Aug 31, 2008

My Winnipeg


During the Sunday afternoon matinee, while watching My Winnipeg, I reminded myself of just how little of Guy Maddin's recent work I've seen. Other than his note-perfect short Heart of the World, I would -gasp- have to go back to Careful in 1992! Oh my. Granted, there is only so much time on one's hands, and certain circumstances or particular moods govern what we see at any moment, but I sheepishly confess I will have to get caught up on Maddin's most recent work this fall.

And based on his most recent film, My Winnipeg, Maddin just might be the modern saviour of cinema, although I'm sure this humble man wouldn't be comfortable with such a superlative title. And here in self-conscious Canada, we certainly do need a cinematic voice again. For my tastes, the once-distinctive styles of Cronenberg and Egoyan have both become bland. But 20 years after his first feature, Tales from Gimli Hospital, Guy Maddin's singular style has not only remained a joy to behold, but he continues to make arresting and challenging pictures like this.

This seriocomic, quasi-autobiographical part love-letter / poison pen about his native Winnipeg weaves truth and fiction, and conveys a dream-like state much like the ominprescent sleeping travellers that permeate the movie (and apparently, Winnipeg too). The present folds in with the past as Maddin laments over the destruction of great institutions in The Peg, and even attempts to come to terms with old familial scars by hiring actors to play his family circa 1963. Reality blends with the woozy atmosphere as some local celebrities pay themselves, adding to the feel as the film walks that thin line between conscious and subconscious thought much like the nodding train riders.

Shot in crisp black and white (what beautiful snow!), Maddin's style is of course evocative of silent films -especially German expressionism- and uses old cinematic devices like the rear-screen projection unit to convey a perfect dream-world. And in further reverence to the creaky old movies that Guy Maddin loves, Ann Savage (yes, that Ann Savage from the B-noir classic Detour) plays his domineering mother, playing the film's Oedipal card to the hilt.

Alternately hilarious and hypnotic, this is a real tour-de-force-- a note-perfect marriage of form and content. My Winnipeg is wildly experimental with its layered images, frenetic editing, and use of title cards to add another level of narrative. However one needn't be schooled in 100 years of alternate film history to appreciate it. The film is universal and playful enough that any open-minded audience can enjoy it.

My Winnipeg works on so many levels that a mere blog rave cannot do it justice, yet it is a film I would gleefully visit several times. Maybe this will be on DVD before Christmas. It would be a perfect thing to watch in our homes while sheltered from the cold, as the endless winter surrounds the sleepwalking characters on screen.

God bless Guy Maddin-- it's been a long time since my faith has been restored in new cinema.

Aug 25, 2008

Spaghetti Western Double Bill!




Friday August 29, 9:30 PM, ESR teams up with Trash Palace to co-present a Spaghetti Western Double Bill!

That's right gang, it's two Italian western classics for the price of one, with The Hellbenders, a lesser-known but terrific western from the mighty Sergio Corbucci (of Django fame), and then Yul Brynner stars in Adios Sabata. These flicks have all the fancy gunplay and cool soundtrack music you could want.

Tickets are five bucks each, on sale at:
Tequila Bookworm
512 Queen St. W.
Toronto

The location for Trash Palace is on the ticket. Hope to see you there!

The G-Man Says... Action


Well now that Word on the Street is approaching, I suppose I can slowly begin revealing details to both of my readers: the fall issue of ESR is devoting itself entirely to the spirit of late night television, and this launch will also coincide with the debut of ESR online, where yours truly recaptures the essence of what it used to mean to stay up late and watch a movie, by introducing a movie and making the experience seem vintage. Over the next few months, ESR TV will be releasing new vidcasts of "ESR Late Nite".

