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?


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