Oct 29, 2007

Canzine 2007

Brian Random... "Curses! Edited again!"

Projectionist James King... uh, we think.

Jonathan Culp... end of day

My seventh Canzine come and gone. Sales were low, but the day went by surprisingly fast. As you might surmise, this Canzine had a horror theme, since it was so close to Halloween, correlating to Broken Pencil's new issue. I had contributed a review of Daughter of Horror for the film section. Seeing it for the first time after five months, I felt it was a pretty good read-- should've sent a still to them if I had thought about it.

The biggest achievement of the day was getting some review DVD's from Microcosm Publishing, who were here all the way from Portland Oregon. Because the first half of the day generated no business for me, I did manage to watch a couple of these discs on my portable while waiting for the customers. Upon seeing the collection of films by Bill Brown, as well as the zine documentary One Hundred Dollars and a T Shirt, I went back to their table later to talk about screening these films in the spring. Also picked up a book by Bill Brown, the film Echoes of Forgotten Places as well as some tapes from Jonathan Culp (not to mention a DVD of his film It Can Happen Here, which I saw this winter at Cine-Cycle and liked very much, and his zine "220 Movies and an Enormous Ball", which I will be reviewing on here in the next couple of days).

As I get older, most of the vendors and clientele get younger, and I understand that. But I really bow to these guys like Microcosm and Culp who still keep the faith in the underground with interesting and unique work. Despite that, as usual, I'm carting home even more stuff than what I arrived with, I am still somewhat vindicated and liberated by these little victories that renew my belief in what I do.

Oct 21, 2007

TV Party

"TV Party" was a cable access show, running in New York, from 1978 to 1982, hosted by writer Glenn O'Brien, and was known for the punk-new wave musicians, as well as artists who were frequent guests, participating in the screen mayhem (Blondie's Chris Stein was often a co-host). The show also pushed the envelope in form and content, with irreverent onscreen antics, all while capturing the whole scruffy "Do It Yourself" aesthetic that permeated the music and underground film scenes in the Big Apple at the time. Seen today, its lo-fi technology may be otherworldly to those weaned on the antiseptic blandness of "Reality TV". Yet the rough nature of the show complimented the excitement of the era, and the temperature of the times.

I first encountered this phenomenon called "TV Party" last Boxing Day, in the semi-annual blowout sale at Vortex, I happened upon three singular DVD's, each with one episode of "TV Party". Upon scanning the synopses on the backs of the bus, it piqued my curiosity enough to grab these discs. It sounded weird, avant-garde and off-the-wall... definitely up my alley. (And also, curiously, it is during the winter that I specially hunger for avant-garde things more than any other during the year.) Well, based on the evidence of one singular episode of "TV Party", entitled "The Time and Makeup Show", I had ended up with more than I bargained for. This particular episode was so minimalist-- the camera drones along almost as atonally as the noise music that is played throughout the show, that it just seemed to take on a life all its own. (Think good Warhol.) So entranced was I with this video, that I put the show on repeat, letting it play all night, and continuing on when I woke up in the morning. It just became this organic kind of wallpaper that I would gaze upon continuously. Eventually, I discovered that Brink Films (who had been releasing the episodes) had also produced and released a documentary on the show.

Early in the spring, I made a deal with Brink to show this film, and yet I held onto it like a good wine, waiting for the right moment to uncork it for the unsuspecting Toronto public. I had taken a break from doing screenings after June, because of the difficulty in getting people out for the summer, and because I needed to recharge my batteries. But before I knew it, August turned into September and I realized that it was time to get back in action. And thus, after a long siesta, October 18 was our "comeback" screening, with this film.

Thankfully, this proved to be one of our most successful screenings to date, with a packed and receptive crowd, digging all the priceless clips of music and anarchy culled from the surviving U-Matic masters from the show, interspersed with interviews of such people as O'Brien, Stein and Debbie Harry. This was being shown in the usual digs-- the big studio of Centre for the Arts, which oddly gave a "you are there" feeling, as the show was set in a not dissimilar environment. (All we needed to do was pull the cameras from Studio B, and we could have done a show of our own.)

I am very grateful for the support, and thank all of those who helped make this evening a great success.

Oct 12, 2007

VHS on the Street

It all began as a joke, said over lunch with David Faris at (the now deceased) Joe Mercury's on the Saturday of Canada Day weekend. "Hey let's do a special issue of ESR all about VHS, and we'll call it VHS R.I.P." Sometimes things said with tongue in cheek and on the fly do evolve into wonderful events. (A similar thing happened earlier this year: Beatnik Movie Night, the one screening I planned as a joke became my best seller to date-- go figure.)

Anyhow, I put a call for submissions to the regular troops and some new friends along the way. The response I received was quick, and giddily enthusiastic. Despite the sardonic nature of the title "VHS R.I.P.", the resultant articles which appeared in my in-box were anything but. A quick read between the lines of these pieces, each documenting a peculiar aspect of how VHS infiltrated pieces of our culture, showed a reverence for the lovable ol' half-inch tape, and even a defense for it, in light of the digital revolution. In twelve weeks, "VHS R.I.P." was ready to hit the streets.

I had wanted something new for Word on the Street, knowing full well that my ongoing Spaghetti Western project was yet again not going to be ready for the fair, and thus was delighted that this project managed to slide in (literally) just under the radar to be ready for the fair. It was my hope not to turn this thing into a "night before" project, but sadly, it happened anyway, purely out of circumstance. My day job (yes readers, it's true, I don't do ESR for a living) had gotten insane in the week leading up to the fair. Having suddenly a sister company to contend with, my workload doubled, not helped by having to move out two office spaces, it was a crazy five days that I care not to relive anytime soon, but happily, I managed to get the issue out on time.

The novelty for "VHS R.I.P." was that each copy of the issue came with a different "mystery VHS Tape", whose identity was hidden behind a white cardboard sleeve. Since most of ESR's contributors are incurable collectors, I felt this was a fun way to pass onto the readers the "Hey look what I found" ideal that is so often found on these pages. The cool-looking cover for the issue was, ironically, an eleventh hour thing. The original idea for the cover was to have a snapshot of the writers in black coats and ties, as though they were mourning at a funeral, but conflicting schedules made it impossible to get everyone together, so I scrapped the idea (the gag doesn't work just with two people in the photo). And so I spent two nights futzing around with Photoshop until I wound up with this comparatively minimalist design that serendipitously complimented a secondary theme of this whole issue. The cover is rather mysterious, giving away nothing of the personal content that fills the pages in between. (And indirectly, it flirts with Brian Random's article "VHS as Object of Mystery") And even the benign white box in the bag behind the magazine appears monolithic, giving viewers little precedence as to what can be found inside.

This issue also features a record number of contributors for ESR- perhaps more than the average issue of "CineAction"... maybe even "Cinema Sewer." And so without further ado, I'd like to give my thanks to David, Brian, Jonathan Culp, Will Sloan, Jason Pankoke, Simon St. Laurent, Skot Deeming, and Dion Conflict... congrats for helping to make this all happen.

ABOVE: The G-Man in action.

And so, even on the Sunday morning of Word on the Street, I'm still scrambling to get things done, cursing and sweating all the way, and so when I arrived on the grounds at 9 AM, that feeling suddenly flashed back through my veins, reminding myself why I do this. Seeing my publication's name on the tent, looking around Queen's Park with my Tim Horton's coffee as publishers much more "pro" than I are equally immersed in setting up, I remembered that notion: "Wow, I'm here." Sales on the day were steady up until the last half, when business was down to a crawl. During the day I met some interesting people (further reminding me why I do what I do), shot the breeze with regular supporters like Brian, Dave Lamb and Barry Smight (who took my picture, above), and began to ponder why sales plummeted in the last half. My suspicion was that this year's edition of Word on the Street was a week later than usual, hence during the weekend of Nuit Blanche. Those who stayed up all night probably never got out of bed, and I'm assuming that's the reason why my help never showed up to watch the stand so I could take a break. Thank God someone from my day job showed up, so I could quickly dash to take a pee. Otherwise, no chance to shop for anything than other what was in the same tent as mine. (But hey, I did get a Guh CD for three bucks.)

Susan, God bless her soul, helped me set up at the very beginning, and then came by to guard the stuff while I went to fetch the car. Driving back to the tent, through the maze-like patterns of roadblocks and incorrect signs, I was surprised at how quickly night fell, only one hour after the fair officially ended. In sixty minutes, I felt like I was in a different world- how rapidly the environment had changed, from light to dark, bountious to empty. I was strangely moved seeing the construction guys starting to deconstruct all the tents so quickly after the sale. It was as if no one had previously existed there. This haunting feeling reminded me a lot of the ending of Fellini Roma, as the bikers move their way through an empty courtyard, accompanied only by the ghosts of memory. Similarly, I drove home a little melancholy, playing "Don't Dream It's Over" again and again on the CD player, with the window down, and the cool air hitting my face.

