Anchorman: Good Bad Velvet Elvis

The 1970s are the unfortunate velvet Elvis of this century, especially for men.

The new comedy Anchorman – The Legend of Ron Burgundy showcases the gaudy ugliness of the decade. Occasionally so over the top that it comes out the other side, the film is an uneven collection of skit bits, cunning satire and witty observations. Sometimes riotously funny, occasionally deeply stupid, Anchorman ultimately succeeds because the filmmakers love their material.

Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is a top-rated anchorman at a television studio in San Diego in 1977. He and his cracker-jack team of reporters have the market cornered and live in a sort of faux glamour usually reserved for second-tier porn stars. The team brings a relaxed machismo to everything they do, whether it’s partying by a pool drinking pina coladas or mixing it up with rival news teams on the street, and Burgundy is undeniably the man.

The party never seems to end for him, but then again it never really gets off the ground, either. Burgundy is not exactly a man of action, unless you consider looking classy a sort of sport, but he seems to embody the mood of his day. The sedate ’70s were a decade of exhaustion and superficiality. Baby boomer men mothballed their tie-dyed T-shirts and picked up tacky corduroy suits, and the deep browns and beiges looked positively retrograde after the day-glow colors of the sixties.
Woman’s lib created a crisis in masculinity and wildly divergent ideas of maleness rubbed elbows in popular culture. Masculine roles vacillated as new sexual attitudes (like gay macho) became recognizable in pop culture, and the general tide of the masses was to buttress old ideas of man-ness embodied in magazines such as Playboy.

Ron Burgundy is a lifestyle playboy living in a world of deep mahogany and pungent Old Spice. He is a role model for 1970s masculinity as an anchorman, showing the supreme confidence that can only come from utter shallowness. He’s the alpha male in an age of peacocks, and the film works best when it explores the cool superficiality of the decade: The period’s mystic sexuality and swinger hip aesthetic.

(Different strokes for different folks and all that, you know baby?)

Burgundy runs into trouble when the station manager Ed Harken (Fred Willard) hires an ambitious female reporter. Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) is beautiful, talented and determined, and she threatens the “men’s only” mentality at the station. Burgundy falls for her and she’s reluctantly drawn to him as well, but their relationship crumbles when she steps in to replace him.

Anchorman is a case study in the failure of masculinity in the 1970s. Ron Burgundy’s fall from grace parallels the way in which men had to reinvent themselves after women’s lib or face ridicule. Burgundy is certainly a chauvinist pig, but the ’70s playboy lifestyle he epitomizes – with its absurd style and ersatz class – is sort of sweet and cavalier, much better than the whiny, self-important, psychobabble male-ness that will follow in the form of Alan Alda.

The filmmakers walk a tightrope between celebrating this lifestyle and making fun of it. On the one hand, there is nothing funny in the way women were sidelined or forced to endure unwelcome sexual advances by side-burned creeps, and Anchorman certainly doesn’t seem to endorse this behavior. But there’s also a kind chivalry and grace in Burgundy. He is a sort of Renaissance man of the decade, enjoying life’s better things like good scotch, crushed velvet and fine women.

Silly? Yes, but not in a bad way.

Like Austin Powers before it, Anchorman rescues a forgotten lifestyle of a mostly forgotten era. The film is a gas for those of us who remember snippets of the 1970s through shows like Charlie’s Angels, Starsky and Hutch, and Mary Tyler Moore, since many of the scenes are ripped from trash television.  
Unfortunately the film is very stupid at times, and stupid is rarely funny. A gang fight between rival news teams is so unintelligent that it’s difficult to watch and a cameo by Jack Black is offensively dumb.

The film sometimes pushes its material too far or wanders off into the juvenile, as when Burgundy threatens to punch Corningstone in the ovaries. If you didn’t laugh right now, trust me, you won’t laugh during the film, either.

The outstanding performances by veteran news spoofers Willard and Steven Carell and real chemistry between Ferrell and Applegate help drag the film out of the muck, but it’s the movie’s morbid love of the 1970s that saves it from being just another skit-driven comedy. Anchorman is a real treat for those of us who still relish the musky scent of manhood embodied in Ron Burgundy.

There’s nothing wrong with a good velvet Elvis once in awhile, darn it!


