Sep 4, 2017

The Great Hamilton Film Book Expedition

Before the internet came along, a film enthusiast had to learn more about cinema via books. And for a film enthusiast in a small town, the choices were often marginal. The local book store mainly stocked the annual reference guides of Leonard Maltin and Steven Scheuer. The “film” sections in the public and school libraries largely consisted of star bios, and glossy coffee table overviews with little context. As for collections of film criticism, there was one volume each by Pauline Kael and Stanley Kaufmann. Even so, thanks to this small reservoir and through combing titles in video stores and TV Guide, I had learned quite a bit about film- enough to impress women at cocktail parties maybe, but still I hungered for more knowledge. You don’t know what you’re missing if you don’t know what to look for.

One day in Grade 13, a step was made to change that. This was a sunny Friday in November. School was closed that day for students as it was the teachers’ Professional Development Day. Early in the morning, I hopped into the Dodge Colt for a little professional development of my own: by hunting for film books in downtown Hamilton. 

This was during that pivotal year where I returned to high school at age 20 and took a full Grade 13 course load to upgrade my average, and gather whatever experience I could towards that single-minded goal of getting into film school the following year. During those ten months, I also buffered my portfolio with two plays (one went as far as the semi-finals in the Sears Drama Festival) and most importantly, the feature-length dramatic video, The Broken Circle, which I wrote and directed.  

As far as I was concerned, any school assignment or extra-curricular activity could be a stepping stone to that goal. For instance, whenever I could get away with it, I’d make any English creative writing assignment film-related. My big oral presentation in French class was about French cinema history. And during my spare time (what there was of it, with all of this going on, plus full-time shift work to pay the bills), I would read to learn more about what other films were out there, that I wasn’t able to see… yet.

My first stop was Limeridge Mall. I started the day’s pick with the current editions of Roger Ebert’s reviews and the Mick Martin-Marsha Porter video guide. The Martin-Porter book differed from the other paperback-sized reference books in the day, as in the back, they also published filmographies of actors, writers and directors. (Maltin would start doing that a few years later, although not as comprehensively.) Further, at one of the several record stores, I had bought Tangerine Dream’s three latest albums: Optical Race, Tyger, and Livemiles. These cassettes would play incessantly in the car, at home, and during nights spent at the print shop. They became the soundtrack to my life that year, and fuelled a lot of my creativity. (One piece from Livemiles would be used in the movie.)

After hitting up the stores and having lunch there, I went down the escarpment to McMaster University’s book store. There, I found some more works which would be well-thumbed for years to come. 

Perhaps the most important find at Mac was Rick Schmidt’s Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices. The timing was perfect for acquiring this book, because in November I was already planning The Broken Circle, which would commence shooting the following February. Schmidt’s book has been since updated for changing times (Extreme DV at Used-Car Prices), and for my money remains the single greatest general-purpose guide an aspiring filmmaker can have. 

A few chapters exceeded my requirements (ie- distribution, or building my own cutting suite, since I was editing on video at the community cable station), but the book’s general tone was influential. It filled you with “gung ho” inspiration about making your little masterpiece, yet it offered a realistic look at the obstacles you’d face on the way. (At the very least, you had to sacrifice such valuable things as time, job or extra-cirricular commitments, and relationships, if the project meant enough to you.) Mr. Schmidt’s volume was immeasurable for this first-time movie maker, and would also be read cover to cover while preparing any of my subsequent cinematic “epics” over the next ten years.

Further historical research would also be found in Georges Sadoul’s twin volumes, Dictionary of Films, and Dictionary of Film-Makers. They were only current up to 1971, but they became immeasurable resources, especially for world cinema. In those days, I could largely only see foreign films on TVO or the French channel (hopefully they had French subtitles that I could read). These books introduced such masterpieces as Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto, or Renoir’s The Little Match Girl

Even at that young age, all movies mattered to me. If the Sadoul books at Mac satisfied my passion for art-house film, my hunger for grindhouse cinema was satisfied with a trip down to the much-missed Silver Snail on King Street. At last, I managed to get my hands on a copy of Michael Weldon’s classic Psychotronic Encyclopedia Of Film. This  remains one of the true bibles for cult cinema, with its copious capsule reviews of fantasy, biker, rock-n-roll and JD movies.  I’ve always happily lent out books to anyone who was interested, but I put a “no lending” clause on Weldon’s. I simply was using it too often (and it was literally falling apart from overuse).