Oct 4, 2007

RIP Charles B. Griffith

Above: It Conquered the World

I had been prepared to update my blog with a little report on the new ESR issue and our appearance at Word on the Street, but that will have to wait for now, as this news story is to me of greater importance.

Yesterday I had learned that on September 28, writer-director Charles B. Griffith had passed away at the age of 77. With all the preparation for "The Roger Corman Scrapbook" (which we published last year) still fresh in our memories, I was always struck by director Roger Corman's mini-epics that were penned by the multi-talented Mr. Griffith. Charles B. Griffith's legacy contained many brilliant screenplays bursting with wild and crazy ideas that perhaps either belied the tawdry production budget, or for that matter, their inventiveness was often overlooked by people who instead wanted to poke fun at those very tawdry production values.

He will be best remembered for his trilogy of horror spoofs (Bucket of Blood (1959), Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)), all directed by Roger Corman. These hip screenplays were brilliant satires, not just of the horror genre. Bucket of Blood remains a dead-on portrayal of the Beat Generation, simultaneously giving it an elbow in the ribs, yet giving the milieu a far greater authenticity at which Hollywood failed miserably with such films as The Beat Generation, or The Subterraneans. Little Shop remains one of the greatest, most pitch black comedies ever made, with terrific, unique characters big and small. Griffith himself is the voice of Audrey Jr. the plant, and appears on camera as the wigged-out burglar ("Don't try to snow me Jim, 50,000 squares didn't come in here to look at some plant, they must have bought something.") Creature is an ingenious satire of nearly every movie ever made. In addition to the potato sack monster that calls attention to the artifice of horror films, there are nods to Bogart, spies, The Bay of Pigs, Dead End Kids, and even musicials (!), all while taking place mostly on a tugboat! In fact, at Word on the Street, when one person became aware I had free DVD's of Creature from the Haunted Sea in with "The Roger Corman Scrapbook", he chimed: "That is the corniest movie ever made!" It wasn't a put down-- it REALLY is an oddball film, just bursting with ideas.

These three films were really the only overtly spoofy films that Corman directed. In Beverly Gray's book on her former boss Mr. Corman, Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Biography of the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking, she hints at the idea that Corman otherwise preferred to make his films just serious action-adventures or straight fantasy pictures. I'm inclined to believe her, and yet am mystified that Mr. Corman didn't fully take advantage of Griffith's prose, despite the limited resources that he obviously had to contend with. Despite the success of all the films that will be mentioned here, there is a curious reservation on Corman's direction, often taking a conservative approach to the subversive ideas that went into Griffith's exploitation scripts. Beneath the sheen of Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) is a strange Biblical parable and disturbing atomic message (that is actually more creepy than most atomic monster films of the period). Gunslinger (1956) is just below Johnny Guitar in being a western that implodes the conventions of the genre with two superb female roles. The cardboard muscleman epic Atlas (1961) is more interesting for the heavy-breathing sexual repression than the clumsy swordplay. Lest we forget, Mr. Griffith penned two more wildly inventive science fiction films (It Conquered the World (1956), Not of this Earth (1957)), Teenage Doll (1957) (which is possibly the most apocalyptic JD film made in the 1950's), and the terrific "Petrified Forest" retread with a hip beat (Rock All Night (1957), which became one of my great discoveries in assembling the Corman issue.

He also wrote later Corman hits like The Wild Angels (1966) and Death Race 2000 (1975), each with interesting social commentary, and then went behind the directors chair. First he realized his own screenplay Eat My Dust (1976), which is a gleefully subversive celebration of teen lawlessness that (surprisingly) goes unpunished. He also directed his own screenplay for Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980) and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II (1989). I am interested in finding his first work as writer-director Forbidden Island (1959) in the hopes that it is a forgotten gem. Ditto, Corman's film Naked Paradise, also written by Griffith, has fallen off the map. By some fleeting accounts, it purports to be an unusual melodrama. (Griffith re-wrote this film with a monster as Beast from the Haunted Cave.)

We all talk about people like Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern, who all earned their stripes at Corman's veritable film school. Yet when you see much of their work done under his umbrella, one doesn't necessarily see the seeds of their future stardom. Griffith on the other hand was a singular talent. I am uncertain of how or why he didn't go on to make "A" pictures, but it is truly unique people like him that go a long way in justifying low budget drive-in genre films.

Aug 29, 2007

Remembering Doug Riley

This post is slightly off-topic as it has little or nothing to do with film, or VHS collecting. However, since of late, my posts have been increasingly personal, as they are often about memory, this is therefore fitting.

I was somewhat shocked this morning to learn that keyboardist and arranger par excellence Doug Riley died suddenly on Monday while waiting in a plane travelling from Calgary to PEI. He was still young at 62, yet left behind a legacy of music that could fill many lifetimes. Doug had early on earned the monicker of "Dr. Music", a namesake for the band he also created. This supergroup (a veritable who's who of Canadian jazz players), tinged with R&B, gospel, rock and jazz, earned some Top 40 hits in the early 1970's, with "One More Mountain To Climb" and "Sun Goes By". And in addition, Doug was a session player for everyone from the Brecker Brothers to Bob Seger. He also was very busy as an arranger. This tireless wonder could move effortlessly from arranging a classical piece for Placido Domingo to playing the dirtiest blues. For all that, his greatest love was jazz, and Doug was truly one of the masters of the Hammond B3.

When Susan and I were first courting, she had taken me to The Orbit Room to see Doug in a trio called "Smoke". And that was it-- we were "Smokeheads". For about six months, we had visited the place quite frequently on Smoke's regular Tuesday night gigs. With Doug on the B3, his son Ben, then 19, on drums (ironically named after another drummer named Ben Riley), and Tim Tickner as the frontman, interspersing his vibes and electronic percussion with beat poetry, free association, and another in a series of political rants, this band was a truly phenomonal, impossibly funky outfit, combining jazz, R&B, beatnik ambience, and whatever else. Their version of BB Gabor's "Simulated Groove" often opened their show (causing "This is a simulated groove, and I'm trying to look happy" to be a catch phrase in our house), and such ditties as "Harry How Your Garden Does Grow", "Sunflower" or "Gunpoint" turned this into the best night out bohemians like us could ever want. Sadly, this outfit never recorded, at least not to my knowledge, as Smoke should have been the next big thing in the local scene.

But still, we would end up seeing plenty of Doug Riley about town, often with his B3 Quartet featuring saxman Phil Dwyer as the frontman (on stage, Doug has a very quiet demeanour-- he lets the keys do all the talking), with his old friend Moe Koffman in one of the flautist's final public appearances, and even among the B3 Organ Summit, although Doug was unfairly given less chance to play.

On stage, Doug also left an indelible image, usually decked out with dark glasses, a cowboy hat, and ubiquitous cigarette-- a quiet storm who created some of the most sweetest thunder. And despite having worked with a Christmas wish list of talent north and south of the border, he still nonetheless felt happiest playing in Canada's figurative backyard, and our country is all the better for still having this treasure all to ourselves. The legacy of Doug Riley is a true Canadian institution.

Since this is after all a film blog, I suppose we should close with this amusing footnote, that Doug Riley also contributed to the history of Canadian cinema, having found time in his busy schedule to compose music for Ivan Reitman's early films Foxy Lady, and -you guessed it- Cannibal Girls. Rest in peace Doug, you're the greatest.

Tales of an Analog Enthusiast Volume Two... kinda

This weekend I had rented a car, as on the Sunday it was Decoration Day in my hometown, where people decorate the stones of their deceased loved ones. We were celebrating our anniversary on the Sunday, therefore I opted to go pay my respects on the Saturday instead. This trip had ulterior motives too, as along the way I would make a pit stop at any Cash Converters, hock shop or thrift store I could find along the way, all in the name of finding cheapo video tapes.

Ah, my faithful reader, you're probably thinking, "Didn't he get his fill at Sam's?" Well yes, but specifically today's hunt was for some place that would be selling VHS tapes en masse for really cheap, as when ESR publishes the "VHS RIP" issue next month, it is my intention to package the magazine with party favours-- a mystery VHS tape. Even so as the day crept on, and my number one duty for the day would be further pushed back, I never took the time to inquire at a couple of places that were selling VHS's off at a buck each if they would do a wholesale deal. (But all is not lost, I still found some Interglobal titles for my own collection.)

In addition, it was my hope to snap some pictures of drive-ins for my website "See You At the Drive-In". When my father and I travelled to London last month to see about his treatments, I could swear we passed a drive-in on Highway 53, and I attempted to find it on the drive down to Simcoe. Well before I knew it I was in Woodstock, and being in a blinding rainstorm didn't help, so I decided to stop screwing around and go pay my respects proper.

