Jul 24, 2008

Dion Does Greta

Last week, I went to see Dion Conflict's addition to the 3D Fest at the Fox Cinema. Along the way, I laughed to myself that the only screenings I've been at for six weeks were either at Trash Palace or The Fox! And ironically, the three times I've been to the Fox in the past six years were for Dion screenings-- the first was The Stewardesses in 2002. (On a trademark Greg Woods sidenote, I should also mention that I have yet to go to a screening this year, where I haven't run into someone I'm not on a first-name basis with. I love the little surrogate family that grows in these supporters of such independent events.)

My prejudicial assumption of having to travel out to hell's half acre to see something at the Fox is fast eroding, as for this west-end boy the trek to and from the Beaches seems less the big expedition it seemed to be to my shorter legs ten years ago. And if the Fox continues to carry the torch of showing more hip stuff that used to be shown by other cinemas previously in the defunct Festival chain, yet closer to the downtown core, I'll happily take the trip out here more often.

Of all the 3D films offered up this time, Dion's offering, The Three Dimensions of Greta, a 1972 swinging London softcore epic by Peter Walker (best known for his horror films of the period) was likely the most..... -um- two dimensional. The only 3D parts in this flimsy spectacle (in which some bloke with a terrible German accent ventures to London to look for the statuesque Greta) occur in the four flashback sequences (hence, why this film is originally titled The Four Dimensions of...), identifiable by beginning with the swirling dissolve used in the old "Batman" TV series (minus the bat insignia of course), so the viewers can don their red and blue glasses, and in honesty, only occasionally do these sequences work.

But still, this mild romp, which follows Greta down the road to threesomes, strip joints and gangsters, is enjoyable for its self-referential humour, where one of the characters make a joke about "like being in a British sex film", and as such, it is rather clinical in its depiction of debauchery and depravity. My favourite scene aptly captures the distaff approach to the narrative. Outside a strip joint, a middle-aged barker accounces repetitively "Completely naked, and they move on stage."

Well, thank God for that.

Oh yes, I happened to win one of Dion's prizes-- a CD label maker. But it's Windows based, and I can't use it. Interested parties, drop me line.

Jul 20, 2008

The Third Floor Drive-In: Season Four, Episode 5

The May 13 episode of The Third Floor Drive-In was the science fiction-horror film Monster on the Campus (1958). While Jack Arnold had made many films under contract for Universal, this economical director is best known for his string of science fiction movies made in the 1950's. Today, such films as It Came from Outer Space, Tarantula,and The Incredible Shrinking Man still hold up very well for their no-nonsense, matter-of-fact delivery, and thoughtful writing. Tonight's film is one of the last and lesser-known of his fantasy pictures, while not on the same caliber as the others, it's not as muddled as The Space Children either (admittedly, I've wanted to give that one another look).

University professor Donald Blake (Arthur Franz) receives a coelacanth (that's a prehistoric lungfish) embedded in ice, and accidentally cuts his hand on one of the fins, and as a result, at times turns into a hairy monster that starts a lot of bodies to pile up on campus. Of course, things were already getting fishy (no pun intended) as they disposed of a giant dragonfly who grew to such proportions after landing on the coelacanth, and even their nice doggie grew big fangs and attacked people after having lapped up some of the melted ice that encased the fish! Since it's the 1950's, of course the fish was exposed to radiation. Of all of the atomic-themed fantasy films Arnold made, this is surely the silliest and least mature, but at 77 minutes it's a fun little film. Despite that Arnold himself didn't care for this movie, it's still rather briskly made, despite the less-than-special effects, and is often cleverly shot. And oh yes, teenage heartthrob Troy Donahue makes an early appearance as one of the college kids. What the hell, it's the drive-in, and pretty much anything is acceptable when you're in a blanket under the stars.

The Third Floor Drive-In: Season Four Episode Four

Hey, we're getting caught up with all of our "third floor drive-in" posts that had remained in "draft" mode for some time.

