Nov 6, 2013

That Night At Cinema Subterrain


Last night, for the first time in years, I re-watched this little video I shot and edited depicting the Saturday night in November of 2005 when cinema showman supreme Dion Conflict presented his Hunkajunk Vol. 4 screening at Skot Deeming's Cinema Subterrain in London, Ontario. Skot, longtime friend and sometime ESR contributor, is a twenty-year veteran of the independent scene, who has dabbled in zines, moviemaking, film distribution, and VJ-ing. In 2003, he had moved from Toronto to take a job in his native London. Within a year, never one to rest on his laurels for long, Skot began the monthly Cinema Subterrain screenings in the city's L.A. Mood Underground, the basement of the L.A. Mood comic and game shop. (The space was also being used for role-playing games and poetry readings.)

Dion Conflict has programmed cult and ephemeral cinema prints from his own collection since the 1990s. In the early 2000s, he was doing bimonthly "Conflict Archive" screenings at the Royal Cinema on College St., and publishing a zine Konflikt in the Kino in concordance with those shows. During this time, he also revived the Hunkajunk series that he had done way back when at the Rivoli. True to the name, these programs were a potpourri of educational shorts, training films, movie trailers, TV commercials and what have you: all in all, entertaining decoupages of past pop culture artifacts. Skot happened to be in Toronto on the same weekend that Dion premiered Hunkajunk 4 at the Royal in December of 2004. We attended, and in our herbal euphoria giggled and heckled through the proceedings, providing Dion the audience participation that he wished for. At that screening, Skot had decided to bring Dion to London to present Hunkajunk at Cinema Subterrain. The two men finally met after several months of my trying to get them together in the same room (it was an ongoing joke how these two guys kept "just missing" one another at various events). A deal was made, and nearly one year after it had premiered (in the interim, showing in North Carolina and Finland), Hunkajunk unspooled in London, Ontario, one crisp autumn evening.

On this same weekend in 2005, I had finally fulfilled a promise to visit Skot in London and check out his screening series. Because I had spent half the previous night in the collision centre filling out accident reports (a truck had rear-ended my rental car within fifteen minutes of driving it off the lot), and because of a last-minute emergency at work which forced me to cut short my visit and return at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning, my nerves were so frazzled, that I couldn't then fully absorb this experience. Somehow, despite all this fuss, I had the last-minute foresight to bring a video camera to record the event, for which I later became very grateful. Upon reviewing the footage, I vicariously relived the moment, and appreciated its true worth.

Even though the camerawork wasn't all that great (not helped by my anxious mental state and the absence of any game plan), I felt there was enough there to cut together a little movie. The nine-minute film comprises of several sequences: Skot and his friend A.W. setting up the show; Dion doing his introduction; brief clips of what is being shown (with the necessary audience guffaws on the soundtrack); and a wrap-up of people just hanging out afterwards with Dion selling his wares. This whole project was just a toss-off that would only ever be seen by the people involved, but warts and all, I'm proud of the little thing. The grainy Hi-8 look and hand-held work indirectly added an authenticity to it.

After seeing it again for the first time in seven years, I realized that perhaps it is time to revisit the footage, clean up the audio, and put together an extended cut. The crux of the movie is obviously Skot and Dion, but there is much more going on under the surface of this little epic that could be fleshed out. After absorbing the central story and the technical stuff in the first view, I re-watched it several more times last night for the ambience, and to remind myself of what more I had shot that could be added in.

This movie has the potential to be more about than what the two guys are putting onscreen: it could include more footage discussing the L.A. Underground space and how it is used, the communal effort by many people who helped behind the scenes, and especially the interesting regulars who would come to support this venue. It preserves a little moment that most of the people involved have likely forgotten. It is a document about a space that every month or two became a little piece of culture where people could celebrate some unique programming and hang out with other individuals looking for something out of the mainstream. It is also about a piece of time that is truly dead: Skot and Dion have moved on to other things, and many of the people involved have parted ways. Cinema Subterrain would cease the following spring. (The Hunkajunk screening was the first night that Skot's shows went bimonthly, until he finished in May of 2006.) And sadly, it is also a representative look at many similar micro-cinemas that are fast disappearing in the onslaught of urban gentrification.


Over the winter, I'll be reviewing and recapturing this footage to work on this extended version, and attempt to realize what more this little movie has the potential to stand for.  

Below is a sampling of shows that were put on by Cinema Subterrain. (If you have a micro-cinema like this in whatever city you're in, get out and support it, because you'll miss it when it's gone!)



