omens. In both films, the disillusioned lawman is advised against retirement by another man closer to his own age. In Se7en, it's R. Lee Ermey's police captain. In No Country, it's Barry Corbin as a former deputy who was handicapped in the line of duty. But ultimately, the decision rests with the men themselves. Bell doesn't want to "put his soul at hazard," while Somerset reluctantly agrees that this world, while not "a fine place," is still "worth fighting for."

Groundhog Day (1993) and The Music Man (1962) 

Bill Murray and Robert Preston adjust to small town life... eventually.

The common thread: A know-it-all cynic travels to a quaint small town for reasons that are purely professional, but he unexpectedly finds love and humanity there and ultimately decides to stay there permanently.

They have it all figured out, these guys. They know all the angles. They've done it all before. Traveling salesman Professor Harold Hill (Robert Preston) and TV weather man Phil Connors (Bill Murray) are middle-level hucksters and hustlers whose insincerity goes straight to the marrow. They're what you'd call "genuine phonies." Each has attained a measure of local or regional fame: Hill as a conman extraordinaire whose escapades are enviously discussed among his fellow peddlers, Connors as a quip-slinging media celebrity whose jokey forecasts provide comic relief from the news of the day. They're both rather impressed with themselves, yet they've not really amounted to anything. Neither one really matters worth a damn. Were they to be run over by a bus, they'd likely go unmourned. But still, armed with a haughty contempt for the common people (whom they consider to be gullible rubes), these men travel for business reasons to quirky little small towns where life has slowed to a crawl. While Hill goes to River City, Iowa to convince the folks there to buy uniforms and instruments for a boys' marching band he claims he'll direct (a scam he's pulled time and again), Connors travels to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to (once again) cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities there. For both these men, these trips are merely stops along the way to bigger and better things.

Winthrop speaks!
Of course, these trips will turn out to be anything but routine for our charming rogues. Phil Connors gets caught in an inexplicable time loop, causing him to relive the same day (February 2) over and over again. Harold Hill must get deeply involved in the lives of the people in River City in order to sell them on the idea of the brass band, but he also has to work overtime to maintain his dubious cover story against increasing skepticism. The bottom line is that both Phil and Harold have plenty of quality time to spend in these jerkwater burgs and plenty of chances to get up-close-and-personal with the townspeople. Phil becomes a confessor/therapist to some of the local yokels (including Rick Ducommun) and eventually turns into an all-purpose Mr. Fix It, attending to problems in Punxsawatwney wherever they occur, be it a kid falling from a tree or some ladies in need of roadside assistance. Harold, likewise, is able to draw a sad, fatherless little boy named Winthrop (Ron Howard) out of his shell, and he turns four constantly-arguing men on the local school board into an inseparable barbershop quartet. Throughout all their misadventures, our protagonists have goofy sidekicks who act as chorus figures or sounding boards. Both such sidekicks are played, incidentally, by comics well-known for innumerable appearances on late night TV talk shows. Groundhog Day's Larry (Chris Elliott) is a cameraman Phil's worked with for years and who has accompanied him on this road trip to film his report on Groundhog Day. The Music Man's Marcellus Washburn (Buddy Hackett) is an old colleague of Harold's, an ex-traveling salesman who has since gone straight and carved out a life for himself in River City.

Of course, our heroes' redemption means nothing if they don't also find true love. Fortunately, Groundhog Day and The Music Man have that covered. Their leading ladies -- TV producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and town librarian Marion (Shirley Jones) -- are easily the most intelligent, principled, and well-read characters in their respective movies. The heroes, thus, have to become better people in order to win them over. At first, both Phil and Harold are seeking the company of... uh, less discriminating ladies. Harold sings "The Sadder But Wiser Girl for Me," his ode to fallen women. Phil initially searches for -- and finds -- a woman he can charm with a few good pickup lines. But both of these men see the error of their ways and fall in love with women who are both idealized and idealistic. One of The Music Man's catchiest numbers, "Shipoopi," sings the praises of "the girl who's hard to get," while Groundhog Day has its famous "slapping montage" showcasing all of Phil's many, many unsuccessful attempts to win the heart of the fair Rita. These women have high standards. Marian's mother thinks her daughter is looking for "a blend of Paul Bunyan, Saint Pat and Noah Webster," while Rita reads Phil a laundry list of the qualities she is seeking in an ideal mate. Rita is Phil's shipoopi... but he can win her yet!

Similar types in Groundhog Day (left) and The Music Man (right): goofy sidekick, idealistic love interest.

Blazing Saddles (1974) and Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

Great pretenders: Cleavon Little and James Franco are unlikely but effective heroes.

