Sep 16, 2009

Henry Gibson (1935 - 2009)

ABOVE: Henry Gibson and Michael Murphy in Nashville.

Just this Sunday night, I saw Henry Gibson as Judge Clark Brown on "Boston Legal", rolling his eyes over Denny Crane's defense. I haven't watched this show very faithfully in the past few years, so his appearance to me was a surprise. Like many great character actors, this smallish, dryly hilarious actor always seemed to turn up in unexpected places. Although contemporary TV fans might remember his work in "Boston Legal" and as a voice in "King of the Hill", older viewers will recall him from TV's "Rowan and Martin's Laugh In", and on the big screen in numerous films by Robert Altman.

His most enduring role in Altman's filmography was the fiercely patriotic country singer Haven Hamilton in Nashville ("You don't belong in Nashville- you need a haircut."). But he was also fun in A Perfect Couple (1979), one of the director's lesser appreciated films, and as the psychiatrist in The Long Goodbye (1973). Gibson was also the leader of "the fuckin' Nazi party" in John Landis' The Blues Brothers (1980)- one of the many story threads that gave the filmmakers more excuses to destroy property. It was even fun to see him as Gabe Kaplan's father in the Canadian-made tax write-off Tulips (1981). After three decades of busy film and television work, Paul Thomas Anderson gave him a role as the effeminate barfly in Magnolia (1999), out of inspiration by the director.

The actors all wrote their own lyrics for Nashville, and so we salute Henry Gibson for penning the song "For the Sake of the Children", which we sing around our house....
"...For Jimmy's been wishing....
That I'd take him fishing..."

Sep 15, 2009

Patrick Swayze (1952 - 2009)

I can't say that I've seen many Patrick Swayze movies, and sadly I missed his TV series "The Beast", which was shot during his well-publicized battle with pancreatic cancer that took his life yesterday. but I'd always enjoyed seeing him in interviews. He appeared to be a luminous, intelligent, soulful human being, and news of his passing is truly sad.

Swayze will be best remembered for his role in Dirty Dancing, which any guy who had a girlfriend in 1987 would have seen. Although he had other hits like Ghost and Roadhouse, this will likely be the piece of pop culture with which his name will most be attached. In 1988, when City TV showed that movie (this was back in the day when you had to wait at least two years to see a theatrical film on television), I made myself a VHS off-air copy to put on the shelf as "date bait". I used to have the soundtrack album in my Brut days, and his own vocal track "She's Like The Wind" is quite good. Perhaps Swayze was a more interesting person offscreen than on, as admittedly many of his roles weren't that demanding, but his charm and good looks made him a natural for the cinema. I really enjoyed his offbeat casting in Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break as the Zen-freak surfer dude who also masterminds heists where the robbers wear presidential masks.

Sep 14, 2009

Hard To Find Films I'm Seeking This Week (09.14.09)

Since we're in a Roger Corman frame of mind lately (well, we're in a Roger Corman frame of mind a lot), I thought this week's "hard to find" post should be devoted to his 1957 opus Naked Paradise.

From the IMDB:
Temptation and terror... in a savage land of wild desire!
Gangster Zac Cotton and his two henchmen, Mitch and Sonny, try to get a boat to get off a tropical island after a botched robbery heist.

This was among the three films Roger Corman directed during a stint in Hawaii (the others, Viking Women Vs. The Sea Serpent and She Gods of the Shark Reef are easy enough to find on either VHS or DVD), and by his own admission in his autobiography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, he considers this one to be the most unusual of the lot. Wish I knew more, but this effort (one of many pictures Corman helmed in that busy year of 1957) has remained impossible to find. When I was gathering materials for The Roger Corman Scrapbook in 2006, there were a handful of elusive titles which have since surfaced in one fashion or another (ie- Von Richtofen and Brown, Target Harry), but alas Naked Paradise remains an obscure object of desire.

Corman regulars Richard Denning, Beverly Garland, Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze are in it, so by rights it should at least be watchable. Where is this movie?

Sep 13, 2009

Remembering The Nostalgic Cinema

Although the date was actually the tenth, it was actually this second Sunday in September of 1989 that I first went to The Nostalgic Cinema. For years I had read their movie listings in The Toronto Star every Friday when I would peruse the “Entertainment” section for the new movie reviews. In my long-range plan to flee my small town roots for the big city, it had always been my ambition to check out this place once I had planted roots in Toronto.

I had already moved into residence at York a week prior, and classes were to officially begin the following day. For whatever reason, I went back to the town of my birth for the Friday and Saturday nights. However, Sunday morning I was on the 403 back to Toronto, filled with an incredible sense of euphoria. I’ve already rhapsodized elsewhere in these pages about the life-changing year I had upon returning to high school in 1988-89, and don’t want to repeat myself here. However, I’m listening to Laura Nyro as I write this, so forgive any melancholia I do inject into this post. Yes, I had traveled a rewarding but laborious path to get into film school, and the summer of 1989 had its tribulations due to the fact that I had to cut loose all or most of the new life I had made- a fact I never truly got over for some time.

But despite the bittersweet emotions that pervaded the times, that Sunday morning drive to Toronto saw me filled suddenly with vigour, and excitement for my new chapter in life. On this day, I decided to give a little present to myself by finally checking out The Nostalgic Cinema in person, rather than just living vicariously through their Friday listings. Three days earlier, I had read that they were showing five films on the Sunday, and decided that this would be a better introduction than any. (I should add, this was back in the days when I could see more than one or two films in one day without any guilt or thoughts that I should be doing something else.)

I arrived in the big city at lunch-time, just enough to drop off whatever stuff I had brought up to residence and to make it back down to the first film at The Nostalgic. It was a tiny cinema in the second floor of the Kingsway Cinema at Bloor and Royal York, which had its own entrance to the left of the building. I had bought a membership card, which still saved me money from simply getting regular admission prices for the five films.

The afternoon opened with The Penalty, a 1920 crime melodrama starring Lon Chaney Sr. without legs, followed by a nifty, forgotten supernatural crime thriller, Hole In The Wall (1929), starring pre-Little Caesar Edward G. Robinson. Then came the 1929 version of Mysterious Island, which contains scenes silent and with sound. Apparently unseen in Toronto for decades, it was great fun (and the ancestor of Close Encounters and The Abyss). Then the evening came with Murders In The Zoo and Dr. X, both with Lionel Atwill.

In between screenings, you could mosey from the 100-seat screening room into the library to pore over vintage literature on cinema (although with the brevity of breaks, I don’t know how prodigiously one could peruse any of it). Or, anyone in for the long haul might have had just enough time to get a microwaved sub from Becker's, or to go grab a cigarette. A cute little brunette in a fedora brought up some soda and popcorn for sale from The Kingsway (at prices curiously lower than what they were downstairs). A guy in a LOUD plaid suit-jacket (I swear he was there every time I was) looked over the old lobby cards. Being in this place felt like being in a scene torn from a Woody Allen screenplay- it was its own world separated from the outside. In this dimly lit little dwelling, the literature of the 20th century was being upheld.

I belonged here. This was not a movie crowd of cell-phone wagging, bottled-water popping posers who were playing their favourite variation on cine-snobbery. Seldom have I seen a more eclectic crowd of moviegoers than during any night here: real people, strangers all, united by a shared love of a piece of celluloid from the past.

One must remember that this was in the day when there were still glaring absences of classic film titles on video, and much of what The Nostalgic offered wasn’t readily available to see at home on VHS or the late show. Each eight-week schedule was a treasure trove of little gems from cinema’s golden age: Universal horror films, vehicles with your favourite comedy teams, silent classics you could only read about, film noir, westerns, romance, you name it. They used to show two films a night, and also run a Sunday afternoon program. (On Thursday nights you could see the second film free.)

Sadly, after too many moves, I had lost whatever schedules I had acquired from them (a four-page flyer on newsprint, with a screening grid on one page, and individual write-ups in the center spread), and they were always a joy to read. (For instance, in a capsule reviewer the editor would elaborate upon a bit player who makes a token appearance in that certain film.)

After that night’s films ended, I chatted briefly with Dave Eustace, the owner and projectionist, who also recommended the Tuesday night film, Beggars of Life, as I had enquired about it (prior to this, I was only able to read about Louise Brooks). And true enough, I trucked down there that night to see it (to date, it remains my favourite of her films, and my bias is likely influenced by having seen it in a cinema).

