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The Phynx
(1970)

Director: Lee H. Katzin
Cast:
Michael A. Miller, Ray Chippeway, Dennis Larden


When we are born, we all start off with a clean slate. We immediately start to encounter the world that is around us, and as time goes by, we all get shaped from our various experiences and lessons. Possibly due to the fact that we all go through the same world as the people around us, each individual will find that they share some common aspects as many of the other people around them. One of these things that I have observed that most people seem to share is a desire to appear respectable to others, to appear to be equal (or better) to everyone else who is around. This is something that I have observed countless times over the years, both in my younger days and during my days as an adult. Let me give you an example of an experience I had several times as a child. As a child, there were several occasions when I heard a hit song on the radio and loved it, thinking it was great. However, later on, when talking to my peers, I happened to bring up the subject matter of the song that I loved, and getting from my peers a terse statement that the song that I loved was in actual fact a song that sucked. Upon getting the greatly negative opinion, in an attempt to make sure I was considered cool and with it with my peers, I would abandon my love of the song and resolved never to think about the song again except in negative terms. (For some reason, it never occurred to me that if these songs were being played repeatedly on the radio, there must be plenty of other people out there that enjoyed the songs as much as I did.) Believe me, there were plenty of other things I enjoyed as a child that I abandoned due to the negative opinion of others.

As the years went by, and I became an adult, I learned a few other things that often made me reconsider the rejections I made after being supposedly taught the truth from my peers. I learned that your peers can sometimes be right... but also that they can be wrong, even if they seem to form a majority. Some of those songs that I liked back then do today seem bad in various ways... but also there are some songs I liked back then that I find are regularly played on the oldies radio stations and have become classics of sorts. In other words, I have learned that more often than not you should make your own opinion about some kind of artistic product. And I've found that this includes movies. Over the years, I have personally encountered a lot of movies that came with them a certain reputation - either greatly positive, or greatly negative - but when I watched the movie in question for myself, I thought much differently than the majority. For example, there was the third movie in the Omen series, The Final Conflict. I had put off watching it for years, because I had heard nothing but negative reviews about it. I finally rented it during a real slow day when I was in Korea and I found it impossible to find anything better in the tiny video store in my neighborhood. When I watched it, I was kind of shocked. I couldn't believe the negative reviews - I thought it was intelligently done and with a number of effective scenes. Even today, I still think highly of it. During the years I have run this web site, I have encountered a number of movies that were thought of poorly by many, but that I found to be surprisingly good, such as Stuart Saves His Family.

As you have probably guessed, the movie that I'm reviewing here - The Phynx - is a movie that I thought much differently from others who have seen it when I first saw it. The movie has an interesting history - it was made by a major Hollywood studio, but my research uncovered that it didn't receive much of a theatrical release, if any at all. It was then all but buried by the studio, The Phynxand for decades afterwards it was all but impossible to see. And those that did get the opportunity to watch it all trashed it. Naturally, this raised my curiosity - I had to see if it was as bad as I heard. So I managed to track down a bootleg copy years ago. But when I watched it, I didn't think it was that bad. I didn't know at the time if I would recommend it, but it definitely didn't deserve such a hostile response. For years afterward I remembered it, and I decided recently to watch it again to see if I still thought it didn't deserve its universal condemnation. It was quietly released on DVD a few years ago, so I got a much spiffier copy to watch this time around. Made in the middle of The Cold War, The Phynx concerns those darn commies once again bothering America, but the commies bothering America are for once not Russian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cuban, or North Korean - this time it's those pesky Albanians! Thanks to a mysterious figure in the Albanian military, the Albanians have kidnapped major American figures - people like Colonel Sanders, Huntz Hall, Johnny Weismuller, Jay Silverheels, Xavier Cugat, and Joe Lewis, among many others. Just why is a mystery, but the American government is more concerned with getting these Americans back than figuring out why they were kidnapped. So the agents of the Super Secret Agency of The United States are ordered to drop everything and come up with a plan to rescue the kidnap victims. Their handy computer gives them a plan: Make a pop music group from scratch that will become so popular that the Albanians will invite them to perform in their country, and once in, the group will use the opportunity to free the kidnap victims. Subsequently, four random young American men are shanghaied by the S.S.A., and with the aid of experts like Richard Pryor and Dick Clark, are trained in music, hipness and the ways of secret agents. With all this help, the band - named "The Phynx" - inevitably becomes wildly popular. And an invitation from Albania is soon sent to the band. But can the members of The Phynx use more than the skill of rock 'n roll to rescue those beloved American icons?

