Of the films I’ve covered for my Laser Age column few have played me as much as Phase IV, Saul Bass’ sole directorial feature. Until a few years ago, when it started to experience a bit of a revival thanks to the discovery of its long-lost ending, I’d always heard spoken of as something of a folly, a not-so-hot B-movie about killer ants that barely rated a footnote in Bass’ career. (I have a vague memory of half-watching it when it aired on Commander USA’s Groovy Movies on some afternoon in the late 1980s.) Really it plays like a B-movie that forgets it’s supposed to be a B-movie and takes a turn for the cosmic almost from the start and then gets really out there, all of it done with Bass’ eye for an unforgettable visual. Anyway, thoughts will be in the column. Here’s six images that suggest what the film is like.
“Eventually I married a woman who grew up in a family that watched television only on special occasions—when Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs, when Diana married Prince Charles. My wife was a student in a seminary. She did not want to meet [GUIDING LIGHT’s] Ed Bauer, nor could I explain, without sounding pathetic, why Ed Bauer was important to me. The first winter we were married i watched the winter Olympics huddled beneath a blanket in the frigid basement of the house we had rented. This was in a closed-down steel town near Pittsburgh, during the time I contemplated jumping from a bridge into the Ohio River. My wife asked the seminary community to pray for me. Ann B. Davis, who played Alice on THE BRADY BUNCH was a member of that community. One day I saw her in the cafeteria at school. She looked much the same as when she played Alice, except her hair was white, and she wore small, gold glasses. I didn’t talk to her. I had heard that she didn’t like talking about THE BRADY BUNCH, and I could not think of anything to say to her about the world in which we actually lived. I sat in the cafeteria and stared at her as much as I could without anyone noticing. I don’t know if she prayed for me or not, but I like to think that she did. I wanted to tell her that I grew up in a split-level ranch-style house outside a small town that could have been named Springfield, but that something had gone wrong inside it. I wanted to tell her that years ago Alice had been important to me, that my sister and I had looked to Alice for something we could not name, and had at least seen a picture of what love looked like. I wanted to tell her that no one in my family ever raised their voice while the television was on that late at night even a bad television show could keep me from hearing the silence inside my own heart. I wanted to tell her that Ed Bauer and I were still alive, that both of us had always wanted to do what was right. Ann B. Davis stood, walked over to the trash can, and emptied her tray. She walked out of the cafeteria and into a small, gray town near Pittsburgh. I wanted her to be Alice. I wanted her to smile as if she loved me. I wanted her to say, "Buck up, kiddo, everything’s going to be all right." And what I’m trying to tell you now is this: I grew up in a split-level ranch-style house outside a town that could have been anywhere. I grew up in front of a television. I would have believed her.”
If you’ve been watching Mad Men this season you’ll know that a good chunk of the plot has revolved around an attempt to secure Burger Chef as a client. It’s, typical of Mad Men, been a brilliant combination of real-life details and in-show subtext, culminating in a pitch that posited the fast-food chain as a place for literal and surrogate families to escape to a welcoming, antiseptic, artificial dining room table where generational divides and the strife of the day could disappear, if only for the length of a meal. The closing shot of this season’s sixth episode, in which Don Draper shares a meal with Pete and Peggy, the professional children with whom he’s enjoyed a complicated relationship over the run of the show, could easily have been the last shot of the show (which featured a lovingly recreated Burger Chef). Here they were, living a pitch they were in the process of creating. Was it proof they’d found the right angle or evidence they’d fallen for their own con? If love is something guys like Don created to sell nylons, who was doing the buying and who the selling in that shot?
Adding a bit of melancholy to the whole scenario is the fact Burger Chef wasn’t built to last. It was big in 1969, but limping by the time disco took its last bow.
All of which is a long way of getting around to me saying I didn’t think anyone else even remembered Burger Chef, which was my fast food chain of choice as a kid grown up in a suburb of Dayton in the 1970s. (Side note: I recently found out that Donald Fagen’s father owned the Dayton Burger Chefs, moving to Ohio after Donald left for Bard.) Why? First was the Funmeal, sort of the Happy Meal before there was a Happy Meal. (In fact, Burger Chef sued McDonald’s when it introduced the rip-off product, to no avail.) But most of my memories are tied up in a pair of Burger Chef movie promotions, which involved movies that obsessed me as a kid (and still kind of do), the 1976 King Kong remake:
And, one year later, Star Wars:
I can still remember my four-year-old brain trying understand how those characters from a galaxy far, far away could be at a Burger Chef in the first place.
I suspect one of their fluffy more-air-than-bread buns would have madeleine-like effect on me, if one could ever be found. But that doesn’t seem likely: They’re mostly Hardee’s now, though the one in my hometown became an Arby’s, and Arby’s never promoted any good movies. Sic transit gloria funmeal.
“Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over their various channels? If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that’s available at the turn of a switch! No wonder that people are becoming passive sponges—absorbing but not creating. Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day? Soon people won’t be living their own lives any more. It will be a full-time job keeping up with the various family serials on TV!”
- Arthur C. Clarke, prophetic about your DVR and mine in Childhood’s End (1953).
Newspaper ad for And Now For Something Completely Different (Village Voice, September 28, 1972)
A couple of things about this: What kind of movie is this based on the ad? It’s a comedy, sure—the clip art laughing mouths tell us that—but beyond that… who knows? What’s more, the name “Monty Python” isn’t mentioned anywhere. You have to read the fine (very fine) print to even see who’s in it. The film was a sort of greatest-TV-hits-re-recorded designed to break the group into the American market. It didn’t, or it at least didn’t have much to do with the first wave of Python fandom in the U.S. (That came courtesy of PBS.) But I’m sure I’m not the only one whose first exposure to Monty Python came from And Now For Something Completely Different's frequent airings on cable in the early ’80s. I know those versions of the famous skits get sniffed at today and I haven't returned to ANFSCD to compare them, but to my eyes it played like a mad rush of wild ideas and type of comedy I’d never seen before. So, mission accomplished, if ten years later than planned.
In researching the next Laser Age column I came across this bit of tidbit: Futureworld, the sequel to Westworld, was the first movie to feature 3D computer animation. There’s not a lot of it, but what’s there is significant: The rotating hand on the monitor is from the 1972 short “A Computer Rotating Hand,” which is believed to be the first 3D computer animation ever. The co-director, Ed Catmull, would go on to be one of the founders of Pixar.
In a neat coincidence, the hand is the one detail that the robot makers in Westworld couldn’t master. In the real world, it was the first object mastered by the technology that would go on to change our perceptions of what’s real and what’s artificial.
Loews’ Salem Avenue Theater in 1992 (formerly the Kon-Tiki)
Every once in a while I go on a sentimental Google journey looking for photos of Dayton’s Kon-Tiki theater, the South Seas-themed movie theater where I saw my first movie. (Either You’re A Boy Named Charlie Brown or Snow White. Accounts vary.) There aren’t many. This one comes from the Dayton History Books Online site, and captures it has it appeared in 1992, about a year after I worked there. Gone are the tiki heads that gave it such character until it was sold and renamed in the mid-1980s, but you can still get a sense of the place, an odd three-screener (expanded from one when it opened in 1967) on a once-fashionable stretch of road connecting Dayton to the north suburbs that had started to fall on hard times by the ’80s.
It’s gone now, and it hurts my heart every time I drive past the lot where it once stood. I saw a lot of movies there as a kid and teenager before whiling away even more hours as a part-time employee/nearly full-time hanger-arounder in the post-high school/pre-college summer of 1991. I became very familiar with the ending credits music to Jungle Fever (Stevie Wonder’s “Feeding Off The Love Of The land) and Terminator 2 (GNR’s “You Could Be Mine”). (A stint during winter break allowed me to become just as familiar with Hammer’s Addams' Family song.) And I got to know a lot of people I never would have otherwise met during the long stretches between screenings that our terrific manager—a sometime comic—didn’t feel all that compelled to fill with busywork. I miss the place and the people I worked with there. And I miss those tiki heads. (Also, if anyone has more photos, please let me know.)
I’ve been revisiting The B-52s a lot lately and a couple of things have occurred to me:
1) I’m hard-pressed to think of many bands that have given me more pleasure over the years. Just sheer joy, Who else? I’m drawing a blank.
2) It’s easy to forget how strange, and kind of radical, the band was when it first started. No one else was combining so many disreputable elements from the cultural fringes like they did: ’50s and ’60s kitsch, sci-fi, thrift-store chic, surf music, punk energy, and so on. And while what they did was often funny, it’s not like the band was a joke. It’s all remarkably creative—Ricky Wilson’s guitar work on those first two albums is some of my favorite ever—and as out there as Fred Schneider is as a frontman, there’s something almost confrontational about what he does, too.
A YouTube search led me to this early—crazy early—clip of the band performing “Rock Lobster” in what appears to the world’s smallest club. It captures what it must have been like to see them early in their career, and the modesty of their beginnings. “Don’t forget waitresses live on tips,” Scnheider says by way of goodbye. “I know: I’m a waiter.”
A cab turning off State onto Randolph, 1972, Chicago.
Double feature now playing at the Loop Theater: Kung Fu and Duel of the Iron Fist.
Talking to some of the veteran Chicago critics has always made me think I missed a golden age of colorful downtown theaters where b-movies played one after another. Photos like this seems to confirm that suspicion.