The April 24 episode of the Third Floor Drive-In was the Sunn Classics 1981 epic, Earthbound, preceded by the trailer for the 1968 masterpiece, Mission Mars.

Conceivably having run out of paranormal subjects to make cheap documentaries about, Sunn Classics extrapolated on their other winning formula, the family movie. Earthbound was a feature made as a pilot for a proposed TV series, but when that fell through, the film crept out to theaters instead.

This inoffensive fare features a nice nuclear family of human-looking extra-terrestrials whose spaceship crashes in the woods. They are befriended by nice old Burl Ives and his grandson who take them on a cross-country trek to a university to get what they need from a science lab to repair their vehicle, so they can leave. Along the way of course they are being pursued by government agents led by Joseph Campanella, who you know is the bad guy because he's always in a fedora and sunglasses (regardless of time of day). Christopher Connelly (as the patriarchal alien) spent the rest of his career making a lot of Eurojunk before his death in 1988. (I'm not sure, but I wonder if his gravelly voice here is symptomatic of the cancer that would take his life.)

The film, from director James L. Conway (Sunn Classics journeyman who gave us In Search of Noah's Ark, Hangar 18, among others), has an unfairly bad reputation-- it's cute, harmless and mildly engaging, even if for the most part it is episodic, and some of the writing is sitcom level (no surprise given that it was intended for television), appealing to the younger audiences with the alien daughter joining some high school girls to ogle at boys, and the extra-terrestrial boy helps his human friend win a basketball game (with some really crummy special effects), and how can we forget, the aliens' pet-- a blue monkey! However, admittedly it falls apart in the last third with some sudden plot turns left to expand upon in the alleged series.

You could do far worse with films made after the Star Wars craze. Still, this is one of those films where redneck folks suddenly start grabbing their rifles looking for Martians as soon as they see a light in the sky, and where the aliens have the technology to fly across the universe, yet cannot afford any better wardrobe than silver suits that came from "The Lost Saucer". But this silly family fare is somewhat refreshing-- full of an innocence that we seldom see in movies anymore.

Jul 17, 2008

CHEK 6 TV sign off

Here is just a gosh-darned beautiful TV sign-off from CHEK 6 in British Columbia, circa 1988. After the announcer backsells the late late movie, and tells insomniacs what flick they're showing tomorrow night, they segue to this three-minute-long passage comprised of taxi cabs, neon, city reflections lapping in the river, lights imprinting streaks across the images as only old-school video can, serenaded with a smooth jazz track that could be Earl Klugh on guitar and Grover Washington on sax, but who knows?


Jul 14, 2008

It Came From Baltimore

Last week, in preparation for an article I'm writing for "Micro Film" magazine, based out of Illinois, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. John Paul Kinhart, for his wonderful, recently released documentary Blood Boobs and Beast, which chronicles the life and work of Baltimore filmmaker Don Dohler. Before his first film, the micro-budget cult classic, The Alien Factor (1978), Mr. Dohler had already established himself as a "do-it-yourself" inspiration, with his self-published underground comics in the 1960's, and his well-remembered "Cinemagic" magazine in the 1970's, whose coverage on how to do special effects was an influence on contemporary Hollywood players.

I have long been a fan of Don Dohler's work as a director, as his precocious no-budget wonders are infectious in their adulation of the "oh golly gee" mindset of 50's sci-fi and horror flicks, while adding modern staples of gore and flesh. Many of his early works belie their costs with the inclusion of some geniunely nifty special effects. Admittedly, I have only seen Dohler's first four films, before his hiatus until he appeared back in the 1990's direct-to-video horror market in partnership with Joe Ripple. Yet his early work (The Alien Factor, the brilliant suburban black comedy Fiend, the gonzo effects-laden Nightbeast, and the hilarious rednecks-in-peril spoof Galaxy Invader) demonstrate that, despite the obvious liabilties of working with limited actors and resources, this guy clearly "had something", and won high marks alone for being a low-budget regional filmmaker whose heart is in the right place.