From the plot synopsis that I wrote above, you are probably thinking that The Phynx is an offbeat movie in the way that many major Hollywood movies were around this time period. Well, that's true to a degree - The Phynx is indeed an offbeat movie. But if you were to watch the movie for yourself, you would almost certainly be taken aback by just how offbeat the movie is. You think you know cinematic craziness? Wait until you see what this movie has to offer. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) The movie's pre-credit sequence is a live-action cartoon, with a secret agent (played by Lou Antonio) making several failed attempts to enter Albania, and failing just like Wile E. Coyote. When the agent returns to headquarters after his botched mission, he enters the headquarters via a secret passageway in an IHOP restaurant. When his superior (played by Mike Kellin) gathers all the available agents in a meeting room, the agents are made up of (among other groups) Boy Scouts, KKK members, hookers, Chinese laundry workers, and prostitutes. When the number one man of the agency makes an appearance, he is wearing a box over his head with facial features painted on it, and is voiced by Rich Little. The agency's trusted computer is moulded to look like a very well shaped female. When the agency determines which four young American men are to be drafted for the planned musical group, they are captured in ways ranging from agents dressing up as trees to them dressing up a large truck to look like a building. Once drafted, the four young men have to go through rigorous training ranging from playing Farmer In The Dell on their musical instruments to being trained in combat by Clint Walker (Hysterical). And when the agency recruits famed music producer "Philbaby" (played by Larry Hankin) to help make The Phynx a success, he enters the movie by helicopter - though not in the helicopter, but suspended by a cable under the helicopter.

And not even a third of the movie has passed when "Philbaby" makes his first appearance. As you can see, to call The Phynx strange, offbeat, and just plain weird is an understatement. The movie is crazy from start to end, from its unbelievable number of cameos from famous people (which also include Edgar Bergen, James Brown, Harold "Oddjob" Sakata, Ed Sullivan, and many more) to its complete unpredictable nature. If anything, the makers of this movie deserve some kind of award for not only having the guts to be so strange, but for the relentlessness of this strangeness. I liked this attitude of the filmmakers, but at the same time I had some issues with it. For starters, you are probably thinking that all this strangeness delivers a lot of humor. But surprisingly, for the most part it doesn't. While there are definitely some laughs from the weirdness here and there, the bizarre happenings of the movie come across for the most part as, well, simply bizarre. For example, at one point one character makes the statement, "This is bigger than dandruff!" I didn't find that line funny, and I suspect you don't as well. The makers of the movie seemed to have thought that being strange automatically makes for good humor. But that kind of thinking is wrong. You still need to identify with the humor in some way. Someone acting like a goofball throughout eventually becomes tiresome, and you start to resent them for not being smart or responsible. The makers of the movie also deserve a wagging finger of shame for some uncomfortable moments of humor, these moments being some portrayals of Asians and Native Americans that many viewers today will consider to be quite racist. (Curiously, when it comes to African Americans, the movie stays pretty tasteful in their portrayal.)

While I am talking about some of the various characters in The Phynx, I would like to point out another problem I had with the portrayal of the characters. Namely, there is not one character in the movie that is fully fleshed out. Lou Antonio's secret agent character is soon shoved into the background and given little to do, the heads of the secret agency aren't given much screen time, and worse of all, none of the four members of The Phynx stands out in any way except for one being African American and one being Native American. The four are completely interchangeable, and you never really get to know what their feelings are about being thrust into the worlds of espionage and popular music. The faults with the writing add up the more that the movie progresses. Once The Phynx becomes popular, there is a really long and unnecessary section of the movie where the four undercover agents must track down a secret map of Albania tattooed on the bellies of young women. This leaves very little time for the four to subsequently travel to Albania and do their spying and their music performing. Speaking of the music, I want to mention the various songs on the soundtrack. Written by award-winning music composers Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber (who earlier wrote songs like "Stand By Me", "Jailhouse Rock", and "Charlie Brown"), the songs are simply not catchy or particularly clever, and it is pretty silly to think that even the youths of the 1970s would embrace them. I strongly suspect that this limited appeal to youths found in the movie as a whole was why Warner Brothers barely released the movie and kept it suppressed for so long - why go to the expense of a major release if no one would come? However, while I don't think there is a general audience for The Phynx even today, there are some people under the right circumstances that would find it worth a look. People who are interested in unconventional cinema (especially from this era) will almost certainly find the movie has enough wackiness to keep them interested. As someone who often seeks out the offbeat, I have to admit it kept my interest up throughout, despite all of the bad attributes I mentioned earlier. You certainly can't say that this movie is at any time boring. For that reason, I stand by the opinion I had of the movie the first time I saw it, that being the movie is not as bad as its reputation suggests. It's an original, for one thing. What you will think of the movie I cannot say, since I don't know your tastes, so this is something you'll have to determine on your own.

(Posted July 3, 2016)

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See also: Hot Summer, The In Crowd, The Suburbans

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