Sep 13, 2019

What's Old Is New Again

The other night, as part of our continued fall reboot, we watched the new Shout! Factory Blu-Ray of the 1971 Hammer horror classic, Blood From The Mummy's Tomb. Our third issue included a long review of the film, which was then just released by Anchor Bay (now long out of print). ESR #3 came out of the printer the night before our first public appearance, at Canzine 2001. It so happens the 2019 edition of Canzine occurs this weekend. We’re not tabling there, but the event fittingly coincides with the Blu-Ray release, and our long delayed re-launch.

This is just another curious case of déjà vu felt in the past week, as we prepare our return to print. This narrative should just be a sequel, picking up where we left off. Instead, life right now feels like a 12-inch remix, where patterns are being repeated. 

Last Friday, I attended Killer B Cinema’s screening of 3 Dev Adam, their first such event at a new venue, See-Scape on Keele St. In 2018, they held monthly shows at The Imperial Pub, where our Toronto Film Noir Syndicate also had screenings in the first four months of the year. During that time, it was a great micro-cinema collective happening, with two different film groups sharing the same venue, and promoting each other. As usual, Lizzie and Zoltan put on a tight, solid program Friday night, and I wish them every future success at their new location.

Shelf Life

On Saturday night, the Royal Cinema presented a “25th anniversary” screening of Paul Bartel’s final film as a director, 1993’s ultra rare Shelf Life. I didn’t know until arriving that they projected Bartel’s own 35mm print, which had recently been unearthed at AMPAS! In 1995, the late actor-director showed this film at Toronto’s (now long gone) Euclid Cinema. He toured the film in several cites with the reels under his arm, in true indie fashion, but the movie sadly did not find a distributor, and has remained in obscurity. 

Although it never had an official home video release, I rented a squiggly VHS bootleg of Shelf Life in the early 2000s. Whatever my thoughts of it at the time, they were no doubt influenced by the conditions under which it was viewed. Let us just say that seeing Shelf Life in its proper milieu greatly enhanced my appreciation. The film has been touring, with its three cast members, in the same word of mouth fashion their director tried a quarter century ago. I hope this time it finds its deserved audience. 

A while back, I held a Facebook poll: should I continue with the issue numbering that we left in 2012, or start the next one with “Volume 2, Number 1”? Both of my Facebook friends unanimously voted for the latter, and I agreed with that decision. When Jean-Luc Godard returned to commercial filmmaking in 1980 after a long layoff, he had referred to his then-new project, Sauve Qui Peut, as his “second” first film. I get what he meant. After our own Sabbatical, this return to the printed page feels like I’m starting The Eclectic Screening Room from scratch all over again.

Once we re-launch the website in the next few weeks, we move right into the first new print issue in over seven years. Preparing this “new” first issue mirrors that feeling in the fall of 2001, when everything had to get done myself. 

In the past three years, I’ve twice attempted to resurrect ESR. I had called for submissions, and some work did trickle in. Other pieces were to come, and didn’t materialize, largely because I didn’t proactively follow up, and that writers probably surmised I wasn’t serious enough about it. Sure, life once again got in the way of revisiting ESR, but deep down I sensed I still wasn’t ready. Therefore, in this new attempt at re-launching the publication, I don’t want to disappoint more people. I need to earn their respect all over again. 

Oh. And why was ESR already into its third issue when it made that first public appearance eighteen years ago? I wanted to produce a body of work to show people (and myself) that I was serious about it. 

Two things of note did get printed during those seven years away from ESR. The first issue of Eurofantasmo was done as a birthday screening giveaway. (Its second instalment, “the all Carroll Baker issue”, awaits completion.) The other, more personal publication however, was made for an audience of one: me!

On the way to retaining my writing headspace, I felt it therapeutic to re-read some of my own words. One night, I printed a forty-page, digest-sized compendium of all the sixty-odd film reviews I had submitted to the IMDB early in the last decade.

These pieces were usually posted during my lunch breaks, while chowing down on French fries with mustard from Mr. Tasty, written in order to “stay in shape” between publishing. Whether or not my opinions of the films would change, I’d now certainly use different words to voice them. These reviews hardly rival André Bazin, but they possess the clarity, and perhaps boldness, that I’ve lacked in recent years.

Because the reviews specialize in (but are not limited to) Grade Z genre movies or underground-experimental cinema, they appear focused thanks to my personal identification with both of these forms. Whether they are perceived as (respectively) lowest common denominator trash or highbrow art, these kinds of films share a common theme: they are works made from hunger. 