For the rest of the school year, I would make my treks out to the west end to see films: Laurel and Hardy movies, The Old Dark House (on Halloween night!), Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon silents, and Freaks, just to name a few. Typically, I would misplace my dog-eared membership card, yet thankfully they would remember me as enough of a regular to let me in with a member’s admission price. And as far as I can remember, the magical evenings would end with a vintage slide saying “Good night” being projected, as big band music filled the theater. My final screening at The Nostalgic was in the spring of 1990- the Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

A typical night at The Nostalgic was usually one of joy. This little cinema was a little time capsule from which one could sequester themselves from the modern world for a couple of hours to revel in a piece of history that one could share with surrogate companions in a screening room. After being out of the city for a few years, I moved back to Toronto and started attending the usual repertory cinemas again, only to find out that The Nostalgic had closed in that spring of 1994. Sadly, its owner, Dave Eustace, had to turn off the projector permanently due to health reasons. (He passed away in 2003) For years after, when I came out from seeing a movie at The Kingsway cinema, I would sit in the Second Cup on the corner and reminisce about the little cinema above it.

One time during the intermission of a double bill at The Kingsway, I went upstairs to the washroom (which was shared by Nostalgic) and sauntered up to the doorway that led to the former palace of wisdom. Peering through the window, I could see across the hall into a former darkened room which now had glaring light resonating from Bloor Street. The walls were stripped of memorabilia and the projection system was half-destroyed. On the window in the entrance from Bloor St., something rather eerily remained for a few years. It was a laminated paper with a clock design printed on it, with two plastic hands that one manipulated to show a designated time. The writing above the clock said, “The next screening will be at”

A rather fitting last shot, really.

Seeing that clock face there years later invited the idea that maybe they would be back some day, but as we know, sequels only happen in the movies, and even then, they're haphazard at best in reliving a magic moment. Perhaps The Nostalgic Story is emblematic of life in the past 20 years, as within those two decades I've experienced death, disappointment, regrets... all typical aspects of the life cycle mind you, but of an epic story that doesn't necessary end on a crescendo like the larger-than-life characters we flock to see projected 24 times a second.

But more to the point, the Websters definition of nostalgia is a longing for the past, and that too plays into my life, as I've spent many of my years foolishly trying to recreate past glories until I was finally able to accept that the past is gone and move on. And perhaps because of that magic number "20 years", I've been reminiscing more about the glory days of late, even going as far as tracking down former school chums, but to what avail? What am I searching for, exactly? But The Nostalgic wasn't so much longing, as preserving and celebrating pieces of our past. It too, has now became part of our collective past. Like the films it celebrated every night, The Nostalgic Cinema is a piece of culture that would have an even greater uphill battle trying to sustain itself in today's climate (for reasons better left to another post), but rather than lament that sorry reality, we can rejoice in what it stood for. Isn't that why we see old movies, anyway?

I Hate Music Videos, But I Like This One

...almost makes me want to buy a Windows 95 installation CD.

Sep 12, 2009

The Movies Eleven Return?

Back in the 1980's many late-night owls like myself in southern Ontario got their movie fixes on "The Movies Eleven" on Hamilton's CHCH-TV, which would usually run films (often uncut) until the wee hours on Friday and Saturday nights. (I probably still have off-air VHS tapes of Nashville and Marathon Man made from broadcast on CHCH.)

And here's a signoff from the good old days, kids...

Over the decades, this station has gone through tremendous changes. In the 1970's and 80's, we knew them for producing cheesy low-budget programming like "Party Game", "Hilarious House of Frightenstein", "Smith and Smith", and many, many others. And despite that the production values on some of these shows were pretty bad, we still had to salute them for doing it at all, because the local content at least hit home with people within its broadcast band. And then in the 1990's when it was simply branded as "OnTV" or simply "CH" in an attempt to make the station sound sexier, and thereby became as faceless as most other television stations on the dial which had been subsumed by a corporate entity. This year, after some high-profile firing of longtime CHCH staff, its latest owner, Canwest, sold the station to Channel Zero, who then promised to change the format of the station to include more movies.

Surely enough, they did just that. In all honesty, I had forgotten about the shift at the station until I watched some of it last night. After doing my customary Friday night ritual of falling asleep in front of the TV, I had awakened a couple of times to do some channel surfing before nodding off again, and in both instances, I had encountered a movie playing on channel eleven. First, at about 2 AM, it was a kung fu movie with horrible pan and scan, and the second time, at about 6:00 was the ending of No No Nanette. In either case, the print quality was terrible, the broadcast signal was almost as bad as our reception of AMC, and of course, the logo that you see at the top of this post was watermarked for the entirety. But still, this event had a surreal deja vu, recalling the days when we'd awake in the middle of the night to an old movie instead of a chat line ad.

Having glanced at their schedule for the next few weeks, it appears CHCH is peppering their schedule with lots of public domain titles, and devoting prime time to such retro favourites as Back to School. Perhaps with this content, the station is as faceless as the days of "OnTV", but at least the programming differs from the other 49 channels. These days, that alone is something to be commended on the dial.

Sep 11, 2009

It's About Time!

Roger Corman with Vincent Price on the set of House of Usher.

I'll have to look outside to see if pink elephants are flying, or perhaps I should dig a hole to see if they're throwing snowballs in the netherworld. No, I don't mean because ESR is publishing for the first time in nearly a year, but today we received the news that Roger Corman, yes Roger Corman, is due to receive an honorary Oscar this year.

Now, I would be remiss not to mention that the legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis (who turned underexposure into an art form), as well as screen icon Lauren Bacall are also tapped to receive well-deserved statuettes for their body of work. But Roger Freaking Corman, man! And I say, it's about time! Despite how a lot of the Hollywood intelligentsia might poo-poo a lot of the 500-plus budget-minded exploitation films to which the legendary producer-director has had his name attached, perhaps Corman's most important link to mainstream cinema is that important players both before and behind the camera got their start with him. Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern and Peter Fonda paid their dues in Corman's films of the 60's before becoming the darlings (or in some cases enfants terribles) of the 1970's. Likewise, the Hollywood Brats of the same decade (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, et al) earned their stripes with the great one who gave them and many other budding filmmakers a chance to learn their craft under his frugal conditions.

Next year's Oscars ceremony threatens to gorge itself with ten Best Picture nominees, and the thing we at the desks of ESR most want to see would have already transpired. These three legends get their honorary statues on November 14 in their own mini-ceremony. No word yet if they'll at least televise the event in its own right, or at least in an excerpted bit on what otherwise promises to be an overlong masturbation festival next spring, but if they do, I'd like to prepare for the event much like the year Robert Altman received his long overdue statue (another night the elephants flew), with some wine, herbal products and Greg's famous nachos.

I could go on and on with more facts about Roger Corman's importance, but since I've already spent a year of my life explaining this, rather than repeat myself for you here dear reader, why not just buy my book instead?

Jul 2, 2009

Karl Malden (1912 - 2009)

During the Pac Man generation, actor Karl Malden was commonly seen on television commercials for American Express travelers cheques, popping out from behind a pyramid warning us, "Don't leave home without them," right after we've seen some unfortunate tourist having their wallet stolen in a foreign land. Even then, the man was in his 70's, already having left forty years worth of memorable performances, and despite that he wasn't often seen on the big screen in those days, he was still doing strong work for television, notably the highly-regarded TV movie Fatal Vision, for which he won an Emmy. One word I had always associated with Karl Malden was "durability"- he was a very busy star well into post-retirement age, still making quality work.

It was always enjoyable seeing Malden on the big or small screen. Nicknamed "potato nose" for his so-shaped proboscis, Karl Malden had a tremendous screen presence, with his piercing eyes and authoritative voice: whether he was a priest, a detective or an army sergeant, he made you listen. As such, he gave every project, big or small, that same element of professionalism-- his intense upper register delivery let you know he took his work very seriously. This is not to suggest that Karl Malden was overacting- his presence always seemed a little larger than life but his everyday characters were always grounded.

In his early career, Karl Malden was commonly employed by Elia Kazan. He won an Oscar as Mitch in the screen adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and was also seen as the doomed husband of Baby Doll (1956), a priest in On the Waterfront (1954), and if you look fast, you'll also see him in Kazan's early noir Boomerang (1947). In Marlon Brando's autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me, the troublemaking actor had nothing but praise for Karl Malden. After having worked with him in Kazan films, it is no coincidence that Brando picked Malden for his vanity project One Eyed Jacks (1961) in which the great mumbler took over the director's chair after firing Stanley Kubrick, and Malden gave I think one of his finest performances.

