Dec 10, 2007

November Screening: "Emerald Cities"

The final screening of 2007 ended ESR's year not with a bang but a whimper. After the promising attendance at "TV Party", it was my hope and expectation that there would be carry-over to the next month's screening, Emerald Cities... a film I was equally proud to be able to present. But now I know the pattern. These screenings are sine waves-- the highs of "Back to School Special" beget the lows of "Tributary" the following month, ditto "Beatnik Movie Night" begat "Cube Van", "TV Party" sired "Emerald Cities", and so on....

Short of offering cocaine and hookers, I am bereft of ideas as to how to keep a consistent flow of customers from one month to the next. I realize that the diversity of what I show brings about select audiences who may only support one aspect of my programming, but hey, ESR is eclectic, after all, and I wouldn't be happy showing the same kind of movies every month. What I attempt to do is open people's eyes and ears to the broad spectrum of things- that was why I began publishing in the first place. And as such, very few stick around for the ride every month-- and fewer still, considering many of the regulars I have entertained have since dropped off.

Now, I'm not trying to whine like a poor defenseless one, because I also bear some of the blame for the crappy attendance in November. Since my workload at my day job has literally doubled (although my paycheck sure as fuck hasn't), I've had neither the time nor energy to promote this thing properly. Ditto, I was supposed to had a spot on CKLN to talk about the show, and that didn't happen either. And since I booked the date two months prior, I had no way of knowing that Rue Morgue was showing a Mario Bava movie on 35mm the same night, thus I suspect some of the crowd went there instead-- in fact, had I not had a screening, I'd have been there too. (You must understand that I've been wanting to see -any- Bava film on a big screen for decades, and the one fucking night there is one, I'm already booked.)

Yet even so, it has become even more apparent to me the vicious circle that I'm in. To spend more money on advertising and promotion would supercede whatever small revenue I would get with a packed house (to say nothing for the space rental and licensing fees I already have to dole out). Ditto, it is becoming increasingly harder to sell the print publication, and to broaden my readership via distribution (at consignment prices or less) would only cause me to lose more money. As much as I want to expand from the rinky dink operation I'm forced to toil in, I realize even greater obstacles would await me if I did so.

Which of course begs the question, exactly how much more money am I willing to piss away on such a vanity project? Yes, the old adage is "Do it for the love", but I don't exactly love losing thousands of dollars a year, and what rewards I do receive don't exactly make up for what I'm frittering away. ANYway, the movie....

Rick Schmidt was an influence among my generation that went to film school in the late 1980s. His book "Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices" was a revelation. Published just at that right time when Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee were giving spark to the independent scene, Schmidt showed us that we could do it too. His book is not only inspiring, but it is also down-to-earth and unpretentious about the numerous obstacles that one faces along the way. And yet, still one comes out full of enthusiasm to make an independent movie. (In fact, in my own filmmaking days, I used to read this book cover to cover before beginning any project, to get that feeling again.) Yet, in the past 30 years, Mr. Schmidt has also practiced what he's preached, by making a handful of low-budget features, attaining much creativity out of so little means. This year, he has began making his work available on DVD-- and after reading about his films for so many years (as he would cite examples of his own work within his book), this is truly an honour.

As of this writing, I have seen his 1983 film Emerald Cities three times, and I still keel over in laughter for the first half of the movie, with its brilliant, deadpan satirical humour about a drunk Santa Claus on the path of his runaway daughter. And soon he becomes enveloped in the raging paranoia of 1984, Reaganomics and armageddon. The film shifts into a Bowery-level Godard, a truly apocalyptic "Weekend" for the 80s. The sense of chaos is further exemplified by the punk bands Flipper and The Mutants performing throughout, and how it gleefully kicks down the fourth wall of narrative. Seeing this a quarter of a century later, one forgets how much we felt that the world was going to end at any minute, in the midst of the Nuclear Arms Race. And in the current "dark ages", one hopes for a similar film for our decade.

In case you missed the screening (and all but six did), you can purchase the film at Rick Schmidt's website here.

