The Whole Wide World, and six more movies

Ganja & Hess (1973)

Ganja is not marijuana; she's a pretty woman. Hess is a doctor. Eventually they get married, though it's uncertain whether they ever fell in love. The movie is more mood-driven than plot-driven, though, so any further story synopsis would be irrelevant, maybe even misleading.

Ganja & Hess is presented in segments — 'Part I: Victim',  'Part II: Survival', etc — that eventually do come together coherently, but there's no hurry, and you'll spend a lot of time saying 'huh?' Much of the dialogue is about big issues, philosophy, life, death, and in each segment there comes a buzzing sound, as the pressures of the world or the scene bear down on its inhabitants.

If it sounds pretentious, well, maybe it is. Maybe you'd hate it. I hated it too, at first, but liked it more and more as it accumulated. Director Bill Gunn doesn't particularly care whether you're interested, and anyway, it's a fine line between artistic and artsy-fartsy. I say artistic, but you could plausibly disagree.

All the movie's central characters are black, while the un-noticed background players — the businessman, the nurse, the chauffeur, some of the wedding guests — are white. Literally a role reversal from most movies.

According to on-screen text before the movie started, 35 minutes was cut from this film prior to its original release, and the Museum of Modern Art has restored it to what the director intended. At full length, be forewarned, it meanders and sometimes seems to lose its way, but every misstep is actually part of the dance, and by the end I can't imagine what could be trimmed.

"The only perversions that can be comfortably condemned are the perversions of others."

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands (1969)

The Neverending
Film Festival

The title sounds like tawdry 1990s R-rated schlock from Troma Films, but this is actually a well-regarded 1960s art-house action movie from Japan. It was recommended by someone whose opinions I trust and still do, but I couldn't watch more than the first 15 minutes.

No idea what the title means, as I saw nothing about sex dolls, but guess I'll never know.

Guy in a bow tie meets guy in a suit, and they drive to Bow Tie's home. It's mostly wordless, and not yet clear what's up, but obviously Bow Tie is hiring Suit to do something not quite legal.

Bow Tie's phone rings, and it's Bad Guy calling. He taunts Bow Tie, tells him to meet him tomorrow at 3:00 to pay a ransom, and all through the phone call you can hear a woman screaming in the background.

Immediately, Bow Tie threads a projector and we're watching 16mm footage, apparently filmed by the woman's captors, as they strip her, fondle her, and presumably rape her again.

That's the set-up: Bad guys have kidnapped this woman and they're repeatedly raping her, and taunting Bow Tie with phone calls and video footage.

I'm sure it's art, but it's not art for me.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Playing Beatie Bow (1986)

This is highbrow horror or romance or maybe a children's movie from down under, where strange things are afoot with elves and pixies, trolls and spells and time travel, in a plot fueled by one of the most over-used movie tropes, The Prophecy That Must Come True.

It took me quite a while to figure this out, so I'll give you a head start: The title, Playing Beatie Bow, is an Aussie children's game, and Beatrice May Bow — Beatie Bow — is the name of a kinda creepy fairie girl who floats around in time.

The main character is Abigail, though. She's a teenage girl in the here and now, wearing a dress that has an embroidered collar, and the collar is important, for reasons barely explained. When Abigail and Beatie Bow accidentally touch, they're both bopped back to 1873, where we're introduced to Beatie Bow's family, and told that Abigail is destined to fulfill some prophesy that's been in the family longer than white people have been in Australia.

In those olden days, Abigail wanders into a surly, unsafe neighborhood of "cutthroats and mongrels," where she's kidnapped, dragged to an opium den or opulent whorehouse or something, and is about to be sold into sex slavery. Not to worry, though — Beatie Bow's grandmama has mystical magic powers, and there's also a ridiculously hunky young 1800s dude who bursts into song, and they're both determined to rescue our dear Abigail.

Despite the kidnapping and piss-pots drained out the window and some other unsavory elements, everything is presented sorta foggy and phantasmical, about half Harlequin romance and half old-style Disney innocence.

The family's Prophecy That Must Come True gets more and more complicated, but Beatie Bow and her grandmama must have a spreadsheet or something; they know the intricacies of what's been foretold better than you know your own address. Most miraculous is that even I, knowing nothing of these prophecies, somehow knew how the story would end.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Spectre (1977)

Our Gene Roddenberry retrospective continues, with this astounding mess of a made-for-TV movie. Screenplay by Roddenberry with Samuel A Peeples, who was mostly a writer of Westerns, and it's a horror flick, not science fiction.

William Sebastian (Robert Culp) is a paranormal investigator, and his heart has been damaged by a voodoo doll, so he sends for the hard-drinking Dr Amos Hamilton (Gig Young). Meanwhile, a succubus drops in, and Sebastian kills her by pressing her into the pages of a book. Sebastian's housekeeper (Majel Barrett — Mrs Roddenberry, and the voice of Star Trek's computers) is a witch or sorcerer, always casting spells and snipping locks of people's hair, and she cures Dr Hamilton's alcoholism, against his will.

That's all in the first ten minutes or so.

After that, it's never a long wait between one wacky supernatural or unexplained event and the next, but none of these magical mystical moments are frightening. In a land where everything's unreal, having something unreal happen is kinda boring.

Fires erupt and windows slam when a demon's name is spoken. Banisters collapse. Rottweilers bark. Ancient stones wobble. There's a whole heck of a lot of dialogue about druids and demons. It never approaches being interesting, but John Hurt, very young here, pilots a jet and plays (or finger-syncs) a marvelous piano.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Tomorrow I'll Get Up and Scald Myself with Tea (1977)

Like airline flights, time travel excursion tours are now readily available.