Because of his strong screen presence, it is unsurprising he was given roles of authority- from patriarchs to sergeants. This is also why he was a great villain, menacing Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith. Coincidentally, Malden found work with the 60's answer to Brando, as he again co-starred with McQueen in The Cincinatti Kid. In the 1970's, Karl Malden's career began a second life for television, namely the long-running crime series The Streets of San Francisco, with Michael Douglas.

Slipping away from this world peacefully in his sleep at the ripe old age of 97 is rather fitting, as ever-present character players like Karl Malden didn't end their careers on a huge valedictory note, but quietly slipped away into the night, as his roles became fewer and further between while his years advanced. But after seven decades of show business, his tremendous body of work will continue to matter to us for ages to come.

Jul 1, 2009

Jay Scott: MIDNIGHT MATINEES (Oxford University Press; 1985) and GREAT SCOTT (McClelland & Stewart; 1994)

Since this is Canada Day, I figured it only fitting to begin "Film Book Month" with a look back at two publications featuring the work of this nation's finest film writer, the late Jay Scott, who was also recognized internationally for his style, depth and reverence. While he was primarily employed by The Globe and Mail for current movie reviews and related pieces, Scott would also write longer pieces for other publications. In any occasion, one immediately recognizes his flair for lively paragraph-long sentences, peppered with dry wit, and pop-cultural references weaved into the fabric.

Midnight Matinees, a collection of articles and medium-length reviews, is a lovely representation of Jay Scott’s skill in combining his critical and reportage techniques in the same page. The longer pieces which fill the first half of the book read like the creative non-fiction reportage of Tom Wolfe (I suppose it is no coincidence that one piece documents the making of The Right Stuff, based on Wolfe’s novel.) In these sections, he often writes with a tongue-in-cheek, gossipy point of view which are insider’s reports on the fun to be had on The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, or on the geriatric stars of Cocoon. But he also illuminates parts of the globe that many of us have not treaded. For La Balance, there is the light of the multicultural aspect of France. Most interesting is his rather sad account of a film festival in Havana (in which the fact that there is nothing much to report is the report). But two of the best Jay Scott pieces I’ve ever read are included here: “The Sadomasochism Factory” begins with a colourful posthumous character sketch of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose demeanour then parlays into Scott’s analysis of his films. Plus, his piece on the sorry state of the Canadian film industry (written right in the time of the good old tax shelter) is straight-faced, a bit snippy, but right on the money. The choices for the individual film reviews are interesting in that many of them were not box office champions. Films like Cal or Man of Flowers, which do have their followers, are here perhaps because in the early to mid 1980’s, when quality films were at an all-time slump, the discerning viewer looking for something decent to rent may not necessarily know about these comparatively obscure titles. In that regard, this book is an overview of the fare one colloquially expected Jay Scott to report to us abort. In that regard, this book almost becomes a consumer guide by a writer who had no interest in doing consumer reports.

Great Scott!, published one year after the man’s death, is a “Jay’s Greatest Hits”, if you will. It is easy to suggest that the collection of reviews shows a progression of the different waves of cinema in the 15 years of his tenure at the Globe. But, at best, this book shows Scott’s diverse styles, from the surreal and satirical to the cutting, and they reveal his work to be very experimental, once shown back to back. There is nothing wrong with putting in reviews of box-office favourites like Superman or Aliens, but in a “Jay Scott reader”, one rather expects his forte in bringing forth an obscure title. That is why the inclusion of The Inheritors or Annie's Coming Out are treats. But even so, Great Scott! is a highly enjoyable read. Scott’s wild, elliptical, river-like prose goes down like a good winet. Also valuable is Robert Fulford’s introduction, (originally published in Toronto Life), which gives a colourful portrait of Jay Scott, the man.

Jun 23, 2009

The Notorious Newman Brothers (2009)

Over two years ago I was given a review copy of the movie Bums, starring, co-written and co-directed by siblings Jason and Brett Butler. This was the second of their "brews" (Canadian alternatives to Spike Lee's "joints"?)- an amusing and honest "twentysomething" relationship ensemble comedy.

In short order, I saw the writing-directing team's third offering, Confusions of an Unmarried Couple, screened at Innis Town Hall. This comic nightmare of revenge, longing and bitterness after the end of a relationship is a mini-marvel- excellently acted by a cast of two, and is as wickedly funny as it is perceptive.

This Friday June 26, their fourth brew The Notorious Newman Brothers, is also having its Toronto debut at Innis. This new project is directed by Ryan Noel, who co-wrote and stars with the brothers Butler, and is a departure from their pungently funny studies of love pains. Noel plays Max Chaplin, a wimpy aspiring filmmaker whose ad (canvassing for subjects for a documentary) is answered by these wannabe "goodfellas" the Newman brothers: Thunderclap and Paulie (Paulie Newman- get it?) -played by Brett and Jason, respectively- who recruit him to make a movie about their bad-boy exploits. This comedy combines the well-soiled traditions of gangster film parody and "mockumentary", yet the blending of both genres results in a clever study that gently overturns the conventions of these forms, but it also is a sly commentary on how its characters are influenced by pop culture.

Perhaps this will be an ongoing trend in the work of the Butler Brothers, as the hapless characters in Bums also incorporate discussions of movie characters in their dialog. This pattern of junk culture references is less a nod to the trend jump-started by Quentin Tarantino, yet more symbolic of how their characters cling to these references to get them through their daily realities. In this movie, the vignettes of Chaplin documenting these two-bit hoods at work, are intercut with on-screen quotations from such modern gangster classics as Scarface or Carlito's Way, suggesting a movie world that the Newmans attempt to emulate but are still light-years removed from. In one hilarious moment, they re-enact for the camera the famous "Do I amuse you?" scene from Goodfellas. Their pathetic delivery is reminiscent of a terrible amateur night performer being oblivious to his his own badness. (Perhaps this moment is more evocative of DeNiro's Rupert Pupkin character in King of Comedy, whose routines are intentionally, painfully, bad- therefore true.)

All of the spoofing of gangster machismo is intact (as the Newmans constantly chide the wispy voiced filmmaker for his lack of masculinity), and there are neat jibes at reality TV conventions (as in one scene where Chaplin meets a former associate of the Newmans, the only thing in the image that doesn't get blurred out by the traveling matte is the interviewee's face). But as any "movie within a movie" should, reel life and real life appropriately blur. As we continue to watch these three central characters, we realize that things aren't always what they seem. Much that we perceive to be real becomes as artificial as the glue-on moustache that Max wears to appear macho. Additionally, we see that Max and the Newmans alike are still little boys trying to grow up. Max is a thirtysomething mommy's boy (yes, he lives in the basement), and the Newmans are clearly insecure dolts trying to appear adult, allowing the childhood games of cops and robbers to take over their lives.

The structure of The Notorious Newman Brothers is rather simple. Scenes unfold with a minimum of cuts, to emulate the cinema verité style, capturing the moments as they happen. Perhaps this film is more clever and not as fall-down funny as their previous work, but this is not to suggest that this movie is anything less than enjoyable. Amidst the subtle spoofing of various filmmaking conventions, there are some great laughs, including an elaborate scene in a video store. (Mean Streets as a family rental? Hmmm.....)

After having viewed the movie, and allowing the experience to immerse itself in you, one begins to think back on various scenes and understand more of what is really going on beneath the surface. Like the desperate characters it documents (on both side of the lens),

Brett and Jason Butler have always managed to make a lot from a little, and this film is no exception. They, as well as Ryan Noel clearly have a lot to say for themselves, and after viewing this effort, once again I offer that it will no doubt be interesting to see what they come up with next.

The Notorious Newman Brothers screens Friday June 26 at Innis Town Hall at 9:30 PM as part of the ReelHeART International Film Festival. Visit the ReelHeART website for more information. Additionally, you can find out more about the makers of this movie here and here.

Jun 17, 2009

Allan King (1930 - 2009)

In late April, TVO ran a week-long retrospective of Allan King's work (in which the legendary filmmaker introduced some of the films personally), perhaps introducing his work to another audience apart from those who chanced upon whatever theatrical runs or revivals would be accorded him. Among my film friends, getting the opportunity to see a collection of his films from the comforts of our homes was a big event. Once again, Allan King was big news. This is one more reason why his passing just a few weeks later is saddening.