Nov 12, 2007

Preaching to the Converted...
OR, Small Press Fair Book Eleven

I have to confess that I wasn't as enthused about attending this edition of the Small Press Fair, considering the dreadful sales that I had in the last two. But still, in the evening prior, I was happy to have found my muse again, and had that "go for broke" enthusiasm with me when I went to the show Saturday morning. I was late getting there as I took longer than expected making "Word of Gord" leaflets, and upon arrival, everything had already been set up... without the organizers even having been there! Plus, I was also nervous when I saw no signs about the fair. The front room of the Trinity-St. Paul Centre was given over for readings all day, therefore there were less than normal numbers of vendors this time, as we were only selling in the one room.

Happily, I ended up selling more than the last two fairs combined (but believe me, that's not saying much), yet still I found sales to be considerably less than I was used to at this venue. I spent a good portion of the day chatting with my neighbour and good friend Gordon Phinn, helping him plug his new chapbook and website, both named "The Word of Gord" with some leaflets I printed the night before. I also spent much time during the day wondering what right I have to be there. I've been coming to the fair for six years, and in most cases, I've sold quite well, perhaps because my publication is obviously different from the majority of what is offered-- novels, chapbooks, and broadsheets. Therefore it stands apart, after customers see table upon table of chapbooks.

And just because I don't publish creative fiction, I still support this independent community with my wallet when I can, and I usually leave with an armload of novels or short stories (but NO poetry) from the fair (this day was no exception). Where the rest of the small press community is concerned, I consider myself to be within and without it. In other words, because I do not publish creative literature (fiction, poetry, etc.), I've never felt to be part of the insular community that has mutually supported one another over the years. That is not to say that I've ever felt unwelcome there, although I often question if this is the right venue for me, as they're selling shoes, and I'm selling hats. But by and large, I do consider these people to be brethren- despite the different things we offer, we're all addressing some need. Either we're finding ways to express ourselves, or to create an avenue of material not properly addressed in the mainstream. One way or another, we're carving out a little corner of this popped culture to call our own.

I've seen a lot of changes at this venue over the eleven fairs I've attended, over the course of six years. At first, ESR was a chalk mark in a rainstorm, being among a small minority offering something other than creative writing or poetry. But over the years, I've seen the emergence of comic books, socio-political humour magazines, fanzines, and even DVD's between the tables of poetry chapbooks.

On Stuart Ross' blog, a lively dialog was begun about the decline of the small press fair (some of the reasons I've cited above), and he's definitely more qualified than most to offer his opinions, as he was the co-founder of the event 20 years ago. He is dead-on with his thoughts about the lack of publicity and fanfare surrounding the event, thereby affecting attendance and sales. While I don't entirely blame the new organizers for this misfortune, (as I know they took over the reigns without any contact information for supplies, etc., and that the Toronto Arts Council funding for this event was dramatically cut) I indeed share his concerns that this fair (his child) is going to die.

But perhaps more troubling is that one Mr. Exclusionary So-and-So responded to his post with bemoaning that so many different kinds of things were now being sold at the fair. All right, but isn't this after all the "small press fair"? God help us if the whole place was filled up with nothing but poetry leaflets about clouds, leaves and kittens. While sure I do other shows during the year in which others with broadsheets of dainty haikus would not attend, I like the fact that this fair is so diverse, and if anything, I think it needs to be bigger to properly accomodate the diversity of what can be offered under the umbrella of "small press".

But also one came away with an elegiac feeling at this fair, as I learned that one of my favourites, "Murderous Signs", had ceased publication. Grant Wilkins' semi-regular litzine, with a quality selection of material, was always a treat at fairs, and even more impressive that he paid his writers for their work, and gave away his publication for free. (In fact, Grant was one of the movers and shakers I praised in my now-classic (?) essay, "Us, Independent Mainstream Pop Culture and the Whole Damned Thing", published in 2003.) In the beginning of his fifteenth and final issue, Grant offered the following explanation for discontinuing this publication (Forgive the long quote, but it's important):

"Ranting and raving in the pages of a litzine about the sterility of what passes for culture in the media, the stupidity of government, the willingness of the media to be spoon-fed "the truth" by whoever happens to be in charge, or the gullibility of the great mass of the public for vacantly accepting this "truth", was and is all very good and very worthy in and of itself. The fundamental problem of course is that in doing so, I'm largely preaching to the converted. The sort of people who pick up litzines like Murderous Signs, who read indie comic books, who go to poetry readings and small press fairs or who listen to campus radio aren't the ones who really need to be knocked about the head with my take on "the truth". These are all the activities an the interests of people who are -at least in some respects- on the fringe of the society, and folks on the fringe -left, right, artistic, lunatic or otherwise- are not the ones whose votes, money and TV remotes drive the empty, commercial of we might laughingly call the cultural life of our civilization."

