Feb 6, 2012

Bill Hinzman (1936- 2012)

You can spend an entire career in the movie business without the general public knowing who you are. Or, as in the case of Bill Hinzman, one can be familiar to millions with just one screen appearance. Of his small filmography, actor-director Bill Hinzman is instantly recognized as the first ghoul seen in George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), menacing our heroine Barbara (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) in the graveyard.

You know, this guy.

Ben Gazzara (1930 - 2012)

Actor Ben Gazzara has died, leaving a legacy of stage, television and film work dating back to the 1950s. Born Biagio Anthony Gazzarra in New York City, he first got the acting bug while attending the drama program in the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club. Later, he took acting classes in the Dramatic Workshop of the New School under the tutelage of the influential Erwin Piscator, and then joined The Actors Studio. He had received notices for his stage performances in "A Hatful of Rain" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", and appeared onscreen (with fellow Actors Studio personnel) in The Strange One (1957), and then starred as the man on trial for murdering his wife's attacker in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (1959). 

Feb 5, 2012

Some Call It Loving (1973)

Director / Producer: James B. Harris
Writer: James B. Harris (based on the short story, “Sleeping Beauty” by John Collier)
Music: Richard Hazard
Cinematographer: Mario Tosi
James B. Harris Productions; 103 min; color

Zalman King (Robert Troy), Carol White (Scarlett), Tisa Farrow (Jennifer), Richard Pryor (Jeff), Veronica Anderson (Angelica), Logan Ramsey (Carnival Doctor), Pat Priest (Carnival Nurse)

“I bought a sleeping beauty- I just thought I should let you know.”


I’m going to tell you about one of the most intimate screenings I’ve ever had. It was during a summer night a few years ago, and one of those times where I’d wake up in the middle of the night, realize that I wouldn’t be going back to sleep anytime soon and would randomly pick something to watch. That night’s choice was Some Call It Loving, which evolved into a rapturous experience, as the shadows and darkness onscreen was perfectly complemented by those final hours of night amidst the hushed neighbourhood surroundings, before the sun would rise to burn away the mystery and allure found only in those hours when most of the world slumbers. I cannot imagine seeing this delicate picture in any other circumstance- I rose from one slumber into a waking dream, where the viewing time and its milieu perfectly meshed with what was playing.

To call this a perfect viewing experience does not however suggest that the movie itself is perfect:  one-of-a-kind projects seldom are (at least in conventional terms). One must forgo the usual criteria of judging cinema with a delicate object such as this. To examine this movie strictly on the virtues of its plot or acting is to strip away all that is unique about it; the effect would be much the same as the morning sun laying bare the preceding night hours, or someone turning on the bedroom lights during an act of love making. This is more cinema for the senses- as such, Some Call It Loving is unforgettable as a visceral and emotional experience. But before we continue, we must slavishly explore its narrative thread in order to put all of its true virtues into context.

Robert Troy is a jazz musician who lives in a mansion with two women, Scarlett and Angelica: the three constantly perform role-playing games to the degree that Robert can no longer distinguish what is real-life. His one chance at having a normal existence in the “real world” occurs during a nocturnal prowl when he encounters a carnival sideshow featuring a real-life “sleeping beauty”.  Her host, a doctor (basically a carnival barker in a white lab coat), sells kisses to eager participants for a dollar a smooch, to try and awaken the slumbering girl, and live happily ever after. In truth, the doctor is giving her drugs to keep her sleeping so that the customers will never arouse her (in literal or figurative terms). Have we ever expected truth in a carnival midway?  Do we really think that those bowling pins we knock down aren’t glued to the table? Nonetheless, Robert is so taken by the sleeping beauty, that he buys her from the doctor and takes her home.

When the medication wears off, Jennifer awakens into Robert’s world, and becomes a willing participant into the bizarre rituals that they perform in the mansion, perhaps to his consternation. Was his reason for buying the sleeping beauty truly out of infatuation, or was it to have someone of his own to control in these weird parlour games? Whatever the case, both ambitions would end up in despair.