Saturday August 23 was spent at our old haunt Center for the Arts shooting inserts for the show: some straight-up to camera, some with wacky vignettes-- all different approaches to capture that late-night feel I choose to preserve. This was the first time in three years I had shot anything of my own, and to say I was rusty (although most of my day was before the camera) was an understatement. Suffice to say, I didn't get as much done as I had hoped, and plan to shoot some more soon. As we get closer to the official launch date, I can reveal some more details then. But for now, I would be remiss if I failed to give my thanks to Susan, David and especially Simon and Jeff (you two guys are natural hams).

Aug 18, 2008

RIP Isaac Hayes

Grilled Cheese Sandwich


Thursday August 14, we were treated to a screening of Jonathan Culp's narrative feature Grilled Cheese Sandwich. Having seen much of his earlier collage filmmaking (including the masterful It Can Happen Here, which I still owe some proper space to analyze), I was delighted to find that this narrative film is of a complexity that structurally resembles his earlier work, and also explores the socio-political concerns that has similarly interested him.

While this shot-on-video feature, set in "Grimsville", is about some social misfits in school that start a "grilled cheese sandwich" club, ultimately this too is a collage-- a mosaic featuring a much larger cast of characters than you would normally find in a project of this nature. And the more I watched, the more I was hooked by these eccentric people whose lives weave into that of the central character, a punkette who drifts from one dead-end "customer service" job to another, all engaging in their pop-cultural-political dialogues. In addition to writing, directing, photographing and editing, Jonathan also wrote some of the songs, including the immortal "Grimsville Sucks!" (MP3, please?)

But despite the interesting undercurrents, the characters in Grilled Cheese Sandwich are easily identifiable to any social misfit who awkwardly grew up in a small town, pining for some mysterious place called "Toronto". But you needn't take my word for it. Visit Jonathan's website here and order yourself a copy.

Aug 16, 2008

Great Canadian Comic Books and Exploitation


This week at Trash Palace, fellow programmer Jonathan Culp presented another film in his ongoing exploration of Canadian tax shelter movies, in which Canucks had made indigenous commercially viable product with second-tier American stars, truly attempting a Hollywood north. Tonight's picture was the trucker epic, High Ballin', with Jerry Reed and Peter Fonda as truckers who go against some crooks who are ambushing drivers. From the look of the poster above, and even while watching the film at first, one feels this is going to be an enjoyable "good ole boy" romp (even though you can guess who the bad guy is fairly quickly). But this movie gets real mean, and turns into a dark, bleak revenge melodrama, aided I think in no small measure by the Canadian winters which substitute the sun-drenched southern highways that usually populate these films. Also on hand is Canadian actress Helen Shaver, who is really cute as a spunky, tomboyish pistol-packing truck-driving mama. (Try to imagine who would have played her role if this was made in the US: Bernadette Peters? Annie Potts?)

Jonathan prefaced the feature with the engaging short The Great Canadian Comic Books, a documentary about Canada's comic book industry during the second world war, filling the need for reading material when their American counterparts weren't being distributed north of the border during wartime, where heroes like Johnny Canuck and Nelvana of the Northern Lights combated evil forces. And once American superheroes re-appeared on Canadian shelves, unsurprisingly the Canadian publishers closed up shop. This film was made around the time that a book of the same name was published- one I remember from my comic-book-obsessed childhood, as I had withdrawn it from the public school library innumerable times. The movie is a fun nostalgia trip, and decidedly Canadian in approach-- humble, unassuming. (Martin Lavut, the director of Remembering Arthur, is one of the voices in the film.)

This was a perfect pairing of films-- the short was about a Canadian industry that was influenced by American product, yet was distinctly Canadian in identity. High Ballin' is a film similarly influenced by American cinema, and tries to be American in approach, but our Canadian identity still pokes through. Both are interesting pieces of our cultural identity-- part of our secret history shown in this secret cinema.

Aug 10, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the CGI Monster


Is my Medicare paid up?


