May 26, 2012

This Week's Hard-to-Find Film: The Proper Time (1960)

Years before the Billy Jack movies, actor Tom Laughlin was already writing and directing projects for himself, which remain far less accessible than his later successes. The same year he acted in The Delinquents (1957) for director Robert Altman, Laughlin made his writing-directing debut with The Proper Time, which was filmed in six days on a $20,000 budget, but not released until 1960.

Synopsis (from TCM-- warning, spoilers ahead):

College freshman Mickey Henderson suffers from a severe stutter when tense and is only assured and calm with young women his own age. Pressured to participate in a fraternity "rush" by his father, Mickey's subsequent anxiety causes him deep embarrassment during the event and he is rejected by the organization. When Mickey's parents urge him to seek assistance from a speech therapist, he refuses. On campus, Mickey meets Sue and the two are immediately attracted to each other and begin dating. Sue remains unaware of Mickey's stutter as he is happy and confident in her presence. Sue's sultry roommate Doreen takes an interest in Mickey, and despite his relationship with Sue, sets about seducing him. Discovering that Mickey has slept with Doreen, an angry and hurt Sue confronts Mickey, explaining that she wanted to wait for the proper time before having sex. After Sue breaks up with him, Mickey continues seeing Doreen but begins to suspect that she has lied to him and has slept with other men. Under continuing pressure from his parents, Mickey visits the speech clinic, but is uncomfortable with the advised treatment. When Mickey confronts Doreen about his suspicions, she admits she has had numerous lovers both before and after him. Distraught, Mickey begins stuttering and is shattered when Doreen taunts him. At last ready to face his problem, Mickey returns to the speech clinic and Sue.

This outline suggests that even at this young age, Laughlin was an ambitious independent filmmaker, attempting to create some marquee value with sensational subject matter ("sex always sells", as they say), while adding unusual subtext, and no doubt some moralizing. That formula would be perfected with the runaway success of the Billy Jack films, which proved that he could strike gold by working within and without the system: giving the audience what they want, while liberally expounding on his own beliefs and social causes.

As of this writing, not a single review of the film is to be found online, save for a blurb by TV Guide. At best, there is a comment on the IMDB message board: 

"...I saw this movie on TV in the late 1960s on a Barrie, Ontario station... It was obviously one of those "message for teenagers" movies about the pros and (mostly) cons of premarital sex. The acting was absolutely DREADFUL!!!! I recall that I was aware of this as a teenager myself. I've never seen it since, and it's never been listed in any of the TV Movie Guides (Leonard Maltin, etc.)"

Well, I don't know-- there are many cinema spelunkers who would like to find this and decide for themselves, including yours truly. Whatever one's views of Tom Laughlin as a filmmaker, one nonetheless must admire his tenacity- at the very least, this would be interesting if viewed as a stepping stone towards his later successes that followed a similar model.

While the film appears to be out of circulation (perhaps by Laughlin himself?), Contemporary Records has however re-issued the soundtrack by jazz drummer Shelley Manne.  The CD includes a 12-page booklet (perhaps including more stills and information about the movie?).

Tom Laughlin would make another hard-to-find feature. Shot in 1960 over fourteen days, intended as the first of an intended trilogy, We Are All Christ, this movie was finally released in 1963 as Among the Thorns, and then re-released in 1965 as The Young Sinner. This title is deserving of an entry all its own.

(Postscript: one assumes that the IMDB user is referring to Barrie's CKVR. This TV station had a mouth-watering schedule of vintage movies and TV shows, many of which not easily found elsewhere,  until CHUM absorbed it in the mid-1990s. It is now part of the CTV conglomerate.. that is to say, CKVR is now as faceless as most other things on the dial.) 