The last leg of the Hamilton tour was off-topic, but no less memorable. Before leaving town, I cased the used book stores on King Street, including a second-hand shop on the south side (now long gone) which was run by an elderly couple. A lasting memory of my several trips to that store was that behind the counter, sat a rocking chair next to a floor lamp. My last purchase in Hamilton was here: a whopping one dollar for a copy of a Star Wars comic book (issue #18).  The man behind the counter was shaky, frail, and took a long time ringing in the one-dollar sale. This filled me with melancholy on the way back to the car, and in the journey westward as I drove toward the fading horizon line, listening to Tangerine Dream’s Tyger on the tape deck. Already Tangerine Dream was creating cinematic moments in my head. I can’t listen to “Alchemy of the Heart” on that album without thinking of that man.

The spree wasn’t done yet, in theory.  It was a Friday night, and there were still a couple of hours more to shop. On the way home, I made a pit stop in The Telephone City to visit an old haunt, The Brantford Bookworm. Memory causes me to believe that I left the store empty-handed this time, but I do recall sitting in the parking lot, still thumbing through the Weldon book, with the dim outside light dimly providing the only illumination for the car interior. (I guess I couldn’t wait to get home to read!)

I spent many years paying for this one amazing year (both financially and psychologically). One of the misgivings I now have about those nonetheless incredible ten months, is that I should have saved more money. (Of course working all kinds of weirdo hours, seldom being home, and eating out all the time sure didn’t help.) However, this Friday excursion was one frivolous expenditure I still do not regret. These texts would prove invaluable to me this year and beyond. They’re still here, sitting in the shelf to my left as I type this. 

Aug 25, 2017

Playing To An Audience Of One: FRINGE FRIDAYS

ABOVE: David Holzman's Diary (Jim McBride)
Because Susan and I recently celebrated twenty years of living in the same place, I've been thinking a lot about how things were two decades ago, when we had begun our new lives together. (What is it about our collective psyche that honours anniversaries ending in fives or zeros? Are those in threes and sevens no less valid?)

At that time, I had just graduated from college, earning a diploma in broadcasting, yet was working full-time in a warehouse for a (now defunct) retail chain. Shortly after we moved in together, I was transferred to the head office distribution centre, and was very unhappy there. In the last semester of school, my mother had a stroke which took away most of her vocabulary. These things compounded anxiety about what the future would bring. We were both yearning to change our career paths. I wanted to find a job in my field of study, and Susan was looking to get back into design.

And yet, amidst all this internal conflict, this was also a ripe time for discovery. We had silently made a pact, that if we were limited in changing our professional lives, we would do everything to make our personal lives rich with culture. We would explore the city with our newfound jazz crowd, see foreign films at rep cinemas, and spend her Sundays off going to galleries or similar things. And more relevant to this blog, this was also the time that I first had cable since moving back to the big city. As a result, I quickly obtained a lot more culture from the Bravo and Showcase channels (which would encompass most of my television watching for two or three years).

One could hardly keep up with all of the movies, documentaries, concerts and episodes of “TV too good for TV” that comprised Bravo's schedule 24-7. Every night, Showcase featured the “Showcase Revue”, often foreign or independent films, hosted first by Chas Lawter and Linda Griffiths, later by Cameron Bailey and Valerie Buhagiar. Each station further offered a generous dollop of homegrown programming to fill their “CanCon” requirements. (And in our current environment, where we live under the illusion that everything is a click away, it boggles the mind to think how hard it is now to find a lot of the TV and films they aired just twenty years ago. Quick- find me some Wojeck.)