Oh sure, I rhapsodize about B-movies and underground cinema, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate a summer blockbuster once in a while. And in truth, I was really looking forward to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, heralding the return of Indiana Jones to the screen in almost 20 years. (1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is in my opinion the best of the series, not just for its non-stop adventure, but for the wisdom to subtly laugh at itself.) Let's face it, Harrison Ford is no spring chicken, but at first this movie wisely lets Jones act his own age, setting the film in the Cold War, so that the hero is indeed 20 years older, just like the actor who plays him. And it's great fun seeing him performing all this derring-do in an older man's body, as he properly miscalcuates a few moves and moans about his aches and pains. And since this is set in the 1950's during the Cold War, this time Indy is combating the Russians instead of the Nazis, there's no short supply of cartoonish over-the-top maniacal villains to outwit. Just when I thought Cate Blanchett was going to play Katharine Hepburn for the rest of her life, here she is in a Louise Brooks haircut as the cold villain. (It's not a stretch to imagine a dominatrix outfit underneath the gray uniform.)

And for the first half hour-- I was absolutely hooked. From the big fight in the warehouse and the atomic blast right up to the chase imploding the school library, I totally bought this popcorn entertainment. Like its predecessor in general, during this time, the movie is not only thrilling, but it pokes fun at itself. And it even appears this will continue to be a fun ride, once the plot kicks in, gamely attempting a revisionist history combining the Mayans with Roswell! But after that point it strictly becomes by-the-numbers, as the heroes become as rubbery as all the CGI effects thrown their way. Suddenly these people stop being human, and thereby the suspense goes out the window, and just becomes one setpiece after another, strung together to please those with attention deficiency disorder. It is great seeing Indy with a younger sidekick (Shia LaBoeuf), and Karen Allen returns as Marion Ravenwood (perhaps the only heroine to hold her own with Indy), but all that fanfare is for naught, as her screen time is given a big "So what?". Still the main culprit is the screenplay, which can't do a thing with such promising material and gives these characters little to do except grow rubber limbs and strangely remain impervious to every pitfall that comes along. Too bad.

It may sound ridiculous critiquing a summer blockbuster movie as it's made with a certain agenda, but this starts by promising something more than just by-the-numbers popcorn. For all the money they spent on this, they couldn't find a proper scenario to string it all together with. Ultimately Spielberg falls prey to the summer blockbuster formula that his string of films helped create, yet his films stood apart from their progeny because they didn't forsake good characterizations and storytelling. That's why this ultimately ends up as an amiable disappointment. Call this Indiana Jones in Search of a Script.

Aug 5, 2008

FLAMING CREATURES OVER RICHMOND... OR, I Survived a Jack Smith Festival.... Film at 11


Last weekend I attended a retrospective of Jack Smith films at Pleasuredome. This collective has been screening independent-experimental works for almost two decades now, and sadly this is a venue I don't attend enough. (They usually screen Saturday nights when it is the least easy for me to get out.) It was P-Dome who in the 1990's held the Toronto premiere of Jack Smith's infamous 1963 Flaming Creatures, which had long been suppressed by censors. (To my knowledge, a ban imposed upon the film in the state of Massachusetts during the 1960's has never been lifted.)

Shot on a rooftop in one afternoon, Smith's 43-minute opus is basically the exclamation point of most of his cinema, as a Bowery-level valentine to Maria Montez and her exotic pictures for Universal in the 1940's. Jack Smith's films largely attempt to evoke a dime-store-level exotica with underground superstars in thrift-store costumes striking histrionic poses while the soundtrack is typically filled with tinny scratchy 78 rpms, further lending itself to the antiquity and otherworldliness. Flaming Creatures however was a taboo film in its day for its onscreen genitalia (male and female), and while today it is hard to get offended over seeing flaccid penises and sagging breasts, certainly this movie won him some notoriety, and arguably, remains his last work in any form of completion. His subsequent works, including the magnum opus Normal Love, remained in tatters, largely because he would continue to chop up his films into segments for live performances where he would score the movies on the spot with the crates of records he would cart along.