I arrived in Simcoe at 4:30 in the afternoon, affording me enough time to purchase two armloads of artificial floral arrangements for the cemetery. It was weirdly fitting that the sun came out at the precise moment I was picking out the decorations. In the past four years, for whatever personal reasons I've gone back to Simcoe, I've managed to squeak in these moments where I drive by old haunts, always intrigued by the notion of how things have changed since I left them. In some cases, it is a melancholy experience, in in others it is strangely comforting as I briefly encounter the ghosts of my past.

This night, I decided to detour to Tillsonburg on the way back... for two reasons. First, in the hamlet of Courtland just on the east side, there used to be the Skylark Drive-In, which closed in 1992. I hadn't visited either of these towns since then, thus I was curious to see if there were still any remnants of the drive-in, and a resounding "nope" there. Now proudly sits a lumber store where the screen under the stars used to be (at least it's not a fricken condo). So much for today's photo ops. Anyway, in a few more minutes I was in downtown Tillsonburg trying to find pieces of me from 15 years ago.

Back in 1992, I had a second job on weekends working at the convenience store up the street from my house (my mother worked full-time there on weekdays), and in addition, once a week at about 6 AM, I would drive to Tillsonburg to the wholesale store where shopowners would customarily buy canned goods, soda and other such things, to stock up on provisions for the store. You may remember in my first volume of "Analog Enthusiast", discussing people who travelled the county circuit, filling convenience stores with their inventories of movies, as in those days mom and pop variety stores could seldom afford such overhead. Like Ronnie, previously celebrated in Volume One, my boss Steph was another who travelled the circuit with crates of movies to replenish variety stores with video rentals. But in addition to that, he owned two convenience stores of his own. Besides the one in Simcoe that my mother and I worked at, he also had a store in Tillsonburg- and would frequently work shifts there as he also lived in that town. When I ventured to Tillsonburg, I would often stop off at Steph's store to drop off a few supplies. Since Steph was a distributor of movie rentals, most of his store was filled to the brim with movie boxes, much more than the two shelves of films in Simcoe's store. And usually, in addition to dropping off supplies, I would shoot the breeze with him for a few minutes, as he sure knew hell of a lot about film. In fact, I was doing a little video project at that time, and Steph allowed me to do a quick shoot in his store, as I needed a shot of myself looking at movies in a video store.

Yet coming back into Tillsonburg that Saturday night reminded me of another ghost in the past that I hadn't thought of in a long time... part of the summer of 1990 was spent in Tillsonburg selling Filter Queen vacuums! This memory was perhaps enforced by the sights of the same kind of Sad Sacks I used to attempt to sell vacuum cleaners to 17 years ago standing in front of the Tim Horton's staring out at the empty street looking for something, anything. This image is further given melancholy by the pervasive 60's crooners that populated the bandwidth of the town's AM Radio station, whose musical melodies gave imagery of a dreamland far, far away from the people that I would attempt to sell a vacuum to.

AM Radio figures a lot in my recollections of Tillsonburg, as those weekly jaunts at the crack of dawn were also filled with golden oldies blaring in my car. In fact one piece of mental cinema that remains lodged in my memory, is driving by this retro truck-stop diner on a lonely southern stretch of the highway, as the pink horizon broke in the background, while Joni Mitchell's "Coyote" played in the car. In fact, I tried to find that restaurant Saturday night, but it too may be gone now-- it's been 15 years.

But also, I had spent some time trying to find that little side street that Steph had his store, and after much trial and error, I found it, and the effect was not unlike Paul Newman in The Color of Money visiting this loft full of junk where a pool hall had once been 25 years previously. In truth, I still expected the store to be functional, and, I'll admit it, I had half expected Steph to still be there. Who knows? Maybe he would have sold me some old VHS tapes. But instead, the store had been turned into a residence, yet they still kept the design of the buildling intact (although with all the aluminum siding and the slanted roof, I believe it had been a residence prior to being a store).

Visiting my relatives at cemetery can be a sometimes overwhelming experience, especially when I visit the site shared by my mother and my oldest brother. And I suppose my brother would laugh at the irony, that after the whole day, the thing that would eventually choke me up was a Hollies CD I bought in a hock shop for three bucks! This greatest hits collection also had the AM staple "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother", which strikes me with more resonance because shortly after my brother passed away, a public service announcement using this song was frequently shown on television. And so, after playing this CD in my car all day, and pulling in back in front of my house in Toronto, at the end of the night, it was then that everything hit me, now that my mind had managed to stop for a while. And hearing this song for the nth time while I was parked, seeing my reflection in the car window while looking up at the moon, is when the day finally caught up with me, and I wept right at the wheel. As much as it is somewhat cleansing for me to visit old haunts and seeing that the ghosts of my memories still dance there, it is also an overwhelming one. Yes, it is a painful process sometimes to relive pieces of time that cannot be replicated, with people no longer among the living, but I do not consider the past to be dead. It still dances on in my soul.

Pasta with Mr. Pleznik

(Well, after three weeks of battling the worse cold I've ever had, I'm finally back with enough faculties to complete the post that should have been added to this blog on or shortly after Wednesday August, 8.)

On the night of Wednesday the 8th, Susan and I were among those who were reunited with my dear old friend (and one of my mentors) Brad Puskas for a little soiree at The Old Spaghetti Factory. At the age of 21, I had made the daring, but insurmountably rewarding decision to return to high school and upgrade my Grade 13. Brad was then teaching theatre arts at school (I had not known him previously), and we became fast friends with our shared love of theatre and film. (At first, I couldn't remember his last name, and kept referring to him as "Mr. Pleznik", and the name stuck with some of us. But pretty soon, I didn't need to refer to him as Mr. Anything. We became close enough that "Brad" sufficed.)

For him and our mutual dear friend Scott Allgood (who taught English as well as Theatre Arts), I happily apply the title of "mentor". While I never had Brad as a professor, and although Scott had taught me in the first round of Grade 13, my association with these two outside of day classes, during that epochal year of 1988-89 had shaped much of the person I was through their guidance and encouragement... that person that I still attempt to recapture however weak-kneed nearly 20 years later.

Those crazy ten months to date remain the most overwhelming, trailblazing and rewarding moments of my professional life. In addition to taking a full day of classes, all while doing full-time shift work, I still somehow found time to be in two plays, and write and direct a feature-length video... all while forging friendships and blessing me with experiences that I will cherish to my grave. This monumental time of my life deserves a book in order for me to properly give credence to all of those magic moments, and some day I will write it-- it wouldn't matter if I was the only one who would read it.

And although Brad, Scott and I shared many hours elaborating on our love of theatre by putting together a play which managed to make it all the way to the semi-finals of the Sears Drama Festival, and also filled the corners with shop talk of our mutual love of cinema, another bond that I think is integral to this relationship is that we're all Sagittarians, whose birthdays all fall within the first two weeks, and thusly we all have that mad passion to march to our own drummers, and to reach for the stars despite any obstacle. (Plus, we share a certain sardonic humour.) In these pivotal ten months, my previously shiftless life was re-anointed with the possibility that I could do anything, and I damn near did.

In nearly 20 years, I doubt an hour of my waking life passes without some thought of those moments in time. Partially, I know much of this thinking as my trying to live back up to them. This incredible empire of creativity, fun and vitality had to end nearly as quickly as it had started. This core had fallen apart as people (like myself) had gone to the city to school, gotten jobs in the real world, or settled down. After subsequent attempts by myself to vainly try to re-capture the magic, I had finally taught myself to accept that the past had to be left alone.

In ensuing years, I had still kept in touch with Brad sporadically, as he became the art teacher, had divorced, re-married, had two kids and moved to Antigonish, and had lost his second wife to cancer. Thanks to that wonderful invention called Facebook, I had managed to re-establish contact with many of my old cohorts, and during the summer when he was visiting his family in Ontario, Brad had planned a makeshift reunion with students he had similarly befriended over the years. The irony lover in me would be remiss if I didn't at least mention that seeing him in person again after all these years couldn't have come at a more opportune time.

Early in the week, I had become more aware than ever of the disarray I commonly refer to as my life. Perhaps I was undergoing more self-awareness because of the upcoming reunion, but my self-realization increases with inverse proportion as the days decrease towards "mid-life crisis" time. If the Greg Woods of 1989 saw me pissing away my time with what commonly fills my days, he would probably kick my ass, and I wouldn't blame him.

As I creak toward the mountain peak this year, these days have paused for a lot of reflection, helped also in no small measure by Facebook. Even though it seems just like yesterday when I was a precocious student who still had promise, it's incredible how much has changed while other things remain the same. People whom I thought would never get laid in their entire life are now settled down with a couple of kids. Meanwhile at the bat cave, it seems I've spent the past eighteen years simply spinning my wheels in the muck. Early on, I made a lot of sacrifices to instead pursue an elusive dream, idling away my time on unfinished projects and creating one mess after another. Now, I'm not turning this into an exercise of self-pity, as I realize I'm luckier than most people, not least because I have been fortunate to be with that special someone for a dozen years now, when many people I know still have no one to come home to. Essentially, this crescendo of self-reflection has just made me realize to stop fucking around and get on with things, decide what of these half-finished dreams I still want to complete, and be more aggressive about changing the things in my life that need it.

