Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Great Blondini

Love is never easy
It's short of the hope we have for happiness
Bright and sweet
Love is never easy street!
-Joni Mitchell
Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

There's only one sure thing in life Blondini, that's doubt... I think.
Goodbye Pork Pie

What's the coolest road trip picture of all time? Easy Rider? Vanishing Point? Two-Lane Blacktop? Nah, those movies are too self-conciously serious and existential for me. Don't get me wrong, I like them all, but if I was going to take a ride across country, it wouldn't be with a bunch of mopey 70's stoners. Nope, I'd be having fun with 'The Blondini Gang' riding in a lemon yellow, stripped-down Mini through the beautiful countryside of New Zealand circa 1978.

Synopsis - A young New Zealander takes a rented Mini for a joy ride, picks up two hitchhikers, and somewhat unintentionally forms an outlaw ring known as The Blondini Gang.

Now there are three critical things needed for a solid road trip movie:
1. A vehicle with a personality all its own.
2. Interesting drivers & occupants that hopefully include a beautiful hitchhiker picked up along the way.
3. Appealing landscapes to drive through populated by colorful characters.


American road movies in the late 60's and early 70's were mostly defined by their chopped motorcycles and flashy muscle cars. They were big, loud, fast and very ostentatious. The characters who drove these vehicles seemed to be making up for some personal shortcomings. It's as if there was an almost inverse ratio between self esteem and engine block size.
In Goodbye Pork Pie, our heroes drive one of these:

That's right, a 1978 British Leyland Mini, for the man who's confident about his penis size. Now, there are several advantages for choosing such a car for a road trip besides gas economy. Even though the Mini can be out-run by just about any other car (or bicycle for that matter) on the road, it is very small and maneuverable enabling it to hide in bushes, shopping centers, railroad cars and even slightly bigger derelict vehicles. And, unlike the more distinctive muscle cars, there are bound to be other Mini's on the road to confuse the local constabulary. Best of all, the car's spare parts can be easily removed and sold to help finance the trip as needed.
Director Geoff Murphy seems to be intentionally tweaking the nose of the traditional road trip movie by choosing such an unlikely and unassuming car as his vehicular lead. And it works in the context of the story as our heroes evade the police as much by stealth and maneuverability as speed. This makes for a much less serious film that, at times, borders on screwball comedy. But all the stunts and hiding places are believable, and Murphy never resorts to under-cranking or other cheap camera tricks. In fact many of the stunts, particularly toward the end, look pretty harrowing even if performed in a lighthearted way.

Drivers & Occupants

Gerry Austin is a smart-alecky, 19-year old with an unruly mop of blond hair he keeps covered by a ridiculously large-billed, oversized, yellow ball cap with the words "Pork Pie" on a button pinned to the front. His matching yellow t-shirt is similarly inscribed. As played by Kelly Johnson, Gerry is, in most ways, the typical anti-authority, testosterone-laden, obnoxious teenager. By himself, he wouldn't make for a particularly engaging or even likable character, but his saving grace, outside of his mad driving skills, is the people he chooses to befriend on his odyssey and his deep down decency. He's not out to hurt anyone, he's kind of a late 70's version of the fun-loving criminal. As the movie progresses, Gerry's character grows a little more mature - well, as mature as he can be, simultaneously becoming bonded to his mates and gaining a sense of his own mortality.

John, who is a resident of Auckland, has woman problems. His live-in girlfriend of six years is leaving him and returning to her hometown of Invercargill. John wants to work things out and tells his lady that he will come visit her to do just that. But John has no money, no car and Invercargill is literally at the other end of the country over a thousand miles away. Tony Barry plays John as a very laid back, easy-going type who is world-wise and mature, but nevertheless appreciates a good laugh at the absurdity of life. He falls in rather easily and comfortably with Gerry (who he later introduces to a mate as 'Blondini') and the two share an instant repoire despite their age difference. John is easily the most likable and coolest occupant of the Mini and keeps the movie well grounded. His quest of meeting up with his estranged girlfriend at the other end of the country likewise gives the film direction and an ultimate goal.

Finally, Shirl (played by Claire Oberman), rounds out the Blondini gang. A self-annointed virgin and charming chatterbox, Shirl initially seems more curse than blessing after Gerry impulsively picks her up. However, she never comes between the gentlemen, and her relationship with Gerry is always quite light and playful despite their consummation of it being in question early on. One of the most interesting and unpredictable aspects of the story is Shirl's ultimate disposition. Without spoiling, I found it a rather risk-taking development that more traditional cinema wouldn't chance with a major character.


