Sep 4, 2017

The Great Hamilton Film Book Expedition

Before the internet came along, a film enthusiast had to learn more about cinema via books. And for a film enthusiast in a small town, the choices were often marginal. The local book store mainly stocked the annual reference guides of Leonard Maltin and Steven Scheuer. The “film” sections in the public and school libraries largely consisted of star bios, and glossy coffee table overviews with little context. As for collections of film criticism, there was one volume each by Pauline Kael and Stanley Kaufmann. Even so, thanks to this small reservoir and through combing titles in video stores and TV Guide, I had learned quite a bit about film- enough to impress women at cocktail parties maybe, but still I hungered for more knowledge. You don’t know what you’re missing if you don’t know what to look for.

One day in Grade 13, a step was made to change that. This was a sunny Friday in November. School was closed that day for students as it was the teachers’ Professional Development Day. Early in the morning, I hopped into the Dodge Colt for a little professional development of my own: by hunting for film books in downtown Hamilton. 

This was during that pivotal year where I returned to high school at age 20 and took a full Grade 13 course load to upgrade my average, and gather whatever experience I could towards that single-minded goal of getting into film school the following year. During those ten months, I also buffered my portfolio with two plays (one went as far as the semi-finals in the Sears Drama Festival) and most importantly, the feature-length dramatic video, The Broken Circle, which I wrote and directed.  

As far as I was concerned, any school assignment or extra-curricular activity could be a stepping stone to that goal. For instance, whenever I could get away with it, I’d make any English creative writing assignment film-related. My big oral presentation in French class was about French cinema history. And during my spare time (what there was of it, with all of this going on, plus full-time shift work to pay the bills), I would read to learn more about what other films were out there, that I wasn’t able to see… yet.

My first stop was Limeridge Mall. I started the day’s pick with the current editions of Roger Ebert’s reviews and the Mick Martin-Marsha Porter video guide. The Martin-Porter book differed from the other paperback-sized reference books in the day, as in the back, they also published filmographies of actors, writers and directors. (Maltin would start doing that a few years later, although not as comprehensively.) Further, at one of the several record stores, I had bought Tangerine Dream’s three latest albums: Optical Race, Tyger, and Livemiles. These cassettes would play incessantly in the car, at home, and during nights spent at the print shop. They became the soundtrack to my life that year, and fuelled a lot of my creativity. (One piece from Livemiles would be used in the movie.)

After hitting up the stores and having lunch there, I went down the escarpment to McMaster University’s book store. There, I found some more works which would be well-thumbed for years to come. 

Perhaps the most important find at Mac was Rick Schmidt’s Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices. The timing was perfect for acquiring this book, because in November I was already planning The Broken Circle, which would commence shooting the following February. Schmidt’s book has been since updated for changing times (Extreme DV at Used-Car Prices), and for my money remains the single greatest general-purpose guide an aspiring filmmaker can have. 

A few chapters exceeded my requirements (ie- distribution, or building my own cutting suite, since I was editing on video at the community cable station), but the book’s general tone was influential. It filled you with “gung ho” inspiration about making your little masterpiece, yet it offered a realistic look at the obstacles you’d face on the way. (At the very least, you had to sacrifice such valuable things as time, job or extra-cirricular commitments, and relationships, if the project meant enough to you.) Mr. Schmidt’s volume was immeasurable for this first-time movie maker, and would also be read cover to cover while preparing any of my subsequent cinematic “epics” over the next ten years.

Further historical research would also be found in Georges Sadoul’s twin volumes, Dictionary of Films, and Dictionary of Film-Makers. They were only current up to 1971, but they became immeasurable resources, especially for world cinema. In those days, I could largely only see foreign films on TVO or the French channel (hopefully they had French subtitles that I could read). These books introduced such masterpieces as Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto, or Renoir’s The Little Match Girl

Even at that young age, all movies mattered to me. If the Sadoul books at Mac satisfied my passion for art-house film, my hunger for grindhouse cinema was satisfied with a trip down to the much-missed Silver Snail on King Street. At last, I managed to get my hands on a copy of Michael Weldon’s classic Psychotronic Encyclopedia Of Film. This  remains one of the true bibles for cult cinema, with its copious capsule reviews of fantasy, biker, rock-n-roll and JD movies.  I’ve always happily lent out books to anyone who was interested, but I put a “no lending” clause on Weldon’s. I simply was using it too often (and it was literally falling apart from overuse).