Crescendos are coupled with diminuendos, and as such, chaos is followed by calm. That Wednesday night, it was not hard for the Greg Woods of 2007 to re-discover that Zen calm I always got from Mr. Pleznik. I am reminded of the times in Allgood's class poring over "Film Comment" and saying "Why don't we do this? Why don't we do that?" , or philosophizing over cider in Mr. Pleznik's living room as "Great Gig in the Sky" idled on in the background. Although it took me a moment to locate him in the restaurant as he was without his trademark ponytail, and despite that his life (like many, I'm sure) has had many hardships in these eighteen years, here he was... the same old Brad, with his trademark sardonic wit, sense of fun, and constant evolving (as he talked of his own short-term aspirations).

As such, one cannot help but have a bit of his aura rub off on those around him. One of the final remarks made in the evening was "I was sure Greg would be the first to produce films". This was not meant as a put-down, just a matter of fact. But this statement spoke more to more than he may have thought, as in the past few years i've been less enthusiastic about producing my own work (especially since so much of my time is devoted to upholding other people's). But more to the point, this reunion with my old friend was an indirect reminder for me to stop spinning my wheels, and confront myself with hard questions about what I am truly passionate about. And who knows? Maybe I just might find a bit of that magic from 1989 in the process.

Aug 6, 2007

Playing Tennis With Mimes... Remembering Michelangelo Antonioni

During the 1995 Oscar ceremony, director Michelangelo Antonioni was presented with an honourary Oscar for his body of work. Before he was given the award, there was a marvelous montage of famous moments from his films, with his trademark striking composition, set to Pink Floyd's "Careful with that Axe Eugene" (used in Zabriskie Point). I had had some wonderful grass while watching the Oscars, and so this moment for me was an even greater sensory pleasure, enhanced with some natural stimulants. And when we look back upon the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, who died last week on the same day as Ingmar Bergman, that is perhaps what we remember most about his work. His striking frame compositions made his work worth seeing, although ultimately the worlds his films depicted were far from flattering.

In her classic essay, "Zeitgeist and Poltergeist: Are Movies Going to Pieces?" (collected in I Lost It At The Movies), Pauline Kael equated Antonioni's La Notte (and other arthouse classics of the day) to a modern-day horror film, with the hostess of the party uttering the line "They're all dead in here". If isolation and de-humanization are the horrors of the postwar industrial age, then Michelangelo Antonioni was its Tod Browning.

During his heyday in the 1960's Antonioni earned the nickname "The Master of Alienation" with almost as much pop-art colloquialism as Hitchcock being named "The Master of Suspense". Although having made a few features in the 1950's, it was the auspicious Cannes debut of L'Avventura that announced his arrival to world cinema. This epic-length fable, in which one of the lead characters disappears on an island without the others noticing, created an uproar while it was being projected, and still managed to take a special prize. In subsequent films, La Notte, Eclipse and Red Desert (his first colour film), similar afflictions of malaise and de-humanization affected his characters, in their inability to have warm relationships with another human being. And with the strategic, almost mathematical framing of his characters amidst the equally cold steel and concrete edifices of the modern world, his subjects would become as architectural as their surroundings.

And as such, when his characters did speak to one another the dialogue was enigmatic as to be otherworldly, as in the famous scene in Red Desert, showing Monica Vitti's conversation with a seaman, and neither understands what the other is talking about. To be certain, these films weren't for everyone- seeing bored-looking people standing around for two hours thusly caused people to christen his work as Antoniennui. (And as such, when one thinks of memorable moments in his work, it is usually those with strikingly composed visuals than when their characters are forced to act. Red Desert opens and closes with these arresting sequences of Monica Vitti walking through an industrial area, made further jarring by a weird electronic score. But in between, not much happens.)


But Blowup cemented his reputation. This 1966 classic, set in the swinging London mod scene, features a photographer (David Hemmings), who realizes that he may have accidentally taken pictures of a murder. The movie is not a "who done it", or perhaps not even a "what was done", as the murder, such as it is, became largely a springboard for him to evaluate what is real or transitory in his own lifestyle. The pop-art excess of the Swinging London mod scene is the backdrop of his world, where sex and drugs are plentiful, but ultimately unrewarding, as he searches for a new level of enlightenment. Leave it to Antonioni to set a film in such a vibrant landscape as these countercultural happenings, and then ultimately show just how soul-destroying it is. The famous scene where The Yardbirds play in a club is notable for how the spectators are as immobile as store mannequins. Thomas the photographer's view of reality is crumbling, where the gun disappears from his frame blowups, yet re-appears later; the body in the park is seen one moment, gone the next.

The ending of Blowup is my favourite moment of all the Antonioni I've seen. Back in the park, the photographer watches the mimes play tennis (with imaginary racqets and balls). At one point, the imaginary ball goes over the fence. The camera stays on Hemmings as he throws the ball back in the court, and then subtly, we hear the sound of a tennis ball being knocked back and forth. The protagonist can no longer discern what is real in his world, but finally learns that reality is what people around him artificially create.

Blowup created some notoriety in its day for its nudity and sexual situations (although very tame today), and was also the rare foreign film of the time to be played in theaters as remote as Smalltown Middle America. (While it is English-language, the film is distinctively European in style).

Antonioni's next assignment, naturally, was in Hollywood, Zabriskie Point (1970) was a huge flop. While today it has a cult following, (and perhaps I'm among them) it is admittedly silly, though far from uninteresting. Its central problem is the two weak leads (Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin) who escape their counterculture radical environment, via a stolen plane, and attempt to create a Dionysian world of their own in the desert. However, the adult world soon catches up to them. Many of the set-pieces in this film are as foolish as they are profound. When the two hippie lovers finally copulate in the desert, we are also privy to a hundred other flower children rolling around in the sand. On another level, Zabriskie Point is one of the finest examples of what happens when Hollywood employs (and otherwise distorts) the talents of someone as distinctive as Michelangelo Antonioni. (Another recent example is Emir Kusturica's unwatchable Arizona Dreams) Instead of making a definitive statement piece about the counterculture, Antonioni's approach is like a Martian making a movie about Earth-- illustrating his subject in a language that is so removed from those who would go to see it. Yet, despite the film's oddball symbolism, it is fascinating for all of these things. And it ends with a bang-- literally. The climactic scene where we see architecture and consumerism of the modern world explode and watch the debris float onscreen in slow motion, set to Pink Floyd's "Careful With that Axe, Eugene", is absolutely mesmerizing.

Jack Nicholson in The Passenger

The Passenger (1975) was perhaps his last great success, as it has all of the earmarks of classic Antonioni- strikingly composed landscapes and a protagonist who escapes one's identity. And it is remembered for an 11-minute unbroken shot in its finale where we realize that the hero summarily becomes trapped in his new realm of existence. This is perhaps the third of an unofficial trilogy, where the heroes face tragedy while searching for a new life. Actor Jack Nicholson held the rights to this picture, and had long kept it out of circulation, until its celebrated release on DVD last fall.

For a man of Antonioni's reputation, surprisingly, subsequent films were not picked up for North American distribution, such as Identification of a Woman (1982), and after a stroke in 1985, which severely affected his speech, his forays behind the camera were even more spotty. Beyond the Clouds (1995) was co-directed by Wim Wenders, and his segment for the omnibus film Eros (2004), was greeted with laughter. (The other two pieces, by Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-Wai garnered much more favour.) Perhaps his most telling cinematic swansong was the short film Michelangelo Eye to Eye (2004), where Michelangelo Antonioni himself appears on camera, gazing at the sculptures of Michelangelo. This figurative joining of the two Michelangelo's is slight, but perhaps encapsulates his career-- where the human subjects are engulfed by, and slaves to an overpowering landscape.

Jul 30, 2007

Thanks For Catching Our Pictures As We Fly Them Through the Air... Remembering Tom Snyder

I was too young to have caught Tom Snyder's reign on "The Tomorrow Show" from 1975 to 1981, when this legendary late night program aired right after Johnny Carson. Instead, my exposure came with "The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder", which followed David Letterman from 1995 to 1999. The culture of late-night television had changed dramatically a few years prior. The institution of the late-night movie show had been given over to those rotten infomercials, and Johnny Carson had retired. Late-night TV had for me been just as comforting as a warm blanket, and as meaningful as a chat with a close friend. And in the mid-1990's with infomercials having replaced Barry Lillis, and Carson's legacy overthrown by bombast and stupidity, it was a breath of fresh air to see Tom Snyder back on the air, with a program considerably scaled down from the competition. No bullshit, no bombast, and no one came on to plug a movie or a record. Imagine this, people came on Snyder's show just to talk.