After he died in 1989, his works remained in such tatters, and his archivist Jerry Tartaglia would carefully reconstruct them to Smith's initial intent. To be sure, Jack Smith was one of the most colourful and unique figures in all of cinema, but I confess to getting bored really fast by his films, which are frustrating to sit through, and even more once considers that Smith intended to irritate us. However, since getting the chance to see any work of Jack Smith, let alone on a big screen, is about as rare as seeing a decent performance by Julia Roberts, and because I am always willing to be proven otherwise, I raced down to see the collection of pictures that were presented by Tartaglia.

It was surely a novel setting- where Smith's tinny exotica unspooled in the courtyard of 401 Richmond while the stars shone above (and mosquitoes attacked full force). Seeing the dull gaze of the movie screen reflect upon the winding staircase also evokes an otherworldly feeling, befitting that of what is on screen. And despite that Smith succeeds in creating a unique atmosphere on film, even more impressive in that he does it with scraps, this screening still didn't change my mind about Jack Smith. I find his work not so much dull as infuriatingly uneven- and even more that these films were indirectly designed that way.

And it isn't really that you watch Smith for any kind of storytelling, but there is seldom any structure, and truthfully little of interest happens on screen as watching a bunch of people lying around in sarongs gets tiresome really fast. The collection Jack Smith Super8 Films, made circa 1975-1985 at first has some pretense of narrative despite that what we're seeing is edited-in-camera reels, with some pretty good lobster monster, and then the movie shifts to endless shots of litter. Sinbad of Baghdad, shot on Super8 in 1978, is impressive for its exotic look, where Smith makes a costume epic on the beach of Coney Island, but is formless. I Was a Male Yvonne DeCarlo, completed in 1970, features Smith himself, as does Song for Rent (1968-9), with Smith playing his alter ego Rose Courtyard, while Kate Smith's "God Bless America" is on the soundtrack. At least DeCarlo has some attempt at structure as it is bookended by shots of a wrecking ball demolishing an old theater. In this regard, the film is a testament about the end of the kind of cinema that Jack Smith holds dear. In fact, this and Sinbad are interesting for the way in which his manufactured worlds are in conflict with the real world. The wrecking ball invades the fragile landscape Smith likes to preserve, and alternately, the actors of Sinbad run through the crowds of Coney Island while in their movie garb, as bemused spectators look on.

When Smith died in 1989, (I am paraphrasing from Tartaglia in the Q&A), not only was his estate a mess, but so was his body of work (and all the more saddening is that he made it so for people to sort out). Kudos to Tartaglia for carefully restoring and re-assembling his work as best as he could to their original glory. But the more work I see of Smith's, the more I realize that his interesting, colourful personality supercedes his work. He sure knows how to set an atmosphere, but ultimately, of the seven or eight films I've seen to date, I have yet to see a Jack Smith film that is consistently interesting. If we were to compare his work even with those of his contemporaries in the so-called Baudelarian cinema of the early 1960's, that made heartfelt valentines to trash, it is neither as clever or fun as the Kuchar brothers' and not as challenging or weirdly beautiful as that of Ron Rice. But for all that, because Smith's personality is surely one of the most unique and interesting in all of cinema, if someone dug out a print of No President or Wino for a screening tomorrow, I would nonetheless run down to see it. And even if I once again walked away disappointed, well in some way Jack Smith has succeeded. He has created an aura about himself that will continue to draw people in, still attempting to figure him out.


Postscript:

The evening ended with a long Q&A session, with much of it devoted to Tartaglia's first-hand account of the troubles with Mary Jordan and her documentary on Smith. When someone asked him about it, he replied "Well it doesn't take long for people to get to the bad stuff, doesn't it?". But he was practically inviting the audience to ask him about it, as he carefully hinted at such things in his introduction. Suffice to say, there were legal problems resulting with not only Smith's estranged sister (who initially wanted his stuff destroyed after his death, only then to sue for royalties when she realized it had some artistic worth), but with Mary Jordan, who was suing Tartaglia and others who knew Jack Smith, from withholding materials which were essential for her to complete her documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis.