These two images represent the "audience choice" screenings, where patrons voted beforehand which of the two programs they wished to see that night. Sadly, Cinema Subterrain ended before this show materialized, but Horror Mexicano was winning.


Jul 30, 2013

Remembering Jay Scott: Twenty Years Later

My introduction to Jay Scott came rather late in his career, and in a medium other than the one which made him famous. Although I had been aware of his tenure as a newspaper film critic at The Globe and Mail, it was really only in the early 1990s, when I truly “discovered” him- but on television, not in print. At that time, he was also the host of TVOntario’s Film International, which broadcast every Friday night. His insightful introductions made me another of his many fans, and in short order, I too began reading his film reviews in the Globe's Enterainment section. Jay Scott had become my literary hero.

From 1977 to his untimely death in 1993 (20 years ago today) at the age of 43, he was one of the most influential film writers of his time. He was the rare critic to win the respect of readers, programmers and filmmakers alike, to say nothing of fellow writers. 

People read his words for their insight, dry humour and dazzling, intoxicating style: his breathtaking, paragraph-long sentences were whirlwinds of thoughts on the human condition, references to pop culture, somehow all grafted into a film review. Even more impressive is that he managed to adapt this stream of thought into a deeply personal, conversational tone that further endeared the reader. But he made writing fun; he was a brilliant scholar who still had the wide-eyed, childlike joy of discovery. His infectious tone inspired countless readers to investigate films with marginalized distribution, and his voice was also powerful enough that even distributors would be incited to capitalize on his enthusiasm. In one famous incident, Jean-Jacques Beineix's new-wave classic Diva was nearly dumped by its distributors until Jay Scott's raves became instrumental in its becoming a major art house cult classic in the 1980s.

Of all his virtues, perhaps Jay Scott's greatest gift was to show that the film reviewed, no matter how obscure, was part of the larger canvas of our collective pop culture. References to literature, painting (Rabelais was a favourite), fashion and, of course, other films (Fassbinder was a favourite), would be woven into the fabric of his reviews to give the films a greater context.

With his motorcycles, leather and earring, Scott created for himself a colourful, hip persona that lived outside his words. He transformed amazingly well to television- it was a delight for viewers to see that on camera he was as much the warm, wickedly funny and insightful human being that was communicated between the lines of his columns. Even more impressively, as the host and writer of Film International, he didn't have to compromise his prose or his tastes; neither were "dumbed down" for mass appeal.  His onscreen introductions were as full of the nuance as his printed work, and the programming extrapolated on his written agenda to raise awareness to films that otherwise wouldn't find their rightful audiences. He didn't have to pander to the lowest common denominator- he rightfully assumed that the foreign-language and independent works that he showcased would also have appeal to viewers that lived in smaller cities or towns and couldn't access them otherwise. To his mind, high art was for everyone- it didn't have to be relegated to closet admiration by a chosen few.

The early 1990s was a great period to be a Jay Scott fan, as one could enjoy his work in more than one medium. I will be indebted to Jay Scott's Film International for introducing me to the works of Aki Kaurismaki, Paul Cox, Luis Bunuel, Margarethe Von Trotta and several others: it opened the door to a different world of cinema that I could only read about in my limited small-town resources.

But still, these were troubling times too, as his health began to decline. Although he never kept his AIDS-related illness a secret, it seemed however that we were still going to have Jay Scott for a while longer, as he was always working. In addition to his Globe reviews and television appearances, he also wrote book reviews, longer arts-related pieces for other publications, and published a book on artist Helen Hardin. However, in 1992, we began to worry when he appeared ever more frail than his already thin frame. Our concerns escalated when a month's worth of programming was guest-hosted by Kay Armatage (one hoped it was because he was on assignment elsewhere). In the spring of 1993, Film International had a couple of programs devoted to cinema about AIDS, including the independent feature Parting Glances, and the short Dead Boys Club.

Even so, because Jay Scott was still in the public eye, his death in the summer of 1993 came as a huge shock. (He was even writing a book review on the day of his passing.)  A huge outpour of tributes would follow in the next few weeks, not just from fellow journalists who loved his craft, but from filmmakers, and especially from fans. It seemed that everyone mourned the loss of not just a titan in film writing, but also a literary giant (as his finely crafted reviews were indeed works of art) and most of all, everyone felt they had lost a close friend, whether or not they personally knew the man- so intimate was his style with everyone.

Jay Scott’s passing was at a pivotal point in my life- just one month before I moved back to Toronto for the second and last time, to study broadcasting in college. In previous months, not fully aware of his condition, I had wondered if somewhere down the road our paths would cross, as we would both work in media, but his career ended before mine ever began.

