Friday, November 14, 2014

The Choirboys

I've often stated that when an artist creates something, when he's finished and shown it to the world, it is no longer merely his. He has released it, allowed all who visit the chance to explore and interpret as they wish. While a work unavoidably embodies much resembling its creator, it separates to become its own entity.  This is why I don't boycott movies, music, or any media created by someone whose views with which I don't agree or has proven to be despicable in some fashion.

But consider a novelist who has his work poorly adapted for the big screen. Or a screenwriter who watches his masterpiece bowdlerized. This happens frequently in Hollywood. Would these writers be willing to accept the thoughts expressed in my first paragraph?

Former Los Angeles cop Joseph Wambaugh began penning the exploits of the men in blue in the City of Angels in the early '70s. The novels were laceratingly good reads, apparently loaded with authenticity. Television programs like Police Story and The Blue Knight were born. There were also decent to good movies like THE NEW CENTURIONS, THE ONION FIELD, and THE BLACK MARBLE. But in 1977 there was also THE CHOIRBOYS.

Based on Wambaugh's highly regarded 1975 novel,  THE CHOIRBOYS is, I can say without even a hint of hesitation, one of the worst movies I've ever seen.  A disjointed, unfunny, badly paced, immoral waste of celluloid. Truly. I wasn't expecting much, as for over 30 years I've been hearing how awful the movie was. That Wambuagh took legal action to have his name removed from the credits and to this day still angrily denounces it was really all I needed to know. Yet I was still compelled to watch.

With many restricted films of its era, during which I was just a child, I had this odd fascination. I remember the original TV spots for THE CHOIRBOYS, the ads in the newspaper. The marketing aggressive to inform us that this was an outrageous, irreverent picture with "stuff you won't see on TV." Unless you had HBO, of course, where this film played not long after its short run in theaters. But by the time we had pay TV in my house, the movie was never shown. The mystique grew. Its lack of availability for many years added intrigue, as is the case for many movies with similar fates.

How bad is THE CHOIRBOYS? Finding even one element for which to recommend it is difficult. Even with its large, accomplished cast of actors like Charles Durning, Robert Webber, and James Woods. Pros that they are, they still fail to make this worth your precious two hours. It's a film that is almost consistently vile, and when it isn't it is just plain dull.

The story follows a group of L.A. lawmen who have frequent sessions of "choir practice", nights to decompress after hard days on the job. Sometimes in someone's apartment but most often at McCarthur Park where, one night, a particularly loathsome cop (Tim McIntire) is drugged and tied naked to a tree. The other cops laugh and laugh, shown doubled over. It goes on for awhile, to make certain that we get that this is supposed to be funny. The audience does not share their merriment. Then, after his cohorts leave him, an effeminate man with a pink poodle approaches and thanks the Lord above. Har dee har. No caricatures here.

Another moment, one of those you couldn't see on TV: an overweight cop works his way under a glass table, upon which a female cop called "No Balls" Hadley is sitting sans underwear. He puts his tongue to the glass. Before that, Hadley is groped by Durning's character, nicknamed "Sperm Whale" in a swimming pool. Ah, boys will be boys.  And hey, whaddaya think of that scene where a disliked lieutenant is lured to a hotel room by a hooker, then photographed in a compromising position by two other cops? Are you laughing?

The first hour of THE CHOIRBOYS in fact plays like a POLICE ACADEMY movie, though it predates the series by seven years.  There's even a scene when all the cops try to back out of their parking spaces at the same time and cause a gridlock. Another where a guy tries to arouse his wife very early one morning for some action, boasting he has something that will wake her up. "Only if you poke it in my eye," she deadpans.

The second hour gets all serious, with a repellant plot line involving the accidental shooting of a gay man by one of the men in blue (who suffers Vietnam flashbacks) and the subsequent cover up. Another cop is seen dealing with an addiction to sadomasichism.

It's little wonder why Wambaugh demanded control over future adaptations. The rape and burial of his novel here is near breathtaking, a real textbook example.  To add insult, director Robert Aldrich (why, Bob, why?) frames the movie like a cheap T.V. show, complete with "wipes" between scenes and an awful score by Frank DeVol that is one of the most incongruous to the screen action and inappropriate I've ever heard. There are no transitions between scenes, just a crude collection of them.

Defenders of this movie cite things like "they don't make 'em like this anymore" or "this was back when comedies weren't so PC..." etc. These statements are true, and chauvanism, racism, and other all around bad behavior can be funny, things are just foolish and offensive. A reactionary scuz pit of sleaze. Maybe I would've actually liked THE CHOIRBOYS when I was eight.

Too bad Robert Altman didn't get his hands on this project. His (seemingly) disorganized approach with this ensemble may have made the thing palatable.
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