In late 2006, I had made a new year's resolution to try and track down Mr. Dohler for an interview in 2007, however I had no idea at the time that he was sick, and was therefore shocked to learn that he passed away from cancer in December of that year. Dohler's work strikes me with the same giddy enthusiasm that befits many of the 50's sci-fi films that influenced him, but also, with all of his independent pursuits (in not just filmmaking, but also in publishing) he continued to be a positive role model for movers and shakers like myself who continue to toil in the trenches. When Don Dohler made the unprecedented feat of selling his $3000 wonder The Alien Factor for broadcast in cable television packages, I was among the many in the 1980's who caught it during its constant runs on the late late show, usually at 4 AM, and was ingratiated that such a film could be seen by many: "Hey, I can do this too!"

Thank God for Mr. Kinhart's documentary, which had been shot for over two years, and wrapped just before Mr. Dohler's passing. While Don Dohler is surely not a household name, I was delighted to hear that a documentary was being made to honour his work. As such, I would have been content just to see a work with the typical framework where Dohler talks about his films, intercut with bountious clips from his little wonders. But much to my delight and surprise, Blood Boobs and Beast (whose title refers to the three requisites to sell a direct-to-video horror flick), goes much further than that. Within a few minutes of this layered documentary, I was hooked. Its 75 minutes is a compulsively fascinating look at Dohler's work (generously featuring his publishing in tandem with his filmmaking), and is surprisingly candid in his personal life off-camera. It is fitting that you come away knowing even more of Don Dohler as a person. The films are secondary, much as they were in Dohler's own life. There is also a darkly amusing meta-narrative, with behind-the-scenes footage from (what would be his final work) Dead Hunt that, intentionally or not, shows us that even doing a little movie like this is also beset with problems. As such, I did something in one week I seldom do with a movie: I watched it twice. After the initial viewing of garnering my notes, I just had to see it again to visit Dohler's world some more, and was equally rewarded.

In an age where there are so many "behind the scenes" documentaries made about filmmakers (often for DVD extras), it is gratifying to find one so thorough, aptly portraying a deeply complex man. Blood Boobs and Beast is still being screened sporadically, and will hopefully be released on DVD for all to see. To learn more about this film, and other works by John Paul Kinhart, please visit the filmmaker's website here.

Jul 13, 2008

New Screening! ESR co-presents a Charles Bronson double bill!

This Friday JULY 18, 2008 at 9:30 PM, The Eclectic Screening Room is teaming up once again with Trash Palace-- this time to co-present a double bill of rare Charles Bronson films from the early 1970s.

Before the great action star became a leading man in America , he had already made a string of films in Europe, perhaps the most varied period of his career. Both of the night's movies come from that period, where we see Bronson in unusual roles.

ESR is showing its rare 16mm print of the moody French thriller RIDER IN THE RAIN (1970), co-starring Marlene Jobert, who kills the man who attacks her in her home, and disposes of the body. Then along comes Bronson as a stranger who seems to know an awful lot about the incident. Is he out for blackmail? Revenge? The plot keeps twisting in this Hitchcockian film from Rene Clement, who brought us FORBIDDEN GAMES and PURPLE NOON.

Also, Trash Palace fills the double bill with a 16mm print of SOMEONE BEHIND THE DOOR-- a 1971 psychological thriller in which Charles plays an amnesiac who is brainwashed by Anthony Perkins into killing his cheating wife (played by Jill Ireland). This is an unconventional suspense film from Nicholas Gessner, who brought us the classic THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE.

This double-bill is a great opportunity to see Charles Bronson in some rare films, and you'd be hard pressed to find them on video, so come on out and see these movies the way they should be seen: in a theatre, and shared with an audience. And when you get two films for the price of one, how can you miss?

Admission is five dollars. Doors open at 8:30 PM

Advance Tickets can be purchased at:
Tequila Bookworm
512 Queen St. W.
Address for screening is printed on the ticket.
No walk-ins.