In the months after his death, I vigilantly collected any tributes I could find in print, or on television. Film International devoted six weeks of programming to guest hosts like David Overbey, or TVO producer Risa Shuman, who knew the man and shared some of their memories. In October, The Bloor Cinema had a double-bill in his memory (which I attended)- Coline Serrau's Pourquoi Pas and naturally, a Fassbinder film (Veronika Voss). And of course, like many writers, I attempted to copy his style in the many film reviews I was writing for myself at the time.

Of the many Jay Scott stories that were shared after his death, my favourite was by David Overbey who went to visit his friend in the hospital, just one day before he passed. Scott was flat on his back in bed smoking. Overbey commented on the cigarette, and asked if the nursing staff knew he was smoking in his room. Scott replied that they probably did, as they should have been able to smell it. Overbey asked, "Have they said anything to you?" Scott replied, "Well what are they going to do, say, 'Mr. Scott, you're in big trouble?". Even in these final moments, Jay Scott had his dark sense of humour, valiantly laughing at death, and continuing to live his life as he saw fit.

Our culture has a strange fascination with celebrities who died prematurely, from Jimmy Dean to Jimmy Morrison. I'm not alone in that- Jay Scott was mine. This morbid fascination continued until my brother's sudden death in late 1994. I couldn't handle it any more- I wanted to think about life more. And for that reason, I had forgotten about Jay Scott for several years. 

Someone once wrote that Jay Scott's period (1977 to 1993) as a critic was during a time when cinema was the least interesting. That may be true, but we were blessed to have him, as one needs a trustworthy writer like him to point out the works that got lost in the juggernaut of the Blockbuster Era. It is a pity he wasn't writing during the 1960s when international cinema exploded (and to paraphrase Susan Sontag, a new masterpiece came out every few weeks), and "cinephilia" was on high (where critics like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris became Pop Stars). It is equally unfortunate that he died just before the indie boom of the mid-1990s: one wonders what his reactions would have been to the Three Colors trilogy or a little thing called Pulp Fiction

Indeed, twenty years after his death, no real testament of his legacy exists in present form. Google searches reveal little of his work. It is a pity that no-one thought to comprehensively reprint his review columns in book form every couple of years like the several volumes accorded Pauline Kael or John Simon. Sadly, the Globe hasn't made an online archive of his work, no doubt contributing to the dearth of online discussion about Jay Scott.

Samples of his work were only collected twice- for Midnight Matinees in 1986, and the posthumous release, Great Scott!, published in 1994. Both are long out of print, but can easily be found for sale used online or at second-hand bookstores. For the Jay Scott fan (or for someone who just wants to discover him), these are both worth having.

Midnight Matinees may be the superior volume, as it also includes some longer-format pieces, including his brilliant articles on the career of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and the Canadian Tax Shelter era. The titles selected for the section of film reviews better reflect Scott’s popular image, of championing lesser-known “art house” pictures, and creating a greater awareness of them. Great Scott!, on the other hand, has more reviews of mainstream titles than obscurities, but this book is also necessary in understanding Jay Scott. His forte was to bring lesser-known films into public view, but make no mistake: he was not a cultural snob. He saw the worth in everything: popular and “niche” films could be praised or damned in equal measure. Because Great Scott! collects samples of his work from his entire run at the Globe, from 1978's The Big Fix to 1993's Jurassic Park, it is also an entertaining, satisfying collection that creates a synthesis of his consistently great style throughout the years.

When Jay Scott left this world, the Internet was still a few years away from becoming the dominant medium.  He had managed to move effortlessly from print to television without having to sacrifice his style, and one wonders if he would have adapted to the electronic age with equal ease. Would have he embraced it like film critic Roger Ebert with his own website, blog, and Twitter account? Would he continue to have a voice that stood apart from the countless online movie blogs?

Cinema and media distribution has changed significantly in the past twenty years. In this current climate of mega-billion-dollar superhero franchises that continue to eclipse smaller works that demand our attention, we need someone like a Jay Scott again to chart a course.  When film criticism (or entertainment journalism in general) is being squeezed out for celebrity scandal trash, and newspapers are endangered species, would he have become a trailblazer in the new medium, or would he, now 63, be chuckling to himself and thinking of calling it a career?

I'm tired of griping about the present. I'm simply grateful that some of Jay Scott is still with us. I'll be cracking open his books with some red wine. It'll be good reuniting with an old friend. Good night, and thank you.