The common thread: In the late 1800s, a confident young man barely escapes death and winds up, more or less by happenstance, in a strange new place which he is expected to save from dangerous invaders. Using his wits and enlisting the help of the citizenry, he's able to accomplish this daunting challenge through an outlandish, large-scale plot designed to fool the bad guys. Along the way, he acquires a troubled, down-and-out sidekick, whom he helps to redeem.

"Times being what they were, I accepted the job."  
- Frank Morgan in The Wizard of Oz (1939)

These places are in trouble. Rock Ridge needs a new sheriff. Oz needs a wizard. And these guys can't arrive a second too soon either. Their help is desperately needed. It's a good thing neither Bart (Cleavon Little) nor Oscar (James Franco) had anything better to do. Bart, a black railroad worker, has been sentenced to death by hanging after hitting his idiotic and racist boss Taggart (Slim Pickens) on the head with a shovel. Oscar, a third-rate traveling magician and a first-rate ladies man, is dodging the irate strongman husband of one of his (many) sexual conquests. These guys are living on borrowed time. In these unpromising lives, a highly improbable miracle suddenly occurs. In Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, the unscrupulous attorney general Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) convinces his state's imbecilic, philandering governor (Brooks) into appointing Bart the new sheriff of Rock Ridge as part of his plan to destroy the town so he can run the railroad through their land. In Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful,  Oscar leaps into a hot air balloon which is then whisked off by a tornado to a strange and exotic land far away. After some close calls, he is deposited safely in a river bed in this unfamiliar yet beautiful terrain.

Jim and Finley: Sad sack sidekicks.
The people of Oz knew a wizard was coming to save them from the Wicked Witch, who has been terrorizing the land with her army of flying howler monkeys. Similarly, the people of Rock Ridge knew a replacement sheriff was coming to save them from Lamarr and Taggart, who have been terrorizing the town with their army of rustlers and marauders. Bart and Oscar both find themselves in trouble quickly, but both come up with clever ways to get out of tight spots and impress those around them. (Oscar uses a dove from his magic act to distract one of the monkeys, while Bart pretends to take himself hostage in order to escape the racist wrath of the citizens of Rock Ridge.) Soon, too, each of these men acquires a sidekick. Arriving at the sheriff's office in Rock Ridge, Bart finds a prisoner in the drunk tank -- whiskey-soaked ex-gunslinger Jim (Gene Wilder) -- hanging upside down from the cell's top bunk. When Bart asks if he needs help, Jim casually replies, "Oh... all I can get." Bart helps Jim and the two become fast friends and allies. In Oz, likewise, Oscar finds a forlorn winged monkey named Finley (Zach Braff) entangled in some plants and about to be devoured by a lion. Using more of his magic tricks, Oscar saves Finley, who quickly becomes his loyal servant and companion.

Oscar's risky scheme is put into action.
Eventually, Bart learns about Lamarr's sinister scheme to take over Rock Ridge, just as Oscar comes to find out about the plot of a witch named Evanora (Rachel Weisz) to rule the land of Oz. The simple folks of Rock Ridge don't seem very formidable compared to the thugs (including Klansmen and Nazis) enlisted by Lamarr and Taggart. Oscar, too, isn't given much to work with; the people he's supposed to protect are mainly farmers and tinkerers. Under these circumstances, Bart and Oscar rely on what they do best: faking it. If you can't beat 'em, they decide, then trick 'em. Their plans, though far-fetched, are effective. Bart has the citizens make a perfect copy of Rock Ridge to use as a decoy. Once the bad guys are lured to the fake town, Bart uses dynamite to blow them up from afar. Over in Oz, Oscar and his subjects put on what is essentially a large-scale magic show using fireworks and a projector to trick Evanora and her sister Theodora (Mila Kunis) into thinking that they're dealing with an immense and powerful god. I should point out at this juncture that the conclusions of Blazing Saddles and Oz the Great and Powerful are both very similar to those of  ¡Three Amigos! and A Bug's Life, the same films John Landis mentioned at the beginning of this piece. A group of citizens are being oppressed by bullies, so a hero leads them in a high-risk scheme to frighten the bad guys away. In all instances, the communities win their freedom at the end.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Back to the Future (1985)

Dorothy Gale and Marty McFly travel a long way... without really leaving town.

The common thread: A frustrated adolescent, antagonized by local authority figures and finding little help at home, travels a great distance through fantastic means...without actually leaving town. In this new yet somehow familiar place, our protagonist encounters alternate versions of people he (or she) already knows and must help these people accomplish certain tasks and reach their full potential before returning home.

