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.

God Bless the Digital Revolution... The Manitou is in Town!

From 1971 to 1978, William Girder directed a handful of modestly budgeted horror films (and a couple of action pictures). The best known of which is perhaps Grizzly (1976), the JAWS cash-in, but with a bear. But over the years, his work has developed a following, not least a very good website also solidly reviews his films. And there you can find out about the making of such drive-in classics as Abby or Day of the Animals.

While enjoying the few of his films I have seen, I have been wanting to see his final film, The Manitou, for years, based on its reputation (or lack thereof). And now, Anchor Bay has released this notorious film on DVD, and yep- all the rumours I have heard are true. This is truly a mind-numbing movie: a hallucinogenic mess of special effects, bad acting, and a complete lack of sense.

What did the legendary Lee Strasberg think of his daughter Susan, appearing in such films as these? While a fine actress in her own right, one wouldn't know it from the sparse film roles she did get... proof point here. She plays the hapless patient who has a strange growth coming out of her neck... which soon develops into a life-sized body of a demon from Native American folklore! So Michael Ansara shows up as a Native witch doctor (with this great big wig that could've inspired the genetically reformed Klingons) to rid the world of this monster.

This spin on The Exorcist takes the "demons run amuck" theme to a new plateau. Girdler adapted this film from a best-selling novel by Graham Masterson, which I haven't read, so I cannot attest to what liberties were taken here. However, what we get is a big-budget excuse for icky makeup (like when the creature gets old enough to detach itself from Susan Strasberg), and lots of special effects to keep things interesting enough so that people don't notice the plotholes (in this case, this film predated the usual Hollywood mindset by a couple of years). My favourite is when Tony Curtis and Michael Ansara open a hospital door, and the entire universe is inside! Oh, did I mention Tony Curtis yet?

What is a big-budget 1970's horror film without one bad performance by a golden age movie star who's seen better days? On a par with Richard Burton in Exorcist II: The Heretic and Bette Davis in Burnt Offerings... Tony is so mesmerisizingly, stupefying BAD in this... it makes his cornball appearances in that godawful "Hollywood Babylon" TV series look dignified. The Manitou is proof positive of the golden rule that most 1970's big-budget Hollywood horror pictures sucked (with only rare exceptions), all while the genre was being defined in the margins with such pictures as The Hills Have Eyes, Deep Red and -gotta mention this- Blue Sunshine.

What were they thinking? What happened? Did this whole movie go to peyote? But for all of that, this film is actually a very fast-moving experience, in spite of itself. You are so thunderstruck by this movie that you have a hungry fascination to see more, to see what on earth they're going to throw at you next. It may be a bad movie in a conventional sense, but it is a very enjoyable one at that. The very least must be said, that when William Girdler actually had something of a budget to play with, the result was imaginative in some unique way. In that regard, it is much more entertaining than another studio horror of the day like Prophecy, or the Rock Hudson classic, Embryo. I can't wait for the weather to warm up so I can open the third floor drive-in again and put this on in its proper environment.

Sadly, William Girdler passed away at the age of 30 in a helicopter crash while scouting locations for his next film. He nonetheless left behind a filmography much larger than any other directors of his age at the time. Naturally, the big "what if" question emerges, pondering how his career would have continued, but this cinematic swansong proves that it at least would have been unique.

Mar 2, 2007

It Came from Larry Buchanan

Thursday March 1, Toronto was buried in a freak snowstorm, coupled with wind and thunder. For this reason, I decided not to check out the U of T screening of Frankenstein on Campus (something I know I'll regret sooner or later) and stayed home to cook pork roast. In the kitchen I had the good old portable DVD going, playing Larry Buchanan's Curse of the Swamp Creature. Those new to ESR land may be interested to know of our affiliation with the work of director Larry Buchanan, and I won't get too detailed about it now, however you can read all about it here.

In abridged terms, it all began in 2002 when Rob Craig offered his services to contribute an article on the seven science fiction-horror films that Mr. Buchanan had made for television in the late 1960's (of which Swamp is one). When he submit this huge article that ran the length of an entire issue of ESR, I opted to publish it in its entirety in a special issue. So, since then, Rob's piece had re-appeared online in the monthly e-zine Horror-wood, and then we were fortunate to have been in contact with Mr. Buchanan before he passed away in December 2004.