Although it was only last year, when they issued a Punk-New Wave DVD collection of "The Tomorrow Show", that I had a chance to see that program and learn for myself, that the "Late Late Show" had adopted some of its low-key, intimate nature from Snyder's earlier show, I had at the time compared its minimalist feel to that of Whoopi Goldberg's short-lived (and much underrated) late-night talk show. For the most part, the art direction consisted of Tom Snyder in medium-close in front of a city backdrop (or his guest in roughly the same framing), and the most extravagant it got was during the opening credits, with a pan shot of a generic city building, scored by a David Sanborn sax solo. So informal was the show, that one often heard the offscreen laughter of the camera crew-- just another thing to endear us more, to make this setting all the more human.

Usually, "The Late Late Show" would open with Tom Snyder relating some colourful anecdote to the camera, to us, as if he was telling a story to an old friend, often correlating a personal experience to something topical. And before he brought tonight's guest on, he would go to a commercial break with the trademark phrase, "Thanks for catching our pictures as we fly them through the air."

Whether Snyder was interviewing Quentin Tarantino, George Segal or an author no one had heard of, it was always interesting to see- that's how much of a class act he was. Everyone was on a level playing field- and summarily, everyone on the show felt like an old friend. And of course, the show was often permeated with Snyder's trademark hearty laugh. Perhaps my favourite "Tom Snyder story" was how after 35 years of being in one scene of a "Bonanza" TV episode, the powers that be had finally tracked him down to give him his long-overdue royalty cheque. The sum? Eighty-nine dollars and forty-two cents. (Ironically it cost them more to show the Tom Snyder "Bonanza" clip than what Snyder earned from it).

In 1998, I was cleaning out my mother's house, as I had put it up for sale. Now, the irony lover in me hadn't noticed at the time, but somehow it was fitting that as I had Snyder's show on the TV while I was up late packing, and on this particular night was when he was announcing his retirement. "I'm not mad at anyone, I just have more to look back on than to look forward to, and I need to spend time with my dog Oliver." Nine years later, I see the symmetry, as closing down the house reminded me of all those times spent late at night in front of the tube, seeking surrogate companions much like I was still doing that summer. And for the rest of the summer of 1998, when I was freelance (AKA- mostly unemployed), and often stayed up writing, Tom Snyder was still that intimate night light for that time. In other words, when I was closing down a chapter of my youth, that ideal surrogate late-night companionship that was important to a lot of my lonely years, was also coming to an end.

And then when he retired, he maintained a website www.colortini.com, which almost weekly was updated with his reflections on current events, peppered with his inimitable style and personal anecdotes. The site was suddenly yanked from Cyberspace in 2005 when Tom Snyder learned he had leukemia. His passing last week is a tragedy, not just for his legacy, but for the loss of the great human being he was.

Tom Snyder was indeed the last of the broadcasting giants, who unlike 99% of the airwaves today, instead shot for the highest common denominator in content, trusting the intellect and good taste of the viewer. Now, we must contend with talk shows snivelling towards the lowest SAT score in the bunch, where cheap sensationalism, superficial press junket soundbytes and tabloid talk pass for journalism. If CBS had a heart or a brain, they would realize the worth of this television institution, and re-release some of his shows as an education of how the talk-show format could really be intelligent. Before Tom Snyder signed off in 1999, I thankfully made a six-hour VHS tape of episodes from his show. I'll be watching and remembering... he was a true friend.

Death on the Beach... Remembering Ingmar Bergman

Above: "Death" and Max Von Sydow in The Seventh Seal.

Perhaps like many or most film-goers of my generation, my introduction to Ingmar Bergman was secondhand. Being born after the vital time period, one can only vicariously understand the impact an artist has made on his or her medium. This is why young journalists may not understand how revolutionary were the sounds of Charlie Parker, or the words of Allen Ginsberg. Similarly, it may be hard for younger viewers to understand the impact made in the 1950's by the prolific output of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. And usually, young scholars have seen the works inspired by the master before the original objects of inspiration. For instance, I doubt I'm alone when I say that my true introduction to Ingmar Bergman was through Woody Allen. While I had seen Fanny and Alexander, which I admired more than liked, it wasn't until I saw Woody Allen's Interiors, where I truly began my education on this Swedish master of international cinema. The angst-ridden performances, characters' yearning for faith, and minimal set design were letter-perfect evocations of the works of Ingmar Bergman. Woody Allen also scored in capturing his mentor's brooding isolation- one truly doesn't think a world exists outside of the narrow lives of the tortured characters.

In the late 1950's, there was an explosion of world cinema appearing on North American screens- works which changed the language of film in structure, theme, and style. And for the next decade, one literally would receive a new arthouse masterpiece every few months, with work by the French New Wave, Kurosawa, Fellini and Satyajit Ray, to name only a few. And of the filmmakers who made such challenging work from abroad, only Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni are left. Yet one could say that perhaps no work of international cinema mattered more than Ingmar Bergman. (It is for nothing that in the movie Diner, set in 1959, two characters go see The Seventh Seal.) In four years, eleven Bergman films premiered in America. Not only was he the most prolific, but every work, big or small seemed to be a new masterpiece... however not to everyone.

Even today, many viewers find such works as Wild Strawberries or The Seventh Seal confusing, and this is why the mention of his name is often to invite an accusation of "cine-snobbery" from his non-believers. But really, Ingmar Bergman's films are not incomprehensible. In fact, his stories and ideas are very simple, however what confounds many audiences is the figurative ways he tells his stories. He often chose to be allegorical or symbolic instead of realistic. For instance, in one scene of Hour of the Wolf, Liv Ullmann's suspicion of her husband's infidelity is realized by her dialogue she has with a woman... that represents part of her subconscious! In Bergman, reality and dreams, life and death, past and present all fold in on one another. Perhaps this is never so eloquently mirrored than in the finale of Wild Strawberries, when Victor Sjostrom sees his parents from seventy years prior, fishing at a river bank, and they wave back at him. But if this sounds heavy with symbolism, in truth his films are far less pretentious than, say, those of Antonioni. (The one time his use of figurative imagery did not work for me was The Silence (1963), the third of his "Faith" trilogy.)

Bergman's reputation was cemented just on the virtues of two films in the late 1950's. Wild Strawberries, features Swedish director Victor Sjostrom in a rare performance as a professor whose journey to the city becomes a journey through his past. This film is remembered for its opening dream sequence, where he sees himself in a coffin, and the famous image of a clock with no hands (later spoofed by Woody Allen in Stardust Memories). The Seventh Seal provides the famous scenario where a knight has a chess game with Death on the beach, with his life in the balance, and ends with the famous image of people dancing down a hill to another realm of existence. Yet there is so much more.

Above: Wild Strawberries

We must also remember the masterpieces of his early career such as Summer With Monika, a beautiful fable about a doomed love affair, and Sawdust and Tinsel, set in a traveling circus. And lest we forget, the delightful, magical Smiles of a Summer Night (later remade by Woody Who Else?) destroys preconceptions that all Bergman films are doom and gloom. Bergman continued making challenging fare well into the 1980's. The Virgin Spring (1960) ends with water spouting from the ground where previously laid the body of a dead girl. The personalities of two women intertwine with the well-remembered Persona (1967). In the 1970's, Roger Corman and his New World Pictures made Bergman more accessible to American audiences by distributing Cries and Whispers and Autumn Sonata at drive-ins, thereby shaking foreign cinema from the exclusionary claws of the arthouse. And within this body of work, Ingmar Bergman had a superb "stock company", with stellar performances by Max Von Sydow, Harriett Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, and Gunnar Bjornstrand... and the frequent hiring of the superb cameraman Sven Nykvist. Nykvist's bare cinematography captured the intense drama of Bergman's scenarios. And when the two men could no longer make movies in their preferred black and white, their colour films have a muted or monochromatic pallette which adds an interesting texture.

After making a famous retirement statement upon the completion of Fanny and Alexander (1983), Ingmar Bergman still occasionally directed films for television, developed screenplays, and worked in theatre. In the 1980's he also published the memoir The Magic Lantern, which is as full of atmosphere and dream-like structure as one of his films, and certainly one of the best autobiographical works written by any filmmaker.

Of all of Bergman's considerable body of work, my preferred period is the films made on the island of Faro in the late 1960's. These works (Hour of the Wolf, Shame, Passion of Anna) best capture the sense of isolation so common to his films, and succeed in treading that thin line between waking life and the irrationality of nightmares.

So unique and singular is Bergman's style that it has been imitated by admirers (not just Woody Allen, but Andrei Tarkovsky), and lampooned in SCTV and Anthony Lover's superb short film The Dove (De Duva). Shortly after I began discovering Bergman's films such as Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring and Summer With Monika, I wrote a little Bergman spoof for my high school English class in which I play checkers on the beach with the ghost of Rod Serling. The teacher loved it, although most students wouldn't get the reference, since Bergman didn't play small town Ontario. Writing this passage, I am reminded of how many years have passed since I've watched any of his films, since most of my viewing time presently is spent researching for articles in progress. Yet, for this film enthusiast, the style of Ingmar Bergman had a tremendous impact, and expanded much of how I look at cinema. I see myself in my old living room 20 years ago, when I was seriously educating myself on films, and he's waving back at me.