Also, several present-day Nazi scumbags have secured access to nuclear bombs.

Those two plot elements seem like a dangerous combination, and you guessed it, the newfangled Nazis are planning to time travel to 1944, into the Fuehrer's headquarters, and deliver this weaponry for his use. It's never too late for the baddest of bad guys to win World War II.

Meanwhile, we have twin brothers; one's a responsible adult while the other is a layabout louse with Nazi sympathies. When the layabout Nazi dies, his brother assumes his identity because he fancies his girlfriend, but soon it's revealed that the dead brother was part of the aforementioned nuclear Nazi time travel plot.

Unnecessary sound effects tip us off that this is a comedy, but by then you're already chuckling.

This is undoubtedly the finest Czech science fiction I've yet seen, and also has ample laughs, if you're in the right frame of mind and not a Nazi sympathizer.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Turkey Shoot (1981)

"The government calls us traitors or deviants, because we oppose its ideology. Then it tries to wipe us out, because we believe that we have the right to be ourselves. Then it justifies its policies by talking of work ethic, community obedience, social conformity, but what it's really saying is 'Accept slavery or die.' The time has come to fight back."

That's supposed to be a call to arms, but as rabble-rousing it's a little tepid, ain't it? Turkey Shoot has lots of tryptophan.

Steve Railsback and Olivia Hussey have been sent to a re-education camp, where dissidents are 'corrected' with cruelty. It's one of those action movie prisons where you know the good-guy prisoners will eventually thwomp the bad-guy guards, but it's all as generic as that rabble-rousing speech. The prison staff are all bastards (check) but they're just going through the bastard motions. The evil warden is evil (check). No spark of giving-a-damn is detected in the script or performances, and the music is one dude playing a synthesizer.

Railsback, so good in The Stunt Man, is all wrong here. He keeps smiling as he's threatened and tortured, but it's a nice guy smile, not "I'm gonna kill you if I can."

Verdict: NO.

If you're itching to see a good action movie about a hellish prison run by a totalitarian government, I always recommend Fortress (1992). 

♦ ♦ ♦

The Whole Wide World (1996)

In the 1940s, Novalyne Price (Renée Zellweger) wants to be a writer, and develops a crush on Robert E Howard (Vincent D'Onofrio), who earns his living writing lurid short stories for the pulp press (and seems inordinately proud of himself for doing so).

There's no story here except their slow-budding friendship, and it's very slow — seems like they're together for a year before their first kiss. Novalyne cries a lot, Bob yells a lot, but it's an engrossing and sweet story, holding this grumpy old man's attention right to the end I didn't see coming.

Playing a literary man would be beyond D'Onofrio's reach, I feared, but he comes close to success, and wears a silly sombrero with little doodads hanging from the brim. Zellweger has never been a favorite of mine, but she's vulnerable and fierce here, and also smart, kind, and cute.

"Dear Novalyne,
The weather's good, the beer is lousy. Hoping you are the same,

Directed very well by Dan Ireland, who invented the Seattle International Film Festival some decades ago, where I started falling in love with odd and weird and foreign movies. Thanks again, Mr Ireland.

Verdict: BIG YES.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.  


  1. >Playing a literary man would be beyond D'Onofrio's reach, I feared,

    Oh, I'll definitely go on record as saying he's a borderline great actor. Borderline. My favorite unsung role of his is in the criminally underrated Stuart Saves His Family. No, I'm not joking. It's not Blues Brothers. But it's damn good.

  2. Always liked the SNL sketches, but don't think I've ever seen the movie. Also, I'm still semi-pissed at Al Franken for quitting the Senate over damned close to nothing.

    D'Onofrio's good, no complaints, but he usually plays working stiffs or people sorta nuts.

  3. My brother, you've seen films directed by the 348th best director in Japan and you haven't seen Blues Brothers? OK, it's not a great movie, but sometimes movies are about scenes and themes. I'd pay twice the box office price just to see Aretha sing "Think", and do the names Sam and Dave ring a familiar note? This film is a celebration of Southern Soul, a much-neglected, short-lived branch of the music kingdom that was the most American of all the music forms. It was worth celebrating. Still is.

    I feel good.

    1. I've seen Blues Brothers several times. No reviews just means I wasn't much writing when I saw it. I love the music, but I'm lukewarm on the comedy. Aretha in the diner, though, is definitely the high point, and I especially don't like Illinois Nazis.

  4. I never would have checked out The Whole Wide World if you hadn't written about it. It seems like one of those titles & covers that rolled off of an assembly line at the "sorta Miramax, but also sorta Merchant/Ivory" factory that was powering up in the mid-1990s. Someone is probably going to call me an idiot for this but I had no idea who Howard was and based on my previous knowledge of the literary scene at the time the idea of this all taking place in central Texas oil boom & bust towns is fascinating.

    1. The movie is a true story and Robert E Howard existed and wrote, but I'd never heard of him either. Google tells me he invented Conan the Barbarian, so I guess he's a literary "somebody."

      Hope you liked The Whole Wide World? I should've mentioned, it's a very bland title, which is probably why I'd never seen it or heard of it.

    2. I saw that. Wikipedia says he was part of Lovecraft's circle of correspondents (and whoever wrote the entry on Howard was a really huge fan.)

      I did like the movie, very uncharacteristic for me but like you I couldn't help but to find it sweet. About halfway through I thought "This is a movie I could probably show to my girl or my mom," and then the ending came and I said "Ok maybe not my mom."

    3. After watching a downloaded movie I delete it almost every time, but I didn't delete The Whole Wide World and hope to watch it again some day. Glad you dug it, man.


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