January, 2019

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It’s Annoying Being White

Thursday, January 24th, 2019

Written for Martin Luther King Day, 1993, Honolulu Star-Bulletin

My daughter came home from school a while ago and asked what she was. “I don’t know what I am,” she said. “And no one will tell me.” She was puzzled.
“You’re a little girl,” says I. “Or, to be politically correct, you’re a chronologically challenged adult. We don’t want to be age-ist.”
“No, I mean what I am. Other kids are Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Okinawan, Samoan, Polynesian — we learn about them. Where they come from. But they don’t tell me what I am.”
She was feeling left out, and unsure why. No joking matter to a six year-old.
This is where you earn the big money as a parent. I could tell her the politically incorrect version, which, unvarnished, would come out as. “You’re a haole. That means your ancestors come from Europe, mostly, some time ago. They’re called ‘white people.’ They settled all around the world and threw their weight around as much as possible, which means that world culture is so heavily influenced by ‘white’ culture that teachers feel no need to emphasize that.
“An example. While Martin Luther King is almost always referred to as great ‘black’ leader, and Sun Yat Sen is a great ‘Chinese’ leader, Franklin Roosevelt is never referred as a great ‘white’ leader. That’s because haoles ran things for so long — and still do — that the fact of their racial background is not an issue. It’s taken for granted. Your teachers are trying to keep alive what’s special in other cultures. That’s good. And, as a 6-year-old haole, you must pay the price of centuries of injustice inflicted by people of your race on others.”
I could tell by her face this explanation wasn’t going to fly. It also creates an us-and-them mindset that I feel will be eventually damaging, because it so easily becomes us-versus-them. It’s a frustrating dilemma. The question of race or culture is too often a smoke screen for the real bottom line, which is economics and class systems.
Being a kid of the ’60s. I thought this would all be over with by now. Harmony would break out between cultures by the ’90s. We’d be the “golden race” that James Michener predicted, a blend of skin colors and ethnic cultures. I grew up in the world’s most integrated neighborhoods, U.S. military bases, where failure to recognize an individual except by rank was discouraged.
Instead, things are more fractionated than ever. As Martin Luther King Jr. Day comes up, the current state of racial relations is profoundly depressing. The upcoming Hawaiian Overthrow anniversary also threatens to become a whites-vs-locals flashpoint, when it really boiled down to who controlled the dollars back then.
I’ve always felt more American than white anyway. and the strength of America is in its diversity of cultures and peoples. My folks were North Country laborers who fled Scotland 300 or more years ago, and have lived here for so long that the “old country” is simply a phrase. Since then, we’ve soaked up other bloodlines, including American Indian, if my grandmother could be believed.
It’s more important, however, to learn from other cultures than to descend from them.
It’s annoying being white. Whites don’t get along any better than anyone else. Ask anyone in Bosnia or Northern Ireland. Besides, being called “white” or “haole” lumps you in with the French, the snottiest gang of simps on the planet. (OK, I do have my prejudices.)
None of this, however, was helping my little girl. So I went with the flow. Better to have an identifiable cultural background, however tenuous, than to spend a lifetime trying to fit into others. “You’re Scots,” I said to her.
“No!” I scowled. “Scotch is a drink. Scots are a people. And if someone calls you Scotch, be prepared to defend yourself. Don’t let anyone make fun of your cultural heritage — whatever it is.”

Review: “Let There Be Rock-AC/DC”