At 79, an age when most artists would have retired (or if they still worked, became in danger of repeating themselves), he was still at his craft, developing a new project as recent as this spring, before learning of his medical condition. As evidenced by his incredible career resurgence this decade, as long as we had Allan King, we could still expect to be challenged, disturbed and moved by his ongoing explorations of human behaviour.

It was in the 1960's when he came to the fore upon the release of two feature-length cinema-verité documentaries, Warrendale (1967) and A Married Couple (1969), both trail-blazing pieces which put in the same league with Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles Brothers, who practiced the same style south of the border. The cinema-verité approach disregarded the usual voiceover or talking-to-camera so customary to the documentary genre, and instead wanted to record activity as unobtrusively as naturally as possible. (The seeds of his work can be seen in earlier short films like Skid Row or Rickshaw, produced for the CBC, not necessarily in style, but for introducing you to people previously not seen as documentary subjects.)

Of course the controversy about the cinema verité movement centers upon the debate of how much on screen is in fact real. Whether one speaks of such work of the 1960's, or even today's "reality TV" (to coin an example of how this style has been distilled for the masses), the camera is still a powerful tool that its subjects can't easily ignore. But people like Wiseman or King would spend time with their subjects before introducing a camera into their worlds, so they would be less influenced (or inhibited) by it. At worst, one could say that we're seeing a magnification of reality.

Warrendale, named for the disturbed children's hospital it documents, would make for an interesting double-bill with Wiseman's Titicut Follies (released the same year). The latter film documented the poor conditions at a mental hospital, yet perhaps its target differed from King's. Warrendale instead focuses on the kids, not the institution, and we eventually see the humanity beneath their dysfunction. Although originally produced for the CBC, the network refused to air it because King wouldn't edit out the childrens' profanity. Instead, it was released to theaters, and received international acclaim, even having a good run in Canada- something unheard of for a homegrown film, let alone a documentary. It was banned from broadcast until TVO ran it in 1997 (where I first caught it).

But perhaps A Married Couple more questions the authenticity of filmed reality, as we witness the disintegrating marriage of Billy and Antoinette Edwards (who fight about everything). On screen we witness what appears to be a chronological study of how their relationship declines, however the scenes were not filmed in that sequence. One could say that the movie was edited in a more linear fashion, but still I don't think that we're seeing anything untrue (as the Edwards' eventually divorced), despite the couples' knack for performance.

Allan King also made commercial fictional features, and despite the earnestness of these (Who Has Seen The Wind; Silence of the North; Termini Station), one learns that the dramas of his "reel" worlds pale before those of "real" life. In this decade, King received some of the best notices of his career with the release of Dying At Grace (2003) (featuring terminally ill cancer patients at the palliative care ward of Grace Hospital), Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005) (whose subjects have Alzheimers) and Empz 4 Life (2006) (about black youth in Toronto).

Every time I see one of King's documentaries, I ask "How the devil did he make this?" (which one can interpret as tribute to how affecting and unique they are). For example, how does a 75 year-old white male produce such a film like Empz 4 Life? How does he get terminally ill people to consent to have their final days recorded? Perhaps his greatest gift was winning the trust of his subjects to present risky topics matter in an honest, unbiased fashion. I remember one quote of Allan King (and I'm paraphrasing) where he says that when he begins a project, he never knows how it's going to end. Thus, one gets the sense that the moments of every new film is unfold with as much surprise to us as they did when King rolled the cameras.

It was his relentless curiosity to explore different facets of human nature, and the constant thrill of discovery, to make such remarkable films that may shock and upset us, but also change us in some way. These overwhelming experiences enrich us all the more for helping us to comprehend some of the harsh realities of life. Allan King was a true visionary--- and of the few filmmakers today (let alone in Canada) that are deserving of that title.

For more on Allan King, CBC has collected three videos and an audio interview which are accessible here.

Jun 15, 2009

Hard To Find Films I'm Seeking This Week (06.15.09)

In this chosen field, it seems that the more you research, you also find how much more there is to know about. For instance, as I fastidiously uncover any obscure film from the 1970's I can get my hands on, I find that for every title I do track down, there are three or four others I read about which have slipped through the cracks... and naturally I'm interested in viewing those too!

So for fun, I thought I'd commence with a new list every Monday, featuring a handful of elusive titles that pop up in my research, which I summarily am interested in tracking down.

The Pyramid (1975; Gary Kent)

This sounds like a very interesting premise (from the IMDB):
"A young TV news reporter grows tired of Commercial programming and decides to cover more positive stories. He is fired for his troubles, and goes on a personal search for truth and beauty in the media. A voyage in consciousness for the millenium".

There is a new age web site which also has an intriguing review of the film. Gary Kent is a fascinating figure in "fringe cinema", acting and doing stunts in low-budget genre films from the 60s onward, having worked with Al Adamson, Dave Hewitt, Richard Rush and many others. This is one the handful of films he's also directed, and sounds all the more intriguing for the "finding oneself" motif that was similarly explored in films at the time.

In fact, I wrote Mr. Kent about this film-- he owns the rights to the movie, and does plan to release it to home video some day. Here's hoping that happens sooner instead of later. Additionally, his book Shadows and Lights: Journeys with Outlaws in Revolutionary Hollywood is coming out next month-- and this looks like a must-read.

You and Me (1975; David Carradine)

From the BFI:
"A travelogue-like odyssey of a Hell's Angel type who teams up with a boy on the run from home. They ride up the California coast into Oregon and Washington on his bike."

The two comments I've received regarding my obit for David Carradine have both been about this elusive film in which he directed himself, his two brothers, Barbara Hershey and Gary Busey. Apparently, it was released in some state for sporadic screenings-- hopefully with the media attention accorded Mr. Carradine of late, someone explores the possibility of getting this seen.

The Alien Encounters (1979; James T. Flocker)

I actually saw part of this film on late night television in 1983... I think. (I mentioned the following in the late-night issue of ESR.) All I remember is one scene where a man and a teenager sit for what seems like an eternity on the side of a mountain waiting for a UFO to pass by. During this time, the kid mentions he's like any other teenager who's into sex, drugs and hard rock. Finally, the UFO does arrive, but because the movie is so slow, it's rather anti-climatic. Although I only caught a snippet of this picture, for years it had bugged me as to what I had seen, and only last summer did I finally get a clue thanks to a discussion the IMDB.

This movie was one of many low-budget UFO films made back in the day, capitalizing on the decade's fascination with strange phenomena. I have seen other micro-budgeted genre films by director James Flocker, but this one remains the missing link. If anything, I would appreciate the film more today, because with its lack of stars (thusly using everyday people in its cast) and slow pace (which makes the daily grind of research all the more draining and sometimes disappointing), would actually make it more true-to-life than other films which inject phenomena into reality. However, I won't know for sure until I can finally track down a copy.


There are many, many others, but I don't want to shoot the bundle in the first post. More next week....

Shock, Small Press and Somnambulism


That was an interesting two days on several levels. Usually, when one has a show, that becomes the "big event" of the weekend. However, if you have two (and each long ones at that) within the course of 24 hours, they instead feel like a couple of stops on a long journey. And looking back, these past two days seem more surreal than festive.

During the day on Saturday, I was an exhibitor at this spring's edition of the Toronto Small Press Fair. Once again, there were new administrators for the fair, and this time the location of the event was moved to the Toronto Reference Library-- appropriately enough. Likely to adhere to the library's hours, the fair ran from 9-5, when in the past, it never started before 11:00 at the previous Bloor St. locations, presumably to let people finish their brunches before they went book shopping.

This year, the fair had a record 96 exhibitors, right in the center of the library on the main floor, as the upper levels of the building loomed around us. Thankfully everyone had enough wiggle room to move around, and the readings were held in another room off to the side, so as not to disturb the vendors. I had spent most of the previous evening printing some more of the latest issue (which, naturally, I didn't end up needing), and so I was still pretty tired during the day. (This drowsiness is helped in no small part by my new diet for which I've cut down on sugary foods. I'm not even supposed to have coffee -despite that I drink it black- but I need something to keep me from nodding off.) Traffic came in the expected fits and starts, but sales were still pretty good.