For this viewer, these two channels were especially significant on Friday nights. The “Fridays without borders” monicker used by one station could easily have applied to both. Movies from Hollywood Renaissance holdouts who still struggled to do their things in a changing sea of commerce; independent cinema from a time before that term became a catchphrase (or a commodity); obscure British genre films; these were just some of the staples to fill their Friday night schedules well into the wee hours. Because these specific films spoke most to my bohemian sensibilities (and still do), they offered a perfect way for me to shake off the work week, step back into my own skin, and seek enlightenment in other ways.

ABOVE: Milestones (Robert Kramer)
This is why, when I think back to those days, memories of these Friday nights soon appear. These thoughts also persist because I find myself in a similar quandary: wondering once again where I go from here. I've spent too long toiling on others' dreams; my subjection has clouded my own pursuits and desires.  It's time to re-visit and re-shape my own, and to once again embrace the things that define me as a human being. No one is opening a door. I'll carve my own entrance.

This school of thought is partially why I've decided to get back into publishing within the next few months. Plus, this mindset has also indirectly inspired my desire to recapture the spirit of those old Friday nights. This little eclectic screening room of my own plays to an audience of one: something I've called "Fringe Fridays".

On the Friday nights that I'm not out galavanting, I've been symbolically shedding the other skin by visiting the cinema that speaks most personally to me at present. Fringe Fridays include (but are not limited to) renegade Hollywood Renaissance-era productions, counterculture cinema, Experimental Film of the 1940s to the 60s and beyond, independent-underground films from the 1980s and 1990s, and documentaries: a step back to days when people had to view things projected onto blankets hung in musty basements as a cry for independence.

Fringe Fridays isn't just a screening series: it's a return to the self, a state of mind. 

It's also the name of a brand new regular feature in the new ESR: a reportage of what we find on those nights. Stay tuned!

Aug 24, 2017

Resurrected: The Intruder (1975)


This is the kind of thing that movie nuts live for. We’re always thrilled by the news of finding films that were forgotten, presumed lost, or, in some cases, previously unknown.

In 2012, Garagehouse Pictures’ Harry Guerro discovered a 35mm print of actor-writer-director Chris Robinson's Florida-lensed thriller The Intruder (1975) in, of all places, a storage unit on the outskirts of the Mojave desert. The film was never released, and for many years, not included on the IMDB, nor featured in any filmographies of its cast (which includes Mickey Rooney, Yvonne De Carlo and Ted Cassidy).

Chris Robinson, a character actor in such drive-in favourites as Beast From Haunted Cave (1959) and Stanley (1972), began writing, directing and acting in his own films after relocating to Florida: 1972's Sunshine Run (retitled Black Rage for its VHS release), and especially 1974's Thunder County (released by K. Gordon Murray); both films also featured Ted Cassidy, and Mickey Rooney also stars in the latter. Robinson’s subsequent effort, The Intruder, a variation of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, features 11 hapless gold-digging characters on an island retreat who are bumped off one by one. For reasons obscure, this nugget was unreleased, and remained largely unknown to genre fans until the discovery of its sole print. (All other elements had been lost.)

This film's Blu-ray release is the latest from Garagehouse Pictures, the newest boutique company releasing vintage obscure exploitation films. They have already secured a reputation for unearthing genre fare that was thought lost, or at least unseen for decades, such as the regional horror comedy The Dismembered (1962). (Their releases of Ninja Busters and The Satanist also were due to that same storage unit.) Future releases on their schedule include not one but two Andy Milligan movies (Monstrosity; Weirdo), and Robert W. Morgan's regional horror film Blood Stalkers (1976). But thrilling discoveries like this beget a tantalizing mystery: What else did they find there? What was left behind, to be lost to film history?

All films matter; ideally, everything should be preserved, and made available for those who wish to see it. But in these circumstances, when a film so obscure is unearthed (and in this case, seen for the first time), there lies the possibility of overvaluing its importance. For instance, if The Intruder had been released in 1975, and did its expected run in the drive-in circuit and perhaps on home video, would we still be discussing it?

