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    Monday, December 15, 2008

    DVD: Capricorn One (1978)

    Much as I’d love to be able to say that I’m the product of the best influences, that I was forged in the kiln of the works of our greatest writers, thinkers and artists ... it ain’t necessarily so.

    Capricorn One is a crackpot conspiracy thriller about a faked Mars landing. It’s more than a favorite movie of my childhood. It’s the first story of any kind that I ever analyzed. I watched it repeatedly on TV and took the entire narrative apart, sketching out the plot in detail in the back of my social studies notebook. I even scared up a copy of the novelization by Ron Goulart and dissected that. I never did anything by half-measures, even as a kid. Except social studies, obviously. Capricorn One marked the start of my awareness of the craft of storytelling. Yeah, I wish it were Shakespeare or Kubrick or Faulkner, too, but we are who we are.

    Among the lessons learned that still hold up, based on watching the recent special edition DVD:

    - Give your supporting characters a signature detail. Writer/director Peter Hyams does this throughout. Take Sam Waterston’s astronaut, given to cracking ancient jokes. He tells himself one as a distraction while climbing a sheer rock wall. He reaches the top and the punchline at the same time – then makes an unwelcome discovery. I never forgot that moment. It’s cheesy, and it still plays.

    - Reluctant villains are more powerful. I like a psycho as much as the next guy. But when your heavy says over and over, as Hal Holbrook does here, “I hate like hell to do this to you,” and then does it anyway – his actions have that much more impact.

    - Never hire O.J. Simpson.

    And two random observations:

    It’s strange to watch this movie and think that only two years earlier Holbrook had a key role in All The President’s Men. They say the cultural metabolism moves fast now, but that’s a pretty speedy arc for conspiracy tales and the image of journalists. From Woodstein to Elliot Gould’s hangdog horndog in about 24 months.

    The evil company behind the phony landing? The same one up to no good in Hyams’ 1981 Outland, set late in the 21st century.

    TV: The Age of Believing

    Turner Classic Movies is airing this documentary on Walt Disney’s live action fare as part of December’s tribute to family films. It doesn’t spend anywhere near enough time on the Medfield College trilogy starring Kurt Russell as Dexter Riley, but otherwise it’s pretty thorough. I think I saw every film highlighted, thanks largely to the Catholic school tradition known as Movie Day. Nuns love Disney.

    I bet Rosemarie beforehand that the special would make no mention of one of Uncle Walt’s lesser efforts, Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN, but sure enough there it was. How bad was the movie? The third time it screened on Movie Day, I wandered to the back of the auditorium and found the school principal.

    “Sister Maureen,” I said, “can I go sit in the library?”

    “What’s wrong? Don’t you feel well?”

    “I’m great, Sister. But this movie is not.”

    Sister Maureen wrinkled her nose. “You’re right. But it’s the only one we could get.” You know a movie’s bad when a kid would rather do his homework. Especially this kid.

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