Shape-shifting villains Miss Gulch and Biff Tannen.
It's frustrating being a teenager living in a small town where nothing seems to happen and the adults don't listen to your problems. Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) and Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) know that all too well. Dorothy lives in a desolate Kansas farming community whose wealthiest landowner, vindictive spinster Almira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton), despises her and singles her out for punishment. This is a problem, as Miss Gulch has a great deal of authority and wields it cruelly. At the start of The Wizard of Oz, she plots to deprive Dorothy of her most-prized possession and only companion, her Cairn terrier, Toto. Dorothy's adoptive parents, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry (Clara Blandick and Charlie Grapewin), are useless to her in this situation. They're too involved in their work to listen to her problems, and they can't stop Miss Gulch either. In Hill Valley, Marty has problems of his own with two powerful adults. At his school, Principal Strickland (James Tolan) calls him a slacker, warns him he won't amount to anything, and coldly tells him his band will never play at the school talent show and that he should just give up. At home, Marty's weak-willed parents, George and Lorraine (Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson), are just as beaten down by life as Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. George cannot stand up to his obnoxious boss, Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), who has totaled the family car, which Marty was planning to use for a weekend getaway with his girlfriend.

Luckily, both Dorothy and Marty have at least one friendly adult apiece in their worlds -- kooky, white-haired eccentrics who live well outside of normal society. For Dorothy, it's Professor Marvel, a traveling psychic and conman who has stopped along the way to have some dinner. The only adult who isn't too busy for her, the Professor converses with the girl for a few minutes before sending her back home. For Marty, it's Doc Brown, a mad scientist whose scatterbrained inventions are usually failures. (Doc, like Dorothy, is a dog owner. His pooch, Einstein, has a vaguely Toto-like role in this film.) Both the Doc and the Professor are occasionally capable of speaking words of wisdom, but a lot of what they say is well-intended bunk. In both films, there are scenes in which these men make fumbling attempts at "reading the minds" of their young companions. Please watch and compare.





After prologues marked by disappointment and frustration, Dorothy and Marty survive dangerous, cataclysmic events which transport them to strange new places, thus setting their respective plots into motion. In Dorothy's case, a cyclone hits her family's farm and takes the farmhouse -- with Dorothy in it -- to the magical land of Oz, an impossible and exotic fantasy land. At least that's her perspective on the events. In reality, she has suffered a concussion and is hallucinating, never actually leaving her bedroom. In Hill Valley, Doc has converted a gull-winged silver Delorean (as eccentric a vehicle for inter-dimensional travel as Dorothy's farmhouse) into a time machine and is demonstrating this fantastic invention to Marty in a mall parking lot when suddenly he is fired upon by angry Libyan terrorists (as pitiless and dangerous a threat as the cyclone), forcing Marty to jump in the time machine and take off. He dematerializes from the mall parking lot and then rematerializes in the Hill Valley of 30 years previous, traveling a great distance while paradoxically remaining in the same space. In an instant, he has jumped from 1985 to 1955! This echoes an observation made by Dorothy in her film about transportation in Oz: "My! People come and go so quickly here!" Fittingly, the first terrain Marty encounters in 1955 Hill Valley is farm country very much like Dorothy's hometown. (He even hits a scarecrow!) The mall has not yet been built.

Both Dorothy and Marty abandon their modes of transport (the farmhouse and the Delorean) and explore the nearest population center. For Dorothy, it's the town square of Munchkinland. For Marty, it's the town square of 1955 Hill Valley. The two movies treat these places very much the same: as bright, cheerful locations which utterly astound our travelers. In Back to the Future, the use of  the song "Mr. Sandman" on the soundtrack in this scene is highly reminiscent of the use of music in The Wizard of Oz, because it helps give the Hill Valley of 1955 an otherworldly, dreamlike feel. The song has no apparent onscreen source. It is not being played by a band or a jukebox. It's just sort of there in the atmosphere. This links it to the similar-sounding "Optimistic Voices" number from Oz. ("You're out of the woods, you're out of the dark, you're out of the night...") Interestingly, "Mr. Sandman" was popularized by the Chordettes, while "Optimistic Voices" was performed by the Rhythmettes. Connections abound!

Lahr and Glover: These guys need help!
It's crucial now to mention that our travelers both encounter familiar faces in these strange locales. Dorothy, for instance, sees "fantasy" versions of people she knew in Kansas. Miss Gulch has become the Wicked Witch of the West. Three of her family's farmhands (Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Jack Haley) have been reincarnated as a scarecrow, a lion, and a tin woodsman. And good old Professor Marvel is the titular wizard who lives in seclusion in the astonishing Emerald City. Marty, on the other hand, encounters younger incarnations of his parents, George and Lorraine, plus Biff, Doc, and even Mr. Strickland, who looks exactly the same. Teenage Biff is the primary antagonist in 1955, filling roughly the same role as Miss Gulch/The Wicked Witch. His goon-like pals are analogous to the Flying Monkeys employed by the Witch. Before Dorothy can return home to Kansas, she has to defeat the Witch and help the three farmhands gain the brains, courage, and heart they need to become fully-realized beings. Likewise, before he can go "back to the future," Marty has to defeat Biff and help George gain the courage he needs to ask Lorraine out. (In one of the movie's masterstrokes, both of those goals are accomplished simultaneously when George punches Biff.) After hectic getaway scenes, orchestrated by Professor Marvel and his counterpart Doc Brown, our heroes return home and find that their lives look a lot more optimistic now. They've solved their problems in dreamland, so to speak.