In a nutshell, Grant proves the very thing that Mr. Exclusionary So-and-So (cited above) ignores by wishing the small press fair would go back to selling nothing but chapbooks about cute bunny rabbits. Regardless of what we're publishing, we're all addressing the need for something not necessarily satisfied by the mainstream. Yet, I only partially agree with Grant's statement about "preaching to the converted". While by and large, the people who attend such events as these are already converted, there is still a considerable number of passersby who haven't yet heard the gospel, and for that matter, may not really be willing to listen to such cultural agenda. They're probably just looking for something entertaining in exchange for whatever dollars they can afford to relinguish. As it gets tougher to eke out a business in a dwindling scene, getting any kind of attention at all is the most we can ask.

Nov 10, 2007

New York in the Fifties (2001)

I read Dan Wakefield's book New York in the Fifties many moons ago, and remember it to be a nice little treat, if not as revolutionary as it could be. And that is precisely my thought of this documentary, which uses Wakefield's book as the template, adding interviews and archival footage.

The central thesis of this film is that all of the revolutionary acts of the 60s had their seeds in the 50s, in the Big Apple, which was the exodus for those who didn't buy the white picket fence dream. As such, within the memoirs of such interviewees as Joan Didion (her novella "The White Album" is the for me the definitive impression of the end of the 60s), Robert Redford, filmmaker Ted Steeg (the man who gave us Coffee House Rendezvous, a lovely educational film I've raved about incessantly), musician David Amram, and writer Nat Hentoff, we are given whispers of women's rights, equality, and most of all, the general sense of acceptance and community in the period. If the 1960's were drugs and rock and roll, with music being the communicative device of the period, the 1950s were booze, jazz, and literature was the language of the people. As such, the film turns startlingly personal, with interviewee Dan Wakefield candidly discussing battling his own demons with alcohol. In that sense, the era of the "three martini lunch" had its casualties, too.

But also there is some terrific archival footage of author James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac on the Steve Allen show, and some hilarious excerpts of Norman Mailer talking about womens lib and its alleged lesbianism! I am curious why Mailer wasn't an interviewee. His was such an important voice of the decade, and also a vital example of how an author became a celebrity outside of the printed word, it would have been interesting to hear his take on things. Instead, the filmmakers used some footage of Mailer, in what I believe to be the 1970s! Ironically, I watched this film at about two in the morning Friday night. In a few hours, Mailer would pass away at the age of 84.

Betsy Blankenbaker's film is a joy to watch. While we learn how revolutionary the decade really was, it was a comparatively quiet revolution. As such, this documentary replies in kind, by gently whispering that message.

Nov 8, 2007

The Rainbow Man / John 3:16 (1997)

If Other Cinema was hiring, I'd drop everything and go work for them. But since they're in California, and the chances of that happening are about as likely as Criterion putting out The Star Wars Holiday Special, I'll just have to content myself with praising their fine line of DVD's in my irregular blog posts that are commonly peppered with the enroaching angst of middle-aged disappointment.

But Craig Baldwin's label Other Cinema is a marvelous resource for interesting, offbeat independent or experimental films, and documentaries. The diversity of his catalogue speaks to the outsider, either by mastering some obscure films that the general populace couldn't otherwise see under normal circumstances, or in that the films themselves are about interesting people or cultural trends that work outside of the system (and in many cases, become swallowed by it).

I am not old enough to have remembered the ubiquitious presence of Rollen Frederick Stewart, AKA- The Rainbow Man, who would always appear in the stands at televised sporting events with his rainbow-coloured wig, and thusly became a mini-celebrity in the process. And even if I were, chances are I would still only have seen him once a year, in those times when I am always dragged by ankles to some bar to watch the Super Bowl (which to me is about as exciting as a tap water tasting party).... I mean, come on guys, do I drag you kicking and screaming to my screenings? (Well, maybe I should start...) Regardless, this documentary by Sam Green (he who gave us The Weather Underground)is universal, and in the ten years since its completion, perhaps even a more relevant diatribe against the celebrity machine, in which people know more about the problems of Lindsay Lohan than their own family, in light of such shows as "American Idol", in which nobodies can become a star for fiteen minutes.... and often at their own expense.