Without all the fanfare surrounding its discovery, The Intruder stands on its own as an unusual, moody film that is definitely worth seeking out. Regionally produced genre films (in the heyday from the 1960s to the 1980s) are especially valuable historical documents of their eras, as they lend a certain authenticity and feel that a glossy studio project would lack. Anyone (like me) who is fascinated by these films would rejoice that The Intruder has been discovered. Like many of the Florida-produced exploitation films of its day, the mysterious beauty of its location becomes a character unto itself.

Full review coming soon in the new ESR!

Click here to view Garagehouse Pictures’ website.


Aug 23, 2017

PBS Goes Off Beat

Photo courtesy Off Beat Cinema's Facebook page

Last night, WNED, Buffalo's PBS affiliate had a touch of the "off beat", as their broadcast of the documentary Birth of the Living Dead was presented by Off Beat Cinema's Constance McEwen Caldwell and Jeffrey Roberts, in character, as their OBC personalities, The Mysterious Zelda, and Cinematic Theologian Theodore. Their appearance was especially a delight for Southern Ontario viewers, who have been deprived of their weekly Off Beat Cinema fix since 2012.

The long-running late-night series Off Beat Cinema first began on WKBW (Buffalo's ABC affiliate), in 1993. Every week, the beatniks from the Hungry Ear Café would introduce a way-gone B-movie. This show continued to be a fresh antidote for discerning viewers of late night television, as after-hours programming was being overrun by infomercials instead of movies. It represented what the late-night viewing experience used to be, and should be like. In July of 2012, the show moved to Buffalo's MeTV-affiliate, WBBZ-TV, where our favourite hepcats would continue to preach the good word. Sadly, WBBZ has remained unavailable in Southern Ontario, which comprised a generous portion of their viewing audience at WKBW.

The appearance of Zelda and Theodore on WNED was a welcome surprise for Southern Ontario viewers, in more ways than one. The program wasn't even listed in our television guide. It instead had the documentary Fit To Be King, followed by The Nightly Business Report, in that time slot. I only discovered moments beforehand that the program was airing, thanks to Constance's Facebook post, and despite what the guide said, took a gamble and hit "record". Upon reviewing the tape later, happily, Zelda and Theodore did air in our borough.

The decision to broadcast Birth of the Living Dead, the 2013 documentary about the making of the horror classic, Night of the Living Dead (a film that broke all the rules and made new ones), was a fitting way to eulogize its director, George A. Romero, who passed away last month. But for loyal OBC viewers, this film was also apropos, since Off Beat Cinema's first episode on Saturday, October 30, 1993, (just before Halloween) featured Night of the Living Dead. The Hungry Ear gang has continued to show that film every October since. Therefore, it was nice to see OBC members Zelda and Theodore talk about the film which launched the show (gasp!) over twenty years ago.

I wasn't able to sit down and watch the program last night, but hope to view it very soon. It will seem like catching up with old friends. Now as then, OBC continues to be a surrogate friend over the TV waves.


Aug 6, 2017

Last Night last night

It must be summer when CBC fills up its Saturday night schedule with Canadian movies instead of Hockey Night in Canada.  I’ve been enjoying their summer series The Filmmakers, in which each week, Johanna Schneller conducts a half-hour interview with panelists and the director of the film that airs after each show. Last night’s instalment was with Don McKellar and his 1998 film Last Night which he wrote, directed and had the lead role.

Last Night was Canada’s entry in the ten-film 2000 Vu Par series, in which each film (produced in different parts of the globe) envisioned how the world was going to change once the clock hit midnight on January 1, 2000. Other contributing nations included Taiwan (Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole), Mali (Abderrahmane Sissako’s Life On Earth), even the good old US of A (Hal Hartley’s The Book of Life). These were produced in the midst of the global panic over Y2K, and many of the resulting films were as low key as Y2K ended up being.

Before we continue, I should tell a story about the first time I saw Last Night. It was at The Royal Cinema one weeknight in January of 1999- yes, that time when Toronto was literally buried in snow, and Mayor Mel called in the army. We were still digging ourselves out of the white stuff the night of that screening. Indeed, after the movie, I hopped onto the College Streetcar to come home, only to find that it couldn’t get up the street. Thanks to shovelled snow pile head high on the curb, cars were forced to park further out onto the street, often blocking the streetcar from continuing on its track! As a result, to get us going, passengers would go out and push cars out of the way! How Canadian! Imagine experiencing this after seeing a movie where people are upturning automobiles and streetcars!