Jun 27, 2013

Transformation


First and foremost- if you've supported us in any fashion over the years, thank you.

This blog has been nearly silent in the past nine months, largely because the vim and vigour had been taken out of me. Personal problems have affected my creativity, but even without them, the desire to put the fingers to the keys has lapsed. 

This latest season of The Eclectic Screening Room (or, ESR for short) was the worst ever. Poor sales of the newest issue and zero reader response have forced me to ponder if this thing is even worth doing anymore. It simply does not get easier for a micro-press like this. With distribution centres closing down, dwindling numbers of trade shows or specialty stores to sells one's wares, and everyone's migration to the web for their fixes of film writing, our audience has shrunk over the years. Another factor of our reduced readership is because in recent times, there has only been one new issue a year, therefore making it difficult to sustain a community and network (which was always our number one goal). 

Admittedly, in the past, these setbacks have actually fuelled my desire to keep up the good fight. But let's face it. I'm not getting any younger. After doing this for twelve goddamn years (and largely relying on myself to get anything done), I'm simply tired. 

Before we continue, two confessions…

-Back in 2001, when the initiative was finally on to start this publication (after being in the back of my mind for seven years), its working title was Filmbitch. However, at the eleventh hour I discovered that this name was also being used for a zine in the United States, and then hastily worked to think up another title. Every name I came up with, that had "film" or "cinema" in the title, sounded too similar to something already out there. At 11:59, The Eclectic Screening Room popped into my head. In hindsight, it is good that Filmbitch wasn't used, since the title suggests a more rebellious, militaristic slant than I'd have been comfortable with.  If anything, ESR was made to celebrate what we love rather than waste space on what we hate.  Even so, for the past twelve years, I've had a love-hate relationship with the name. 

-In 2011, I secretly planned to end the run of ESR with the release of the tenth anniversary issue. There would be no mention of that fact anywhere- not even in the editorial. The idea was to let it end on a high note and quietly slip away while I started other projects. But then, something happened. Because of a healthy season tour in the fall of 2011, and a lot of nice letters from readers, I reconsidered this decision to end the publication. Perhaps it was still viable to keep this thing going after all, in light of the growing obstacles mentioned above. In 2012, I planned to make ESR better than ever, by releasing it in a print-on-demand book format which would ensure its durability, and would be filled with content that wouldn't be outdated by the time it hit the press. Alas, too much time was spent on the look and format, less on the actual content. Therefore, when the new issue of ESR was released last fall, it was business as usual- printed in the zine format, with considerably less of the intended content. (In hindsight, this too was a good thing: with such a poor season- I would've lost even more money in startup costs with the other venture.)

The Eclectic Screening Room has certainly lived up to its namesake with all of the different kinds of cinema discussed between the covers ("anything but what's in the multiplex", I would often say).  I now wonder if that was a mistake. 

Should I have instead focused writing on just one type of cinema? It would be re-assuring that after twelve years, these pages would have represented something- had some kind of cohesion or identity: for example, fellow travellers Jonathan Culp and Paul Corupe are renowned for their expertise in Canadian cinema. It just seems to me now that in my art, as in my life, I'm a jerk of all trades and master of none... as "all over the place" as others that I've criticized for being.

ESR has created further confusion just with the title. Newcomers see the mags on the table and ask, "So where do you screen these films?" Then, I would explain, "No no, it's simply the name of the magazine." (Of course, ESR did host its own screening series one year, but that's another story.) Ironically, I was asked this same question more in the past year than ever before. Sigh….

To some, these comments may sound like crying over spilled milk. Overcoming setbacks is a harsh reality in any creative venture. One is supposed to be doing it more for the love than anything.  Indeed- for eleven years, this pursuit did garner its rewards.  However, over time, the struggles have outweighed the bounties. Last year's dismal season only enforced that point.

I still love to write about film, and still want to share discoveries. This isn't goodbye: it's just that I have to rethink things. I'll still be posting, sharing, learning.... but I'll also be searching.... trying to create a body of work - a voice -  that represents exactly who I am. This voice may be still be under ESR's banner, or perhaps ESR will be put to pasture and acknowledged as the first step in my evolution to other things.

The Eclectic Screening Room has provided many experiences, for which I will eternally be grateful. I am honoured by those who have taken the time to contribute to it, or who have allowed it into their lives. However, it simply cannot survive in its current state. We have to adapt and grow.