American Graffiti (1973) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Try as they might, neither Ron Howard nor James Stewart makes it out of his hometown.

The common thread: A nice young guy dreams of escaping small-town life and finding romance and adventure in the big wide world, but he is prevented (at the last moment) from doing so and must settle down, get married to his hometown sweetheart, and take an unglamorous but necessary job in the little community where he's lived all his life.

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
-John Lennon in 1980, the year of his death

Ron Howard is not aboard this plane.
Small towns can be tough to escape. Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) and George Bailey (James Stewart) find that out the hard way in their films. In George Lucas' American Graffiti, Steve is a high school graduate from Modesto, CA who is scheduled to fly out East to attend college the very next morning with his good friend, fellow graduate Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss). Steve's a polite, clean-cut young fella who is well-regarded in Modesto. He was voted Class President and got a scholarship from the local Moose Lodge. He sees college as an opportunity to experience life outside of his hometown, including dalliances with women other than his long-time girlfriend Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams), a cheerleader who's still in high school. He plans to give Laurie the old "let's see other people" routine and then casually skip town. But this idea devastates Laurie, who's built her whole future around life with Steve. They spend a lot of the night arguing, and by morning, Steve has agreed to stay in Modesto while Curt takes off for the East Coast. American Graffiti's famous epilogue informs us that Steve becomes an insurance salesman in Modesto, and the film's sequel, More American Graffiti, reveals that (as expected) he and Laurie married and had children. This wasn't the life Steve chose, but it was the life that chose him.

Young George Bailey's dreams don't come true.
George Bailey can relate. The hero of Frank Captra's It's a Wonderful Life, George is the patron saint of self-denial. Each year at Christmas, we watch him sacrifice his own hopes and dreams for the greater good of those around him. The script of Wonderful Life is relentless in its efforts to keep George living in little Bedford Falls and working at his family business, Bailey Buildings and Loan. As a kid (played by Bobbie Anderson), he joins the National Geographic Society and dreams of traveling the world. Like Steve, who all but drools over the college girls he plans to meet, young George plans to have several wives and maybe a harem. Things don't work out that way, though. First, George puts off going to college so that his young brother Harry can attend school. Eventually, George has to take charge of the family business permanently to prevent it from falling into the clutches of mean old Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Like Steve, George has a girlfriend (Mary, played by Donna Reed) whose ambitions do not seem to extend past the city limits. Even when George and Mary wed, they are prevented from going on their honeymoon when a financial crisis breaks out. An old injury to his ear, incurred while saving Harry's life as a child, makes him unfit for military service during World War II. Thus, the grounding of George Bailey is complete. But like Steve Bolander, George is well-liked in his hometown and will have a long and agreeable life there. We hope. Capra's film ends on a note of extreme optimism and celebration, with the whole town coming to George's aid in a crisis, but Lucas' film is more ambiguous. The last sound we hear before the end credits is the roar of the plane as it leaves Modesto and Steve behind. George -- a man destined never to travel -- believes that the "three most exciting sounds in the world" are "anchor chains, plane engines, and train whistles," but Graffiti shows us these can be melancholy sounds, too.

Where American Graffiti and Wonderful Life really overlap is in their central romantic relationships: Steve and Laurie in one film, George and Mary in the other. In both movies, it is the woman who truly puts the effort into landing a mate, while the man is "busy making other plans," to quote John Lennon. One of the funniest and somehow saddest scenes in American Graffiti occurs when Steve attends a dance at his old high school, which Laurie still attends. They've been bickering about Steve's plan and are not in the greatest moods, to say the least, when they're suddenly asked to lead a dance. Now, the spotlight -- a very literal (and bright) spotlight -- is on them, and they have to pretend to be a happy couple for the sake of appearances. On the dance floor, undulating slowly to "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," Steve and Laurie quietly continue arguing, and a great truth about their relationship is unexpectedly revealed. She had to make the first move at every crucial step in their romance because he was too scared, while he hasn't bothered to remember even most basic facts about their courtship. This might well be a turning point for both of them. Note the conflicting emotions on display, with a weeping Laurie telling Steve to "go to hell" as she holds onto him as tightly as she can.