Friends and fellow Trash Palace denizens Jonathan and Siue were exhibitors at the fair as well, and during the day I had remarked at how much the fair had changed over the years. Eight (count 'em-- eight) years ago, it seemed I was the odd-duck-out. I was initially allowed to sell at the fair in 2001, only after sending them the latest issue at the time, especially because in my first dialogue with the (then) coordinators, they didn't really have arts-related stuff at the fair. And so for the few small press fairs, ESR was the only vendor who was not selling poetry or fiction in any format, but gradually, one saw an emergence of self-published humour or political publications, as well as comic books.

In this age, after the desktop revolution, the meaning of "small press" has become as diverse as the material presently sold at the fair, which hasn't limited itself to the old guard of poetry chapbooks and small runs of fiction. Some of the veterans in the past have expressed disdain with the way that the fair has changed, and I do see their point, as during the year there are venues like Canzine that better support some of the less traditional wares (CDs, DVDs and crafts have found their way to this venue in recent times). However, I do know that there has already been at least one literary fair (where vendors are invited only) that harkens back to what the small press fair used to mean prior to the "zine explosion" of the 90's. (In fact, this year, my neighbour at the tables asked me was a "zine" was, pronouncing it as though it rhymed with "vine".) And by all means, if they want to have their own fair with that distinction, they should! The more ways people can get their work out there, the better.

This time out, surely a highlight for me was that I got to meet Ralph Alfonso, who under the sole name of "Ralph" released four CD's of his euphonic spoken-word beatnik poetry with jazz-garage-tinged accompaniment. He used to put out a monthly four-page fanzine (including a cover), also with the same one-word title, which one could acquire for the price of a postage stamp. The front cover usually had some beautiful silkscreen art which recalled the bohemian style of the 1950's, the centerspread would feature that month's collection of beat-tinged poetry, and the back would have a smorgasbord of album recommendations or other things which caught his interest those four weeks. The fifty issues were anthologized in two volumes: Coffee Jazz and Poetry (issues 1 - 25), and This is For the Night People (issues 26 -50). I had the latter, but the first volume was out of print for years. To my delight, he was selling both of these, as well as some CDs from his own Bongo Beat label.

That night, I was listening to his release of Ian Ferrier's album "What Is this Place?" on my way to the Fox. The artist's spoken word (closer to a whisper), with minimal jazz, rock, soundscape backgrounds seemed to perfectly fit the scenery of desolate sidewalks I was seeing out the streetcar window past 11 PM. Saturday night, or more accurately, Sunday morning, our friend Dion Conflict held the third edition of his "Shock and Awe" all-night screenings featuring grindhouse films. The film I was most eager to see was Hell's Angels on Wheels, which I have always enjoyed, and was excited to see it on a big screen. The headliner was the cult fave Return of the Living Dead which was surreal to see in a theater Sunday morning, but perhaps no less so than the hardcore film Mona which preceded it.

I was exhausted before I even got to the theater (despite having a nap), and slept through one film entirely (Swinging Pussycats), while my friends thrilled to the appearance of Andrea Rau from Daughters of Darkness. But still it was another interesting and unique Dion experience, with blue light specials a-plenty.

Unbeknownst to me, my full-time job was trying to contact me throughout the day, and so Sunday morning on the way home, I had to make a pit stop at the office to look after some stuff. After having some excellent Indian buffet for lunch, I shuffled off home to bed.

Looking back at this weekend, I am less struck by the whirlwind of activity than by how much I seemed to sleepwalk through them. (However, that seems to be the nature of this scene-- everything happens at once, and then nothing for two months.) Singularly, either of these would have been a cultural event unto itself, but one right after the other, coupled with my overtired-ness turned the entire weekend into a waking dream.

Since I had had another incident where my full-time job collides with my other life (AKA- what I don't necessarily make money at, but would rather be remembered for if I had to choose), I thusly had necessary fuel for reflection as we crawled out of the cinema, and were blinded by the sun as is befitting to us subterranean moles. On my third wind, I pondered how different facets of our lives often collide. Whether it's in the dark recess of a movie theater or at the tables of a trade show, we are sometimes reminded how much we must hang on to those honeycombs of culture with which we struggle to define ourselves. Our sporadic visits to the nest may embody who we are, but we still cannot hide from the rest of the world even before the masks come off, and nor can we necessarily bring part of that caravan into our daily lives. Sometimes these side projects must remain as much of a secret as Dion's Film Number Four.

Jun 11, 2009

Doc (1971)

Made during the period of so-called "revisionist" westerns a la The Wild Bunch; Once Upon a Time in the West; and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Frank Perry's Doc doesn't so much redefine the genre as those apocalyptic films. However the release of these (and Italian westerns) surely influenced pictures such as this, and other scruffy titles like Dirty Little Billy or The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. The heroes were painted in shades of grey, often against changing landscapes, and the films were rife with profanity, sex and violence for a new liberal audience. Perhaps these movies were closer to depicting the grubby reality of frontier life not necessarily seen in the classical pictures of John Ford, but even so these eccentric movies often had an otherworldly quality.

Doc surely is closer than most films in painting an accurate picture of the Earps. The famed OK Corral battle (while depicted as briefly in here as the actual historical gunfight really was) is seen more as a struggle for money-grubbing opportunism than law and order. Still, it takes some liberties with history-- and if we're going to take this film to task for inaccuracies then it's only fair to do the same for John Ford's My Darling Clementine (usually regarded as the definitive movie about Wyatt Earp and the OK Corral). For example, Doc Holliday's constant traveling companion "Big Nose" Kate Elder (with the nickname removed here, perhaps because Faye Dunaway's nose wasn't large enough) meets him for the first time just days away from his rendezvous with the Earps in Tombstone, Arizona leading up to the famed gun battle.

However, just as Julie Christie's glamourous image was erased in McCabe, so too is Faye Dunaway with some well-placed mud on her cheeks in low-lit interiors. Wyatt Earp (Harris Yulin) is a cold, smug lawman whose frequent activity is sneakily hitting people on the head with his gun barrel. Doc Holliday is no Shakespeare-spouting dandy a la Victor Mature-- instead, he's an opium-addicted lout who coughs up blood in every other scene (the gunfighter was slowly dying from consumption). Stacy Keach has added another interesting credit to his roster of unusual films in this period (End of the Road, Watched, The Traveling Executioner-- his Doc Holliday is equal parts charismatic and cad, dashing and disgusting.

But Doc is a superlative, wonderfully vulgar look at the old west. Pete Hamill's morally ambiguous script debunks the well-scrubbed white-hatted cowboys of previous movie lore, and presents us with frontier characters who curse, flatulate, fornicate and (it's implied) fellate. The production was shot in Spain, no doubt to emulate the Spaghetti Westerns of the time (which were often filmed around Almeria). Thusly, this film gives a supra-real effect: this "realistic" depiction of life in the old west is also given an otherworldly, larger-than-life, perhaps mythic, feel. Particularly striking are the moments in which Doc and Kate journey through the desert en route to Tombstone. The tone is nearly Biblical.

Frank Perry was surely one of commercial cinema's most interesting figures in the 1960's and 70's. His films (many scripted by his ex-wife Eleanor) always took chances. And if perhaps some of them were inconsistent, they nonetheless succeeded as gripping studies of unusual human behaviour. Whether it was the dysfunctional love stories of David and Lisa or Last Summer, quirky rural adventures at Rancho Deluxe, or Hollywood melodrama played to the hilt in Mommie Dearest, his scenarios implode the conventions of whatever genre they study, and present us with unconventional characters in these worlds. Doc is surely one of his finest.

Jun 9, 2009

Reefer Madness (1936)

As I gradually pick my way through my old VHS tapes, I re-acquaint myself with titles that I haven't seen in years (decades, even). In some cases, one reunites with an old friend, in others, one sees a movie with a different pair of eyes (for better or for worse). I've always enjoyed the misguided epic Reefer Madness, tonight's visitation was perhaps the most enjoyable time I've ever spent with it.

This dated cautionary fable (also released with the title Tell Your Children, still seen at the end) was rediscovered in the 1960's and quickly became a midnight cult favourite at college screenings or revival houses. Today it remains in high circulation as on public domain DVD labels. You don't need to be stoned to giggle at the ludicrous fear-mongering (as the narrator informs us of some kid who got high on pot and killed his parents with an axe), but I don't think it would hurt.

However, as you get older and have seen more movies, you get to put this misguided picture into greater context. No longer does one merely see this as a midnight camp classic. After the passage of time, one sees how a relic likes this fits into our popular culture.