Apr 1, 2013

Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960)


Writer-Director: Phil Tucker
Producer: Richard Greer
Music: Guenther Kauer
Cinematographer: W. Merle Connell
CCM Productions; 69 min; B&W
Cast: Jason Johnson (Hauron), Katherine Victor (Nadja), Scott Peters (Tom Wright), Linda Connell (Sally Markham)

One Saturday night, or more accurately, Sunday morning in the fall of 1989, I was scanning the listings of TV Guide and caught a listing for Phil Tucker's Grade Z science fiction epic, Cape Canaveral Monsters, scheduled to air on City TV at 4:30 that morning.  Having seen Robot Monster (1953) by the same director, I was excited at the rare chance to see his "other" science fiction film that I had only read about in Michael Weldon's "Psychotronic" Guide.  Putting the VCR to work, I had also elected to watch the recording in progress for as long as my stamina allowed.  And what little I did catch before nodding off was enough to make me love this little movie forever.

The lo-fi quality of the film is established right away with these two cartoon spheres zooming in and out on a black background (something that Norman McLaren would’ve made the first week of animation class), as a booming female voice is heard on the soundtrack: “I TOLD you we would find suitable bodies here, Horaun!”  Then we see these two tiny pieces of animated light on a rocky shore as a man and woman leave their idyll on the beach and get in the car.  Before you know it, the little spheres jump into the heads of the people in the automobile, instantly causing the car to veer out of control and kill them both (I guess these extraterrestrial beings, who cause so much mayhem in the next hour, don’t know who to operate a vehicle). (In one inspired shot, we see a mannequin arm dangling out the rear window.)  But wait!  Because the spheres had entered these human bodies, we see these bloodied corpses come back to life and struggle their way out the passenger’s side of the car.  “Horaun! Your arm!” the woman cries, and reaches back into the seat to collect the missing limb dangling from the smashed rear window.


This lively opening remains one of my favourite bad movie moments: it is a piece that seems made for the wee hours of the morning, where such surrealism can joyously tickle one's oxygen-deprived brain cells, before daylight emerges to wipe away all of the mysteries of the night. This scene fills me with juvenile nostalgia just thinking back on it.  Upon revisiting this movie after several years, however, expecting to rekindle that same kind of innocence, I was surprised to find that beneath the tacky production values and choppy plot, this is a much more bleak film than I remembered all those years ago, and one perhaps encapsulating the career of its creator, the enigmatic Phil Tucker.

Tucker is best remembered today for his masterpiece Robot Monster, in which a creature in a gorilla suit and diving helmet terrorizes the last few surviving humans on earth.  Its scant hour-long running time is a spirited piece of pulp, featuring a menace whose greatest threat is shaking his fist, a bouncy glockenspiel score by a young Elmer Bernstein, and such avant-garde touches as incongruous footage lifted from One Million B.C.  Had he made just this one picture, Tucker’s name would still be high in the annals of “so-bad-they’re-good” movies.  However in short order, he partnered with comedian Lenny Bruce on the sleaze classic, Dance Hall Racket (1954), and Dream Follies (1953)- one of the several burlesque pictures that the bargain basement auteur would make throughout the 1950s.

Yet still, little remains known about this cult figure (I deliberately ignore a short section on Tucker in The Golden Turkey Awards, because I question its authenticity). One most notorious piece of publicity surrounded Tucker’s threat to commit suicide shortly after the release of Robot Monster (not because of the film’s bad reception, as it was most commonly believed, but over his being cheated of profits from the movie, because it did make money).  But, because Tim Burton made Ed Wood instead of Phil Tucker, and no one has written a book-length study of his work on the level of those for Andy Milligan or Al Adamson, one could say that this auteur is one of the last frontiers of bad filmmaking to be re-discovered.

Despite that most of Phil Tucker's filmography is easily found on DVD today (mostly on the Something Weird label), Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960) remains the dark horse of his career (in more ways than one). It is just the kind of movie one would expect to find relegated to a mere two-line blurb in TV Guide, banished to the most obscure hour for a meager appearance to the scant few who would be watching it in the semi-conscious state that this film evokes (with his choppy narrative that resembles dream logic).  As of this writing, it has never had an official home video release (Republic currently owns the rights... what are they waiting for?).  Few have seen it, and many more should.  One’s inability to find more production history, posters or stills for to the picture makes this equally as enigmatic as its creator.