Assuredly, some of last night’s dialogue prior to the screening involved the movie's distinct "Canadian-ness", with its tone of frustration (few of the characters succeed in doing what they want for their last night on earth), and settling for less (which is a microcosm of Canadian film production in general), and the unexpected humour of it all. Indeed, upon seeing Last Night again for the first time in 17 years, I was reminded how much it was a “who’s who” of Canuck cinema. In addition to McKellar himself, the ensemble cast included such familiar Canadian faces as Sandra Oh, Sarah Polley, Callum Keith Rennie, David Cronenberg, Arsinee Khanjian, Charmion King, Robin Gammell, Genevieve Bujold, and Tracy Wright. Even Jackie Burroughs, Francois Girard and Bruce McDonald show up in “squint to see them” cameos!

Frustration was also an unfortunate by-product of the viewing experience last night. It looked like we were watching the film through a shot glass. I’m no expert on formats (especially in relation to upgrading materials made before the high def revolution), but to my eyes it resembled an ill-advised attempt at bumping a standard def transfer to high def, instead of doing a proper scan from the source material. Come on, CBC co-produced this film initially- they must have better elements than this!

Even so, I’m glad that this series exists. Seriously, if CBC doesn’t do it, who will? I was a loyal viewer of their Cinema Canada series, airing on Thursday or Friday nights throughout the 1990s, which presented homegrown films new and vintage. And because this was CBC, more people had the chance to see them: it was a refreshing alternative to the constricted distribution system which hijacks our cinema from being seen by the people who want it. But Last Night’s presentation was an unfortunate reminder of the difficulty to see Canadian films made even in the 1980s or 1990s. Why is it that most of our cinema can only be seen in squiggly VHS dubs (either taped from TV -when CanCon legislation would be honoured by airing films instead of Cash Cab reruns- or from their fleeting appearances on home video labels)? We’re only talking about stuff that’s 20 to 30 years old!

I guess the presentation and preservation of our film heritage is much like our citizenship and the characters of Last Night: we’re used to making compromises, accustomed to settling for less, and too polite to do anything about it.

May 10, 2017

Secluded Cinema: CHANGE OF HEART

I've been reading Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph's fascinating book, A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies. One passage that especially struck a chord was about the late filmmaker Curtis Harrington, who "recalled in detail seeing a nitrate print at Paramount Studios of the now-lost 1929 Josef von Sternberg silent film The Case of Lena Smith, while writing his monograph in the late 1940s on the great filmmaker. The movie had vanished, but it still existed, however faintly, in the reflection of Curtis's aged eyes.."

This made me ponder if in this age, where we live under the illusion that we're always a click away from viewing just about every movie ever made, can we also be in the precarious position of solely relying on one's memory of a film that has similarly disappeared in our lifetimes? The answer is undoubtedly 'yes'.

In the 139th attempt to re-ignite this blog, Secluded Cinema will be a regular feature (renamed from the older, more loquacious semi-regular column, Hard To Find Films I'm Seeking This Week) which will highlight films that (as far I know) have dropped from view. It is unlikely that many of the movies to be discussed here are lost per se, just simply unavailable in any format for public access. But if these words raise awareness of an elusive title, and prompt people to get those movies out to whoever wants to see them, then they will have succeeded.

One could feasibly fill this column with nothing but Canadian titles. (The next two Secluded Cinema columns will also be Canadian movies. I'm in a patriotic mood after all, since it's our 150 this year!) What permeates our community that after fledgling theatrical dates and sporadic plays on television, people are just content to leave their work collecting dust in attics, basements and film vaults? Does our distribution system or filmmaking practice incite such negativity in people that they'd prefer to avoid further hurt by just letting work remain buried, out of the hands of future generations who might want it?

