Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Bugsy Malone (1976)


   I was never much of a fan of children.  It has only been in the last couple years I’ve given any serious thought to perhaps having some of my own. Still, I don’t idolize or fawn over kids.  It’s a strange symptom of adults to attempt to give life to the phrase, “Children are angels in disguise.”  No, they’re fucking not.  Kids are small beings that are working their way up the evolutionary ladder to one day be much better formed adults (at least that’s the idea.)  Their choices and ideas won’t be black and white; the entertainment won’t consist of moist bits of mush that simply pad the brain rather than enrich it; McDonald’s won’t be considered “fine food.”

   But, then, maybe I’m in the minority.  Scratch that: I know I’m in the minority.  Attempting to explain my lack of pants-wetting excitement of children has proven useless over the years.  Repeatedly I’ve been told I too will one day be overly gooey at the sight of a small one.  As a kid myself, I longed to be an adult.  I grew up an only child, so most of my days were spent surrounded by adults: adult problems, adult interests, adult activities, adult opinions.  While I loved watching He-Man and playing Star Wars in the yard, I couldn’t wait for the day when I was in charge, when I had firm control over my life.  Adulthood held so much promise and possibility.  I couldn’t relate to most kids I went to school with; it wasn’t that I was smarter than them.  My interests were simply five steps ahead.

   Adults ruin things for kids, as simple as that.  Parents today want to be best friends with their children, blurring the line of caregiver and bud.  Buds don’t make good parents.  Buds are more concerned that their kids look cool.  Buds are so determined to make their kids cool, they try to filter out what they think is lame and, since most good kids things fall into that category, they are robbed of entertainment that is worthwhile.  Sure, I watched the moronic antics of He-Man, but I also read the rich works of Beverly Cleary, Roald Dahl, and Shel Silverstein.  J.K. Rowling is one amongst a small number of good modern children’s authors, but unfortunately they are outnumbered by the jackass fiction of Stephanie Meyer, The Clique series, and a whole host of garbage that suggests being a lobotomized future Kardashian is a model to reach for.  Caregivers provide direction and allow the children to figure shit out on their own.  It reminds me of a great Patton Oswalt bit in which he plans on busting out Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required when his kids start to get into music.  The kids will naturally want to rebel and in turn will discover themselves.  If you are a parent who sings along with their kids to the Glee soundtracks, congrats!  You’ve birthed a future bowl of vanilla pudding who will question nothing.  I hope it feels good raising background scenery.

   The point of this tirade is tell you how goddamned great Bugsy Malone is.  Released in 1976, Bugsy was written and directed by Alan Parker, the man best known for warping many a baked teenagers mind with Pink Floyd's The Wall.  Parker took the clever step of making a musical about a slick gangster starring only children.  Now lest any of you parents out there drop your jaws at the thought of me recommending a bloody gangster flick to show your children, relax.  This isn’t like the 1991 Bugsy starring Warren Beatty.  No one is smashing faces or getting riddled with bullets.  Instead, this is akin to watching a group of kids get together and play make-believe.  The sets are very heightened and unreal, a dream version of thirties New York.  The kids are all dressed to the nines.  They run nightclubs populated with showgirls.  Gangs battle in the streets, rubbing each other out with Splurge Guns, massive machine gun creations that shoot wads of whipped cream.  When a member gets shot in the face by one, he is effectively “dead” and everyone speaks of him in somber tones.

Yep, this is as good as it would ever get.
   Bugsy himself is played by Scott Baio.  To say this is his best role is a bit sad since here he appears to be thirteen or so.  That his most recent remembered bit is playing himself on VH1’s Scott Baio is 45…and Single and Scott Baio is 46…and Pregnant proves that sometimes people peak early.  He didn’t help his career by appearing to be an aloof douche still carrying on as though Charles in Charge were still in the Nielsens.  Before I get any emails proclaiming the greatness of Zapped or The Boy Who Drank Too Much or wanna explain the nuances of his role as Chachi…save it.  I’ve put my foot down and Bugsy is his best role.

   The film starts out as we witness a skinny, geeky, bespectacled redhead named Roxy Robinson get cornered in an alley by four thugs and shot by the Spluge Guns.  Roxy works for Fat Sam, a rotund gangster who is battling for supremacy against Dandy Dan, a reedy, mustachioed kid who is too rich but still wants more.  Fat Sam narrates and it adds a wonderful kick to the film as John Cassisi, who plays Sam, goes full-tilt with his Brando meets Edward G. Robinson meets Spanky accent.  He’s having a ball waddling about and ordering his brain dead crew to stop embarrassing him.  I think Parker loved Cassisi too, as it seems he gets more screen time than Baio.