Like many of his Tucker’s films, this too is hokey, threadbare, and sometimes lethargic. The plot revolves around extra-terrestrials Hauron and Nadja, who assume human bodies to freely move about and thwart missile launches at Cape Canaveral, thus delaying Earth’s advances in the space program so the alien race can move in and conquer.   While we’ve often seen variations on this idea in the most generic 50’s sci-fi, the movie also adds a busy subplot of the aliens back in their ship, hidden in a cave, transporting human specimens back to their home planet for study.  Thus, in between missile launches, Hauron searches for unwitting victims in Lovers Lane!  Thank goodness the aliens’ fiendish plot is uncovered by young scientists, and would-be lovers, Tom and Sally (played by actors who are perhaps too old for their roles, but weren’t all young lovers in 1950s movies played by thirty-five-year olds?).


As such, this busy plot line results in a lot of scenes with little continuity, and even less logic, especially in how things get resolved by scientific methods that perhaps won’t be questioned by the viewers as long as they failed grade eleven physics. And while there were surely cheaper science fiction films made in the day, this is the kind of movie featuring humans and aliens alike looking offscreen to stock footage shots of rockets and explosions. (But truthfully, since some of this film’s exterior footage is as grainy as the stock shots, sometimes the editing is seamless.)  Despite that Hauron spends half the film without an arm, no one bothers disguising that the actor’s left limb is hidden in his shirt. Since the aliens have the technology to travel across the stars and assume human bodies, even the most undemanding drive-in patron couldn’t suspend one’s disbelief at such props as a spotlight which acts as a magnetic field, or a telecommunications device that resembles a revolving pancake in a jar.  (Not even the bubble machine in Robot Monster approaches this level of lo-tech wizardry.)

Cape Canaveral Monsters indeed seems hokey and threadbare, but like works from such mavericks as Larry Buchanan or Edward D. Wood Jr. who had a lot to say for themselves even within the stifling confines of Grade Z movie production values, there is a some poetry going on beneath the surface, if one chooses to look. Despite how much one may titter at the tawdry production, it is evident that some of the humour in this dour little epic is intentional- call it Flash Gordon Meets Samuel Beckett. In a blackly comic first half, Hauron’s arm continues to fall off (first in a car accident, then by way of a hungry guard dog), and must find another arm to replace it, so he can remain in the human state he obviously despises. It is an interesting touch to see the aliens committing acts of evil while inhabiting decaying corpses! (Mounds of makeup are applied on the actors’ faces to simulate their crumbling host bodies.)

While retroactively it is an easy ploy to think of even these silly aliens as a metaphor for the Red Scare of the era, one cannot recall another pair of extraterrestrial villains that are so uncomfortably human. This matinee fodder brazenly injects Edward Albee into its plot with a pair of bickering aliens, who are either seen arguing or commenting on a previous fight. It is implied too that Nadja is a lusty Id to Hauron’s Superego, as she is less in a rush to transport these young Earth bodies away. Perhaps there is another matter of the human flesh she wants to investigate?

Because it is a science fiction picture, this movie is always compared to Tucker's other fantasy film, Robot Monster. However, since Cape Canaveral Monsters is written by its director, one is more inclined to compare it to another film he wrote as well as directed: his no-budget Sunset Blvd. knock-off, Broadway Jungle (1955).  Both of these movies feature raving lunatics in positions of power (in Cape Canaveral Monsters, it is not just the aliens, but the German scientist and the caricatured cigar-chomping military figures). Additionally, each film displays Tucker’s knack for choosing the most overacting thespians on the unemployment line.  Both works end on a sarcastic note, in which there is a draw between good and evil, and all the preceding action is a shaggy dog joke.  There is little levity in the cinema of Phil Tucker- perhaps having made a decade’s worth of desperate movies on the outer fringes of Hollywood would influence such pessimism.

Yet even in pictures written by others, many of Tucker’s works deal with repression.  Dance Hall Racket achieves a Dreyer-like kind of minimalism, whose non-existent art direction compliments the empty lives of its characters that briefly attain some affection that is as artificial as the silly palm tree behind them.  Dream Follies opens with a stifling shot that endlessly pans between office workers and the wall clock, as they count down the seconds to escape.  Likewise, Cape Canaveral Monsters is full of longing and unrequited desire.  Sally’s scientist uncle (who is conducting the missile launches) berates Tom for “making goo-goo eyes at my niece”.  (Yet, who can blame him?  She is a fox behind those glasses!)  In the scene featuring the double-dating young scientists, the first dialogue we hear is their complaints of being under the control of their parents at the base.  Likewise, it is implied that at least one half of the alien duo is repressed, as Nadja is eager to examine the human body in more ways than one.