The structure of this picture would still be used decades later in similar scare pictures (which masquerade as educational, but are exploitation at heart): a fire-and-brimstone authority figure would preach to a room full of shocked parents (or even addressing the viewer) about assorted depraved behaviours which exist just beyond our doorstep. Whether it was the evil vine of drugs, promiscuity or juvenile delinquency ravaging our land, our narrator would relate a story of how an innocent soul would be corrupted by one of these demons. And whatever thrills the public paid to see (dope smoking, cheap sex), they would still have far less screen time than all the sermonizing. Even as late as The Violent Years in 1956, this formula didn't change much.

In this sordid tale, Bill and his high school friends start hanging out at this adult couple's apartment where they are given the evil weed, along with the laughter, piano playing and cheap sex it accompanies. Today, this flick is a camp classic because the people begin laughing before they finish the first puff of the wacky tabacky, no-one inhales, and of course, for the stoned characters' irrepressible urge to play the piano with a storm that would do Cecil Taylor proud. ("Faster! Play it faster!")

However, my favourite scenes are the film's feeble attempts at action: witness the hilarious moments where one teenager hits a pedestrian with his car (you actually see the man duck a good six feet away from the vehicle), and when a distraught female can no longer cope with the damage perpetrated by marijuana and jumps out a window!

Seeing this film again after so many years, I was struck with the notion that Reefer Madness could also be an ancestor to all those educational films we saw in public school. And the fact that those shorts used stereotypes that were already outmoded in this flick is completely dumbfounding. The teenagers in this movie all look to be in their late 20's, and their abundant "Gee whillikers" dialogue is hackneyed to the extreme. Bill is such a wimp that he has to get his mother to stop his younger brother from teasing him. (One look at these two, and Bill looks old enough to have fathered him!)

Where a lot of early exploitation films usually expend their novelty value after one screening, Reefer Madness remains a delight. Like Dwain Esper's Marihuana, this naive antique continues to tickle the funny bone after repeated viewings.

Jun 4, 2009

David Carradine (1936 - 2009)

In my teens, I used to watch reruns of "Kung Fu" on Global Television on Friday nights about 2:30 in the morning. This was in the mid-1980's, a full decade after the show had been cancelled, and by this time, its star David Carradine was busy doing direct-to-video movies: his days as an A-list star behind him. His death in Bangkok is a shocking end to a career which has had many ups-and-downs, and a personal life of alcoholism and belligerent behaviour. But despite all of the sordid details that sruface about his offscreen life (and now death), I'd rather talk about his work. I've always enjoyed seeing David Carradine in films big or small. Despite whatever troubled life he led offscreen, in front of the camera, he was always a quiet storm-- a man who had tremendous presence onscreen, yet always had this curiously calming element as well. One can imagine that this quality was instrumental in his casting as Kwai Chang Caine in "Kung Fu" (seen below).

Although this role was reportedly originally considered for Bruce Lee (prior to his superstardom), the initially baffling choice to cast an American actor as a Shaolin monk who travels through the 19th Century American West, proved to be inspired, as Carradine lent credence to role's demands for both action and introspection. Although I was too young to see the show in first run, I could have imagined the impact the series had initially. Not only did "Kung Fu" have the good fortune of being made just at the cusp of the martial arts craze in North America, but it also was a unique blend of martial arts action and Eastern philosophy in a Western setting... with more of an exotic feel than most of the chopsocky films that would soon fill the drive-ins. I loved how they would always cross-cut the show's present Western setting with flashbacks of Caine's teachings in the Orient.

And on the big screen, David Carradine (the eldest acting son of the legendary John Carradine) had the good fortune of being in Martin Scorsese's first commercial feature Boxcar Bertha, (produced at the Roger Corman factory) co-starring his then-companion Barbara Hershey with whom he had a child named Free (a name synonymous with the hippie lifestyle they embraced). During the 1970's, his most impressive screen role was his Oscar-nominated performance as Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby's dustblown biopic Bound for Glory (1976). That same year, Carradine starred in the drive-in cult classic Death Race 2000, another Corman product which perhaps foreshadowed things to come.

In 1973, Carradine also directed himself in the impressive feature Americana, which sadly sat on the shelf for eight years prior to release. Had it debuted closer to the time it was made, it would no doubt have struck a chord with the anti-War movement. This fine film (also co-starring Hershey) is an absorbing allegory of a Vietnam vet who faces scorn all while trying to repair a merry-go-round in a small town. This pet project showed great promise. And another self-directed effort You and Me (1975) has sadly dropped from sight-- and has remained high in my "must see" list for years.

Carradine co-starred with his talented half-brothers Robert and Keith in Walter Hill's superb western The Long Riders (1980), a retelling of the Jesse James legend for its age. The novelty of this film is that the brothers James, Younger, Miller and Ford were all played by real life acting siblings. (James and Stacy Keach played the James brothers, the Carradines played the Youngers.) Carradine actually stole the film as Cole Younger, and his scenes with Pamela Reed (as Belle Starr) are especially delightful. (Outside of the iconic "Kung Fu" role, this may be my favourite David Carradine performance.)

In the 1980's, his career became increasingly prolific, albeit largely with smaller budgeted films which quickly made their way to the video racks. But still, he would show up in a popular movie or TV show. He was a formidable villain who menaces Chuck Norris in Lone Wolf McQuade, a modern-day rural adventure which is shot and scored like a spaghetti western. That same year, it was a joy to see him alongside Lee Majors in an episode of "The Fall Guy", effortlessly showing off his screen charisma.

He continued to make pictures in the Corman factory, as well as a few by the new King of the B's in town, Fred Olen Ray. He co-starred with Lee Van Cleef in what is likely Ray's best feature, Armed Response (1986), as a father and son team who seek vengeance on an Asian mobster. The decade ended having made such quickies as Crime Zone (1988) (an interesting futuristic thriller), and contributing a glorified cameo in the murder melodrama Nowhere to Run (1989) (also an early Carl Franklin film). He played an amusing variation on Caine in the enjoyable (at least to me) post-apoc action film Dune Warriors (1990), by the prolific Cirio Santiago.

Caine had already been reprised once by the actor in the 1986 TV-movie Kung Fu: The Movie, co-starring Bruce's son, Brandon Lee (no small coincidence, I'm sure). However, Carradine had another shot at his famous role in the TV series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, which was shot in Toronto in the mid-1990's. He played the grandson of the original Caine role who was in the big bad city helping out his hotheaded police detective son on cases. This series was pure fromage, in the haphazard ways in which they tried to make Toronto look like an American city, and in the cornball attempts at Eastern philosophy or aphorisms. Although it was decidedly more comic book than the previous series, I didn't care-- I loved it anyway.

It was becoming more apparent that David Carradine was turning into his father-- not just as a former mainstream star who would do anything for a quick buck, but even as he reached seniors' age, he was as busy as ever. In this decade alone, he has more than 90 film or television credits to his name! But for all that prolific output, his most famous role was assuredly the titular character in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. It was great to see him again in a mainstream role, and one would have hoped to see him in more A pictures, hoping that the Tarantino Touch would resurrect his career with at least some of the fortune bestowed upon John Travolta. No matter, he still had an impressive list of films big and small.

While he could be a solid action lead or a good villain, it is no small wonder that people still think of him as Caine- showing an unusual serenity instead of machismo. In fact, I think that quality permeates most of his best work. His men weren't supermen, and thereby fascinated us all the more.

Jun 3, 2009

My Very Own Private Sgt. Pepper Revue

Yesterday, there was an amusing bit of news about how House actor Hugh Laurie had once had a pact with his friends while teenagers, to kill themselves before the age of 40, because their juvenile minds had assumed they would have accomplished all that they would've needed to do by that magic number. Needless to say, this act was not carried out, but what interested me more about this piece was the actor's final statement. Laurie, who is approaching 50, added: "You hope that your teenage self would like and forgive your 50-year-old self. It would be awful to think that they'd be ashamed and appalled - that you were a betrayal of everything they thought they'd become."

Generally, I neither report nor comment on whatever piece of celebrity piffle currently masquerades as entertainment news, but this one comes rather timely, as I too have been self-reflexive on such things. Just this morning, I had an interesting philosophical chat with a colleague, who like myself still pays his dues in the trenches awaiting the big break. His concluding statement "I really feel that the clock is ticking for me..." is one I can certainly relate to.