With his rainbow coloured afro wig, and spreading good vibes everywhere, Mr. Stewart became an interesting symbol of the hedonistic "me generation". As such, his fame got him fortune, which was quickly squandered. And before we think this is yet another case of a casualty of the 70s fast lane, his career was born again, literally and figuratively. He converted to Christianity and started preaching the good word in public instead (he and his wife would have shirts with "John 3:16" on them). These two chapters in his life are not incongruous-- either era of his career paint a picture of a man who is absolutely fanatical about what he does. (And we later learn how his obsessiveness met with tragedy.) But also, when he wasn't spreading good vibes or the good word, he would consume television like it was air. This man was-is so obsessed with the broadcast band, and knew how to use it for his own purposes, and in that regard, it is surprising how someone so media savvy, who knew how to milk the system, ultimately became a tragic figure of it.

Nov 7, 2007

A Gunfight (1971)

Ex-gunslinger Will Tenneray (Kirk Douglas) has settled down in the town of Baja Rio, making a living as a conversation piece in the saloon, as a (forgive the pun) draw to get cowboys out to buy more drinks. Along comes gunfighter Abe Cross (Johnny Cash), and in their congenial banter, each man knows that despite their attempts at domesticity, they're still gunfighters at heart, and while neither man bears any ill will or grudge against the other, they mutually agree to have a "winner take all" gun duel to the death, in a bullfighting ring.

This very good, underrated western is evocative of such other pictures of the decade like The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid or The Shootist, which examine the theme of "gunfighter as a museum piece". The gunslinger is considered a novelty act, and at times, incongruous in a changing world. But in this enjoyable capitalist satire, the two gunmen take advantage of their archetypal roles by putting on a grand spectacle (fittingly in an arena where a human can now be slaughtered with the same kind of ironic entertainment value as the killing of an animal), and stand to profit from this humility. But this movie is also an elegiac fable, as each man realizes that at heart they're meant to live and die by the gun, despite the consternation of their women (honey-haired Karen Black is the hooker with a heart of gold who chinks Cross' armour; Jane Alexander has an early role as Tenneray's wife).

Kirk Douglas and Johnny Cash are well-matched-- Kirk's gregarious character is balanced by Cash's more introspective persona. In this rare acting role, the singer appears sometimes awkward in front of the camera, yet it is hard to tell if it is due to his lack of experience as an actor, or if he's really in character as the introverted Cross. Director Lamont Johnson, a veteran of television, excelled on the big screen with such character-driven movies as The Last American Hero or Cattle Annie and Little Britches (someone please put this on DVD), or the interesting thriller The Groundstar Conspiracy. Yet the mind-blowing finale of this sleeper is perhaps the most cinematic he ever got, with slow motion, zooms and dissolves to compliment the trippy double ending, offering alternative conclusions if one or the other survived, but showing why the ending must be so. It is a fitting end for such a thought-provoking movie.

Nov 4, 2007

Bandolero! (1968)

Some nights, when you want to settle down with a movie, you may not be in the right mood to watch something with heavy social values, or an arthouse chamber piece where nothing happens for three hours, or even a lofty independent work that wants to challenge our cinematic conventions. In such evenings of indecision as these, you can never go wrong with a good western.

Outlaw Dee Bishop (Dean Martin) and his gang of varmints get arrested in a botched bank robbery, and are sentenced to hang. His estranged brother Mace (James Stewart) learns of the impending execution, and hatches an elaborate scheme to bust them out, posing as a hanging judge. Hotheaded sheriff Johnson (a slightly overacting George Kennedy) and his posse are in pursuit, as the outlaws head south of the border. Racquel Welch is also on hand as eye candy, as the hostage Maria, whose husband was a bystander killed in the robbery attempt. She has little to do but look fetching, spout Hispanic one-liners, and cause the entire cast to fight over her.