Cape Canaveral Monsters would be the last time that Phil Tucker blessed us with his directorial gifts.  He would spent the rest of his career in post-production, even on such high profile films as King Kong  (1976) and Orca (1977).  His last feature credit was as sound editor on the Betsy Russell stinker Out of Control (1985).

Phil Tucker’s final foray in the directors’ chair was also a family affair.  Cinematographer W. Merle Connell had previously lensed or edited several of Tucker’s films.  (His daughter Linda plays Sally, in her only role.)  In one of his sporadic assignments as director, Connell had secured his place in exploitation cinema with the classic, Test Tube Babies.


It is also interesting to see Katherine Victor as the villainous Nadja. While rather unrecognizable beneath all that makeup, she is engaging as the randy extra-terrestrial.  The actress largely received employment in films by Grade Z director Jerry Warren, especially the classics Teenage Zombies and The Wild World of Batwoman.

Fittingly, Tucker’s career as a writer-director ended with the close of the 1950s.  As a freer, more hedonistic culture was to emerge in the swinging sixties, the repression that seemed so synonymous with his work (and that decade) would soon fade away.  Cape Canaveral Monsters is an appropriate swansong, as it encapsulates these themes,  but it is also representative of the joys to be found in the so-called “bad movies” that mainstream society likes to shun.  Despite their obvious shortcomings, there is much sincerity to be found in these misunderstood little children.

Since the tradition of the late night movie has all but disappeared since that night I first discovered this picture, the only way that Cape Canaveral Monsters can hope to find its deserving audience is on DVD.  And it wouldn’t be a moment too soon—it is time for Phil Tucker again.

Mar 31, 2013

Girls in the Night (1953)

Director: Jack Arnold
Screenplay: Ray Buffum
Music: Henry Mancini, Herman Stein
Cinematography: Carl Guthrie
Producer: Albert J. Cohen
1953; Universal-International; 83min; B&W
Cast: Harvey Lembeck (Chuck Haynes), Joyce Holden (Georgia Cordray), Glenda Farrell (Alice Haynes), Glen Roberts (Joe Spurgeon), Patricia Hardy (Hannah Haynes), Jaclynne Greene (Vera Schroeder), Don Gordon (Irv Kellener), Emile Meyer (Officer Kovacs)

While Jack Arnold directed films in many genres, he will always be known for his string of science-fiction films in the 1950s. His first commercial feature is this dated, obscure but interesting melodrama with young adults eager to break out of the East Side ghetto- by any means. In a rare dramatic role, Harvey Lembeck (best remembered to modern audiences as the bumbling bike-gang leader in the Beach Party movies) is the aimless Chuck Haynes, who lives with his parents and two siblings in a cramped East Side tenement. All of the central characters have a desire to aspire to a better life- especially the father figure (presently disabled from an accident) who wants to put a down payment on a house (only three blocks away!) to get his family out of the ghetto. Chuck’s girlfriend Georgia scrapes up some loose change by shaking her booty at a beatnik party; his sister Hannah wins a beauty contest, but won’t get anywhere with her dopey boyfriend Joe.

One night this quartet robs some loot stashed by some old miser in his house, but unbeknownst to them the man is dead in the other room, as cheap hood Irv and his accomplice Vera had just made a botched robbery attempt before their arrival. Chuck is accused of murder, and his friends conspire to unmask the true culprit. Hannah, previously avoiding the lecherous affections of Irv, decides to turn up the affection towards him in order to spill the beans.

The film already has novelty value because of its director, the atypical dramatic lead, and for featuring the first significant role for ubiquitous character actor Don Gordon (seen in countless 70s movies and TV series). It is also unique in that the central villain of this piece is a woman. The tomboyish Vera is the most complex figure in this piece: calculating, full of sexual longing, clamouring for attention. She is attracted to Irv, and at first is subservient to his every whim. After the murder however, he is wrapped around her little finger, and must cater to her demands, lest she implicate him with the crime. Throughout most of the picture, Vera is commonly referred to in the second person as “Ugly”. (Try getting that one out of the gate today.) But fret not, viewers, for in the end credits when the voice of Universal contract player Jeff Chandler (!) introduces the young newcomers, it is revealed that actress Jaclynne Greene isn’t as homely as her fictional character.

This was made before The Blackboard Jungle ushered in the cycle of “troubled teen” flicks later in the decade, and as such, borrows from an earlier tradition. This space-age chronicle of misspent youth harkens back to the conventions of the Bowery Boys urban melodramas of the 1940s. Almost everyone, cops and teens alike, talks in patter like “Ah shaddap!” and “Look here, see?” (I kept waiting for Leo Gorcey to show up.)



