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.


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