Dec 23, 2004

Larry Buchanan 1923-2004

Larry Buchanan
Originally uploaded by eclecticscreeningroom.
Three days before the holiday season, and my long overdue return to the blog after such a long lapse, I have to report news like this.

A friend of mine sent me an e-mail asking me if I had heard of Larry Buchanan's passing, which he had just read in the Post. I hadn't, and the news both saddened and shocked me.

For those who may not know, Larry Buchanan was a director of micro-budget genre films from the 1950s to 1989. He is perhaps best remembered for a string of made-for-TV science fiction horror pictures in the late 1960s (among them, MARS NEEDS WOMEN, THE EYE CREATURES, ZONTAR THE THING FROM VENUS) which over the years has continued to delight or baffle many a channel surfer in the wee hours of the morning. For the most part, people poke fun at these movies because of the same cheap monster that appears in most of the seven films (made under the banner of Azalea Pictures, released by AIP), and that they are lethargic movies made on ridiculously low budgets. All right, but ESR's mandate has always been to look behind the cheap curtain and see what is operating there.

Thus, in 2002, we did just that.

Our dear friend Rob Craig did a mammoth study on these seven pictures. It was intended to be an article to fit into our regular publication (in this case, Issue #5). However, it was so huge, knowledgeable, and loving, that I chose just to run the introduction in ESR #5, and then publish a special one-shot issue in which his article ran in its entirety. Eventually, this special issue, dubbed "The Cinema of Larry Buchanan" made its way into the hands of Mr. Buchanan, and we are proud to say that he loved Rob's work.

But even so, there is much more to the oeuvre of Larry Buchanan. Secondly, he is known for a string of "conspiracy" pictures- THE TRIAL OF LEE HARVEY OSWALD examined the JFK conspiracy, and BEYOND THE DOORS offered the theory that the ill-fated troika of rock stars Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were actually murdered by the CIA. In addition to that, he has made sordid biopics on Marilyn Monroe (GOODBYE NORMA JEAN), and Howard Hughes (HUGHES AND HARLOW), among others. Taken as a whole, even including his nudie pictures (like NAUGHTY DALLAS) or a civil rights potboiler (like FREE WHITE AND 21), the works of Larry Buchanan are subversive morality plays which offer a candid look at the corruptibility of power; these films consistently upturn the squeaky clean milieux of middle America, to show not only the sadness and hardship behind it all, and for that matter, they offer just how fragile are these seeming suburban retreats we call home. People who look at a film strictly for its production values or other technical and dramatic disadvantages are missing the point. They are looking but not seeing. To take another example, don't even try to suggest to me that Ed Wood's PLAN 9 as a "so bad its good" movie, because above and beyond the deficiencies that everyone pokes fun at, this is actually a very subversive postmodern work. YOU make a feature film on the budgets that these men toiled with to realize their visions, and you'd probably run away crying. This is why ESR consistently pays tribute to such "Grade Z" authors as Larry Buchanan. These filmmakers clearly do have a great deal to say for themselves, and we must admire their strong will to do so amongst impossible conditions, without having their works tainted by the Hollywood Bland Machine.

Fast forward to early 2004- we were contacted by Katherine "Kit" Trimm, an independent producer, working with Mr. Buchanan on a new project. A new project?!? The mind boggled. Cinematically, he had been inactive since GOODNIGHT SWEET MARILYN in 1989. Not only was he putting the finishing touches to THE COPPER SCROLL OF MARY MAGDALENE (a film that had been sitting on the shelf for years), but he was also developing a long overdue sequel to one of his most beloved films. Interestingly enough, Kit had contacted us just days before Mr. Buchanan's 81st birthday. In fact, she was so kind to provide us with an Arizona phone number to extend my best wishes.

Thus, on Saturday January 31th, I spoke to the man himself. I will not say that I was Barbara Walters on the phone, because truthfully I could only get out a few sentences (I was rather nervous!). But he made a point of mentioning that Rob's piece was the best analysis that anyone had ever made of his work. In that short space of time, however, I was struck by his commanding, Shakespearean vitality, and was delighted that this octagenerian director was back in the spotlight with a couple of new projects. We had lost touch with Kit and Larry B (as he liked to be called) in the past few months, but in our time, we had hoped that we could bring his work to Toronto, to the delight of his fans north of the border.

And then....

Upon reading my friend's e-mail, I quickly read a few obituaries online. Almost all of them mention how "dazzingly bad" his films are. This thought greatly depressed me. Once again, they are looking but they are not seeing.

Rest in peace, Larry. The staff at ESR will never forget you.

1 comment:

Rob Craig said...

Bravo, Greg! Your loving and thoughtful piece on "Larry B" brought tears to my eyes, and confirmed what a great loss this is. Larry's "exploitation potboilers" and "cheap monster movies" are indeed significant postmodern art, and I am confident he will be eventually revered as an important film artist. For now, we have his truly subversive and haunting depictions of middle class America on the edge of chaos to enjoy over and over. Saint Larry, the patron saint of cultfilm, is immortal.