Thursday, January 24th, 2019

by Burl Burlingame
Tuesday, Sept. 16, 1980
Honolulu Star-Bulletin

Rock ’n’ roll movies have always been somewhat of a problem. Do you make the film of a concert performance, or do you make a fiction film that’s rock-like In theme, simply aided by the music?
Both have their conceptual problems. “Animal House,” for example, is a great rock ’n’ roll movie, with its enervating sense of anarchy, its liberating use of (then) forbidden music. Other terrific rock films lately have included “Rock ’n’ Roll High School,” “American Hot Wax” “The Buddy Holly Story” and “The Idolmaker.” Their very rambunctiousness has included them. But they are all primarily films with a plot, aided immensely by the beat. The effect of the music, not the music: itself, is the main focus.
Concert films are another story. It’s tough to make a concert interesting without the immediacy of live performers, and there is the problem of getting too close to the musicians. The effect can be like sitting at the edge of the stage during “Swan Lake” and seeing the ballet dancers grunt and sweat. Poof, there goes the magic! Coming away from the Pink Floyd movie of a couple of years ago, one was struck, not by Floyd’s clever music, but by the fact that these guys never seemed to wash their hair.
“Let There Be Rock-AC/DC” has some of that problem, but mercifully the camera lingers at a middle distance, and the effect is concert-like instead of uncomfortably intimate. Australians AC/DC are veteran head-bangers and one of the most popular bands in the world: the movie appears to have been made in Germany by a French crew.
It is also at least a couple of years old, because the lead singer here is the irrepressible Bon Scott, who died some time ago of unspecified causes. Scott wasn’t a real tuneful singer, but he was a great rock ’n’ roller, a swaggering punk with loads of tattoos and ripped jeans.
The centerpiece of the band is guitarist Angus Young, who has a peculiar stage presence, resembling an English schoolboy in the process of being electrocuted. It’s not a pretty sight, but it is a gruesomely fascinating one. It helps that Young is a tremendous instrumentalist for this type of music, with a sense of melody and dramatic timing that helps keep the bombast under rein.
The other three members of the band are absolutely anonymous and difficult to keep track of.
There are two terrific images, though, and they occur near the end; a wide-angle view of the band awash in stroboscope light during the title song, and a sequence of goofy little Angus Young sucking up some oxygen at the edge of the stage and then being borne on the shoulders of a roadie into the audience, playing furiously all the while.
The Cinerama theater has taken care of a major problem with rock movies by installing concert speakers on either side of the screen, so the music is loud and clear. It should be a bit louder and a bit clearer though: the drums are nonexistent on the soundtrack, and a true AC/DC fan knows the volume has to be cranked up enough so that the bass notes can separate your vertebrae. For the proper effect, try butting your head against the wall a few times.
Let there be rock, indeed.

Review: “The Final Countdown”

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019

by Burl Burlingame
Tuesday, Aug. 5. 1980
Honolulu Star-Bulletin

Aha! What we have here is probably the best bad movie of the year. Best because it’s carefully crafted, streamlined entertainment, bad because it’s monumentally silly. We know it’s awful, but we have fun anyway.
“Final Countdown” is about a paradox in time: The modern aircraft carrier U.S.S Nimitz cruising near Hawaii is tossed back through a time warp to Dec. 6. 1941. Will they or won’t they use modern technology to cream the Japanese forces attacking Pearl Harbor — and change history?
On board are the captain (Kirk Douglas, with a face as animated as a Road Runner cartoon), a civilian advisor (Martin Sheen, who has no advice about time warps) and a hotshot pilot (James Farentino, sporting the brightest teeth in the Navy). Along the way, in 1941. they pick up a senator and his beautiful assistant (blustering Charles Durning and vacant-eyed Kathenne Ross).
The real star of the film, though, is the Nimitz. Filled with thundering jets, phallic missiles and twinkling electronics, it’s a Navy recruiter’s macho dream. The very real problems the Navy has — not enough personnel, not enough money to pay those they’ve got, ships foundering in the high-tech race—aren’t in existence here. This film appeals to one of the major, though unspoken, reasons people join the military: So grown men can play around with a lot of neat stuff.
There used to be a whole squadron of films like this in the ’50s, service dramas with names like “Bombers B-52” and “Strategic Air Command,” and starring blue-eyed visions of American manhood like Jimmy Stewart (who actually is a reserve general in the Air Force), Rock Hudson and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. They were thinly disguised propaganda that celebrated the illusion of an omnipotent U.S. military, and judging by the cheers in the audience at “Countdown” whenever a sophisticated F-14 Tomcat blasted an antiquated Zero, the need for that illusion is as real as ever.
The fact it was an uneven contest doesn’t matter: the image of a powerful, yet intelligently handled American military is reassuring these days.
As for the science-fiction aspects, well, the plot is right out of a “Time Tunnel” TV episode (a show that never played with a full deck. James Darren and Lee Meriwether were cast as scientists). It’s the old paradox if you could change history, would you? Could you?
The science of time travel is woefully handled, mumbled references to Einstein and that Hollywood favorite, Mysterious Forces in the Universe. Once on the Dick Cavett show. Cavett asked writer Isaac Asimov “if there were forces in the universe that haven’t been discovered yet.”
“I don’t know,” Asimov replied, “they haven’t been discovered yet.”
The basic question in science fiction though, and the reason for this movie, is “what if…?” “Final Countdown” plays this question to the hilt, and does it slickly, never pausing over the holes in the script. If you don’t think about it too much, it’s a quickly spent two hours of thundering good fun.