The last leg of the Hamilton tour was off-topic, but no less memorable. Before leaving town, I cased the used book stores on King Street, including a second-hand shop on the south side (now long gone) which was run by an elderly couple. A lasting memory of my several trips to that store was that behind the counter, sat a rocking chair next to a floor lamp. My last purchase in Hamilton was here: a whopping one dollar for a copy of a Star Wars comic book (issue #18).  The man behind the counter was shaky, frail, and took a long time ringing in the one-dollar sale. This filled me with melancholy on the way back to the car, and in the journey westward as I drove toward the fading horizon line, listening to Tangerine Dream’s Tyger on the tape deck. Already Tangerine Dream was creating cinematic moments in my head. I can’t listen to “Alchemy of the Heart” on that album without thinking of that man.

The spree wasn’t done yet, in theory.  It was a Friday night, and there were still a couple of hours more to shop. On the way home, I made a pit stop in The Telephone City to visit an old haunt, The Brantford Bookworm. Memory causes me to believe that I left the store empty-handed this time, but I do recall sitting in the parking lot, still thumbing through the Weldon book, with the dim outside light dimly providing the only illumination for the car interior. (I guess I couldn’t wait to get home to read!)

I spent many years paying for this one amazing year (both financially and psychologically). One of the misgivings I now have about those nonetheless incredible ten months, is that I should have saved more money. (Of course working all kinds of weirdo hours, seldom being home, and eating out all the time sure didn’t help.) However, this Friday excursion was one frivolous expenditure I still do not regret. These texts would prove invaluable to me this year and beyond. They’re still here, sitting in the shelf to my left as I type this. 

Aug 25, 2017

Playing To An Audience Of One: FRINGE FRIDAYS

ABOVE: David Holzman's Diary (Jim McBride)
Because Susan and I recently celebrated twenty years of living in the same place, I've been thinking a lot about how things were two decades ago, when we had begun our new lives together. (What is it about our collective psyche that honours anniversaries ending in fives or zeros? Are those in threes and sevens no less valid?)

At that time, I had just graduated from college, earning a diploma in broadcasting, yet was working full-time in a warehouse for a (now defunct) retail chain. Shortly after we moved in together, I was transferred to the head office distribution centre, and was very unhappy there. In the last semester of school, my mother had a stroke which took away most of her vocabulary. These things compounded anxiety about what the future would bring. We were both yearning to change our career paths. I wanted to find a job in my field of study, and Susan was looking to get back into design.

And yet, amidst all this internal conflict, this was also a ripe time for discovery. We had silently made a pact, that if we were limited in changing our professional lives, we would do everything to make our personal lives rich with culture. We would explore the city with our newfound jazz crowd, see foreign films at rep cinemas, and spend her Sundays off going to galleries or similar things. And more relevant to this blog, this was also the time that I first had cable since moving back to the big city. As a result, I quickly obtained a lot more culture from the Bravo and Showcase channels (which would encompass most of my television watching for two or three years).

One could hardly keep up with all of the movies, documentaries, concerts and episodes of “TV too good for TV” that comprised Bravo's schedule 24-7. Every night, Showcase featured the “Showcase Revue”, often foreign or independent films, hosted first by Chas Lawter and Linda Griffiths, later by Cameron Bailey and Valerie Buhagiar. Each station further offered a generous dollop of homegrown programming to fill their “CanCon” requirements. (And in our current environment, where we live under the illusion that everything is a click away, it boggles the mind to think how hard it is now to find a lot of the TV and films they aired just twenty years ago. Quick- find me some Wojeck.)

For this viewer, these two channels were especially significant on Friday nights. The “Fridays without borders” monicker used by one station could easily have applied to both. Movies from Hollywood Renaissance holdouts who still struggled to do their things in a changing sea of commerce; independent cinema from a time before that term became a catchphrase (or a commodity); obscure British genre films; these were just some of the staples to fill their Friday night schedules well into the wee hours. Because these specific films spoke most to my bohemian sensibilities (and still do), they offered a perfect way for me to shake off the work week, step back into my own skin, and seek enlightenment in other ways.