George Bailey's life is also forever changed when he decides to attend a dance at his old high school. There, he sees Mary for the first time in years, and together they have one of cinema's all-time great first dates. He, Mary, and everyone else at the dance wind up falling into a swimming pool underneath the gym floor, and they keep dancing anyway. Typical of the movie's insistence on preventing George from having too much fun, though, his father dies this very same night, and he has to leave Mary's side to be with his family. Years later, Mary makes another attempt at wooing a now-embittered George by reminding him of that magical night they once shared. This scene, set at Mary's family's house, is probably the dramatic highlight of Capra's film. Like the scene in American Graffiti, this one has a lot of contradictory emotions at play: love, attraction, anger, and sadness, and they all come to a boil in one tear-filled embrace.



One more factor linking these two films is their historical connection to major American wars. These conflicts occur off-screen but are crucial to the films' subtext nevertheless. In his book Cult Movies, critic Danny Peary astutely pointed out that It's a Wonderful Life lets us see two different versions of Jimmy Stewart: the chipper and upbeat prewar Stewart and the hardened and more cynical postwar Stewart. Capra's film was released after World War II, but many of its events are set before the war in Europe. America was a different place after that war, and Stewart's changing demeanor reflects that. A great deal of American Graffiti's emotional power comes from a knowledge of history which the audience has but which the characters onscreen do not. The film was released in 1973 but set over ten years earlier in 1962. (The poster's famous tagline: "Where were you in '62?") America had undergone cataclysmic change in those ten years. John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X were all assassinated. The Vietnam War escalated under JFK's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, and soon young men from across America were being drafted, never to return. The epilogue informs us that this was the fate of Graffiti's most-innocent character, Terry "The Toad" Fields (Charles Martin Smith). But on this innocent night in 1962, all of these events are still in the future. We know what's in store for them, but they don't. They're still more or less living in the 1950s. Most of the songs on the famed American Graffiti soundtrack are from that decade. Life is about to hit these kids hard, just the way it hit George Bailey hard. Fitting, then, that both movies end with nostalgic hymns to days gone by: the traditional "Auld Lang Syne" in It's a Wonderful Life and the Beach Boys' "All Summer Long" in American Graffiti.

High school dances prove pivotal to the couples in American Graffiti and It's a Wonderful Life.

National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) and MASH (1970)

Tim Matheson and Peter Riegert enjoy golf, as do Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland.

The common thread: Against the backdrop of a very staid and rigid institution, a group of fun-loving anarchists and misfits face off against some uptight, hypocritical snobs who want to force our heroes to conform and obey the rules. Needless to say, the snobs are not only defeated but utterly humiliated in the conflict.

Go-betweens: Colonel Blake and Robert Hoover.
Officially, the inspiration for National Lampoon's Animal House was a series of articles Chris Miller had written for the Lampoon magazine about his hard-partying days as a fraternity brother at Dartmouth in the 1960s. But as I see it, the true precedent for John Landis' Animal House was established eight years previously by another freewheeling, anti-authoritarian comedy, Robert Altman's MASH, based on Richard Hooker's 1968 novel about his experiences in the Korean War. By the time the Lampoon film reached movie theaters, a smash-hit sitcom (M*A*S*H) spun off from Altman's movie had been running on CBS for six years. Universal Pictures demanded that Landis include at least one recognizable star in his cast, and that task went to Donald Sutherland, who had top-lined Altman's film and become a star in the process. Animal House doesn't really take specific story beats from MASH so much as it takes its overall episodic structure, rebellious attitude, and certain basic archetypes among the cast. In both films, our fun-loving slobs embark upon a heroic quest for hedonistic pleasure, putting them in direct conflict with a powerful institution -- the United States Army or Faber College -- which wants to suppress and control them. MASH kicks off with an ironically-appropriated quote ("I will go to Korea.") from President Eisenhower and pompous military music on the soundtrack. Animal House starts much the same way, showing us the moronic quote ("Knowledge is good.") at the base of a statue, later decapitated, of Faber College's founder, Emil Faber, accompanied by appropriately stately music adapted from Brahms' Academic Festival Overture. From there, the films introduce us to a pair of freshly-arrived newcomers. In MASH, it's surgeons Captain Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Captain Forest (Tom Skerritt). In Animal House, it's college freshmen Larry Kroger (Tom Hulce) and Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst). All four of these characters will be referred to by nicknames throughout the film. Pierce and Forest are called "Hawkeye" and "Duke," while Kroger and Dorfman become "Pinto" and "Flounder." Chummy, familiar nicknames are key to the male bonding in both stories. At roughly the end of the first reel in each movie, our newcomers meet a shaggy-looking, dark-haired, hard-boozing "wild card" character. In MASH, it's "Trapper John" McIntyre (Elliott Gould), first seen drinking a martini, complete with an olive. In Animal House, it's John "Bluto" Blutarsky (John Belushi), first seen guzzling beer and casually urinating outdoors. When we first meet him, McIntyre is a man of few -- or no -- words, anticipating the often-non-speaking Blutarsky. (Landis has cited the mute Harpo Marx as an influence on the character.) These characters' lack of verbal expression makes them seem especially savage. At the opposite end of the scale are the "go-between" characters in these films: relatively responsible and sane fellows who are supposed to be setting a "good example" for the other men but who are too passive to accomplish much and mostly just let chaos reign, even taking part in said chaos themselves because, hey, it's fun. In MASH, we have the unit's commanding officer, Colonel Blake (Roger Bowen), while in Animal House, we have Delta's chapter president Robert Hoover (James Widdoes).