May 21, 2012

From The Journals of Jean Seberg (1995)

Director / Writer / Producer / Editor: Mark Rappaport
Cinematographer: Mark Daniels
Planet Pictures; 97 min; color

Mary Beth Hurt (Jean Seberg)

Mary Beth Hurt talks to the screen sporting a short blond haircut and a ”New York Herald Tribune” T-shirt, portraying an older, but much wiser Jean Seberg, in the attire of her most famous role, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. This was one of a few highlights in an erratic career and a turbulent life. Hurt, as Seberg, speaks to us from an empty grey set (cinematic purgatory?), taking us on the actress’ journey through Hell, documenting her sudden celebrity through to explaining her own suicide at the age of 40 in 1979. Michael Rappaport (whose previous work includes Rock Hudson's Home Movies) has made another documentary about the truth behind the façade of movie iconography, using a decoupage of film clips, not just for ironic counterpoint, but to illustrate the thin line between “reel life” and “real life”.  (This line is further blurred, when it is also learned that in real life, the actress had been Mary Beth Hurt’s babysitter.)

Jean Dorothy Seberg was the eighteen year-old winner of a nationwide talent search by Otto Preminger for the role of Joan of Arc in the director’s latest film Saint Joan (1957). Although much publicity surrounded the making of the film (especially surrounding the young Iowa native turned overnight celebrity), the film however was a flop. The reason for its failure was not entirely the fault of the untrained actress, and likely more due to the excesses of her tyrannical director. To prove that “he was right and everyone else was wrong” about casting the inexperienced actress, Preminger used her again in Bonjour Tristesse, but quickly dropped her after that picture too became a flop. Her being used, abused and discarded would be a motif for the next twenty years of her life.

But the French film critic turned director Jean-Luc Godard resurrected her in his New Wave classic, Breathless, in a role he claimed was a continuation of her part in Bonjour Tristesse. But that was the first of very few screen highlights -namely Lilith (which Hurt/Seberg regards as her finest hour) and the big-budget, star-studded Airport- in a troubled career.

ABOVE: Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless.

As much as her first screen character was literally burned by her persecutors, so too figuratively was the actress offscreen. Seberg explains how through her life she was a pawn, not just for film directors with delusions of grandeur, but also for the FBI. Her activist causes, especially her support of the Black Panther party, caused the “powers that be” to bury her, and perhaps to set an example for other celebrities who would shake the establishment. Further scandal ensued over allegations that a Black Panther fathered her unborn child. (The infant was white, but only lived two days.)

However, Hurt/Seberg maintains, the FBI chose to destroy her because other famous activists like Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave came from powerful celebrity families. Jean Seberg may not have straddled a gun in Hanoi, or used an Oscar speech as an excuse to voice a political agenda, however she was the celebrity “enfant terrible” to most pay for her supposed crimes.

Interestingly, Rappaport’s cinematic essay shares a common trait of Seberg and her celebrity activist contemporaries, where all three were exploited by their film director husbands: Fonda by Roger Vadim for her sexuality; Redgrave by Tony Richardson for her lack thereof; Seberg by novelist-turned-auteur Romain Gary for her vulnerability (in the vanity projects Birds of Prey and Kill!).

From The Journals of Miss Jean Seberg is a confessional from beyond the grave, in which “Jean d’Arc” is finally enabled to defend her life. This film is not a conventional celebrity biography: if for example, Rappaport fails to mention one of her finest works, The Mouse That Roared, it is simply because his schemata is to highlight the moments of her life that are central to the themes of persecution and abuse. The use of film clips and narration result in more of a filmic essay than a cinematic experience, however the result is a devilishly clever, revealing and upsetting film that somehow finds bitter humour in the irony juxtaposing the glossy Hollywood images and Hurt/Seberg’s tragic dialogue.

After a turbulent, short life, and a career spanning 37 films, Jean Seberg is still best remembered today for her role in Breathless. If one screen image is recalled from her filmography, it is her character’s blank face staring at the camera, uttering “What is a bitch?”, before turning her back to us. That ambiguous image, full of mystery, has become part of pop culture. Rappaport’s film succeeds in realizing the complex personality of the person who was often a symbol.