I'll also be bringing some ESR swag for those who want to check out some of our print issues.

Jul 10, 2008

The Cold War Collages of Bruce Conner (1933 - 2008)

Few avant-garde filmmakers had a healthy relationship with mainstream pop culture. The popularity of underground cinema peaked in the mid-1960's, as people like Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger became stars, and such films were enjoying long theatrical runs in venues other than museums or obscure cine-clubs. Yes, Warhol was a darling of the media, but in those rare instances when his films are shown, people's curiosities are satisfied mighty quickly. And Kenneth Anger was always enamoured with pop culture- his love-hate relationship with Hollywood burgeoning since children, and in the volatile 60s, his films Scorpio Rising and Invocation of My Demon Brother, were apocalyptic views of modern society. You could still enjoy Anger's films alone for their editing and unique style, yet could likely miss all the arcane subtext. But I would argue that the collage films of Bruce Conner, who died Monday after years of ill health, remain the most accessible of that movement. Although Arthur Lipsett's collage works were popular, and equally commented on those troubled times, his films are perhaps too dense. Conner's on the other hand need no work on part of the viewer to appreciate. His playful, yet troubling work is easily absorbed, delivering simple but cleverly executed subtext that remains intact upon multiple viewings.

Bruce Conner was a multi-disciplinary artist -with painting, sculpture and photography among his practices- and one of the last surviving names of the Beat era Bay area group of artists. Yet, since this a film blog, we are of course celebrating his incredible cinema: decoupages assembled from found footage both inspired by and becoming products of the times in which they were made. From the Beat Generation to Flower Power, Conner's work depicted the anxiety of the era, in which counterculture tried to forge a demi-paradise all while trembling that armageddon was around the corner.

A Movie (1958) was intended as part of an art installation, to be played continuously, so that there is no sense of the film having a beginning or end (the title cards "Bruce Conner" and "A Movie" are spliced in throughout the movie to further give this illusion). However, there is a progression, as images of combat and destruction predominate, and the film escalates to a concerto depicting a world out of control, culminating in a classic Conner image: a mushroom cloud. Cosmic Ray (1961) is edited to the pulse of Ray Charles' "What I Say" on the soundtrack, and within four minutes emerges as a celebration of the taboos of white picket fence America, namely sex. The bump-and-grind of rhythm-and-blues (or its cousin, rock and roll) is married to sexual imagery onscreen, yet with additional images of animals and war, this film is more of a catalogue of man's animal instincts-- namely sex and death... yet images of the latter are considered the less obscene in our hypocritical culture.

Crossroads (1976) is perhaps the last word on the atomic age. This 33-minute film is comprised entirely of footage from the 1946 Bikini Atoll, in which the experimental Operation Crossroads (more appropriately titled than they knew) detonated an atom bomb. This footage, aided with a hypnotic score by Terry Riley and Patrick Gleeson, is a moribund love poem where we witness the terrible beauty of destruction.

But of all the Conner films I've been fortunate to see, Report (1967) is my favourite. This film on the JFK assassination had been denied permission to use a lot of presidential footage, so instead, as we hear radio reports of the president's shooting and of his previous arrival in Dallas, the fall of the post-war white picket fence Camelot is depicted with TV commercials, post-war consumerism, casual violence of bullfights and horror movies, and even blank leader to suggest that the unthinkable has happened in the land of the free. Had he been able to use his intended footage, I am uncertain if the result would have been as powerful as this, as Report serendipitously is a scathing portrait of Americana.

Bruce Conner's legend is intact just with these four films out of the 20 he had made. And although he had sporadically made movies in the 90's, the last I recall hearing about him was that a few years back, he had withdrawn his films from renowned independent film distributor Canyon Cinema out of protest against the new management policy. This is yet another sorry case of an independent artist's work becoming inaccessible to people who would enjoy them. Conner's work is too good, to say nothing of important, to just be seen by those fortunate few who live in a city that supports such screenings. Unlike his contemporaries Warhol, Anger and Brakhage, Bruce Conner's work has not made the transition to DVD. (Although back in the day, there were two short volumes collected on VHS, at insane prices.)