All of this however coincides with a post I've been meaning to write for some time this year. To coin a lyric from the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band record, "it was twenty years ago today..." where I ended perhaps the most pivotal year of my life. (I had previously alluded to this way back in my "Pasta With Mr. Pleznik" post two summers ago.)

At the age of 20, I had made the daring, but insurmountably rewarding decision to return to high school and upgrade my Grade 13. Even during my two years previously spent in the work force, there was little doubt that I wanted to pursue a career in the film industry. However, I was biding my time (while making some money in the process) to decide if this was truly what I wanted to do. No starry-eyed individual was I-- the hardships and sacrifices I would encounter were already a reality; it was simply a matter of my deciding if I was prepared to take those risks. Therefore, in September of 1988, I re-enrolled in high school, with a full course load to upgrade my marks, and however possible turned every experience I could into something integral to getting accepted into film school.

Those crazy ten months to date remain the most overwhelming, trailblazing and rewarding moments of my professional life. In addition to taking a full day of classes, all while doing full-time shift work, I still somehow found time to be in two plays, and write and direct a feature-length video... all while forging bonds and being blessed with experiences that I still continue to cherish. The fall of 1988 understandably began low-key until I gradually became immersed in the arts-theater community at school. However in those early weeks, even then I needed only to look back a few months to my previously shiftless life, and compare to the then-present, where I was re-anointed with the possibility that I could do anything, and I damn near did.

But of all the things I had the good fortune of doing that year, the one that made me was the feature-length video, The Broken Circle. This was a dramatic piece about two friends who are killed in an alcohol-related car accident, and how the tragedy affects their friends and family. We managed to get money from Citizens Against Drunk Driving (or CADD, in its popular acronym) due to its subject matter, but I completely resisted turning it into a dry educational film, and instead made a narrative in which I could also explore some of my favourite themes as a writer even then (specifically mortality and time).

What it lacked in technical expertise, continuity or experience (it was the first time I used a video camera, let alone directed anything), I feel it made up for in ambition. To be honest, I had a great storyboard in my mind of how to shoot the movie, but couldn't due to lack of equipment, improper locations, and not having the experience of course to adapt to such changes. Still, for what it is (Tigger in a china shop), it probably remains the single most rewarding thing I've done to date creatively. It played on local cable for (I'm told) two years, and the Governor General (I'm told) received a copy. Most importantly, this was the thing that helped me solidify some friendships, and of course was the catalyst to help me get into school.

So, upon leaving school in June of 1989, I felt that I had the world on a string. My future seemed secure, and in place, and I also had the brains, the drive and guts to make it a reality. Now if someone had posed the question upon me as to what my life would've been like 20 years from then, no doubt my answer would've been that I would've been married, had a couple of kids, and was some hotshot filmmaker in the city of Toronto. For all that though, not once did I have glossy dreams about making a pile of money, and not, certainly not, about working in Hollywood. My modest goals were comfort and respect.

Still, in another imagined scenario, I'd be very interested to see what the precocious younger me of 1989 would have to say about my present setting. I didn't make the great Canadian movie, I don't have any little ones running around, and now perhaps more than ever, I am filled with indecision over what to do with the rest of my life. I am not turning this post into a pity party, because I don't necessarily regret how things have changed. Instead, things opened up to new and valuable life experiences. I've happily been with a special someone for almost fourteen years, and since I've been doing this publication on the side (which thereby begat screenings, webcasting and any other way I could spread the gospel about the kind of cinema I adore), I have forged new friendships and have had valuable experiences along the way. (In fact, most of the people in my current social circle I can attribute in one way or another due to this little magazine I sporadically publish.) For this little thing which is essentially a hobby and barely a business, however I would prefer to think that people take me seriously for what I do. And if given the choice, I'd much rather be remembered for it than what pays my rent. So therefore, I don't necessarily look back on my professional life with shame and scorn. On the flip side, had I ventured down my chosen path, there is a possibility I'd be starving right now, too.

This of course brings me to my next point-- another in our philosophical conversation this morning. The older we get, the more comfortable we are in our setting, and the harder it is for us to take risks due to the increase of obligations (among other things). In my current state of mind, I wouldn't care if I showed up on a film set for the rest of my days (although I grudgingly admit it is a necessary evil for any little projects I do). I no longer wish to be that hotshot filmmaker. My current passion is in my writing, and sharing my love and knowledge of film history. The clock may be ticking, but I don't necessarily perceive that as a threat, despite our youth-obsessed culture, and despite that too much of the clock ticks by while I spend too much time thinking instead of doing, and let things become excuses for not taking the risk or exerting the ambition.

As much as our culture tells us otherwise, I really don't think that life is a race-- if you play all your cards at 25, what are you going to do for an encore? You have to learn to make the best out of your situation, and value the experiences you garner along the way. I'm not one for self-help books, but one thing of late which has helped me gain more focus than I've felt for months, is list-making. Ultimately, I ask myself three questions ("What makes me happy?" "What in my life do I hate, and how can I change it?" "What do I want?") and vow not to answer them falsely.

I don't necessarily think I've betrayed who I was twenty years ago, it's just that I've found a different set of values, and have found happiness in other unsuspected ways. If anything, I am simply restless about what new experience I want to take on. Two decades later, as certainty recedes to confusion and energy wanes to a purring lull, one could say I wouldn't have all the answers I had hoped to achieve. Instead, I am still learning to evolve.

May 29, 2009

A Cat's Pajamas Flashback

This is enough to make a grown man cry. Since Issue One, Page One of my publication eight years ago, I've seen fit to discuss "The Cat's Pajamas" at any available opportunity. Coming of age in the 1980's, "The Cat's Pajamas" was my induction into the "late late show" experience. This all-night show, broadcast from WGRZ (Buffalo's NBC affiliate), usually ran two films every night, interspersed with commentary from the affable host (and WGR weatherman) Barry Lillis. There would even be old television shows, "Our Gang" shorts, newsreels, and regular news updates from Bob Gist at News Centre 2.

Finally, someone in Cyberspace has posted a clip from this show (this one dates from 1983-- two years before I was a viewer). What strikes (and thereby endears) me most about this segment is how lo-fi it is-- very off-the-cuff (Barry stubbing out a cigarette, reading from lined paper), in a non-descript lounge area, without pretension or over-the-top delivery. It's as low-key as a late-night conversation would be, as that friend in the box is speaking to you this moment from downtown, saying "I know you're out there-- I'm here to help." All of these 25 year-old feelings of identification come flooding back in two minutes of video.

And either I had forgotten or didn't know, there was actually a Cat's Pajamas Fan Club (see Barry welcome new members!) and they gave out T-shirts! (I'm checking eBay for those!) The end credits by the way, come from the 1940 film, The Mortal Storm.

Enjoy. And if anyone out there has more Cat's Pajamas video, please make it public!

May 28, 2009

Jane Randolph (1915 - 2009)

ABOVE: (l-r) Jane Randolph, Simone Simon and Kent Smith in Cat People.

Jane Randolph began as a bit player in Warner Brothers pictures (Manpower; The Male Animal) -and was reportedly an ice-skating model for Bambi- before accepting second female leads in RKO programmers. Her swansong was in the Universal classic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein before marrying businessman Jaime del Amo and retiring from the screen. But of all her twenty film appearances in eight years, her enduring fame rests largely on two of the greatest horror sequences in the 1940's.

Cat People (1942) was the first of many Val Lewton-produced horror pictures of its decade, which suggested much of their supernatural elements through sounds, shadows and offscreen imagery (a budgetary consideration that became a lovely aesthetic). These classy RKO films, while perhaps a bit too talky today, were a nice alternative to the Universal monsters, who had become degenerated for an increasingly juvenile audience.

In this classic, Jane Randolph is Alice Moore, whose co-worker Oliver has a jealous wife Irena (Simone Simon), whose lineage is of ancestry that can also change its form into a panther. One night Alice is being followed by Irena. The clicking of sandals become a deafening silence, the shadows in the streets loom ominously, and then suddenly we hear a huge ROAR.... from a streetcar that Alice nearly collides with. Then she goes to the spa to have a dip in the pool. While she is in the water (in a dark room eerily illuminated by the ghostly, rippling reflections from the pool) strange sounds occur from offscreen, and she lets out a scream. The lights come back on, and she is safe for now, but then finds that her street clothes have been ripped to shreds.

Jane Randolph reprised her role in the excellent, underrated sequel The Curse of the Cat People (1944) (more of a modern Gothic fantasy than a horror film), whose lonely daughter has an imaginary friend.... Irena. (For my money, this and The Seventh Victim are the best of the Lewton cycle.) While her legacy is small, Jane Randolph left classic movie fans some memorable screen moments.