May 17, 2012

What Happened Was... (1994)

(Above: two very different posters to market the movie. The left picture far more accurately captures the characters than the other photo's attempts to sex things up.)

Director / Writer / Editor / Music: Tom Noonan
Producer: Scott Macaulay, Robin O’Hara
Cinematographer: Joe DeSalvo
Samuel Goldwyn Company; 91 min; color

Tom Noonan (Michael), Karen Sillas (Jackie)

The film begins with Jackie trying on numerous dresses in her apartment for a dinner date with her co-worker Michael, to be held there later that evening. She is illuminated with a hard key light that flattens her face to a sinister visage. These are startling images that one cannot shake off, even as the lights in her apartment dim to a sultry orange, even as she makes herself up to look more alluring: we sense that something lurks beneath the surface of this deceptively domestic setting. 

When Michael shows up for talk, dinner and more talk, the set literally gets darker, complimenting the shadowy beings beneath the characters’ transparent exteriors. The conversation that unfolds for ninety minutes is by turns mundane and forced; the two sometimes utter sentences that they immediately wish they could retract. In the film’s final moments, their true nature is laid bare to the other and to themselves. What Happened Was... is a movie that explores something we can all recognize: the awkward first date, however seldom has this universal experience been taken to such a hellish degree. The torment these two characters feel is a result of their words and actions, as well as the notions they decide not to act upon. The project began as a stage play written by Tom Noonan, and was quickly transformed to film after a short run. Despite the single setting (save for a haunting finale on the city street), the movie never feels stagebound. The sole location rather reflects the claustrophobia of these people: they are trapped in cages of their own design. The aesthetic choice to film many sequences in unbroken master shots could also make the adaptation seem theatrical, but the frame is often kept wide to study the characters' body languages: their nervous quirks and movements add a further dialogue to the uneasy conversation.

The title of the movie is also the name of a children’s story that Jackie had written, and reads to Michael in one spooky scene. The story’s allusions to children playing in a doll’s house (further emphasizing entrapment) are captured in a visually innovative way, featuring stop-motion animation and silhouette cut-outs (one way in which this film truly feels cinematic, and not just a filmed stage play). This sequence is the heart of the film: these adults act as irrationally as children while awkwardly attempting to be mature.

Actor-writer-director Tom Noonan has created a funny, quirky, unsettling and haunting masterpiece: it is an unforgettable character study where one can learn from these people both in what is, and is not said. Despite the principle interior setting, it is also one of the most moving portraits of urban loneliness, further conveyed in the chilling conclusion when all around the setting of our little drama, dimly lit apartments house even more lost souls imprisoned in their brick cages. The two actors' unconventional, non-"movie star" appearances perfectly convey the quirky characters, yet lend an authenticity to the milieu of everyday people with achingly human imperfections.

This is a tour-de-force for Noonan, who also edits and performs the music under aliases. The picture is funded from his own acting jobs in previous films, where he usually played villains or social misfits. Michael is not malevolent like others in Noonan’s gallery, however he is still socially dysfunctional (he appears at Jackie’s door with his tie hanging out of his jacket pocket!). Despite how much his personality may dominate the project onscreen and off, it is Karen Sillas who steals the film. 

The actor-director originally offered the role of Jackie to his then-wife Karen Young, who turned it down, as did other name talent like Elizabeth McGovern and Frances McDormand, before it was offered to Karen Sillas, then best-known for appearances in a couple of Hal Hartley films. She inhabits Jackie so well that one could not imagine anyone else in the chameleon-like and ultimately tragic role: the characterization is by turns funny, endearing, sexy, grotesque and slightly demented. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was garnering its list of nominees for the 1994 year, there was much media speculation on the poor female roles being offered- however, ironically, the Academy failed to nominate the two greatest performances for an actress that year: Judy Davis in The New Age, and Karen Sillas’ stunning work here. 