Fatty is funny.
   Caught in the middle of this turf war is Blousey Brown, a hard knocks kid played by Florrie Dugger.  She has been bouncing around New York for months, trying to get anyone to let her audition as a singer.  Scrappy and independent, she lugs a massive suitcase around, literally heaving her life all over the city.  She keeps a baseball tucked in should anyone try to get fresh.  Bugsy spots her and spends the film trying to win her over, taking her out of dates of hot dogs and ice cream and attempting to set up auditions with Fat Sam.  Dugger is a sweet blonde, a fragility in her eyes that is never taken advantage of.  She’s a smart actress and that intelligence mixed with vulnerability makes it understandable why Bugsy would go gaga.

   Forming the last part of a love triangle is showgirl Tallulah, a sassy, Mae West-type played by a twelve-year old Jodie Foster.  Bugsy Malone was released the same year as Taxi Driver, sort of allowing Foster to corner the market on talented kids wise beyond their years.  Tallulah is the opposite of her character, Iris, in Taxi Driver.  Whereas Iris is clueless but likable, justifying Travis Bickle’s desire to see her out of the “business,” Tallulah is a smart aleck runs the scene as much if not more than Fat Sam.  She’s nobody’s fool and a femme fatale in the making.

Foster as Tallulah.
   Bugsy finds himself wrapped up in this mess after Fat Sam’s gang is wiped out by Dandy’s men.  Knowing Bugsy to be clever and charming, he utilizes the boy to round up new members and begin sabotaging Dandy’s operation.  Throughout we meet a whole host of great characters, like Fizzy the janitor, who’s life dream is to be the world’s greatest tap dancer.  Each day he asks Fat Sam for an audition, but is always told to wait until tomorrow.  There’s Oscar, the petulant theater owner that figures into the funniest montage in the movie as he auditions people to replace his old star.  His frustration and vocal disgust with the newbies never fails to crack me fucking up.

   The whole enterprise feels like it’s the world’s most expensive backyard movie.  There is no adult intrusion, no attempt by grown-ups to dilute with their own brand of coolness.  Somehow Parker was able to reach deep inside a universal pool of childhood and bring up this genuine slice of young imagination.  A car chase has the feel of a Warner Bros. cartoon.  The kids chew on suckers rather than cigarettes.  The musical numbers, all great, were penned by Paul Williams, the man responsible for creating a song that always make me tear up, 'The Rainbow Connection.'  It’s kids taking the adult world and trying to figure it out in their own way.  What makes this film beautiful is after all the battling and scheming, Fat Sam’s club erupts into a massive pie fight with his followers on one side and Dandy and his men on the other.  After the set is nearly covered in cream, Fizzy begins playing a number on the piano.  The gangs stop and, through Fizzy’s song, realize they can get along after all.  Former enemies hang their arms around shoulders and sing along.  It’s a wonderful scene full of genuine joy.

   Modern kids entertainment tends reinforce bizarre ideas and morals.  Club-footed grotesqueries like Glee and Twilight pilfer snottiness, egomania, and delusional behavior as healthy, funny, and normal.  That’s why whenever you go to the movies on a Friday night you find yourself standing in line with a bunch of glib little shits who think they are Bella or that heinous Lea Michele chick.  Humans are eternally capable of selfish, horrible behavior and I am under no illusion that somehow life is worse than ever.  But, somewhere along this trip our society lost their empathy.  The dopes that populate Glee and Twilight are prime walking examples of that.  We have tried to become of own little islands of self-interest and, worse, we are delivering it to kids with our thumbs proudly up.  To steal a term from the Filthy Critic, Hollywood grassfuckers who have no shame about their own vile attitudes have manufactured entertainment that tells Flyover Country to not be ashamed either.  It’s poison and it makes me feel sorry for kids.

Glee kids have the thinnest skin.
   Whenever I feel terrible about this, I pop in something like Bugsy Malone or any number of Jim Henson’s works and remind myself that there too was rotten shit in the air when they were made.  A small band of us clung to these, refusing to give up what they told us, knowing somehow, some way, we would be all the better for it.  So, please, dear reader, load your kids up on the films of Pixar; buy them young adult books that are about more than kissing Zach Efron lookalikes and plunking down hundreds of dollars on clothes; remind them that pop creations like Ke$ha can be okay in small doses.  Broaden their world and let them pick through it themselves.  Don’t pull off whatever horseshit come down the assembly line and assume that’s all there is.  

   Bugsy Malone has a moral we can all get behind: Don’t be a jackoff.

"I wrote 'Rainbow Connection.' The fuck you ever done?"

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