May 29, 2008
Last night, ESR's good friend Dion Conflict had a rare screening of the 1964 documentary Only One New York at the Revue Cinema. From the get-go, the evening had that feeling you get with wearing a favourite jacket: the familiarity and the comfort derived from it. Before the movie, Susan, David Faris his friend Heiki and I had some drinks and food at Gate 403 right across the street. I had arrived there a bit earlier than everyone, and listened to a couple of fabulous numbers by the Glenda Del Monte band (a Latin-flavoured jazz band; she at the piano, accompanied by fretless bass, and drums). This club has had a long history with Susan and I, and I never get tired of digging its bohemian surroundings. (If I ever do the third film in my "beatnik trilogy", I'd do it here.) I was delightfully surprised to discover that they had dinnertime acts nightly, before the 9 0'clock band showed up. It didn't seem too long ago that they only had one musical performance a day for about five days in the week, plus a Sunday matinee. (Well, maybe it was a long time ago...) The venue reminded me how long it's been since I had gone to hear live music. Now that I've hopefully shaken my winter blahs, and have started to become pro-active about things, I imagine I'll be taking advantage of more musical venues in the city. This rendezvous was but one gentle reunion with familiar habitat.
You, dear reader, may know that Dion used to show films from his collection every eight weeks at the Royal Cinema before they closed two years ago. Since then, his Toronto screenings have been fewer and further between. And despite the special shows he had last year (Hunkajunk 5; Christmas Kitsch-a-Roo), this one felt more like a traditional "Dion Show". Yet even this night was a bit different, as it was prefaced by a performance with the amazing Parkdale mentalist Mysterion. Otherwise, Dion returned to familiar territory with his kitschy door prizes (but cannily drawing the numbers before people discovered what they were bringing home), and filled the playbill with such ephemera as Around the World With Uncle George (a TV filler where "Uncle George" educates us on a different part of the globe) -this installment featured Mexico- and a trailer for The Jerk.
Even so, Only One New York is perhaps the most ephemeral feature shown in all of the Conflict Archives (and I am speaking only of features, not shorts). Despite that this night's show was billed as "Midweek Mondo Madness", I'd hesitate to call this movie a "mondo" film, since it is hardly as sensational as many films under that banner, however it follows their strategies of taking viewers to some places hitherto unseen by motion picture cameras.
This film was directed by a French filmmaker (Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau), and his approach to his subject echoes the same overwhelming feeling that Fritz Lang from Germany likely felt having experienced the New York skyline for the first time. As such, he captures the project from the same viewpoint of someone entering an unknown foreign land. The result is that what seems obvious also becomes new to us. He is enraptured by the glass and steel skyscrapers (exemplified by copious footage, much shot from unusual angles) and as such these buildings turn New York into a "character" that leads the narrative. He intersperses the film with traditions performed by many of the different cultures in the Big Apple, such as Ukrainian sword dances, Harlem gospel, Hasidic feasts, Gypsy weddings and even voodoo rituals! Since this was lensed in the 1960s, there are some interesting glimpses at mod fashion, and a hilarious "happening" where an artist splashes paint about and sticks his head through a ceiling. (Sadly, there are no sequences at Beatnik joints or jazz clubs, but you can't have everything.) While this film is perhaps not too impressive in continuity (a religious event is followed by Playboy bunnies!), it does give a fascinating glimpse into a city that speaks to many (like myself) who have never even been there, and reveals more fascinating corners of its culture. Norman Rose's tongue-in-cheek narration is in first-person, presumably echoing the director's impression of this foreign land. Sometimes it is an outsider to show others what is inside.
Throughout the movie, I kept wondering to myself what prompted Dion to show this film, as it is most unlike anything he has programmed before. Once the belly dancers emerged, I nodded. Despite that this was released by Joseph Levine's Embassy Pictures, with an of-its-time lounge score by Milton Delugg (who just did the music on Levine's masterpiece Santa Claus Conquers The Martians), one echoes Mr. Conflict's query as to why this film isn't available on home video. And the fact that it isn't is why we rely on people like Dion to resurrect forgotten pieces of our culture.
When we were finding seats, I had joked to Siue Moffat that this was like a family reunion, as 6/8 of the attendees at ESR's brunch on Sunday were at this screening (Dion included). And I don't wonder that a smaller portion of this "regular crowd" will be at Trash Palace tomorrow! The scenario reminded me of Nashville in which the lives of 24 people keep weaving in and out with each others over a weekend. This evening is a similar narrative, in which one constantly meets the same members of this surrogate family who support this subculture. It is another act that is familiar and comforting.
May 27, 2008
Class acts aren't too common in current cinema-- and that's why it's all the more saddening to them pass on. Yesterday's death of producer-director-actor Sydney Pollack at the age of 73 wasn't a complete surprise, and rumours of his health had been circulating for several months (especially upon hearing that he had been replaced as director on a project), but nonetheless his passing is certainly a great loss. When for the last two decades, Hollywood had been pandering to twelve-year old boys, it was refreshing to see a man of Pollack's stature continue to make intelligent and -wait for it- adult entertainment.
As a director, he only yelled "Action" for 21 pictures in over 40 years-- yet so many of them were popular films, that it felt like he made many others. And as a producer, he helped such films as Kenneth Branagh's Dead Again and Steve Kloves' Flesh and Bone get made, further renewing our faith in seeing genuinely interesting films made for moviegoers who were past puberty. And if that weren't enough, he also was an excellent character actor in films such as Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, and last year's hit Michael Clayton. Sydney Pollack had also acted earlier in his career, having made his debut in War Hunt, also the first film of Robert Redford, with whom Pollack would make many pictures: the enjoyably daft The Electric Horseman, Havana (the Bay-of-Pigs-era Casablanca), Jeremiah Johnson, and of course, Three Days of the Condor, which I believe to be his best film.
One wouldn't consider his work to be that of an "auteur", as his style wasn't completely distinguishable. And despite that he often told good stories, I think Pollack's greatest gift was in making beautifully understated, character-driven films, of which Condor is a fine example, to say nothing of Absence of Malice and They Shoot Horses Don't They. Even a box-office hit like Tootsie would be less the triumph it is without such fascinating people to advance the narrative. In fact, Michael Clayton, which he produced, was so gripping in its low-key narrative that it eerily resembled Pollack's finest directorial work.
His career began at the twilight of the studio system, and excelled in the Hollywood renaissance of the 70's, carrying both of the ideals of either decade well into the 80s and 90s as most of mainstream CGI-addled cinema lowered the bell curve to accommodate the most brain-free members of the crowd. This week I'll finally get around to watching my copy of The Scalphunters, an offbeat western he made early in his career. This unsung gem is however evocative of his later, more popular films: unique and intelligent, full of fascinating characters you'd really want to spend two hours with.