During the credits sequence, we are led to believe that Bandolero! is going to be another American oater of the time which attempted a more modernist approach that copied the stylistics of genre films made across the ocean, with spare shots of Jimmy Stewart riding through the desert accompanied by a Jerry Goldsmith score with the trademark whistling from that of a subversive spaghetti western. And perhaps that is true, once you consider that Jimmy Stewart's actions are more morally ambiguous than anything done by his psychotic antiheroes of the Anthony Mann westerns of the 50's. Yet at heart, it is disarmingly old fashioned, as the motivation for Mace's plans is a curious attempt at giving his long-lost brother some civility. Further, the brothers Bishop treat Maria with nothing less than dignity and exaltation- often fending off the lecherous advances of Dee's fleabitten outlaw sidekicks (among them, Will "Grandpa Walton" Geer!) In a way she represents the stability that the brothers want to have in their lives, but as we know in any western that preaches "those who live by the sword", the humble act of settling down is seldom attained.

While at first, this western is enjoyably satirical, the tone changes once the action shifts south of the border. One is surprised by the harsh violence of a film that otherwise looks and feels classically old Hollywood. Curiously some of the action sequences are rather clumsy, considering by this time director Andrew V. McLaglen was already an old hat at this genre (having recently made McLintock and Shenandoah for example), but the movie is unquestionably exciting and enjoyable.

Nov 1, 2007

A Poet on the Lower East Side (1997)

In 1995, Allen Ginsberg's Hungarian translator, Istvan Eorsi, travelled to New York for several days to meet with the legendary poet-activist-prankster to check on his latest body of work. The two men were followed around by director Gyula Gazdag (perhaps best known here for A Hungarian Fairy Tale), and two cameras. The result, subtitled "A Docu-Diary on Allen Ginsberg", is an endlessly fascinating look at the ghosts of the past.

At first, the film is a bit offputting, as there is really no traditional beginning of hello's or salutations. We open quite abruplty in Ginsberg's apartment with the two men going over sheets of poetry. And I began to fear the worst too, as at first this resembles the shaky camcorder histrionics of "America's Funniest Home Videos", instead of feeling like a "film". But in short order, the direction and camerawork become more assured, as if this small group charted out a more clear purpose for the next few days. As a result one feels this project becoming more alive, and it is exciting to watch.

While we do see some candid footage of the two men at work, discussing Ginsberg's poetry, the ulterior motif of this film is a travelogue of Ginsberg, with Eorsi, not far behind, visiting the remnants of his legacy in New York City. Each day of Eorsi's visit begins with a title card summarizing the day's events that we are about to see. The effect is much like the diary films of Jonas Mekas, who is also featured prominently in this picture.

In this travelogue, we also witness such luminaries as Ginsberg's companion Peter Orlovsky and Beat Generation poet Gregory Corso (who is in his element here). But even more moving, Allen Ginsberg takes the camera crew (and ultimately, the viewer) on a tour through the monuments of the great struggle for change that he and his contemporaries underwent in the tumultuous 1950's. We witness the old jazz club where Charlie Parket played near the end of his life, former beatnik cafes, buildings before which Ginsberg had protested to decriminalize marijuana, among other landmark relics. In fact, the long travelling shot which follows Mekas through the basement of Anthology Film Archives, with rows upon rows of film cans, seems also pertinent to this theme, as we remember the great adversity Mekas had experienced back in the day to show these controversial underground films. And to remind us that the struggle for change continues, we also witness some excellent footage of a squatter's demonstration.

As such, the film ends as abruptly as it began, with no traditional goodbyes. Like a diary entry, the film closes with the activities of the final day-- no great resolutions... his life and work will continue on.

It is re-assuring to hear Ginsberg, almost 70, still hang on to his ideals of social change. Perhaps Ginsberg is-was the most Christ-like figure in American pop culture.... his words and demeanour, alternately angry and calming, standing up for those voices oppressed by the societal norm, are tremendously healing. And he is certainly among the most important voices of the past century-- few other figures in popular culture have spoken to as many generations as he, from the beatniks to the hippies, from the punks to the Gen X'ers... he is a saint to them all.

Oct 31, 2007

Jennifer The Snake Goddess (1978)

Happy Halloween!