Spider-man 2: Hollywood Better Raiding Marvel and DC Comic than Spoiling the Canon

Don’t kill the messenger, but comic books are today’s classics – especially as far as summer blockbusters go.

Tobey Maguire’s Spider-man spanks Brad Pitt’s Achilles all the way to the bank and Spider-man 2 is this summer’s real big-budget hero. I think we should give a moment of silence to allow Homer to roll over in his grave as Stan Lee soaks up the spotlight.

There. Doesn’t it feel good to let go of all that guilt?

Highbrow college professors may use the overwhelming success of Spider-man 2 to illustrate that us common monkeys can’t understand something as sophisticated as the Iliad or to say that Homer can’t be translated to the lowly form of film, but I would argue that each age has its heroes, and most of us can identify with a Spider-man much easier than a Odysseus. Hollywood is better off raiding Marvel and DC comic than spoiling the canon.

Spider-man 2 follows a pattern of comic book film sequels improving on their originals. (X-Men 2 was also considerably better than the film it followed, and I believe that Daredevil 2 will carry on this tradition if they replace Ben Affleck with anything this side of a lampshade.) Both the effects and plot are better in the newest Spider-man film, and the acting remains very good.

This film feels more violent than its predecessor, but all the truly bloody events are left off screen, where your imagination can present as gory a scene as you want. Parents should be advised, however, that some of the scenes are powerfully uncanny for a film targeted to youngsters.

The special effects are so good that they’re almost invisible, folding back into the storyline where they belong. This isn’t to say you won’t get a giddy feeling in your stomach watching the web head sling from building to building, but it won’t be the same sort of motion sickness you might have received from last year’s Hulk movie or the recent Matrix films.

The film takes place several years after the events of the first Spider-man. Young Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is at college and his alter ego Spider-man has become a regular fixture in New York. Parker’s romantic interest, M.J. (Kirsten Dunst), has become an actress on Broadway, and although she’s courting an “ordinary” sort of hero – the astronaut son of Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) and the first man to play football on the moon – she still pines away for Parker.

Peter and M.J.’s millionaire friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) is taking off where his dad left off in the first film, financing alternative sources of power and weapons systems for Osborn Industries. Harry hires prominent physicist Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) to develop a new form of energy, but the good doctor cracks up when an experiment goes haywire and blows up his lab and wife in the process. Using mechanical arms originally intended only as tools to harness the new power source, Dr. Oct goes on a rampage through the Big Apple in a misguided desire to duplicate his error on a larger scale.

While Dr. Oct runs amok, Parker decides that it may be time to hang up the costume and go straight.

You see Peter Parker’s life is in shambles. He can’t even hold down a job as a pizza delivery boy, is underachieving at college and as a photographer, and can’t commit to a relationship with M.J., even when she makes it easy for him. Rushing from one calamity to another, Parker is a fragmented mess, and the film does a very good job of showing that even superheroes would have real problems.

Parker blames Spider-man for making his life difficult. Being a superhero takes up too much time and emotional energy. He wants to live simply as himself – a nerdy nobody with ordinary gifts – not as a sort of role model and superhuman guardian. He doesn’t want the responsibility that comes with his power, but he also doesn’t understand that Spider-man and Peter Parker are not discreetly separate people.

Parker gives up Spider-man to try to embody his inner geek, but the web slinger is only one complication in his life. His grades improve, but his relationships with friends and family remain troubled, and although he feels less frazzled, something is missing. The world can live without Spider-man, after all, but is it possible for Parker to live with all his great gifts and shortcomings, and not serve humanity?
It’s only because he lives an ordinary life – with everyday fears, anxieties, and problems – that Parker can embody the Spider-man identity. The film carefully shows that Parker’s real problem isn’t

Spider-man per se, but his inability to assimilate different parts of his life and personality into a whole.
Power complicates life only when it’s meaning is misunderstood. Dr. Octopus becomes a monster, not because he has superhuman gifts, but because he allows these powers to overwhelm him. He gives up his humanity when he is seduced by power and allows it determine his meaning.

The cinematic Spider-man does what the comic book version never seems to do. He grows up and learns that to be fully yourself means to stitch different parts of your life and personality together. He accepts the responsibilities that come with his power, not only as a burden on his life, but as gifts – characteristics that allow him to display his most noble self.

Isn’t that what being a hero is all about?

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