Category Archives: Ensley F. Guffey

The Ten Percent: The Great Escape (1963)

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Original poster for The Great Escape, 1963.

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Welcome back to “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. So many films premiere each year, but only a very few are remembered and revered years later. That’s not a matter of genre – the Ten Percent is a big tent, with plenty of room for comedy, drama, horror, animation, musical, science fiction and many more. But admission into the tent is not easy to come by. Films in this category last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

Before I talk about why 1963’s The Great Escape belongs in the Ten Percent, it’s worth taking the time to point out the film’s flaws. First, neither bicycles nor motorcycles were used in the 1943 escape from Stalag Luft III. Second, the “Great Escape” of 76 Allied POWs took place in unseasonably cold weather during one of the worst winters seen in Eastern Poland in 30 years. Third, there were no Americans among the escapees who were mostly British and Canadian. Finally, there was never any regulation which stated that Allied prisoners were duty-bound to attempt to escape. In fact, many, perhaps most, American and British POWs were generally leery of escape attempts.

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The Ten Percent: MST3K

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“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome back for another installment of “The Ten Percent”, the bi-weekly column here at Biff Bam Pop! where K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law (quoted above) and examine the cultural productions that fall in that elusive 10% of things that are not crud. The Ten Percent is the place where all of the films, TV shows, comics, novels, visual arts, etc. that stand the test of time live. These are the things that are not forgotten, and continue to inspire us generation after generation and decade after decade.

Yet the 90% is comprised of a hell of a lot of (generally forgettable) stuff, and in the modern era, more and more of it has been and is being preserved for some theoretical posterity. In a way, the crud becomes grist for the larger cultural mill, and that means that – in theory at least – it should be possible to take some of the 90% and transform it into a part of the Ten Percent. This is exactly what Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) did from 1988 – 1999, and threatens to do once again when it returns in 2017 with a new season and a cast featuring geek royalty Patton Oswalt and Felicia Day.
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The Ten Percent: “Don’t Call Me Shirley”

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week Ensley F. Guffey and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that for each film or television show that gets people talking years after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the rest – well, those are the works that stand the test of time. And don’t be fooled into thinking that genre matters to the Ten Percent – slapstick comedy is in here, along with science fiction, animation, bloody horror, toe-tapping musicals, and more. The Ten Percent last for two reasons: (1) they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception and (2) they somehow manage to capture something fleeting and rare and preserve it for the lucky viewing public.

It’s an often-cited adage that the Academy doesn’t give Oscars to comedies. It’s also a often-cited adage that comedy is difficult – as Peter O’Toole’s Alan Swan says in My Favorite Year, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” (Yes, other people are credited with saying it first, but when you try to track that down, the footprints vanish into the mist quite completely. So O’Toole it is.) At any rate, good, gut-busting comedy is hard to come by and comedy also changes with the times; far more so than straight dramatic stories. (This is one reason why Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to be a bit easier for modern audiences to understand than his comedies. Times change, and with that, tastes change as well.) We’ve written about comedy before here at The Ten Percent, but we haven’t delved into one of the great slapstick parodies of the last half-century. This column intends to rectify that.

Parodies often work best when more than one particular item is being spoofed. If all the jokes rely on your audience having seen the One Thing that serves as your source material – well, that can be risky indeed. So Blazing Saddles spoofs the entire genre of Western cowboy movies instead of just sending up High Noon. In a similar fashion, back in 1980, Jim Abrahams, along with brothers David and Jerry Zucker, decided that the disaster film genre could use a comedic treatment. Borrowing from the 1957 film Zero Hour! as well as Airport 1975, they gave us the fast-paced hilarity of Airplane! and lo, the world was a better place.

Much of the humor of Airplane! derives from watching heretofore serious actors who have been given a very loose rein to “go big or go home.” Robert Stack, who plays Capt. Rex Kramer, had previously played the captain who loses his nerve in 1954’s The High & the Mighty, one of the first airline disaster films, and here has a wonderful, scenery-chewing time as the straight man. Lloyd Bridges, who plays Steve “Looks like I picked the wrong week to give up sniffing glue” McCroskey, is directly parodying his role as the airport manager in San Francisco International Airport, a television show from 1970 – 1971. And Peter Graves (Capt. Clarence “Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?” Oveur) had played in the made-for-TV disaster film SST: Death Flight (seriously, what a title!).

Moreover, most viewers don’t know that Leslie Nielsen, who is so incredibly funny in this film (as well as in the Naked Gun series, which was also written and produced by the Airplane! team) began his career as a square-jawed leading man – go watch the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet if you need a refresher.* And yes, it’s that straight-ahead hero type who terrorized the Airplane! set with – yes – a whoopee cushion.

Overall, the plot is standard disaster-film issue and is basically lifted right from Zero Hour! But nothing like the rapid-fire punning, visual gags, and off-color jokes had been seen in a disaster film before – and they worked. The film made a handsome return on its cost and has been named one of the best filmed comedies of all time on a number of polls and is ranked as #10 on the American Film Institute’s list of Best Comedies. In fact, Airplane! is on the National Film Registry, which is run by the Library of Congress, thereby ensuring that generations yet unborn will delight in seeing Johnny (the late, and greatly missed, Stephen Stucker) declare, “There’s a sale at Penney’s!” (And they will also get to benefit from his extensive origami skills.)

Look, life is hard these days. Airplane! gives us an hour-and-a-half of sheer, rib-splitting laughter. Do yourself a favor and watch it again, for any movie that allows the Beaver’s mom (Barbara Billingsley) to send up that pearls-and-apron paragon of domestic perfection certainly deserves its spot on The Ten Percent.