Below: The famous ending of The Seventh Seal.

Musings on Cinema While Thinking of Laszlo Kovacs

In the past little while, I've been assembling things for my new website, "See You At the Drive-In", a project long on the backburner which will hopefully go live in late 2007. One section for this site, which romanticizes about drive-in culture, as well as reviews films best suited to the "ozoner", features obituaries of people before and behind the camera who have passed on in the past calendar year. While on the surface it may appear to be ghoulish, it is also somehow fitting, as this site is essentially about a culture that is somewhat extinct... or at the very least, it acts as an epitaph of sorts for its glory days from 50s to the 70s. As such, it only seems appropriate to include mention of these recently departed, celebrating the legacies they left for a drive-in cinema culture which is itself near-extinct. But I prefer not to think of these obituaries as morbid, but as "Celebrations of life", as the politically correct now call funerals.

Included in the list of the recently departed are not just obscure players or filmmakers known only to the most fervent geek. One will also find big names like Robert Altman, Jack Palance and Yvonne DeCarlo, who enjoyed mainstream success, but also made a living in low-budget genre fare suited to the drive-in, either on the way up or on the way down. And now we must add Laszlo Kovacs, the celebrated cinematographer, whose resume is a Christmas Wish List of 1970's American cinema.

We would be mentioning his name on this blog anyway, just because he shot The Third Greatest Film of All Time. Of course, I speak of none other than Five Easy Pieces. Bob Rafelson's masterpiece is indicative of Kovacs' style-- classical, yet giving the illusion of being naturally lit, thereby allowing one to forget they are watching a movie.

The Hungarian-born Laszlo Kovacs and his friend, fellow cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, shot film of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and made their way west to sell the black and white 35mm footage, yet found no takers for it (save for a bit with Walter Cronkite) as the event was no longer considered newsworthy. However, Kovacs and Zsigmond found employment lending their talents to low-budget drive-in pictures throughout the 1960's, and it is usually said that their work transcended the tawdry B-movie production values. Kovacs in particular worked on Ray Dennis Steckler's The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, Richard Rush's Hell's Angels on Wheels (and others), and even Blood of Dracula's Castle for Al Adamson. (And if there is one movie of Al Adamson's that faintly resembles a Hollywood movie, it is the one Laszlo shot.)

When a lot of fledgling B-movie peoples of the 1960's came on the Hollywood A list, Kovacs followed, lending his talents to Robert Altman's dreamy That Cold Day in the Park; Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider and The Last Movie; more work with Richard Rush (Getting Straight, Freebie and the Bean), Martin Scorsese (New York New York, The Last Waltz)and also many films of Peter Bogdanovich, especially when the director was doing his valentines to Hollywood of yore (What's Up Doc and Nickelodeon among those with Kovacs).

And when the Hollywood Brats wheezed out, Kovacs still found work on such films as Ghostbusters and Miss Congeniality. Despite his long career, and lifetime achievement awards, it is astonishing that Laszlo Kovacs has never been nominated for an Oscar! This weekend, I had a look at Slither (1973), a hilarious, under-remembered comedy caper with James Caan, Sally Kellerman and Peter Boyle, shot by Kovacs. Seeing this film reminds me of how many of his works have scenes which often play as single takes. Perhaps this is borne out of his B-movie years, when they had to shoot quickly and save film by avoiding numerous set-ups. Yet in the 1970's that necessity turned into an art form, allowing his subtle camera to flawlessly follow around the actors, letting the stars take precedence. And yet, in Rafelson's disappointing but haunting The King of Marvin Gardens, one remembers the economical, European shooting style that perfectly enchances this low-key character study. (This film particularly haunts me because I had seen it just after getting caught in a rainstorm and receiving an ear infection-- watching it gave me a similar fish-out-of-water feeling.)

But collecting all of this material for "See You At the Drive-In" has not been a morbid task. I for one do not consider these films to be "old". The fact that we continue to watch and write about them shows their perseverance, and in that regard this work continues to be "alive", and will be long after their creators have passed on. Last week, when I re-watched Slither and also saw Breezy for the first time at the Third Floor Drive-In (more on this one soon), I was reminded of how modern such films are. Cinema of the 1970's will continue to delight future generations with its vigour and surprise, as those before and behind the camera told their stories and took risks without listening to the accountants. And while we lay Laszlo Kovacs to rest, it is truly a celebration of a life when we look back at his illustrious career, contributing to works which will continue to matter long after our physical entities have passed.

Below: Laszlo Kovacs at work on Five Easy Pieces, which is after all, The Third Greatest Film Ever Made.

Jul 12, 2007

The Third Floor Drive-In, Book One

For the past few weeks, whenever I've stayed awake long enough, I would revive the two-year old trend of The Third Floor Drive-In. Who says you need a car to go to the drive-in? Instead, whenever my energy and the weather allows, at usually 10 or 11 PM, our deck gets christened into a drive-in, thanks to a few chairs, maybe a couple of blankets, and a portable DVD player. It's a very Zen-like experience, being outside watching a film while seeing over the neighbourhood raccoons, birds and (unfortunately) mosquitoes (which is why I stock up on Vitamin B).

This trend was first borne out of necessity in the summer of 2005, when I wanted to escape the heat of the apartment, I would go outside to watch films (at first to research films for upcoming articles), and would often fall asleep outside, and come back in the house at 2 or 3 in the AM when the heat subsided. And now in 2007, the fun continues, yet with more of a bent towards vintage drive-in swill of yesteryear. While not confining ourselves to show films exclusively from its heyday (circa mid-50s to late 1970s), anything else we screen will at least attain that spirit.

I made a one-shot attempt at The Third Floor Drive-In in late April, with Night Train to Hollywood, but it just got too cold too fast. So, this year's programme began just after the Queen Victoria weekend. Here's what we've screened so far, and more to come I'm sure.

May 21: KUNG FU (1971)
This is the pilot for the TV series with David Carradine. Some of you youngsters may not know this, but in the 1970's, many TV series first began as a TV-movie pilot, which usually ran about 70-plus minutes for a 90-minute timeslot, and often set the foundation for the subsequent hour-long show. This one features Carradine as Cain, who works for some corrupt (aren't they all?) railroad baron. Clever cross-cutting of the film's present with scenes of Cain's training in the monk, a device also used in the series.

May 22: BLOW OUT (1981)
A film I hadn't seen in many moons, for a long while this is one of Brian DePalma's masterpieces, until it becomes a derivative slasher flick. But there's still much to enjoy as sound recordist John Travolta tapes a car crash and soon discovers it was no accident. A clever suspense movie made before "political conspiracy" entered our general lexicon. Nancy Allen (then DePalma's girlfriend) is cute as the party girl rescued from the sinking car, but isn't much of an actress. As always, DePalma is more interested in technique, and those sequences are obviously the most thrilling. Great use of splitscreen, and the scene where Travolta marries his audio recording to stills cut from a magazine is quite thrilling. Great night cinematography by Vilmos Szigmond.

One of the many adventures featuring the masked Mexican wrestler Santo (however dubbed here as Samson) who saves the world from a mad doctor kidnapping people to turn into waxed monsters who carry out his bidding. This slight but amusing tale is padded out with lots of wrestling sequences for the fans. Still, as with many of the K. Gordon Murray imports from Mexico, even this picture is beautifully atmospheric.

May 24: TOO SOON TO LOVE (1960)
The first feature from Richard Rush (later of such classics as Psych-Out, Freebie and the Bean, The Stunt Man) is a moderately interesting of a young couple that faces hard choices when the girl gets pregnant. Despite the subject matter, this film is even more tame than other "troubled teen" epics of its day, but it's engaging enough, more because Rush gets you to feel the desparation of their situation, less for the bland leads.

May 28: PAYDAY (1973)
This unsung classic features Rip Torn in a muscular performance as a womanizing, pleasure-seeking country and western singer. Fascinating from start to finish, this character-driven narrative is always surprising, as it blurs from one cheap hotel to another.

May 29: RIDE IN A PINK CAR (1974)
In this southern-fried trash, Glenn Corbett returns from the war, accidentally shoots some redneck in a scuffle, and then is pursued by a vigilante mob led by the kid's father (Morgan Woodward) who has the law wrapped around his finger. While a pretty silly chase flick, it's enjoyable to watch all the same.

June 11: PULP (1972)
Very enjoyable film noir spoof (in a decade that had many of them) directed with zest by Mike Hodges (who also gave us such crime pictures as Get Carter), where hack mystery writer Michael Caine (with longish hair and a white Tom Wolfe suit) gets embroiled in a mystery of his own when hired to write the biography of washed-up movie star Mickey Rooney (make of that sentence what you will). Beautifully done- a nice surprise.