Any fairy tale is about someone who wants to be free of whatever fantastic situation shackles them (whether they’re a frog prince or have long hair), to live a normal life. There is no “happily ever after” in this tale- or, are we being deceived? Are these characters happier when they surrender to their bizarre role-playing? While Robert makes clear his intention of having a normal life with Jennifer, their escape into the “real world” only reminds him of the cage in which he lives. (No more blatant example of that can be seen than when the couple arrive at a hotel named “Fantasy”.)  His one true connection otherwise with the outside world is in his drug-addicted friend Jeff, who hangs around the nightclub. It is not logically wrong to include these scenes with this mumbling, sweaty, barely coherent character, as Jeff is also playing in a fantasy world, albeit chemically induced. However, all of these scenes with Robert’s friend are incongruous with the otherwise carefully structured narrative. Further, because Jeff is played by Richard Pryor, who had similar problems offscreen, in this film about role-playing, his part is perhaps too close to reality.

On the basis of the narrative, one could obviously quibble about such things as how a jazz musician can afford to live in a mansion, much less spring fifty grand for the sleeping beauty act.  (Maybe his housemates are loaded- who knows?) But since the movie has the elliptical nature of a dream, it is less about logic or reason, more about repetitive patterns: certain scenes are repeated verbatim, albeit with different players.  Even the carnival barker’s patter is echoed in the bittersweet finale. In fact one could interpret all of Jennifer’s journey as one long, continuous role-playing game. (Tellingly, she always calls Robert by his surname, as though he’s her master.)

Viewed under the appropriate circumstances, we too are awakened from a slumber into a living dream, much like Jennifer has been. Much of the film takes place during those hours when most of the world is dreaming in bed. The movie is in near-perpetual darkness- and the figurative characters are in a somnambulistic state- enacting dreams in a concrete world. As such, few films better understand the erotic allure and mystery of the night. (Remember, Robert is a jazz musician, and one can scarcely have a more nocturnal occupation than that.)  Mario Tosi’s woozy cinematography perfectly captures the ambience of the characters’ waking dream world: the luminous, over-exposed lighting of the carnival and jazz club, the expressionistic candelabra lighting of the cavernous mansion and the neon emanating from the juke box during the scenario’s rare attempt at romance.

The latter scene in which the two would-be lovers dance to Nat King Cole’s chilling “The Very Thought Of You” evokes more sadness and unrequited desire than love. Robert’s pursuits for a conventional relationship are instead met with sad realizations of a web he cannot escape. Because the bulk of the film unfolds in darkness and shadows, its daylight scenes are however revealing: we see more about these characters who enact their bizarre role-playing rituals, and most tellingly, daylight pervades most of the sequence of Robert’s ill-fated attempt in escaping to the “real” world with Jennifer.

The career of James B. Harris dates all the way back to the 1950s, when he was producing for a young Stanley Kubrick.  Within his scant filmography is a handful of films which he wrote and directed- of which Some Call It Loving is perhaps his best. Interestingly, it is this project in his oeuvre that relies least upon mainstream conventions to succeed. As such, we could quibble for example about how the performances are one-note, yet upon further examination, like many things in this serpentine movie, this could be by design. (What better way to convey characters who are soulless?) At first glance, nothing in this movie is what it appears to be- the more one ponders it, the complex ideas begin to materialize.

Like any unique work of art, one must be willing to appreciate it on its own terms. Just like the sunlight that strips away the hypnotic enigma of night, and reveals the ugly truths of our characters, scrutinizing this movie in conventional ways would shatter its fragile beauty. However, if one visits Some Call It Loving with an openness to the world it creates, its rewards are large.

The Ski Bum (1971)

Director: Bruce Clark
Writers: Bruce Clark, Marc Siegler (“suggested by the novel of Romain Gary”)
Producer: David Dawdy
Music: Joseph Byrd
Cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond
Avco-Embassy; 95 min; color

Zalman King (Johnny), Charlotte Rampling (Samantha), Joseph Mell (Burt Stone), Dimitra Arliss (Liz Stone), Michael Lerner (Rod), Penelope Spheeris (Star the Witch), Jackson Browne, Ned Doheny (Stoned Guitars)

From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Hollywood was still run by aging moguls, who nonetheless were so out of touch with the long-haired baby boomers, that they would bankroll practically anything that had even the most vague references to the counterculture generation or the themes that it embraced. It truly was a magical time where the only rule was that there were no rules, and as a result countless movies, big and small, were made which captured that restless, freewheeling spirit. Granted, many of those films are imperfect (some badly dated), yet that imperfection is often the price paid when striving for something of higher enlightenment. And even so, warts and all, these scruffy, stuttering, wildly uneven opuses from those years have a certain vitality to them that one usually misses in today’s antiseptic mainstream cinema, and that is why people like myself want to see every damn one of them.

