Friday, May 22, 2009

The great escape

I'd go nuts if all I did was wring my hands and moan about cancer.

So every now and then, I tell cancer to buzz off.

Movies are my preferred escape hatch from this miserable disease.

If I'm not plopped on my sofa pouring Isosource in my belly while watching "Bubble Boy" for the umpteenth time, I'm slouching in a movie theater, probably with my shoes kicked off and my feet resting on the seat in front of me.

For someone looking to hide out from his or her troubles in a dark movie theater, L.A. is great city to live in. You're not limited to seeing the latest blockbuster, stuffy, arch art films or sterile cartoons animated in 3D. If you know where to look, you can always find something stimulating screening in this burg and I'm not only talking about the films that play at the Tom Kat in West Hollywood.

This week, I escaped to the movies to forget about cancer three times and not one of the films I saw starred Tom Hanks or a Vulcan.

On Sunday in Eagle Rock I caught a 1928 silent feature called "Laugh, Clown, Laugh." Lon Chaney plays a traveling circus clown named Tito who finds an abandoned child tied to a tree. Tito raises the child as if she was his own, and then he falls in love with her, and she with him.

I think "Laugh, Clown, Laugh" was a direct inspiration for Woody Allen and Soon-Yi.

Two nights later, I went to the Skirball Cultural Center and saw the 1941 drama "How Green Was My Valley." The title sounds like a question but it wasn't. Anyhow, the valley wasn't green at all; it was black and white. They should have titled this film "How Red Was My Bare Bottom" or "Citizen Caned" because the narrator, a young Roddy McDowall, really gets some lickings over the two hours of this film.

So while these two films may have raised disturbing concerns like incest and child abuse, for two whole evenings, I was able to take a vacation from cancer.

Then on Thursday, at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, I saw Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun," from 1971.

I didn't know much about this film going in, so I settled in for another evening of escapism from my troubles.

"Johnny Got His Gun," set during World War I, tells the story of a 19-year-old soldier named Joe Bonham, who gets severely wounded in an artillery blast and wakes up in a hospital bed surrounded by doctors. Gradually, we learn that Bonham has lost his arms, his legs and his face, but his brain remains active. The movie combines Bonham's memories and fantasies and the tragic reality of his existence, virtually immobile in the hospital bed.

Bonham is mostly concealed with sheets and a hood during the scenes in the hospital but his neck is exposed. To my surprise, it turns out that Bonham has been given a tracheotomy.

When the trach first was shown, my buddy nudged me and said something like "maybe this isn't a movie that you really want to see."

Well, I didn't find the trach disturbing –although judging by how much Bonham's trach resembled mine, it appears that trach technology hasn't advanced much since the early 1900s.

What is disturbing was the fact that wars continue to be waged nearly a century after the time that "Johnny Got His Gun" was set, and we just keep getting more efficient at manufacturing casualties.

The ending of the story is as bleak as any ending to a movie that I have ever seen. So I can't really claim that my evening watching "Johnny Got His Gun" was escapism in any way, certainly not coming on the eve of Memorial Day weekend.

So tonight I'm purging the melancholy taste that the film left in my mouth by heading to the El Capitan to see "The Boys," a documentary about Richard and Robert Sherman, brothers who were composers for Disney films like "Mary Poppins," "The Jungle Book" and "Winnie the Pooh," and who even composed the song "It's Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" from Disneyland's Carousel of Progress attraction.

I'm not expecting "The Boys" to bring me down. But if I get a close look at Tigger, and realize that his tail is actually a G-tube, I'm going to ask for my money back.


  1. How about going to the New Beverly for Marx Brothers movies on Monday? That could help in washing away some of those dark memories that Johnny Got His Gun might have left behind.

  2. Funny how you mention Johnny Got His Gun. I read the book in high school. No, it was not required reading, I was fascinated by the cover ... it was a hand giving the "peace" sign with a soldier's helmet on one of the fingers. I think I read the book over a weekend and from time to time when I read or see something about "war" I always remember it. I think it is in one of the 43 book boxes we still have in the garage waiting to be unpacked! Anyway the book scared the heck out of me, so I can imagine how you are feeling after the movie.

    Take Dean's advise and go see a Marx Bros. movie. Or, put "Across the Universe" into your DVD player and see an inspiring movie to some great music.

    Be good and we will see you in a couple of weeks.

    Love ya

    Mike (the brother)

  3. The cover of "Johnny Got His Gun" shows a right hand making the peace sign. The cover of Richard Hooker's "M*A*S*H" shows the left hand making a peace sign, and has the soldier's helmet on one of the fingers.

    I think that "M*A*S*H" was a movie before "Johnny Got His Gun," but Trumbo's book was published long before Hooker's.

    And Donald Sutherland was in both movies!