Mar 28, 2013

It Has Come To This...


Yahoo News had a genuinely thought-provoking article for a change, yesterday.

A store in Brisbane has begun charging people five dollars who come in "just to browse", inquire the staff about the prices of certain items and then go elsewhere to buy them. This charge is waived if the consumers actually purchase something.

While this strategy is rather extreme (in the long run, it may discourage potential shoppers), it is easy to understand the reasoning behind it. Consumers want to save some money, and more often than not, will go to some big name retailer instead, even though the small business might offer competitive pricing and service. Also, this story reminds me of the scandal two years ago when Amazon was encouraging people to go into places like Chapters, use their iPhones to scan the barcodes of items, and Amazon in turn would offer competitive pricing.

Toronto's independent video store, Eyesore Cinema, has gone one step further and published a response on its Facebook page, explaining how this general problem has specifically affected its business. Namely, people wander into the video store to look at titles for ideas on what to watch... and then go home to download them instead of renting the movie right there. Here is their post (reprinted with permission):

Dear lord, it has come to this?

As a video store owner, I've had people use my shop to browse titles to download. Even going so far as to ask me if I tell them what sites would feature certain title or to ask me if this or that titles is on Netflix.

I would loathe to have to resort to this but it seems that consumer culture is eating it's own tail at this point. The comments are hilarious and truly born out of consumer ignorance.

"Why don't they just lower their prices to compete?"

Well, in my case, I have rent to pay (downloads have no overhead)... and I can't buy in massive bulk like HMV and Amazon, who often sell items well below wholesale prices (intentionally, as a strategy to kill off local competition)

My strategy has been, and always will be, to strive to provide friendly, accommodating and attitude-free "service" based on expertise and product knowledge as well as sourcing and stocking items that are simply not available through big box retailers. Downloads are, of course, another problem since they are "free".

What consumers fail to understand is the effect that this has on their local culture... a landscape of corporate conglomerates that are soul-less and life-less and contribute nothing to the community outside of "low prices".

Just look what's happened to all the great indie booksellers in T.O. ...it's a damn shame that a city once so rich and rife with unique shops of all stripes is being reduced to a giant shopping mall of globally branded crap.

...but hey, you saved a dollar, so it's worth it. Because, after all, in a "consumer culture" all that really matters is how much you can consume and how cheap you can get it.

This is what happens when all we care about is money.

Maybe it's time for a paradigm shift in human evolution... maybe we should start striving for something better than exploiting every last resource (animal, vegetable, mineral ...and human) just to satisfy our fleeting desires for new crap every fifteen seconds.

Mar 26, 2013

DVD Releases We Dig This Week (03.26.13)

Good heavens, there is a lot of great stuff this week, no matter what kind of cinema you're into. (Easter is around the corner, so if the Easter Bunny leaves you any money, it'll be well used at the DVD shop.) As always, Olive Films has a boatload of titles. First up, there are a handful of John Wayne films from his days at Republic: Westward Ho (1935); The Lawless Nineties (1937); A Man Betrayed (1941); Wyoming Outlaw (1939) (the latter is part of the Three Mesquiteers series, of which Olive had released several films last year).








And here are some more classics from Olive: The Duke's frequent boss John Ford is represented with the excellent underrated The Sun Shines Bright (1953); Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn in the brilliant screwball comedy The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) (My God- how has this not been released previously!?); Ruthless (1948), from everyone's favourite poverty row auteur Edgar G. Ulmer; Mickey Rooney in the underrated comedy The Atomic Kid (1954) (scripted by a young Blake Edwards!); the 1954 film noir Hell's Half Acre; and Samuel Fuller's offbeat Korean War epic, China Gate (1957) (another one long overdue). And for good measure, there is also Hector Babenco's underrated screen adaptation of Ironweed (1987).












Two new releases from Criterion for the arthouse crowd: Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956) and Charlie Chaplin's black comedy Monsieur Verdoux (1947). 



There is no shortage of fun for the midnight movie - cult film enthusiast either! The always impressive Shout! Factory has released collectors' editions of the favourites, Phantasm II (1988) and From Beyond (1986). This week they also debut Futureworld (1976), the underrated sequel to Westworld, and the complete series of the great Japanese TV show, Johnny Sokko and His Giant Robot




 Still want more? Okay, then! Scorpion's line of Katarina's Kat Skratch Cinema releases the cult epics Alley Cat (1984), and (be still my heart) Angels Brigade (1979)!!




Whew! What a world. More next week.

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