Review: “Cannonball Run 2″

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

by Burl Burlingame
Tuesday, July 10, 1984
Honolulu Star-Bulletin

     A minimum effort from all concerned, “Cannonball Run II” is this summer’s effort by Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham to get the public to subsidize a month-long party for Burt and his pals. The home movies taken during the party are edited into something resembling a feature film, at least in length.
     They’re asking $4 for admission, and that doesn’t include even one canape.
     Burt’s friends are musty, dusty attractions at the Hollywood Wax Museum. They include Dean Martin, whose skin has the texture and unhealthy pallor of a cantaloupe rind and who says things like “When I make a dry martini, I make a dry martini,”—a sure-fire Rat Pack knee-slapper—and Sammy Davis Jr., who looks like a cockroach. Director Needham also never bothered to make sure Davis’ glass eye was pointing in the proper direction. It rolls wildly, independent of the other orb.
     Other couch potatoes direct from “The Tonight Show” are the insufferable Charles Nelson Reilly; wheeze-monger Foster Brooks; Jim Nabors, who has swell-looking artificial teeth; and Don Knotts, who looks like a chimp recently released from Dachau.
     Dom DeLuise is aboard doing his annoying thweet-but-thilly fat man routine.
     Frank Sinatra, in a pseudo-Mafia don role that must have been a hoot in Warner Bros.’ boardrooms, is on-screen for a flash. In the cutaway shots, the other actors pretend they’re talking to Sinatra’s stand-in, who’s about two feet taller than ol’ Pink Eyes.
     Susan Anton and Catharine Bach try to fill the jumpsuited bimbo role created by Adrienne Barbeau, but Bach and Anton are two women who look best from a distance. When she smiles, Anton’s lips slide up mechanically over teeth that resemble the grill of a ’57 Chevy; her face has the hatchety directness of a Roman bireme at ramming speed. Bach looks hard, hard, hard; she could crack walnuts with her forehead.
     Both women spend much of the film coyly playing with the zippers on their jumpsuits. When they pull them down, the effect is less playfully sexy than revoltingly cheap.
     Burt’s love interest in the last film, the quite-apropos Farrah Fawcett, is replaced by Shirley MacLaine, whose crinkly forearms contrast nicely with Burt’s gassy, recently embalmed appearance. MacLaine does provide the only real laugh in the film, during a credit sequence that features otherwise endless, dull outtakes.
     There are other performers who manage not to humilate themselves. They include Jackie Chan the martial-arts whiz, Joe Theismann the football whiz and an orangutan wearing an unfortunate amount of pancake makeup.
     There’s a plot of sorts; it reprises the last movie note for note.
     The theme song is in Spanish for some reason. “Cannooonbowel!” suggests the singer.
     The stunts are perfunctory.
     The cars are not exciting.
     The stars seem stuffed.
     The movie is a genuine cultural artifact, a relic given to us by a band of entertainers from long ago, who live in self-imposed exile in the dusty, neon hellhole of Las Vegas.
     They seem to have no trouble amusing each other.
     It’s not contagious.