Jul 30, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death on the Beach... Remembering Ingmar Bergman

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

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

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

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

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

Above: Wild Strawberries

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

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

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

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

Below: The famous ending of The Seventh Seal.

Musings on Cinema While Thinking of Laszlo Kovacs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 12, 2007

The Third Floor Drive-In, Book One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 5, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for the memories, Sam.