Cue director Don Shebib's film, Change of Heart. The film played a week theatrically in Toronto during the spring of 1993,  received sporadic air dates on Moviepix and Bravo as late as 2000, and then has seemingly dropped from view. I don't believe it ever had a domestic video release. In the 120-plus years of cinema history, 17 years is not that long a time. It seems baffling that such a comparatively young picture from the VCR age is so elusive. 

Unlike most of the titles you will see in this column, I actually saw this one back in the day, on Bravo, when they generously broadcast Canadian films... many of which are now similarly, frustratingly, difficult to see in any format.  This unpretentious little fable, written by Terence Hefernan, developed from a story by him and Shebib, features a young girl (Sarah Campbell) who wins the lottery, and then hires her hustler cousin (Jeremy Ratchford), who certainly needs the money, to help find her biological father, and keep her out of a foster home.  I'm no angel sometimes. l'll admit that my initial reaction to this movie was rather hostile. Maybe it was a bad day, but when I think back, I now perceive my criticisms to be the film's virtues.

The film felt twenty years older, in part for its low-key tone, and its docu-style cinematography by Shebib's regular cameraman, the late great Richard Leiterman. But now, I wish more contemporary films were like that. After screenings of over a thousand other films since, however, this movie has remained in my mind, for its revelation in the final act, and the sad poetry in the last line: "Let's go have a cheeseburger." One could say that after all this time, this movie has continued to haunt me, while others since have faded from memory.

Change of Heart may not be one of the director's major works, but it is sadly an example of the infuriating difficulty in seeing films even by Canada's most celebrated filmmakers. In recent years, I've re-acquainted myself with several other Don Shebib pictures. His subtlety, efficiency and economic storytelling is exactly the kind of cinema we need more of today. Check those T-120s in your closet. It's time to bring this film back. I'll even settle for a Youtube link.

Right and Below: scans from The Toronto Star in 1993, featuring Rob Salem's review of Change of Heart, Jamie Kastner's interview with its director, and a sadly prophetic piece by Susan Kastner about the film's disappearance from screens.



Apr 26, 2017

Jonathan Demme: Handle With Care

It comes with great sadness to report that director Jonathan Demme passed away this morning at the age of 73. He won an Oscar as Best Director for 1991's The Silence of the Lambs, one notable title in an eclectic forty-year career of many interesting and unique films. Mr. Demme was a graduate of the Roger Corman school at New World Pictures in the 1970s, a time in which contemporaries such as Ron Howard and Martin Scorsese were similarly paying their dues before achieving mainstream success. From his first credit, as screenwriter for Angels Hard As They Come (of all things, a biker movie update of Rashomon), and onwards through the 70s, he would write and direct several quirky drive-in pictures that would subtly subvert exploitation movies, including Caged Heat (spoofing the women-in-prison genre) and Crazy Mama (an oddball spin on the rural crime pictures in vogue at the time).

And yet, when he answered the call to Hollywood, he continued to surprise us. He successfully balanced commercial mainstream projects (The Silence of the Lambs; Philadelphia) with documentaries (Cousin Bobby; Jimmy Carter The Man From The Plains). His filmography was further graced with several concert films (not least a few with Neil Young, Spalding Gray's performance piece Swimming To Cambodia, and the instant cult film Stop Making Sense, featuring Talking Heads).  In recent times he had made the comedy-drama Ricki and the Flash, followed by the rockumentary Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids. Through the years he had also done such quirky favourites as Melvin and Howard, Married To the Mob and Something Wild. Perhaps the latter film, which credibly veers from screwball comedy to violent melodrama, neatly summarizes Demme's career as a whole. You couldn't pigeonhole him into any formula: no matter what he took on, he usually did it well.

Out of the 60-plus films he has attached his name to in various capacities, my favourite of all those seen is Citizens Band (also released as Handle With Care). This 1977 sleeper is sort of a bridge between his drive-in exploitation days and future mainstream success. Out of tribute to Jonathan Demme, below is an edited piece on this film, from the Fall 2010 issue of ESR. Enjoy!