On this evening, it seems that pretty much any horror flick ever made seems appropriate enough to view in honour of this holiday. And many October 31st's in my past have been graced with what I called "darkness festivals", often watching horror films all day long. But especially, on this night, I seek out semi-obscure, low-budget, imperfect films... (It just seemed so appropriate to watch Blood and Lace on October 31, 1987)... these movies are flawed though misunderstood little children that nonetheless possess a unique quality that others do not. Case in point, tonight's picture.

Jennifer was a minor release from AIP, made to cash in on the success of Carrie (hence the one-word title referring to the female protagonist). When it was released to television, it was retitled Jennifer The Snake Goddess... a title I actually prefer! It encapsulates the cheesy appeal of this minor but absorbing chiller.

Lisa Pelikan is the country girl Jennifer, who is at a private school on a scholarship, and is soon ostracized by the rich bitches led by the diabolical little wench Sandra Tremayne (played with utmost conviction by the small but mighty Amy Johnston). Sandra is not without problems of her own, too, yet her senator dad (John Gavin) patches things up with his chequebook. The school is so dependent on the man's wallet, that the headmistress (Nina Foch) fluffs off the evil doings of Sandra to keep her there, and thereby keep the money flowing in, and she too wants to get rid of poor Jennifer. In this Carrie ripoff, our protagonist also has a nightmarish home life thanks to a religious zealot parent (but father instead of mother this time).. and it's a credit to Jeff Corey that he still manages to give this over-the-top characterization some dignity (as opposed to, say, John Carradine doing yet another "I don't give a fuck" hammy supporting role). And then there's Bert Convy, with the baddest afro a conservative white dude could ever have, as the kindly science teacher who seems to be the one flicker of goodness in Jennifer's world.

In fact, what makes this film quite compelling is that the performances are surprisingly strong. Considering this is a "girl with killer snakes" movie, refreshingly, everyone plays it straight. (In fact, Sandra is such a little vixen, that you're kept watching.) Despite that Jennifer later uses her power over snakes to wreak vengeance, the real monsters in this film are human. In this school, the faculty lets the pupils get away with murder as long as the money pours in, and members of these little cliques freely endorse rape of fellow gang members to keep them in check. Perhaps because the writers either recognized the real monsters in their little scenario, or because they didn't have a heck of a lot of effects or imagination to work with, the plot device of the snakes is rather sustained until the end. The snakes, you ask? Ah yes.

Yep, y'see Jennifer growed up with them there "hill people", whose peculiar religion involves little kids sticking their hands in snake pits, and I'll be jiggered if this gal didn't learn when she was knee high to a possum that she had some kinda spell over them there creepy crawlies. (Okay- enough.) When Jennifer begins to plot her revenge with her squiggly friends, you can tell she's getting all supernatural and the like, because she talks slower, almost trancelike, and is suddenly illuminated by a hard key light. (During these shots, Lisa Pelikan's angular face with those wide eyes eerily resembles Maya Deren's.) And so, when Jennifer dispatches the killer snakes on these horrible preppies, the sequence is backlit with these blinding spotlights, mousey Jennifer suddenly has a perm, and the giant snakes chomping on her enemies is wisely kept to two shots to obscure how silly it looks. This film suddenly resembles a futuristic disco musical.

When I first saw this film on "The Cat's Pajamas" in 1986 (as part of the huge AIP catalog they had in their programming schedule), I figured that it could have been a film that Elvira should've had on her show, with that ridiculous climax. Yet, I've managed to remember this little film quite well over the years. In fact, seeing it again as an adult, it's less campy, as one can read more into the subtly horrible characters. I was expecting to sit down and enjoy an enjoyable piece of horror cheese, yet was rudely awakened by how dour this picture really is.

The direction by Brice Mack is quite mediocre, but now I'm interested to see his other pictures that have fallen through the cracks. (As stated in my "film of the day" review yesterday, the 70s is just a bottomless pit of films to discover.) He also made the teen comedy Swap Meet (1979), the domestic farce Half Way House (1979), featuring Anthony Eisley (!), and his final cinematic gift to the world was his reunion with Amy Johnston in (now this sounds like a lost classic) Rooster: Spurs of Death (1983). I love this job.