When I saw this film in a sparsely populated theater in 1995 (which enhanced the milieu of urban isolation onscreen), I had envisioned that this was going to be a breakthrough role for Karen Sillas. The movie had won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (as well as the festival's Waldo Salt Award for Screenwriting), and some rave reviews, however it attracted a marginal audience. Sadly, her deserved crossover to “A”-list leading roles never came. Then, as now, her character Jackie is a role of a lifetime.

May 7, 2012

Did You Ever Hear The Words, Blue Sunshine?

Cinema closures are an unfortunate trend these days. Whether it’s a multiplex or a micro-cinema that caters to marginal tastes, it appears that the future of theatrical venues is in jeopardy, as they fall prey to lower attendance, higher operating costs and the redevelopment machine. As Toronto reels from the sudden news that the Festival darling The Cumberland shuttered its doors for good this weekend, cult film fans in Montreal are counting down the days before Blue Sunshine closes.

Founded in 2010 by programmers Kier-La Janisse and David Bertrand (and named after one of my favourite cult movies), Montreal's Psychotronic Film Centre / Home of the Miskatonic Institute, is a dream destination for anyone whose interest in cinema journeys beyond mainstream releases into more outré territory: horror films, music documentaries, vintage cult favourites and a generous helping of Canadian genre films are just some of the tantalizing goodies offered in Blue Sunshine’s schedule.

Within the past 24 months, Billy Jack, Sugar Hill, Strange Shadows in an Empty Room, Melody, The Alien Factor, Lemon Popsicle, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, and Kriminal, have been among the titles presented at this cinema, often in 16mm. Their tastes shame even the cult film programming in beautiful (cough!) downtown Toronto. In addition to the psychotronic movies being screened, their self-styled Miskatonic Institute would also feature lectures and workshops about cinema to ensure that these works remained alive for future generations.

My fellow programmers at Trash Palace (whose own days are numbered, by the way) had a strong bond with the Montreal micro-cinema, as they would often journey to Quebec to present their own selections of films at Blue Sunshine. My one and only encounter with the venue was last fall, when I was in the city for Expozine. Coincidentally, my friend and TP cohort Jonathan Culp was the guest programmer that same weekend, hosting a series of films by and about Lotte Reiniger. Upon setting foot inside the theatre, I had become another convert.

This third-floor cinema is truly wonderful, evoking both nostalgia and modernity. The projection room has the facade of a ticket booth, emanating its beams into a clean, comfortable gallery space. In addition, the facility has a walk-up kitchen counter for refreshments, offers choice literature and DVDs for sale, and is refreshingly free of poser attitude. If pressed to compare it to anything in Toronto, I could only think of The Nostalgic Cinema, which had a similarly homey, friendly feel, and seemed to have an ulterior motive of being a resource centre to its patrons.

Indeed, upon perusal of Blue Sunshine’s monthly schedules, it is apparent that their choice programming comes from the heart, and not from an accounting ledger. In other words, theatre programmers who do screen cult movies usually are concerned with the bottom line, and as a result, often rely upon the most familiar titles to ensure ticket sales. It appears that Blue Sunshine's maxim is showing such marginal fare… simply because it must be shown! Tell me, where else are you going to see Black Rodeo, Youth Runs Wild or Gonks Go Beat... in a theatre?

It is with a heavy heart to announce that Blue Sunshine is shutting its doors for good, as its lease is expiring, and the cost-prohibitive measures of continuing even a small venue as this in downtown Montreal outweigh the cultural advantages. The cinema offers up its final week of programming this week with Ladies and Gentlemen: Mr. Leonard Cohen (May 10), Battle Beyond the Stars (May 11) and This Is Spinal Tap (May 12). The following weekend is their closing party. As with anything else Blue Sunshine has offered up in the past two years, my response is: “If I lived in Montreal, I know where I would be!”

Please visit their website.