Stay tuned, gang.... the memoirs continue in Book Two.

Jul 5, 2007

I Found Drive-In for a buck ninety-nine... (or, One's Bittersweet Victories as We Lose Yet Another Cultural Icon)

On June 30, Canada's institution, Sam the Record Man, closed its flagship store in downtown Toronto. The announcement of its closure was met with sorrow, yet likely not with much surprise, as the franchise truly never recovered from going bankrupt in 2001, which prompted Sam's to close all but a handful of stores across Canada. In the ensuing years, its main store on Yonge St. seldom had the customer traffic it used to have even ten short years ago. There's a multitude of reasons why this landmark closed -downloads being one of the culprits- and surely you will find more appropriate pieces than this one to explain just how much Sam's shaped our record industry, with its promotion of Canadian artists, and the great finds one would always have among its dusty shelves. (Even though they received competition from HMV or Sunrise Records within the one-block radius, rounding out what I called "The Unholy Three", Sam's still got my money 90% of the time, for price and selection).

Slowly, over the final few weeks, their inventory dwindled, as any merchandise they couldn't return would only fit the first floor of the three-floor building. And then in the last couple of weeks, suddenly, in the two big rooms on the first floor, were rows upon rows of VHS tapes! These hundreds, perhaps thousands, of titles all harkened from when Sam's video department (Sam The Video Man) used to rent movies. I had thought they sold off these tapes years ago, yet to the delight of myself and untold amounts of collectors, here they were up for grabs at $1.99 a pop.

It is said that VHS is dead. Yet one would be reminded of the contrary upon viewing the fervor in which these colourful eccentrics (myself included) were filling up their shopping baskets with these dusty hardshell cases. Yet, one could ask, what were they buying? What were they holding on to? In other words, are these consumers acquiring more than just old movies on a dated format? Or are these grandiose souvenirs?

This city becomes even more gentrified like any other metropolis, with its unique landmarks being replaced by brand names (I shudder to think of Sam's turning into a Starbucks, or some other corporate regime, but expect it will). It doesn't matter if its Haight Ashbury, 42nd Street, or even Yorkville... seeing distinctive cornerstones of pop culture being plowed over in favour of The Gap or condos for Yuppie scum is to also witness a part of our personal history and identity disappearing. Do you think people will lament when a Walmart closes? Sure, you may say that Sam's was a corporation too, but it spoke to people. It wasn't about social cliquism or cultural snobbery. It tapped into our collective pop culture... it was about sharing, and discovery.

Thus, it is somewhat fitting that in the twilight days of Sam's, I got that feeling of discovery one last time... and how. While no doubt a lot of bargain hunters or record connoisseurs went looking for obscure albums for bargain basement prices, my time spent was at the racks hawking these old VHS tapes.

So if you, dear reader, are asking The Burning Question: "Gee, how many VHS movies did you get?", the answer will not be supplied here. Nor will I divulge how many times I kept going back to, um, help clean out their inventory. Instead, to extrapolate on my point above, that of the titles I amassed, as far as I know, 71.5% have NOT been released on DVD.

After my first visit to the racks, I left with Monte Hellman's Flight to Fury, Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud, and... be still my heart.... Drive-In, the much worhsipped 1976 cult comedy. Now officially crowning myself king of the geeks with that score, I revisited the shelves to acquire such gems as Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula (sigh), Hillbillys in a Haunted House, the biker epic J.C., the early 60s independent film Strangers in the City, the hippie-dippie epic Thumb Tripping (which I've been seeking for 20 years), skads of indie titles from Facets, and many more that still haven't been transferred over to DVD. Who can say if some of these ever will? With the way companies merge and no-one can tell who owns what anymore, and how DVD releases always get halted due to music rights, it's no wonder VHS has been collectible now just the way vinyl was when it became clear that not everything was out on CD.

Coming away with all of these discoveries was a joyous event that any collector could understand, yet one must also pause for the circumstances under which we obtain such gems. In other words we're digging out of the mountain before it collapses, and sadly, it is at the end of an era where people like myself find some treasures like this. Yet, should the milestone of Sam's end any other way? Foraging through all of this stuff is to be reminded of what it meant to shop at Sam the Record Man all along: "Hey, look what I found!"

Thanks for the memories, Sam.

Jun 19, 2007

Tales of an Analog Enthusiast, Volume One: REMEMBERING RONNIE

This is the first of an informal, irregular series of posts where I reminisce about the good old days of the video revolution. Now, some of you youngsters out there may be baffled by the term "video revolution", since when you were born, home video was already a commonplace thing. However, those of us slightly longer in the tooth (and I say only slightly), remember that there was a different world before the juggernaut of VHS provided a brand new way of seeing films.

Before the convenience of renting movies, in order to see films beyond first run, we had to rely on late night television (you know, when they still showed movies instead of those rotten infomercials). And people may forget just how much of a firestorm it really was when a consumer was suddenly given the flexibility to choose the programming in his or her own home. At first, home video was an expensive novelty, as one usually had to rent a VHS machine along with the movies (usually, one rented a VCR and two films for ten bucks a night, more for a whole weekend), but VHS machines gradually became more affordable. (Our first machine, way back in 1985, was a Quasar, retailing for $500... and in the days of Reaganomics, five hundred bucks was a lot more than it is now.) And of course, in another 15 years, VHS gave way to DVD, and now it has never been more affordable or easier to watch movies, via Netflix or On Demand, on top of the conventional experience of walking to the corner video store, and retail prices for new DVD's have plummeted considerably in the past three years. But in the land of VHS however, it took quite a few years before it became affordable for the average consumer to buy movies instead of renting them. (As late as 1989, I remember some singular VHS titles retailed for 100 bucks... now you can buy two or more DVD boxed sets for that.)

Therefore, when renting movies became such a craze, it wasn't long before a consumer could go to the corner store to rent a movie instead of relying on places like Jumbo Video, The Video Station, etc. And since this was a time when the retail price for a movie was still 80 to 100 dollars apiece, in order to avoid these overhead costs, a lot of convenience stores would have the services of a person with a large inventory of movies, who would travel the circuit (especially in small towns like mine), and stock convenience stores with a fraction of his inventory. Then every few weeks, titles would get rotated, and so stores would be replenished with a new batch of films after they presumably played out at that location. Then once a year or so, this person would also travel to big bad Toronto, swap with other people who travel circuits in other areas, and replenish their inventory with other titles. And in my hometown, Ron Botten was such a person.

Ron (or Ronnie) had his own store, Ronnie's Variety, which he stocked with his own films, and would also circulate titles with other stores around the county. (He also lived in a dwelling that was attached to the back of the store.) Now, before I continue, I should segue with this anecdote. Even as early as 1987, in my typically restless way, I was beginning to tire of a lot of the standard mainstream fare that predominated most of the stand-alone video stores. I was curious about and hungry for a lot of obscure trash that I could only read about vicariously in the columns of "Graffiti" magazine that my cousin John would buy, and which I would read when he cleaned at the hotel. At that time, this glossy Canadian publication (which focused on alternative music) had a regular section devoted to capsule reviews of trash cinema, all found on the shelves of a place called After Dark Video in some faraway land called Toronto. This was still a couple of years away before I would eventually move to the big city, and so for now, I had to quench my thirst for cinema obscura however offhandedly it happened. And so, one Friday in March of 1987, I found our hometown's version of After Dark.

Upon my very first visit to Ronnie's Variety, I walked out with the snoozefest Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks starring some character named Boris Lugosi, and the infamous Last House on the Left. How's that for an introduction? And these titles were just picks from a huge litter of great trash that people like me would covet. It seemed fitting to see these garish cereal-box-sized video cases aligning these dusty wooden shelves. Even at this point in the video revolution, these titles seemed out of place, out of time... yet were orphans rescued from the storm at Ronnie's. For the next few years, many Friday nights or Saturday afternoons were spent going through Ronnie's shelves, wondering what ragamuffin film to take home. To avoid any confusion, Ronnie stocked his shelves with mainstream, current releases too... and no-one gave you a better deal for renting the latest movies. One day, four movies, five bucks. Take that, Blockbuster. But it was the crop of obscure stuff that was more synonymous with the "Ronnie's" experience. But there is more... much more.

Going to Ronnie's Variety usually turned into an all-night or all-afternoon thing, where the ritualistic act of deciding on what misunderstood piece of celluloid to take home was usually followed by three hours of talking about cinema (and he sure knew his stuff), or listening to his stories. One could say that Ronnie's was the last bastion of "communal retail", like the corner barber shop, which was more than just a business, it was a meeting place. You sure as hell don't get this at Blockbuster.