Rural Follies: An Appreciation of Citizens Band

Not all of our favourite films have to be those whispered in hushed admiration on Cinematheque Ontario’s ten best lists.  In fact, if a comet were to hurtle towards the Earth tomorrow, and we had to hurriedly grab pieces of our popped culture to take with us in the escape pod to preserve for our future existence beyond, Citizens Band (also known as Handle With Care) would be among those I’d ensure would be on the trip.  This 1977 gem is one of the very few films I’ve seen more than 20 times, and also one of the very few in which every new viewing feels as fresh as the first.

Paul LeMat as "Spider"
While Citizens Band (an early credit for director Jonathan Demme) was not a box office bonanza upon release (despite its commercial potential with its liberal use of CB radios which were all the rage in the day), it is one of those darling titles that seems to pop up on lists of sadly-neglected films.  It is an often hilarious and oddly touching slice of Americana, with rich and endearing characters, and has a pervasive charm and love of people.  This rural mosaic has several story threads, where the majority of characters, right down to the supporting players, have second lives on the CB radio waves.

Blaine (Paul LeMat), AKA- Spider, runs a CB repair station out on his junkyard, and an ad hoc rescue team for whenever there’s an emergency on Channel 9.  Spider is so fed up with the emergency channel being abused by such characters as The Hustler with their prattle, that he wages a war to shut down anyone who uses Channel 9 for anything other than a genuine emergency. Blaine lives on the junkyard with his estranged father (Roberts Blossom), who only ever utters one-word sentences to his son, except when he’s threatening to cook Ned the dog.  However, on the airlines, he is the engaging, motor-mouthed Papa Thermodyne.

"Spider" and Pam (Candy Clark)
Spider is still friendly with his ex-girlfriend Pam (Candy Clark), who broke up with him for not having the guts to leave the junkyard.   Adding insult to injury, she is now dating his estranged brother Dean (Bruce McGill)! In the opening of the film, Spider saves the life of a trucker (Charles Napier) who operates under the handle of Chrome Angel.  He’s laid up in this town for a few days with his friend Debbie, AKA- Hot Coffee (Alix Elias), a prostitute whose flagging business gets a boost when Chrome Angel helps her purchase a motor home, thereby bringing her business right to the rear fenders of her truckin’ customers.  He then calls both of his homes to tell his wives (!) about the accident.  Unexpectedly, both of his spouses, Dallas Angel (Ann Wedgeworth) and Portland Angel (Marcia Todd) travel to visit him.  Only on the bus to town, when the two women view each other’s photos do they first realize they’re married to the same man, and thus make plans to divorce him.

"Chrome Angel" (Charles Napier) and "Hot Coffee" (Alix Elias)
Paul Brickman’s hilarious and touching screenplay refreshingly portrays rural people free of the beer-swilling redneck stereotypes that permeated the hick flicks of the time.  Instead, every person is worth getting to know.  Each major character is forced to confront their current lots in life, and must decide how to change them.  Even the worst people in this film surprise us with their compassion.

Dinner with Papa Thermodyne (Roberts Blossom). "He did it, he really did it."
It is certainly a plus to see this beautifully written ensemble realized by such a terrific cast.  Paul Le Mat is perhaps the definitive movie star for the underdog 70s- his well-intentioned, good-natured but under-achieving blue-collar characters, from American Graffiti to Melvin and Howard, epitomize the restlessness and aimlessness found in movie characters during the decade.  It is treat to see him paired with American Graffiti co-star Candy Clark, whose quirky energy is perfect for Pam’s confusion over her on-again, off-again relationship with Blaine, as she often frustratingly waits for the little boy in him to grow up.

Despite that Roberts Blossom could (and often did) play old coots that would just as soon shoot you as look at you, he arguably has his greatest role as Papa Thermodyne.  He is a marvel in doing much with little.  In the birthday party scene (shot in one single take, like many sequences in the film), when Spider reveals to his father that he plans to move out, Papa stares at the candles with a slight tremble in his jaw, and then utters a single word “Okay”- this deceptively simple moment is incredibly powerful.