*Plus, bonus points if you know that Gunderson, the tower tech who checks the “radar range,” was played by Jonathan Banks, who would go on to memorably play Mike Ehrmantraut on Breaking Bad. (Look at the 15-second mark on this clip.)

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017)You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.

 

The Ten Percent: The Best Man (1964)

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Promotional poster for The Best Man, 1964.

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

It’s the summer of 2016, which means it’s Convention season in the good ol’ US of A. From Cleveland, OH to Philadelphia, PA, Americans are… looking online the day afterwards to see what happened at last night’s convention. Seriously, who does these things on weeknights? No one’s got time for that. Well, here at the Ten Percent, we thought we’d get into the swing of things by talking about an incredible, thoughtful, and still relevant film called The Best Man (1964). Starring Henry Fonda as Adlai Stevenson-esque William Russell and Cliff Robertson as late-fifties/early-sixties Richard Nixon-wannabe Joe Cantwell, The Best Man takes place during the convention for a thinly disguised Democratic Party.

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Ensley F. Guffey Reacts to Captain America: Steve Rogers #1

 Cover for Steve Rogers: Captain America #1. Art by Jesus Saiz.

Cover for Steve Rogers: Captain America #1. Art by Jesus Saiz.

I don’t usually write about superhero comics, or add my two cents to the internet outrages, controversies, and speculations that the comic book industry produces like Campbell’s makes soup, but I think this might be a good time to make an exception. Biff Bam Pop! readers may know that I’m something of a Captain America fan from my two-part look at Cap and historical memory, which you can read here and here. What you may not know is that these days, the only comics I collect are Our Army at War/Sgt. Rock, and Captain America. Those are the only two titles that will never be sold and replaced with trades, or donated to a library book sale, or whatever, that I bag and board using archival materials, and that I occasionally take Smaug-like glee over just possessing. I also occasionally like to take a pile of them out of their bags and curl up and binge-read them, reveling in the smell of old comics, looking at the ads, old-school lettercols, back matter, backup stories, etc. – you know, enjoy them as comic books.

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Biff Bam Pop’s It’s All Connected – Just a Kid from Brooklyn: Captain America, American Memories of World War II, and the MCU, Part II

 

Splash page from The Ultimates #1, 2002. Script by Mark Millar, art by Bryan Hitch.

Splash page from The Ultimates #1, 2002. Script by Mark Millar, art by Bryan Hitch.

In the first part of this essay, I briefly sketched the construction of American memories of World War II that began slightly before the war and continue into the 21st century. In many ways the war has become a defining part of American identity, and the dominant, triumphal memory narrative we have created about it serves to elevate American participation in the war almost to the level of the sacred, and certainly to the realm of the simple black and white, good v. evil duality that is much more comforting than any messy and contradictory reality might be. The character of Steve Rogers/Captain America is one of the more perfect cultural artifacts to illustrate this process of memory construction, and the ways in which counter-memories, which challenge the dominant narrative, inevitably influence the national mythology.

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The Ten Percent: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

lawrence-of-arabia-poster (1)

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello and welcome back to “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that for each film or television show that gets people talking years after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the rest – well, those are the works that stand the test of time. Regular readers of “The Ten Percent” will note that, sometimes, particular creators seem to have a talent for producing such works. Lately I’ve given in to my slight obsession with one such, director David Lean.

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The Ten Percent: Now and Then, Here and There (1999 – 2000)

Poster for Now and Then, Here and There.

Poster for Now and Then, Here and There.

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that for each film or television show that gets people talking years after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the rest – well, those are the works that stand the test of time. And don’t be fooled into thinking that genre matters to the Ten Percent – slapstick comedy is in here, along with science fiction, animation, bloody horror, toe-tapping musicals, and more. The Ten Percent last for two reasons: (1) they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception and (2) they somehow manage to capture something fleeting and rare and preserve it for the lucky viewing public.

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The Ten Percent: Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Poster - Doctor Zhivago_02

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent! Every two weeks, K. Dale Koontz and I use this space to take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law — the small portion of everything which is not crud. Sturgeon was right, of course. The vast majority of movies, television, writing, and art is crud, eminently forgettable and ultimately irrelevant, but there is always that tiny slice of the sublime. In this space, we’ve talked about comedy, drama, animation, horror, science fiction, musicals, and more. We get to do that because the Ten Percent isn’t limited by genre – these rare gems last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

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The Ten Percent: Ikiru (1952)

Takashi Shimura in Ikiru, 1952.

Takashi Shimura in Ikiru, 1952.

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent! Usually, this column is a space where K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Sturgeon was right – the vast majority of movies, writing, and stuff in general is pretty awful – but there is that slim slice of the magnificent. The Ten Percent is not limited by genre – there’s room for slapstick comedy, high-toned drama, quality animation, spectacular science fiction, and more besides – oh, look over there! You’ll find show-stopping musicals chatting with bloody horror. The Ten Percent last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

By now, regular readers of “The Ten Percent” will know that I can only go so long without talking about the legendary Japanese director and auteur Akira Kurosawa, and the time has come round again. Easily one of the five most influential directors of the 20th century, Kurosawa’s entire body of work is part of the Ten Percent, and remains one of the most achingly honest depictions of humanity of all time. Although I personally consider Akahige (Red Beard) (1965) to be the highest pinnacle of his humanist phase, 1952’s Ikiru (To Live) lives about five millimeters below it. Read the rest of this entry

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