I would have liked to postscript this post, dear reader, with some links to view his work via Youtube or Google Video, as even bootlegged Conner is better than none, but any search results had been removed. What a sorry way to honour a legend.

Jul 2, 2008

The Analog Video Enthusiast Book Four: Randy, Where Are You Now?

Upon preparation for this blog entry, over the weekend I pondered just exactly how many video stores (including convenience stores who had given over significant retail space for movie rentals) had existed in my home town during the boom years of the VHS revolution. In 1983, there were three stand-alone video stores. In 1988, four-- plus five or six convenience stores. In 1993, there were perhaps eight convenience stores doling out video rentals. In the interim, the three original stand-alone video stores had closed, and two more sprung to action. The more I thought of this, I was reminded of an old National Geographic documentary about cowboys in the 20th century, and the oldest ones would talk at the dinner table about how many saloons there used to be.

Among the three stores that had closed up, the smallest, yet the one with the most interesting history, was Hollywood Nights, which was located at in a strip plaza on West St. Its amusing slogan was "Take home an Oscar tonight"-- a misnomer for two reasons. At first, like many video places, it stocked a lot of low-rent sleaze, because people would put anything in their stores, as VHS was such a craze that customers would virtually rent whatever they could find to play on their newfangled VCR. And then, in its twilight years, the inventory became more geared towards art-house stuff that the Academy would ignore... and here is where my episode begins.

In 1990-1, back home from university, I had begun my "art film" phase. While still devouring whatever schlock I could find, I also opened a window for whatever foreign or art-house pictures would fleetingly appear on the shelves. In truth, previously, ever since acquiring a VCR, I had probably rented from Hollywood Nights once a year- tops. But in the intervening years that I was away, the inventory had given itself over from things like Beast of the Yellow Night or 1990: The Bronx Warriors, to well-regarded art-house films like To Kill a Priest or The Unbearable Lightness of Being... titles that were always available for rent, if you catch my drift. And as such, I became friendly with Randy, the manager, as he had some interesting out-of-the-way titles that would satisfy my new interest. It was through him that I had my first real taste of Kurosawa (I don't count the time I fell asleep through Rashomon in film school), as he had a few of the Connoisseur VHS releases that he would lend to people. Why he didn't rent out his copies of Ikiru and Throne of Blood is beyond me, but maybe he didn't want to lose them.

His renting policy was certainly curious-- when you paid your money to rent a movie, he'd only write down your name next to what titles you took out. He never asked for your phone number, because if you were trying to rip him off by giving him a fake name, the number would be fake too, right? THAT is a business built on trust.

I believe he was the sole employee in Hollywood Nights' later years, and his store was the one video outlet in the county that was led on a singular vision. In others words, he stocked his store with titles that interested him, instead of things that interested the customers. A risky move for sure, especially in a small town whose residents think that Truffaut is the name of a chocolate. And as such, the adage of "Build it and they will come" didn't work.

Another curious entrepreneurial ambition was that in the latter weeks of the store's life, he was also renting his record collection! Another video store in town was renting CD's, as compact disks still cost an arm and a leg those days, but Randy, God bless him, was really going old school by renting out LP's at a couple of bucks each for a weekend.

But alas, this presumed attempt at bringing in some more business was not to be, as in late spring of 1991, Hollywood Nights ended with a whimper, as the door was chained up, and soon his stock disappeared from the shelves. Perhaps my most enduring image of Randy was late in 1990, when a friend and I went to the Pizza Delight next door in the strip plaza. He had come in for a drink after work, then went back to the store. After we were done, and pulled out of the parking lot, I looked back out of the passenger window and saw the interior lights of Hollywood Nights giving a dull glow into the empty lot. There was Randy in his sports jacket, sitting at the counter, smoking, watching something on a little TV set-- whatever it was I'm certain was unique fare, once again playing to an audience of one.


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