New Zealand seems the ideal country for a road trip movie. At over a thousand miles in length, it's not too small, not too large, plus there's the obstacle of getting from North Island to South Island in a car. Gerry starts his odyssey out near the top of the country at Kaitaia, meets up with John in Auckland, and picks up Claire somewhere north of Wanganui. John's ultimate destination is Invercargill at the bottom of South Island.

 Long before Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson showed how beautiful the country is, Geoff Murphy was doing pull-back and aerial camera shots of a tiny yellow Mini zipping through the incredibly lush landscapes of New Zealand. This natural aesthetic gives the low budget affair a much needed visual shot in the arm and adds production value beyond price. Of particular note are the camera shots of the train on which the characters travel. At one point, there is an overhead shot of the train crossing a gorge which is nothing short of breathtaking. The only downside is the film was originally shot in full screen, so the vistas aren't as spectacular as they could have been.
As for characters met on the journey, there are two standouts. Mulvaney, a Wellington chop-shop owner, played by the late, great Bruno Lawrence of Smash Palace and The Quiet Earth fame. Mulvaney quietly doles out his philosophy of life while rolling joints and sporting the most audacious wide-brimmed leather hat ever. The second standout is 'Snout', a Blondini gang groupie and proto meth addict played by John Bach who initially seems like a helpful character ala Tim Scott in Vanishing Point, but turns menacing very quickly. There are many other characters who show up, some as a running gag, but some quite briefly, especially toward the end.

One last note, no road trip movie can be great without solid music. John Charles provides most of the original music with a nice blues-infused jazz score that gives the film a real coolness it would not otherwise have. There are a few brief moments of pop songs that sound pretty dated, but fortunately their use is quite limited. The 2008 English PAL Region 0 release allows the great music to keep playing long after the credits have finished.

If you're looking for an angst free, breezy road trip movie with some likable characters fleeing the police through a beautiful backdrop, you'd be hard pressed to find much better, or cooler, than Goodbye Pork Pie.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In a Nutshell

Frances Glessner Lee isn't a household name, but it should be. She was born in 1878 to agricultural equipment businessman, John Jacob Glessner, who became quite wealthy when a merger between his firm and others, including one owned by JP Morgen, created International Harvester in 1902. Although her brother went off to study medicine at Harvard, she was denied the opportunity due to her gender. Nevertheless, she subsequently developed a keen interest in forensic investigation partially through her friendship with her brother's classmate, George Burgess Magrath. Magrath, who would later become a chief medical examiner in Boston, successfully lobbied, along with Glessner Lee, to have coroners replaced by medical professionals. In 1931, Glessner Lee would endow Harvard with the first department in the country to study legal medicine as well as creating Harvard Associates in Police Science, a national organization intended to promote forensic science.

If Frances Glessner Lee's involvement with forensics had ended there, it certainly would have been an enormous accomplishment by any standard especially considering the era, the field and her gender. But, without a doubt, the most fascinating aspect of her work in forensic science came in the 40's and 50's with her series of "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death". Still in use as a training tool by the Harvard Associates in Police Science today, the so-called "Nutshells" were dioramas created by Glessner Lee that meticulously recreated actual crime scenes in miniature. They are the principle subject of Susan Marks 2012 documentary, Of Dolls & Murder.

Narrated by John Waters, the documentary works best when it focuses on either Frances Glessner Lee or the Nutshells themselves. In fact, the weakness in the doc is that it strays from these riveting subjects into a more general discussion of forensic investigation, how it's used, and people's misconceptions and discomfort with the subject. I don't know why Marks felt the need to delve into the more conventional topics, because the one-two punch of Glessner Lee's life and the Nutshells seem to provide ample material to easily sustain interest for the doc's hour-plus runtime. Most of the other non-related information was of only mild curiosity with the notable exception of "The Body Farm" which could have, and maybe should have, been the subject of a whole other documentary. I found the place, the young woman who worked there, and her notion of beauty in decay, to be quite engaging. It's easy to see the parallel Marks was drawing between this young woman and Glessner Lee, who despite being ahead of her time, was probably looked at askance considering her field of interest and work.

Maybe part of the reason Marks didn't invest all her doc's time in the Nutshells is that they aren't meant to be "who-dunnits" as one instructor explains to his class, but to gather facts and information from the recreation. As such, there is no reveal related to each diorama beyond the observable. The one instructor who has the answers to the cases keeps them locked away for obvious reasons - if anyone were to know the answer in advance, it would defeat the purpose of the training. This may frustrate some viewers who are used to being given the key to a mystery at the end, but I found it made the Nutshells even more enigmatic and captivating. 
The narration by Waters was fine, but added a weirdness factor that wasn't really necessary. Ultimately, the biggest accomplishment of the documentary was to introduce a great lady who was previously unknown to me, and her fascinating work in an unusual field of study.

Score 8/10