I mean, whenever else in film history will you hear a dialogue like: “I just killed your dog.” “The poodle?  Outta site! Come on inside for a drink.”?

If for nothing else, The Ski Bum is a valuable relic of that wrinkle in time, when unconventional approaches to moviemaking could still be embraced by the mainstream. It was a joyous winter day when I discovered that one of my favourite independently owned video stores had this film on the shelf- elated with being able to see the film after years of curiosity spent over Leonard Maltin’s capsule review in his annual movie guide, especially because he gave it the BOMB rating. (Any 70s film that he’d rate BOMB or *1/2 stars would instantly command my attention, because usually these movies would at least be unique, despite or because of their flaws.)

Although some sources (Maltin’s included) say that this runs for 136 minutes (and I couldn’t imagine how), the copy I’ve screened plays for 95 minutes (and it’s amazing it takes even that long to say what little it has to). This scenario (“suggested” by Romain Gary’s novel of the same name, whatever the hell that means) is about Johnny Cochrane, a moody ski instructor whose high-class girlfriend Samantha (played by the ravishingly mysterious Charlotte Rampling) works for a shady aristocrat. At first her boss hires Johnny to provide skiing lessons to his two monster children (and seeing him on the slope dressed in a black trenchcoat instead of a jumpsuit makes him the most peculiar skiing instructor ever), yet before long Johnny begins doing other suspect tasks for the boss, including buying dope from some of the most exaggerated hippie stereotypes ever seen in a so-called mainstream movie.
While on the surface, Johnny is the typical cultural misfit that is familiar to many protagonists of 1970s cinema, who rejects the status quo yet cannot find roots anywhere else, either.  Similarly, Johnny tries to avoid the high-class society that welcomes him into their orbit, preferring to be his own man, yet eventually panders to it once he realizes he’s nothing without it.  The throwaway line in which Samantha asks him, “You’re a Gemini, aren’t you” is perhaps the most telling, suggesting a conflicting, dual personality-  certainly Johnny is unpredictable, gentle one moment, screaming his head off the next. (And while I confess to liking Zalman King’s screen presence, he’s much better quiet, and grating when he’s intense.)

Whatever political undertones that may exist in Gary’s novel (based upon the synopsis I’ve read about it) are practically transparent here, however this filmic “suggestion” is about class structure. There are always blockades to his entrances into Samantha’s world of leisure and cocktail parties (he is constantly hounded by concierges and doormen), until she personally allows him in. Ultimately, Johnny realizes he can’t live within or without them.

And while the movie may have had commercial appeal alone for its fashionably confused, aimless protagonist, the filmmakers decided to make the movie a bit more hip (for better or for worse) with such psychedelic effects as echoing voices on the soundtrack to suggest how everyone is smothering Johnny. Even more negligible is the steam bath sequence, in which Vilmos Szigmond overexposes the scene to hot whites, suggesting that it is all a fantasy scene in which all the characters intertwine, with revealing dialogue that further explores Johnny’s psyche, that however turns out as Fellini on a bad day. There is even the old “movie within a movie” gimmick, in which our heroes are beseiged by hip young filmmakers who are shooting something called "The Ski Bum": this once innovative layer exploited only a few years earlier by the French New Wave was already old hat by 1971.

The Ski Bum is more enjoyable to have seen than to sit through: it isn’t terrible, but it won’t make your day, either. History does not record how the picture fared among the few who saw it in the day, yet forty years have not been kind to this lumbering account. But still, probably the only ones who would want to see this today are completists of counterculture cinema (like myself), no matter how archaic they seem. And the hypothesis was correct-- this 1970s movie given a Maltin BOMB rating is at least interesting--- if perhaps for the wrong reasons.

Feb 4, 2012

Zalman King (1942 - 2012)

My first encounter of Zalman King was in his lead role for 1976‘s Blue Sunshine, which I saw for the first time in the summer of 1986. Although I hadn’t known it then, by the time I had viewed this picture, this actor had since strayed from before to behind the camera, as a producer. Then as now, Blue Sunshine would instantly became one of my favourite cult movies, and if the situation presented itself, one of the films I’d take to a desert island. Additionally, then as now, I would concede that Zalman King was no Olivier, there was just something fascinating about him onscreen.