May 3, 2009

The Third Floor Drive-In: Season 5, Episode 3

Tonight's film: Ghetto Freaks (1970)

(preceded by trailers for The Pusher and The Hard Road)

It was an unusually cold night at The Third Floor Drive-In ® . We were shivering in our blankets, quivering while sipping coffee as Ghetto Freaks unspooled. As it turns out, the conditions couldn't have been more appropriate to view such a film. This hippie exploitation avoids the usual locations of sunny California in the "summer of love", and displaces the action to wintertime in Cleveland as these long-haired kids hand out pamphlets on the streets while freezing to death. The production history of this movie is as interesting as the onscreen shenanigans. This was originally titled Love Commune (and far more accurately at that), but it was re-released as Ghetto Freaks with two minutes of a silly hippie cult initiation scene, in which the African-American member of the commune . It was directed and co-written by Robert J. Emery, perhaps better-known for his later string of Florida-produced exploitation (Ride In a Pink Car was in an earlier season of The Third Floor Drive-In ® .

By the time of its release, there had been many films made about the counterculture, yet this one is one of the best-- both an exaggerated caricature and plain presentation of the hippie movement. Witnessing the sex orgy scene (with anamorphic lenses, great bad rock music and well-endowed flower children) might make you want to tune in, turn off and drop out too, but otherwise shows that hippie life isn't the soft-focus Utopia evoked by Laszlo Kovacs' lens in Psych-Out. These long-haired kids are constantly harassed by fascist cops (reminding us once and for all about the turmoil of the decade not recalled in K-Tel compilations), get bugged by gangsters wanting to push their drug cartel into the scene, and eke out a living hustling underground newspapers on the street. All fifteen of them live in one apartment, and are led by a guru named Sonny, who looks twenty years older than he ought to be (but didn't they all, in these hippie flicks?). In one amusing scene, all the kids get on one bus with the same bus pass that is circulated by handing it out the window to the next person to board the vehicle-- doesn't the bus driver notice? Among the vague linear threads of this fascinating time capsule is the burgeoning yet tragic relationship between Sonny and the newest commune member Diane, a runaway from her upper-class but ultra-conservative upbringing.

Ghetto Freaks is an interesting contradiction. On the surface it attempts to be a gritty expose, and largely succeeds thanks to Paul Rubinstein's docu-like photography (the numerous street scenes seem off-the-cuff) and the likely improvised, overlapping dialogue between the pothead protagonists. But no film with such an overlong drug-trip sex-orgy sequence can be taken as "the real thing", and it also has a strange Brechtian device a la Godard, where in one protest sequence, a film crew is clearly in view. What at first seems to be a mistake occurs again after the shocking finale- actors and crew stand around movie lights at the previous location while the credits roll, as if to say "up yours", much like the early scene where a hippie gives the viewer the peace sign and the finger in a single shot.

Are we to presume that the movie was just a big put-on? Ghetto Freaks thusly (and perhaps carelessly) raises more confusions than conclusions, but only makes this flick more thought-provoking than was intended. The cameras finally become turned upon the viewer forcing one to consider how we as a society have been portraying the movement in media. I'd be interested to know what -if any- response this perplexing picture received in its theatrical runs. People probably just wanted some sex and drugs, which it does deliver, plus a whole lot more bang for their bong.

View the groovy trailer for Ghetto Freaks here:

Apr 30, 2009

The Third Floor Drive-In: Season 5, Episode 2

Tonight's film: 10 Violent Women (1982)

(preceded by trailers for The Doll Squad and The Corpse Grinders)

Tonight, The Third Floor Drive-In ® honours the eightieth birthday of the legendary Ted V. Mikels, who has tirelessly been offering micro-budgeted genre fare for over forty years. Many of them, such as Astro Zombies or The Doll Squad have become midnight movie favourites. And God bless him, he's still at it-- as we speak, he is preparing the third installment to Astro Zombies!

And to be certain, each financially challenged project has had liabilities both technical and thespian, but more often than not he has succeeded in delivering entertaining fare. In many cases, the films have a disarmingly childlike playfulness to them despite any sordid subject matter. In honour of tonight's occasion, I felt it appropriate to give another look to 10 Violent Women. Years ago, I had submit an IMDB review, more of derision than delight, prior to my "re-appraisal" of the canon of Theodore Mikacevich and have always meant to give this one another chance.

Well in all honesty, this film bewilders me even on a second viewing. That feeling begins even with the title: there are not ten violent women- only eight! Did two ladies drop out or was the arsenal shortened due to budget cuts? Heck, even if this was called Five Violent Women, it wouldn't have hurt its box office potential.

Anyway, after a still-stupefying opening, when the girls get even with some pervert who tries to assault one of them while they're all working together in a mine (or something), these gals decide to strike out on their own, by plotting an intricate jewel robbery, and then attempt to fence the goods. One by one, the octet dwindles in numbers until the remaining few are arrested, sent to a women's prison, and plot to escape.

Presumably, the actresses in this epic came from Ted V. Mikel's fabled castle, in which he lived with ten women. And as for the acting, well, the most controlled performances ironically come from Mikels himself in a fun cameo as the criminal whom the girls try to sell the jewelry to (and gets a spiked heel in the chest for his trouble), whoever plays the kindly prison guard Miss Robbins, and the other anonymous lady who plays the traditional butch lesbian warden (in fact, she may remind you of Selma Diamond in TV's "Night Court"). As for our heroines, their thespian skills come off best when it seems that they're not rehearsing from a script in those moments of overlapping freeform dialog which suggests how comfortable these castle ladies are with one another off camera. But the overacting award goes to the effeminate jewelry store owner who should be out appearing in Andy Milligan Dinner Theater.

But still, the juvenile charm of the picture wears thin real fast. The film plods along once they get into prison, and since the movie seems to have been shot with one light, the numerous night-time exteriors and scenes in jail cells are hard to view.

Anyway, here's a trailer for tonight's movie, which in the true tradition of the drive-in, makes this tawdry exercise very enticing. That's the exploitation business for you!

Apr 28, 2009

The Third Floor Drive-In: Season Five, Episode One

Tonight's Feature: Play Misty For Me (1971)

(preceded by the Casper Cartoon "Boo Moon", and the trailer for From Noon Till Three)

Play Misty For Me is Clint Eastwood's first feature as a director, and after all these years, it remains one of his most enjoyable films, before or behind the camera. In this thriller, he plays DJ Dave Garber who hosts a groovy radio show "with a little verse, a little talk and five hours of music to be nice to each other with", who begins a casual affair with a fan who soon reveals her psychotic tendencies. We've seen the plot for this film mirrored in later pictures like The Fan or Fatal Attraction, but still for my money, this remains the best of the "psychotic admirer" franchise. And as each year passes, this little gem becomes more enjoyable, especially because Eastwood has seldom been so vulnerable onscreen, and it is hilarious to see this iconic macho man constantly befuddled by nearly every female in the cast- not just the psychotic Evelyn. He is kept in check by his old flame Tobi, and even is put in line by his cleaning lady! (And by the way, Jessica Walter is excellent as his number one fan.)

At the age of 41, Clint made a "student film" with the game energy of a precocious filmmaker a generation younger- lots of interesting camera work, ambitious visual ideas, and of course, a couple of indulgences that would become typical of his work behind the camera (need I say more than the interminable scene with the Lady Chablis in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil?) In this case, before the third act, Clint films a love scene scored by Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", which runs for the complete four minutes of the track, thusly offering more shots of waves, leaves, pull focuses and soft dissolves than you'll need. And of course, we see two acts at the Monterey Jazz Festival when one would suffice (but since the second is Cannonball Adderley playing "Country Preacher", I'm glad it's in there.

As solid as the thriller plot is, truthfully I've seen this flick a dozen times more because I like the ambiance of the coastal Carmel setting, and back in my college broadcasting days, I wanted to be Dave Garber! I really dug his bohemian lifestyle, driving along the California coast in a hot car, and spinning all that groovy music at the station. It truly is a relic of its era. (And upon seeing Dave's swinging pad, I kept wondering how much his job paid!)

It was a lovely evening at the Third Floor Drive-In. The "you-are-there" feeling was high, with the breeze blowing through the ozoner, complimenting the atmosphere onscreen.


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