Gould and Belushi: a couple of animals.
MASH and Animal House have numerous parallel escapades: a "golf" scene, a "road trip" scene, a "peeping Tom" scene, etc. Naturally, both films have tasteless sequences which queasily mix death and sex. MASH, of course, has its infamous "Last Supper" scene in which a Polish dentist (John Schuck) plans to commit suicide because he thinks he's gay (a plot point which anticipates a great deal of gay-panic humor in the Lampoon film), while Animal House has the scene in which Otter (Tim Matheson) plans to take advantage of a young woman's death in order to score easy sex from her roommate. Both films dare to mine laughs from racial (or, depending on your vantage point, racist) humor with deliberately-offensive black characters. MASH has a hulking football player known as "Spearchucker" Jones, while the heroes of Animal House venture to an all-black music club and run away in panic from the glowering clientele they encounter. To top it off, both films end with large-scale public events attended by all the characters. Both events descend into farce: a wild football game in MASH, an even wilder homecoming parade in Animal House.

Of course, no film about rebels would be complete without some villains to rebel against. There are only two out-and-out baddies in MASH: Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). But these two characters are memorable enough to inspire a whole slew of antagonists in Animal House.  In the M*A*S*H television series, Frank Burns (as played by Larry Linville) is a foppish fool. Robert Duvall's Burns is considerably more serious and more threatening. His various negative traits are split up among three of the authoritarian creeps in Animal House. His glowering, humorless nature and devotion to the rules found a home in the character of Dean Wormer (John Vernon). His sadism, treachery, and foul temper were inherited by Douglas C. Niedermeyer (Mark Metcalf). And his completely hypocritical moral piety was adopted by Greg Marmalard (James Daughton). Burns puts on a big show of praying and reading the Bible in front of his rowdy tent-mates, but he's also carrying on an extramarital affair with Margaret. Likewise, Marmalard decries the Deltas' molestation of women while he's receiving an unsuccessful hand job from his date. The stunned expression Burns wears as he's carted away in a straight-jacket foretells the unflattering freeze frames and unpleasant fates assigned to Doug and Greg at the end of their film.

MASH's Major Frank Burns (top) anticipates three of the villains in Animal House (bottom).

MASH's principal villainess, "Hot Lips" Houlihan, switches sides during the movie and by the end is rooting for the heroes in the climactic football game. Animal House solves this problem neatly by splitting "Hot Lips" into two people: Babs Jansen (Martha Smith) and Mandy Pepperidge (Mary Louise Weller). We meet both of them at an Omega rush party early in the film where they serve as "nametag hostesses" for the male villains. Judgmental Babs refers to "Pinto" and "Flounder" as "a wimp and a blimp," and Landis cannily shows her -- but not Mandy -- giggling at this mean-spirited remark because he's setting Mandy up for redemption later in the film. Mandy is actually dating one of the bad guys, Marmalard, but not sleeping with him. (She's already been deflowered by "Otter," one of the good guy Deltas.) Even when Mandy gives Greg that infamous hand job, she's wearing rubber gloves. Meanwhile, the irredeemable Babs, who represents the worst qualities of "Hot Lips" Houlihan, pines for Greg and schemes to become his girlfriend.  The last time we see her is at the apocalyptic homecoming parade, where her dress is ripped off and she's left standing in her underwear in the middle of a crowded street. This is very, very similar to the MASH scene in which "Hawkeye" and the gang arrange to expose and humiliate Margaret by lifting up the flap of the tent where she's showering.

Babs Jansen (top) and Margaret "Hot Lips" Houliahan (bottom) suffer the same fate.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Shock Treatment (1981)

Swan (Paul Williams) and Farley Flavors (Cliff De Young) are rich, successful, and not to be trusted.