In early 2005, Rob and I had been going back and forth about writing a book completely devoted to Mr. Buchanan's films (he'd handle the horror films, I'd handle the conspiracy movies, and so on...), but of course the obvious dilemmas arose.... who knows us? who will publish it? Regardless, the desire outweighed everything else, and Rob e-mailed me a big introductory chapter. I had promised to flesh this introduction out by May 1, 2005, and never did. This was partially due to my emotional meltdown in early 2005, and I completely cracked up over trying to do anything creative. This, and the TV pilot I was also doing, were the most obvious casualties. However, shortly after I received Rob's introduction, the communication had broke down. Yet after watching the Buchanan film, it got me thinking about that book idea all over again, and with a little Googling, I was stunned to find out that Rob is releasing a book on Buchanan this year, published by McFarland (which, by the way, was an intended target in finding a publisher.)

Upon reading this, I was ready to commit suicide, as this news grimly reminded myself of another opportunity I had let slip away, and how I'm not getting any younger, my life is a complete failure, blah blah blah. However, after a drink-induced sleep and some morning coffee, I now realize that Rob probably could do this project a lot more justice than I ever could. Way back in 2000, when I found Rob's writings on the IMDB, and then began exchanging e-mails with him, I knew this guy was something special. When he's in his element, his stuff is dazzling (I still get comments about his "1984" piece that adorned ESR #15), visceral and revolutionary. I can only imagine the caliber that this book is going to be, and so I extend my best wishes to Rob, and come back anytime.

When I was reliving my own memories of Horror-wood, (I had contributed pieces on Coleman Francis and Al Adamson), I saw that the last issue of this monthly e-zine was still at August 2006. I had noticed for a while that it had not been updated, and at first, thought nothing of it, understanding fully how life and work get in the way of labours of love such as this. Then with a little more Googling, I was shocked and saddened to learn that its creator, Joe Meadows, had passed away in September of 2006, after an illness. While we had only communicated via e-mail, I always liked Joe (nicknamed "Renfield") for his energy and encouragement, and even after only dealing with him at this level, I truly feel a loss, and can only imagine that felt by his friends and family. If you're new to Joe's wonderful website, please do check it out while it is still active.

Winter Light

Well, after a long winter, we're finally back, and I hope to begin writing for the blog again on a more permanent basis, just as a way for me to get back into a writing headspace, which I have sorely lacked over the past few months.

The fall of 2006 was as busy as any autumn... lots of activity, little sales. Word on the Street was a washout in the literal sense of the word, as the buckets of rain prevented a lot of people from sticking around, or showing up in the first place. Canzine's sales were surprisingly slow, compared to last year's... no one seemed to visit the big ballroom area where I was last year. Whatever... it was however an off day from the start I suppose, as Broken Pencil fucked up as usual.... this time, they didn't have me down for a table which I had booked three months prior... however, thankfully I still managed to get the table space I needed, right next to Brian Random, so we could watch each other's space.

And the Small Press Fair this year was a complete embarassment. This time, the powers that be really dropped the ball, and instead the fair was held at the Victory Cafe, a considerably smaller venue than the St. Paul's Church. As such, the fair had to be held over two days, each day with a different set of vendors. All that didn't matter however, because there was never more than a trickle of customers at any given moment... thus showing how much this fair needed the church space, as based on its location, we realized just how much the venue depended on passerby traffic, of which there was none here. And signage? Forget about it.

Typically, ESR had a much more appreciative response in Hamilton than Toronto. One week prior to the Toronto Small Press Fair, Hamilton had its own, and this second fair was much better than last year's... different venue, better traffic (although I do understand that the 2005 fair would be a rocky start). While the crowd traffic is of course smaller, I get a much better vibe from the Hamilton customers, as perhaps because it is a smaller urban centre, they are more conscious of how much support the independent community really needs, and unlike the mindset of these pretentious assholes in the Toronto scene, they know it won't exist without their help.

In order to boost the attendance of my screenings, I began a meetup group for ESR (which you can access here). My reason for doing so was two-fold. After a lackluster show of support for Tributary, which we showed in October, I wanted to ensure that I could get more bodies out for November's screening of Shatnerfest, for which Skot Deeming was guest of honour. Secondly, my reason for starting this group was largely out of anger at the organizer of the other meetup group who came to my first screening in the summer, and offered to let me suggest events in his group for my upcoming screenings.

Skot Deeming explains Shatnerfest.