And he was one hell of a host. This sandy-haired gentleman, with a creasy smile, ubiquitous cigarette in hand, was a true character. He would talk about being up till six in the morning watching movies until his wife told him to go to bed. That's Ronnie. One time he had a portable sign outside the store (where one would add the plastic letters): "Make her day- buy a rose. Make Ronnie's day- buy anything," That's Ronnie. One time I read in the paper that someone tried to hold the store up, and he managed to run to the back and call the police, causing the robber to flee. The newspaper story had one quote from the store owner- "At first I thought it was some kind of joke." That's Ronnie.

His good-natured, sardonic humour was just the perfect fit for an unusual place that had some of the most unique stuff you'd ever want to watch. These out-of-the-way films found their home in this out-of-the-way place... all as colourful as the man behind the counter. After I moved away to the city, I had since learned that Ronnie retired, sold the business to someone who ran it into the ground in less than a year, and the dwelling now serves a driver's education office. Part of me envisions Ronnie still spending his time sitting next to a crateful of films, listening to his beloved jazz station on the tinny little boombox that used to be in the store window. I doubt he'd remember me now, even though we were on a first-name basis (Okay, I was on a first name basis with almost every video retailer in my hometown), but I just would like to say, thanks for the education, Ronnie. You're the greatest.

Formerly known as Ronnie's Variety
Photo taken by yours truly in April 2007.

Apr 20, 2007

Beatnik Discoveries

Thursday March 29 was kind of a double-whammy... not only did we kick off with the first screening of the new year, we also released the latest ESR extravaganza, the "Discoveries" issue. This was perhaps a little too much for one night, I know- it was a job in itself getting stuff together for the screening, but since my writing has been dormant for a long time (especially on this blog, so I'm reminded), I'm glad I kicked myself in the rear end to get the new issue done.

At first, I was planning for the new year's screening to begin with a Jack Palance film festival, as the iconic movie bad guy and trash film regular had passed away in November 2006. And as such, I had planned to do the screening in late January while his passing still would have been comparatively fresh in people's minds. Alas, January turned into February, and the weather was still bitter cold. For a little venue like mine, the last thing I needed was giving Torontonians another excuse not to come out, such as with the weather. But anyhow, late February, I decided that March was late enough to start screenings again, and then suddenly came up with the notion to do a beatnik-themed night.

The first hour of the program was a collection of clips from such things as The Rebel Set, Bucket of Blood, the "Petticoat Junction" TV show, Night Tide, and other jazz-poetry related clips from films of the time, along with the ten-minute documentary Greenwich Village Sunday narrated by Jean Shepherd, and Ron Mann let us use the Allen Ginsberg segment from Poetry in Motion. That was the first half of the hour. When I cut all this stuff together, I was roaring in laughter, but much to my surprise, the audience response was polite at best. For the latter half of the hour, I had an episode of the old "Johnny Staccato" TV series, with John Cassavetes as a private eye looking for a missing beat poet (God help us). This was the piece that set the tone for the rest of the night. It teaches me once again that I can never predict the response of the audience. After a pause for the cause to fuel up on more caffeine (which I need about as much as I need more VHS tapes), we showed The Bloody Brood, with Peter Falk paying his dues as the leader of a bunch of existential thrill killers in a beatnik cafe. This gem went over very well, played even better with an audience than having only seen it on DVD, and capped the night off. I deliberately did not mention that it was shot in Toronto, leaving it a surprise for the very end, when the final shot proudly mentions it was shot in Toronto, Canada. That of course opened the floor for discussion, and further added to the mystique of this little flick, which was made by Julian Roffman, the man behind the 3D favourite The Mask.

Tonight was our best screening to date, thanks to the best crowd we've had with some familiar faces, and new people who had recently joined the meetup group. And I must also give a special thanks to David Faris, for his unbridled enthusiasm from the word "go" when I first mentioned the theme of this month's screening. It was he who designed the ad work you see in this post, and he made a point of helping distrubute hand bills wherever he went. And as always, my Susan gets my undying gratitude. Kudos to her for showing up in her beret. Oh yes! One interesting fellow even dressed up with a fake goatee and a red blazer! That in a way encapsulated the evening-- people really showed their enthusiasm and contributed to the festive-like atmosphere I always encourage at these shows.

In the preceding weeks I was also working on "Discoveries". This, along with "Independent Voices" (coming soon!) was one of the ESR issues that kept on getting pushed back further and further because the Roger Corman issue kept getting bigger. What would happen is, I would work on Corman until I was overloaded with all things Roger, and then divert my attention a bit to Discoveries or the other one until my head cleared enough to get back to Corman. Anyway, in these few months, these issues had sat around in varying stages of incompletion, and so I kicked myself in the rear end to finally get it done. Alas, "Discoveries".

While I've always lined the context of my articles in the past with personal or sometimes autobiographical references, no issue has been this personal. All of the pieces are dogged with some kind of self-reflection pertaining to memories, aging, the dramatically changing movie-going experience. The week leading up to the screening, I was existing on three hours sleep a night and way too much caffeine just to get it done. With all the projects I've got up my sleeve for the rest of 07, I didn't want this one wallowing around.

Did I mention caffeine? As if I already didn't have coffee coursing through my veins the whole week, well I made some espresso at the screening and pumped more down me. Waking up the next morning, I still felt the nectar in my blood, half-asleep but still somewhat energized, giddy from the fanastic evening, shaking from the experience of what one of ESR's nights are supposed to be like....

Now if only I had remembered to take some damn pictures that night...

Mar 24, 2007

The Other Side of Henry Jaglom

OOn Feb. 23, I had a telephone interview with director Henry Jaglom, on assigment for the publication "Micro-Film", about his film Going Shopping, which had just been released on DVD.

Going Shopping is a very enjoyable film, one of his best works to date, featuring his wife Victoria Foyt in the central role (and is a revelation as always). This features most trademarks we associate with the films of Henry Jaglom. First, there are strong female roles, and usually with more shades and quirks that you see in any Hollywood movie, and in roles big or small, everyone gets a chance to shine. (There are more interesting female characters in this one picture than half a dozen studio films.) And then there is the improvisatory nature of his work... in which the viewer feels like a fly on the wall as the camera unobtrusively gazes at characters with overlapping dialogue, unpredictable emotions, virtues and flaws... it gives a synthesis of real life, not "reel life", all happening at once.

Jaglom's films infuriate many people, even women who aren't impressed with the neurotic wounded creatures that the female sex is often portrayed as. And for that matter, his loose, meandering structure (typical of his pictures in the 1980's) wore thin the patience of many. His impressionistic films aren't made to please the general masses who can only appreciate the cookie cutter formula of Hollywood, and even though this picture, and his previous film Festival in Cannes (2001), are somewhat conservative in approach, they still show Jaglom exploring his themes, with his unique style that wavers between documentary and narrative.

And in my 20 years of compulsive film watching, I've made a point to see all of his films, for despite their imperfections, they do achieve something unique and insightful. Plus, I admire that still after 35 years, he continues to make his pictures outside of the Hollywood mainstream.

In my 45 minute interview, we talked about his approach to filmmaking, the female roles (especially in Going Shopping), and the independent scene. Out of respect to Jason at "Micro-Film", I divert any more exposition on this to his magazine. I admit being nervous to speak to Henry Jaglom at first, and perhaps my style of questioning was a bit wishy washy, but it still led to the answers I wanted to receive, partially I'm sure because he was inciteful enough to know where my questioning was going.

Somehow, we got on the subject of The Other Side of the Wind, which may be the greatest unfinished-unseen film of all time. Made by Orson Welles in the early 1970's, it features John Huston as a veteran director trying to make a picture in the Easy Rider era. While all principal photography was shot, (according to whom you believe) either the footage was never edited fully, or it has been, but Welles' estate is miserly suppressing the film from release. Welles was a mentor to Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom (both of whom appear in this film). Mr. Jaglom offered to send me a DVD of a segment from this film featuring himself with director Paul Mazursky.

A week later, I receive the disk in the mail along with a postcard for his next film, and a note. I was stunned to see that the DVD contained twenty minutes of footage from this modern Holy Grail of movies. This compilation of dailes and rough edits (none of which had final audio) however made me believe in movies all over again. This mixed bag of scenes shows Jaglom and Mazursky in an amazing unbroken take as they freely improvise about the state of modern cinema, with scripted moments of John Huston barking at his cronies. All of this is shot in harsh constrast lighting, recalling Touch of Evil and other Welles classics.

Equal parts exhilarating and overwhelming, this film is a crystallization of what independent filmmaking really stands for. While I realize this is a rough cut, one must accept the technical crudities, and the uneven rhythms that classical Hollywood has programmed us to perceive as "wrong". These are all the expenses paid for getting a little closer to the true ways in which humans behave. One comes away from this a little wiser due to its uncompromising text, somewhat invigorated by the unconventional filming style. Orson Welles is often considered the first independent filmmaker, and under his namesake one could also compare the films of John Cassavetes or Henry Jaglom... all deeply personal directors with a unique style, creating their singular worlds of truth within or without the cookie cutter moviemaking of Hollywood.