The common thread: Two men vie for the affections of pretty, talented Jessica Harper. One is a hapless bespectacled nerd. The other is a mysterious and powerful tycoon and media magnate. The magnate schemes to make Harper a star while having his geeky rival disgraced and locked away.

It started life as a direct sequel to 1975's The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but by the time Shock Treatment limped into theaters in 1981 it had undergone several title changes, cast departures, and script revisions and ended up as something barely resembling its predecessor. In fact, Jim Sharman's oddball film bears a much closer resemblance to another 1970s rock movie musical, Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise (1974). These films, all released by adventurous 20th Century Fox, comprise something of a trilogy and have overlapping cult followings -- Phantom and Shock being like smallish, yet inhabited planets orbiting Rocky Horror's sun.

Let's ignore that sun for a while and explore those small planets. While conceived and written entirely independently of one another, Phantom of the Paradise and Shock Treatment look enough alike to be first cinematic cousins. Both, of course, are love triangles in which the mutual object of affection is adorable, apple-cheeked Jessica Harper. In Phantom, she is aspiring singer Phoenix. In Shock, she is suburban housewife Janet. Both women, though good-hearted, are ambitious and (almost) able to be swayed into a sinful, decadent life by the promise of stardom and wealth. Trying to preserve Harper's integrity are two hopeless dorks. Phantom's hero is Winslow Leach (William Finley), a struggling songwriter who pays the bills by planning backup piano for a repugnant Sha Na Na-type nostalgia act called the Juicy Fruits. His counterpart in Shock is Brad Majors (Cliff De Young), Janet's befuddled (and possibly unemployed) husband, who has accompanied her to a television taping. The respective villains of Phantom and Shock, Swan (Paul Williams) and Farley Flavors (also Cliff De Young), are introduced in very similar ways: both are first glimpsed sitting in darkened booths high above the audience, reacting with pleasure at a kitschy opening musical number ("Goodbye, Eddie" in the first film, "Denton USA" in the second) which has provoked the proper response from the tacky, tasteless audience of mindless wannabes. These are secretive and powerful men who rule media kingdoms and have sycophantic lackeys at hand to do their (copious) dirty work.

Truth and fiction side by side: Jobriath and Beef.
Condemnation of the mass media and its audience are key themes of both films; these movies are brutal in their depiction of those who produce and those who consume pop cultural junk -- game shows, pop records, soap operas, etc. Phantom is largely concerned with the music business, while Shock is aimed at television, but they both present us with grotesque parodies of media celebrities. In Phantom, besides the Juicy Fruits (who later end up as an Alice Cooper-type "horror rock" outfit called the Undead), an androgynous, preening rock star named Beef (Gerrit Graham) who actually does resemble real-life glam rocker Jobriath, and Swan himself, a high-living potentate modeled after Phil Spector. (In earlier drafts of the script, the Swan character was actually called "Spectre.") Meanwhile, over in Shock Treatment, we have Bert Schnick (Barry Humphries), a sinister, pale-skinned game show host pretending to be blind for audience sympathy and Nation and Cosmo McKinley (Pat Quinn and Richard O'Brien), two European actors pretending to be doctors for the sake of their reality-based TV show, Dentonvale, a medical soap opera with real medicine apparently being dispensed by two totally unqualified quacks. In both films, the audience simply adores all of these terrible people, largely because they've been conditioned or brainwashed to do so.

A great many plot points and key motifs are shared by Phantom of the Paradise and Shock Treatment. Just as Swan has Winslow framed for drug possession and imprisoned in Sing Sing, Farley arranges for Brad to be committed to the faux-hospital on Dentonvale, where he will be "cared for" by Nation and Cosmo. Both Swan and Farley take over the lives and careers of Jessica Harper's characters, keeping them dazed and disoriented with drugs while preparing them for a truly sinister climactic show with secret underhanded motives. The nerdy hero of each film manages to escape from imprisonment and disrupt that show, confronting the villain live on stage in front of a frenzied audience. Being media satires, cameras and monitors are omnipresent in both films. The characters in Phantom and Shock are always being taped, a process which is facilitated by the fact that both films occur within artificially-made entertainment complexes: Swan's lavish new "rock palace," The Paradise, and Denton's cavernous DTV studios. Also, there is a great deal of attention paid in these films to the signing of contracts, with all the Faustian baggage that goes with it. In these movies, if you sign on the dotted line, you're making a pact with the Devil.

Jessica Harper attracts nerdy guys like Cliff De Young (top) and William Finley (bottom).


The Muppet Movie (1979) and Boogie Nights (1997)

Kermit the Frog and Mark Wahlberg hope to break into show business.

The common thread: A naive but uniquely talented newcomer, who is especially admired for one part of his body, is "discovered" and thus joins the exciting but treacherous world of show business, where he meets a number of eccentrics and outcasts with whom he eventually forms a sort of surrogate family.