ABOVE: Milestones (Robert Kramer)
This is why, when I think back to those days, memories of these Friday nights soon appear. These thoughts also persist because I find myself in a similar quandary: wondering once again where I go from here. I've spent too long toiling on others' dreams; my subjection has clouded my own pursuits and desires.  It's time to re-visit and re-shape my own, and to once again embrace the things that define me as a human being. No one is opening a door. I'll carve my own entrance.

This school of thought is partially why I've decided to get back into publishing within the next few months. Plus, this mindset has also indirectly inspired my desire to recapture the spirit of those old Friday nights. This little eclectic screening room of my own plays to an audience of one: something I've called "Fringe Fridays".

On the Friday nights that I'm not out galavanting, I've been symbolically shedding the other skin by visiting the cinema that speaks most personally to me at present. Fringe Fridays include (but are not limited to) renegade Hollywood Renaissance-era productions, counterculture cinema, Experimental Film of the 1940s to the 60s and beyond, independent-underground films from the 1980s and 1990s, and documentaries: a step back to days when people had to view things projected onto blankets hung in musty basements as a cry for independence.

Fringe Fridays isn't just a screening series: it's a return to the self, a state of mind. 

It's also the name of a brand new regular feature in the new ESR: a reportage of what we find on those nights. Stay tuned!

Aug 24, 2017

Resurrected: The Intruder (1975)


This is the kind of thing that movie nuts live for. We’re always thrilled by the news of finding films that were forgotten, presumed lost, or, in some cases, previously unknown.

In 2012, Garagehouse Pictures’ Harry Guerro discovered a 35mm print of actor-writer-director Chris Robinson's Florida-lensed thriller The Intruder (1975) in, of all places, a storage unit on the outskirts of the Mojave desert. The film was never released, and for many years, not included on the IMDB, nor featured in any filmographies of its cast (which includes Mickey Rooney, Yvonne De Carlo and Ted Cassidy).

Chris Robinson, a character actor in such drive-in favourites as Beast From Haunted Cave (1959) and Stanley (1972), began writing, directing and acting in his own films after relocating to Florida: 1972's Sunshine Run (retitled Black Rage for its VHS release), and especially 1974's Thunder County (released by K. Gordon Murray); both films also featured Ted Cassidy, and Mickey Rooney also stars in the latter. Robinson’s subsequent effort, The Intruder, a variation of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, features 11 hapless gold-digging characters on an island retreat who are bumped off one by one. For reasons obscure, this nugget was unreleased, and remained largely unknown to genre fans until the discovery of its sole print. (All other elements had been lost.)

This film's Blu-ray release is the latest from Garagehouse Pictures, the newest boutique company releasing vintage obscure exploitation films. They have already secured a reputation for unearthing genre fare that was thought lost, or at least unseen for decades, such as the regional horror comedy The Dismembered (1962). (Their releases of Ninja Busters and The Satanist also were due to that same storage unit.) Future releases on their schedule include not one but two Andy Milligan movies (Monstrosity; Weirdo), and Robert W. Morgan's regional horror film Blood Stalkers (1976). But thrilling discoveries like this beget a tantalizing mystery: What else did they find there? What was left behind, to be lost to film history?

All films matter; ideally, everything should be preserved, and made available for those who wish to see it. But in these circumstances, when a film so obscure is unearthed (and in this case, seen for the first time), there lies the possibility of overvaluing its importance. For instance, if The Intruder had been released in 1975, and did its expected run in the drive-in circuit and perhaps on home video, would we still be discussing it?

Without all the fanfare surrounding its discovery, The Intruder stands on its own as an unusual, moody film that is definitely worth seeking out. Regionally produced genre films (in the heyday from the 1960s to the 1980s) are especially valuable historical documents of their eras, as they lend a certain authenticity and feel that a glossy studio project would lack. Anyone (like me) who is fascinated by these films would rejoice that The Intruder has been discovered. Like many of the Florida-produced exploitation films of its day, the mysterious beauty of its location becomes a character unto itself.

Full review coming soon in the new ESR!

Click here to view Garagehouse Pictures’ website.


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