Oct 30, 2007

Beyond Death's Door (1979)

Ah, the 70s. As long as I continue my journey on this planet, and maybe even beyond, I will still be mining the bottomless pit of wonderful films from that decade. Did I say "beyond"? Ooh, what irony! What a bad pun! Well whatever the case, such rhetoric is fitting for today's film.

In the latter half of the 1970's, Schick Sunn cornered the drive-in market with inoffensive family fare like The Adventures of the Wilderness Family, and (especially) no-budget so-called documentaries cashing in on whichever paranormal craze permeated that month. These films, with their static talking heads, and "authentic" footage of Bigfoot, aliens, or whatever (which was about as credible as Fox News), nonetheless were highly profitable on the rural circuit, especially since they cost very little to begin with. One could argue that Schick-Sunn was, by percentages, the most profitable film company in the decade, as they cornered a demographic too often ignored by the mainstream. Also, their grassroots strategy of playing films on a town by town basis, controlling the theatrical rentals themselves, hearkened back to the days of Kroger Babb, yet was so seldom practiced during this period that it seemed unique.

Die-hards like myself most likely caught up with the offerings by Sunn Classics on the late late show (remember those?) or from their all-too brief appearance on video. In 1978, Beyond and Back was a highly successful mockumentary that stood apart from the rest of the paranormal pack for its greater reliance on narrative, featuring re-enactments of allegedly true-life experiences dealing with near-death experiences. I haven't seen that picture since my solitarity late show viewing in the summer of 1983, but remember it well for its fascinating stories, conjecture and scary moments which surely would like quite corny today. This film has stayed with many people over the years... all the more impressive that such a small picture has such a lasting impression.

Following on the success of that film was tonight's feature, Beyond Death's Door, which is considerably lesser known, but if you can find it, it is a drive-in denizen's dream. (In fact, I will be reviewing this film at length in my upcoming website, "See You at the Drive-In", but for now I'll just skim the surface.)

The subject of life after death is of course fascinating, and even on those terms alone, this movie is engrossing. But despite all that, it is a campy hoot. This film is wholesome to a fault, as it seems everyone manages to get to heaven-- even pimps and prostitutes. However, interestingly, the two people who attempt suicide, go to Hell. In any event, those who go "beyond and back" get to redeem themselves once they have a taste of what exists in the world further on.

This film is episodic, featuring several vignettes of people who clinically die, experience the world beyond, and offer testimony to the disbelieving doctor. (Because it's the same physician dealing with these people, one wonders if this hospital offers near-death experiences for all its patients.) And as such, these sequences purely exist as a skimpy device to gradually make the good doctor believe there is such a thing as an afterlife. Yet the doctor and his firm-believing female co-worker (who cannot act) seem like guest stars to these weighty vignettes. (The film even blatantly uses two sequences from Beyond and Back!)

There is an elongated chase sequence, featuring Taurean Blacque (soon to be in "Hill Street Blues") as the pimp on the run from the mob, that seems out of step with the rest of the movie, but is fun to watch nonetheless. Then there is the disco sequence (seen above). Dear lord. At the end of this year, I plan to publish a list of trash films for a year-end round-up "The 12 Days of Trash-mas", and this film gets on the list alone just for these immortal nine minutes where a construction worker has a falling out with this daughter who (gasp) is hanging out at the discotheque with some punk, then dies in a freak accident, and goes back to the disco in spirit form and tries to communicate with his daughter! Oh man, this is just too much for me to bear.

But you don't need to take my word for it. You can see this for yourself here.

This is just the cream of the crop of this lost classic. Beyond Death's Door is a true find for cult film trash hounds.

Oct 29, 2007

Hub City (1997)

The first film on the collection "Homeland Insecurity", a trio of Bill Brown's films released by Microcosm Publishing, is a disarming, quirky and haunting 15-minute short about his hometown of Lubbock, Texas.

On the soundtrack, the narrator talks about time, the weather and fellow Lubbock native Buddy Holly. Weather contributed to demise of the rock 'n roll great in 1959, and a 1970 tornado that created havoc in the downtown core of Lubbock, and yet the sky leaves no marks of such tragedy. Onscreen, images of weather (recalling the diaristic films of George Kuchar) and haunting shots of empty, half eroded buildings and signs (shot with the simple grace of James Benning) leave on film a permanent record of sorrow and loss.

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, 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.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...