If you were to give me unlimited money and resources to produce a film, there's no doubt about the one I'd make: Muppets Boogie Nights, a successor to Muppets Treasure Island (1996) and The Muppets Christmas Carol (1992). I know what you must be thinking. What could the Muppets possibly have to do with Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights? In my opinion, plenty. Both The Muppet Movie and Boogie Nights, at heart, are about flawed, incomplete individuals who find meaning and fulfillment through performing and through kinship with one another. A showbiz family is is not a traditional nuclear family, but The Muppet Movie and Boogie Nights assert that it can be every bit as valid and valuable a social unit, perhaps more so.
Dom and Burt, pals both onscreen and off.

How wonderful that Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson) is discovered in The Muppet Movie by a talent agent played by Dom de Luise, friend and frequent costar of Burt Reynolds, who plays porn director and center-of-the-universe Jack Horner in Boogie Nights. Many of the roles in Anderson's film would be ideal for the familiar Muppet characters. Kermit, of course, would be Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), the guileless up-and-comer with an especially valuable body part. While Dirk's claim to fame is his enormous member, Kermit's is a pair of extra-long frog legs, which attract the unwanted attention of Doc Hopper (Charles Durning, another longtime costar of Burt Reynolds). Every theatrical troupe needs its leading lady, of course. In Boogie Nights, it's Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). In The Muppet Movie, it's Miss Piggy (Frank Oz). Elsewhere, spacey Muppet valley girl Janice (Richard Hunt) would make an ideal Rollergirl (Heather Graham), and gofer Scooter (also Hunt) would make a fine substitute for errand boy Scotty (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). The neurotic, sad-eyed Gonzo the Great reminds me a great deal of poor, pathetic Little Bill (William H. Macy). I can just imagine him coming home to find that one of his chickens has been unfaithful to him. Best of all, Fozzie Bear was born to play the part of Brock Peters (John C. Reilly). If John C. Reilly were a Muppet, he'd definitely be Fozzie. They even sort of look alike. And the default Reilly character (the one he plays in most of his films), a sweet but too-eager sidekick who's just a little slow on the uptick and who wants to be liked so much that his desperation is palatable, is the very heart and soul of Fozzie Bear.

To give you a visual idea of what Muppets Boogie Nights might look like, here is a cast chart which matches up the famed Henson puppets with the characters from the P.T. Anderson film they'd be playing in my proposed remake.

Partial cast for a Muppets/Boogie Nights crossover. Fer sher.

Hollywood, make this happen. You know where to reach me.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

And there you have it, folks. Sixteen movies, but only eight stories. This article has been a long time in the making, easily the most-demanding piece I've ever written for this blog. The ideas have been accumulating in my mind for years, and the actual writing and researching took several days. I hope you've enjoyed this article, whether or not you agree with the comparisons I've made within it. At the very least, I'd like to think that this story has provided alternate interpretations of films you already know well. Please, if you have any thoughts about this article, post them in the comments section below.

I remain your most humble servant.

6 comments:

  1. LOVE IT!

    The Muppet Nights one is a little disturbing, but I totally see it. For a lot of these, I don't know how I never really noticed it before, particularly with Se7en/No Country. They really do share so many themes and tropes.

    What's killing me is that I KNOW I've drawn these kinds of comparisons recently but I'm drawings such a blank. I need to think hard on this.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Em. I've been sort of mentally "collecting" these for years, noticing little moments here and there. (Like when Marty looks around 1955 Hill Valley, and it's filmed just like Dorothy in Munchkinland.) I started with Se7en/No Country because it's the first time where I did a point-by-point evaluation. I ended with Muppets/Boogie Nights because it's a silly, fun one to go out on. I guess the impetus for writing this article was when I saw Oz the Great and Powerful and realized, "Hey, this is just Blazing Saddles Goes to Oz."

    There are at least two more I could have added: Barton Fink/Art School Confidential and Avatar/District 9 (which, to me, are the same story in reverse). But this article was already long enough!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Funny, I would have sworn you wrote this article just so you could slip in the Phantom of DTV Studios.

      Delete
    2. The Shock/Phantom thing goes back to something I wrote on a Rocky Horror Usenet group in the prehistoric days of the Internet, now almost 20 years ago. I included it here for nostalgia's sake, even though those are the two most obscure films on the list.

      Delete
  3. Joe - so refreshing to see cine-analysis that actually deals with the process of realizing ideas. By counterpointing unlikely movie "twins" you brilliantly enlighten us to both the commonality and unique-ness of the essence of story-telling. Well done!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Beth. I credit this article to having a long commute to and from work -- plenty of time to think about this kind of stuff as I watch the same buildings go by every day!

      Delete