Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Like most films with a baseball setting, The Bingo Long Traveling All-stars and Motor Kings is not essentially about baseball. Not that baseball is altogether a bad thing for a movie to be about (though in these days of the once-great sport’s waning popularity a real baseball movie might well die at the box office); it’s just that baseball is so damned useful to film makers as metaphor. One of the most exciting moments in Bingo Long occurs when Charlie Snow, a player on the barnstorming independent baseball team of the title, slips out of the game momentarily to relieve himself and suddenly finds a razor at his throat. The razor belongs to the hired goons of funeral director Sallison Potts, who is trying to intimidate Bingo Long and his team of unaffiliated black players into giving up their enterprise and returning to his Negro National League franchise. A closeup shows us the razor against Snow’s chest; a short cry escapes his mouth before it’s stifled by one of the goons. It’s too quiet just now: Snow’s screams would be heard. “Wait till Leon tags one,” says the second goon; “wait till the crowd roars.” At bat is slugger Leon Carter, whose big hit we have been waiting for and are now dreading. The pitcher winds up and delivers—and it’s a ball. And it’s a breathless moment in the theater. But it’s also essentially a denial of the excitement of baseball. Those who know baseball and consider it important don’t need a man’s life riding on the next pitch in order for it to be an exciting, tense experience.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews, Science Fiction

Review: Star Wars

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

Relevance has always been the great bugaboo of science fiction film. Among film genres, sf (“sci-fi” is a flippancy coined during the Fifties by people who took the genre less than seriously; those who know and love science fiction call it sf) has been a distinctly poor relation for the last several decades, sharing with hardcore pornography the obligation to have redeeming social value in order to be acceptable. Even when Westerns, swashbucklers, historical epics, war films, romances and those most improbable of fantasies, musicals, were allowed to justify themselves for entertainment’s sake, or for the sake of a well-crafted work, meaning and social relevance aside, the sf film had to teach a lesson if it was not to fall under suspicion of rotting young minds. It’s as if all those scientists existed to show us that we must not meddle in things man was not meant to know, and all those monsters and invaders came to teach us that we must use science wisely, or that we must trust in God, or in love, or in each other, or remain eternally vigilant against those who would destroy us from within.

The extent to which George Lucas’s Star Wars liberates an entire film genre from this stigma is signaled by the film’s tagline, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” It’s a way of saying that this film has nothing whatsoever to do with human life on earth, now or in the future. In making that clear, Lucas sets his film apart from every other science fiction film. But in setting aside the sf film tradition until now, and returning (might one call it “pre–Flash Gordonism”?) to the aboriginal wellsprings of mythic art, above the watershed where social relevance diverges from the course of pure fantasy (many call it “escapism”), Lucas nevertheless has had to acknowledge the influence of several generations of motion picture genres and styles on his new adventurism. If Star Wars celebrates its own freedom from the generic restrictions of Metropolis, Things to Come, The Thing, This Island Earth, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it also commits itself to the tradition of Tarzan, Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks, James Bond. Lucas uses opticals that place us squarely in the world of the Republic serials; and an analysis of the structure of Star Wars reveals a seemingly insoluble crisis about every ten or twelve minutes, with appropriate combat scenes in between (it would be interesting to see how easily commercial breaks could be spaced into Star Wars for a TV run). The message, if there is one, is nothing more than that adventure is fun; exhilaration of the human spirit is enough to justify a work of entertainment or of art.

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