However, after taking him up on this nice gesture, he repeatedly gave me some lame-ass excuses for not doing it. The final insult came at the time of Shatnerfest, when he said that my venue wasn't big enough for his group... this bit of ego masturbation is completely false, as the other meetup group seldom gets more than twenty people at any one event. I am not a vindictive person by nature, and I don't even mean to rattle on about this as long as I have already, but I've had my fill of people who offer to do things and then give me bullshit for not doing it.

But it gets even better-- this guy still moans wanting people to give him money for doing all this work of planning events. Hmmm, well let's see.... I on the other hand, have been publishing a magazine out of my own pocket for five years, and the screenings I do, I do from scratch, all the booking, all the publicity. In other words, I don't scalp something out of a paper plan an event around it and look like a hero. In either case, I lose money at this constantly... and I put up with it because these things are my passions. While I'm always grateful for the support I do receive, never in five years have I asked for dollar one from anybody.

Thus, days before Shatnerfest, I hurriedly whipped together this group, (in attendance to the usual newspaper, radio and e-mail promotions that I do) and although the attendance was still far from great, a good time was had by all. Our good friend Skot Deeming (who originally conceived of "Shatnerfest" for his own Cinema Subterrain screenings in London) put together a collection of Bill Shatner's greatest moments in singing (such ditties as "Rocketman"), and then I followed up with my copy of the TV-Movie Go Ask Alice. I had also planned the evening to be the final blowout for 2006, as I privately invited the regulars to stick around for some drinks... Andrew and Kerry (who have 100% attendance of all the screenings), Mike, Skot, Chris, David, and of course Susan.... among others....

From a creative standpoint, 2006 only produced one issue of ESR, and a special, non-numbered issue at that. Months overdue in the making, The Roger Corman Scrapbook finally came out in October of 2006, to celebrate the man's eightieth year, and his huge filmography of B movie favourites. This mammoth project became my own private Ishtar, as not only were there setbacks delaying its release (namely, having to make up for a couple of writers who had to leave the project, and then having to re-write some pieces from scratch as I could not retrieve them from my dead laptop.) I jokingly referred to this as "The Corman Curse", but nonetheless, it finally crawled out in time for a few shows, a good response, and to date it remains the biggest thing we've done. Like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors, it just got bigger and bigger, as I decided that more and more films should be included as I went along.

The holiday season proved an even longer period of time off for me to make up for the vacation time I didn't take last year, and thus began 2007 with a renewed sense of energy and purpose, although admittedly, I haven't returned to the keyboard in as great fervour as I would've hoped. And as usual, I've been trying to keep active with independent film happenings about town.

In January, we saw Jonathan Culp's hour-long video, It Can Happen Here, a fascinating diaristic collage. Also we went to OCAD one blustery Thursday night to see a lecture held by Michael Snow. I was happy to see the crowd in the hall was capacity, as Snow showed slides of many of his visual art works, as well as a couple of short film extracts. And then the crowd quickly thinned out when there was a Q&A section held by that freak Bruce Elder. Now, let me say that I in no way question Elder's intelligence, nor his knowledge of experimental film... however, it astonishes me that the man cannot articulate regular conversation. Each question was a page-long hallucination full of big words and allusions that essentially answered themselves, and I have no idea how anyone on the planet Earth was supposed to respond to a single one of them. A guy behind me quoted Elder verbatim in a sarcastic tone "The image is divisible into two languages", followed by his own "this is bullshit". I ended up feeling quite embarrassed for Snow-- here was academia at its worst.

A couple of interesting moments happened in February, when I was contacted by Jason Pankoke from Micro Film and James King from Broken Pencil. Jason (who is based in Illinois) and I have never met, have only exchanged e-mails, traded copies of our mags, and shared combat stories. I laughed at the irony when this guy joined my meetup group... oh sure, I get support from Illinois, but I have to light a match under a Torontonian's ass to do anything! Anyway, since some of his writers bailed on him, he called upon my services to contribute articles for Kenneth Anger's new DVD, the latest Henry Jaglom film, and the Jack Smith documentary (more on all of these soon). James has kindly asked me to write for BP's film section, correlating the DVD's I sell, and the screenings into something-- this sounds very intriguing, and I hope to explore this more in the future. Ornette Coleman was right-- I guess if you hang around in this business long enough, you become respectable. Happily, people now call me for work instead of the other way around, and I happily take it on, giving back to this fledgling community. Onward and upward.


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