Citizens Band is perhaps the bridge between director Jonathan Demme’s drive-in exploitation fare (Caged Heat; Crazy Mama), and his subsequent mainstream works (Stop Making Sense; Married To the Mob).  It carries the same twangy charm of the pictures he made back at the Roger Corman factory, yet it also has a maturity, depth and love of people that puts most Hollywood films to shame.  When Demme went mainstream, he still retained that same quirkiness for years to come.  Most interestingly, he would still take risks with non-commercial fare like Swimming To Cambodia (1987).

At the time, the lantern-jawed Charles Napier was mainly known for being part of drive-in king Russ Meyer’s stock company.  This film showed mainstream audiences that he could be a formidable Hollywood leading man, and play comedy.  He would eventually be part of Jonathan Demme’s stock company, appearing in his later films Last Embrace, Silence of the Lambs, and several others.

Many scenes (with woozy, flashy cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth) play in single takes.  While this may seem like an economic consideration in order to shoot this small film quickly, it is in fact a testament to Demme’s control, and the expertise of his cast.

This film is full of priceless little scenes, such as where the two vengeful wives compare notes on how their husband seduces them, or where Blaine and the reluctant Dean choose a birthday cake for their father- all deceptively simple in their execution, as the camera unobtrusively eavesdrops on their little dramas.  The superb cast makes the best out of a great screenplay—it all ends up feeling very natural, unrehearsed.

"Portland Angel" (Marcia Rodd), "Hot Coffee" and "Dallas Angel" (Ann Wedgeworth)
Citizens Band has countless hilarious moments.  The side-splitting "bigamist trucker" subplot culminates in a howler of a moment when Hot Coffee offers an unusual solution to the plight of the three spouses.  The scenes where Blaine destroys the CB equipment of Channel 9 abusers (including a Nazi, a priest and a 10-year old kid named The Hustler) are great sight gags.  And of course, there is the sequence where Blaine convinces Pam to join him and Papa Thermodyne for dinner, and dad quips that the stew is made of dog meat.  (“He did it, he really did it.”)

Yet underneath all of the humour is a lot of truth.  In the dinner scene, while Blaine is searching around the house to see whether or not Ned the Dog really did end up in the pot, Papa Thermodyne confesses his cruel joke to Pam, which he did to make Blaine feel the misery that he feels for being stuck at this junkyard.  (This is the only time we see Papa open up to another human being in the flesh.)  Blaine’s obsession with tearing down irresponsible CB transmitters is an excuse for him to avoid making any important life decisions.  During his mission, Spider is being threatened by a mysterious caller named Blood, whose motivations are also quite justifiable.

Spider and Dean (Bruce McGill) find a cake for Pop.
Long before people were able to assume alternate identities on Facebook or Second Life, wayward souls had CB radios with which to create a different world for themselves.  Many characters who have an alter ego on the radio waves seek solace with the surrogate friends on the bandwidth.  Even the vignette where the horny teenager Warlock has “phone sex” on the CB radio with a girl named Electra, is oddly moving, as these virtual strangers try to work out each other’s problems.  It would appear that everyone escapes to this imaginary aural world to escape what they can’t repair in their real lives.  Along the way, director Demme and screenwriter Brickman help these characters find their lost souls.

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All of these story threads combine into a climax that is a little bizarre, but not without logic.  When these disparate people track down Papa Thermodyne (after he has suddenly disappeared), not only has he found his true soul, but they have also found themselves in different ways.

This sweet film ends up being too moving for words.  It is so touching to see these characters with the virtue that we knew existed, even in the unlikable ones.  By the time the credits roll, when Larry Santos sings “You Heard The Song” over the soundtrack, as a single pan shot connects all of the wayward characters one last time before they move on to their next journeys in life, I am weeping.

Not only am I overcome with emotion for the honest portrayal of the people in this little epic, but also their genuine humanity.  Also, one is melancholy over the passage of time; Citizens Band hails from a time when there used to be a new masterpiece in theatres every few weeks.  It is a sad and beautiful reminder of how movies can be so entertaining and wise.

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