All of these legal issues have been resolved, but understandably the bitterness remains, as Tartaglia peppered his monologues about Mary Jordan, largely painting her as a giddy outsider who knew nothing about Jack, and after all her invading old ghosts, his testament was that she still ended up with a skin-deep documentary that still doesn't scratch the surface of his work. And twice did he make allusions to the fact that she used a clip from one of tonight's films, but criticized her for not using the music that accompanied it. Well, I can't remember this scene in Jordan's documentary (which by the way I liked very much), let alone in what context she used it. Ultimately, it is obviously Tartaglia who received the short end of the stick in these matters, as his years spent preserving Smith's work, didn't necessarily line his pockets with silver, and so I can understand his frustration, but I sense another argument underneath all this.

When I saw Jordan's documentary in Toronto last year, the place was packed with many more spectators than those who saw Jack Smith here in person in 1984, and, let's face it, more than who came out to see tonight's films. If anything, I detect a lot of resentment from Smith's inner circle that this outsider has made a commercially digestible documentary, which ironically made a pop portrait of an artist who resisted commerce, and certainly whose work was not digestible for the mainstream. But in truth, I don't think she changed anyone's mind about Smith, but perhaps introduced his work to many more people that otherwise wouldn't have experienced it if they weren't among the few who had seen it in small group venues such as this. What's wrong with that? I don't think it's sacrilegious to make a large populace aware of one's work. Commerce will not taint Jack Smith-- no one is going to be running around in a "Flaming Creatures" T-shirt (as cool as that might be), and Smith's films will still be relegated to the exaltations of the privileged few in small cine-clubs. If anything, she positively nailed the dichotomy of Smith's personality and work-- and ultimately the controversy surrounding her film made the movie another example of the difficult issues surrounding Smith's work. Somewhere in neverneverland, Jack Smith is rejoicing at yet another mess.

Aug 2, 2008

Education is Bliss


On Wednesday night, my fellow Trash Palace programmer Jonathan Culp had written me for contributions to that Friday night's Educational Film Night at the theatre. I had already planned on showing up and throwing in a couple of films for good will, but I was delightfully surprised to be more involved in a greater capacity. Since Stacey was out of town this night, Jonathan and I co-hosted, and he projected (tried though I did, I still haven't mastered the quirks of the mighty TP projector). The show comprised of collections from the vaults of Jonathan, my own, and those of Rob Cruickshank (who periodically brought ephemeral shorts to precede TP features, and had left some for us to screen in absentia), divided into three segments, giving people a couple of intermissions to eat, drink and be merry.

Some of Rob's safety shorts were priceless, as was Jonathan's amazing Linda's Film On Menstruation (which pretty much tells it all). Yet the highlight was the second section of the show, or "the celebrity hour". Jonathan offered up Meadowlark Lemon Presents The World and a completely dumbfounding cartoon cautioning kids from molesters, featuring Fat Albert and the gang! My contribution was the hilarious Billion Dollar Ripoff (seen above) with Casey Kasem wearing one godawful 70's suit after another, telling us all about employee theft.

Tonight I had planned on showing some of the films I bought from Skot Deeming three years ago, including At Your Fingertips: Boxes, which we couldn't thread, so instead I put on Mexican Village Life and finally managed to fulfill my ambition in unleashing Duke Thomas: Mailman to the world. While my film prints of educational shorts leave something to be desired, especially in view of what Jonathan and Rob had at their disposal, I was happy and honoured to be invited to take part in this event.

It was a gentle reminder of when ESR ran its own Educational Film night (albeit on video) two years ago-- there's a built-in audience of eccentrics who appear out of the darkness specifically for these films, and tonight was no exception. Minus the exploits of one loud patron (whose beer I had mop up at the end of the night), the 60 or so customers were well-behaved and enjoyed themselves. I love too how one guy came up and started reviewing Duke Thomas: "Why was this made?" Why, indeed! Most of tonight's films were perhaps misguided in their scare tactics to educate impressionable young minds, and that's why we love this ephemera so.

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