In those days, when it was a miracle to still have five bucks in my pocket by the next paycheque, I felt a kinship in the hand-to-mouth existence of these filmmaking renegades. The insistence to make these unconventional movies, despite little means, mirrored the desire to get my Xeroxed words into the world. It was essential to life!

Sinthia: The Devil's Doll
This urgency came to mind last night as I finally got around to watch Ray Dennis Steckler’s 1970 Freudian nightmare, Sinthia: The Devil’s Doll. Somehow I missed this during the old days, when early issues of ESR featured a semi-regular Steckler gush-a-thon. What would I have thought of this, uh, “thing” back when I wrote about that murky expression found in underground movies viewed in musty basements, or in 60s sexploitation films on high-contrast VHS tapes from Something Weird? 

I could just picture myself hunched over that old Mac IIsi, wolfing down something from Mr. Tasty, buzzed on the second pot of coffee, comparing its dreamlike narrative to the psychodramas of the New American Cinema, where different timeframes fold into one another, and separate characters represent multiple things. I also might have referenced Kenneth Anger in its makeup, art direction and lighting colour palette. Last night’s reaction however was similar to how your stomach feels like a boulder after taking meds without food. 

In the IIsi days, I probably would’ve said that its excruciating tedium is necessary to attain its unique language, and how it meretriciously plods towards a new cinematic form, while under the pretense of a sexploitation film. One day later, while replaying the movie in my mind (much easier to have seen than to sit through), I do concede that there is something going on beneath its lumbering execution. I believe what I would’ve written after all.

What’s old is new again.

Sep 5, 2019

Long Goodbyes

Would a Greg Woods blog post exist without some sort of apology?

It would figure that my first post of 2019 appears two-thirds of the way into the "new year". Recently, a friend emailed inquiring what was going on with this blog, so it's re-assuring that someone still supports ESR, even years after its last public appearance has faded from memory. Preferably, personal matters are discussed online only in the context of the work itself, and that warrants inclusion here, if to contextualize the long absence from this space, and for that matter, where I see it heading.

Last fall, my dad passed away after battling ALS for more than a year. He tried to live independently for as long as he could until April, 2018, when it became apparent that he would have to go to a nursing home. I had spent that spring and summer cleaning out his place, auctioning off his stuff, taking care of his bills and things like that. Alas, his health decreased in the ensuing months, and he passed away peacefully on November 20. Even though we knew the prognosis, I figured (perhaps naively) that he still had more time left.  I felt there was still time left for us to talk.

While he passed before this disease robbed him of any more functionality, I regret not being able to ask him more questions; I'm sorry I couldn't tell him more. I wish that my goodbye to him on November 19 wasn't so feeble. I don't even know if he was conscious enough to have heard me. And even then, I didn't consider that he would pass the next day. He had rebounded before, and to my mind, he could do so again. Alas, time waits for no one.

This spring we held an informal, secular gathering with family, while we interred his ashes with his siblings, and read a couple of elegies. He didn't even want this much to honour him by, but I felt there should be an indication that he was here, and that he did make a difference. Even so, because I kind of went against his wishes, even for benevolent reasons, I still question if I made the right choice. The passing of a loved one also forces us to look inward. We reminisce about our times spent together, but we also ponder our own purpose on this earth. What kind of legacy am I leaving behind? What marker will say that I was here? Ultimately, under such grim circumstances, we're reminded of how much a fragile gift that life is, and that we must take advantage of it as much as we can.

During the past few months, we have made attempts to get "back to normal" and enjoy life again. It's been hard to get into the writing headspace again, but I'm trying. I still have great plans to rejuvenate ESR (plus launch one or two other projects I'm sure you'll dig) in the near future. So, if you've supported us in any way through the years, or if you just happened to discover these words for the first time, we thank you, and we hope that the best is yet to come.

Part of our "getting back to normal" is also in reviving this regular column. Screen Captures will expound on cinematic themes or topics of the moment, plus continue to serve as a living document of the local film scene that exists on the fringes. This week's column continues its autumnal theme of saying goodbye, and acceptance that all good things must pass.

2 For 1 Movies

It comes with a heavy heart to announce that after over 30 years in business, 2 For 1 Movies, one of Toronto's last surviving video stores, is closing its doors. Located next door to the Humber Cinema at Bloor and Jane, this store served as "my local" for years in terms of renting videos. In its heyday, it was open from noon to midnight, seven days a week. As per its namesake, you could get two non-new releases for the price of one: two movies, two days, four bucks.

During the video store boom, there also existed other independent stores across the street and a few blocks above, plus a Blockbuster just two doors west of them. Amidst great adversity, 2 For 1 outlasted all of them (which shut down over a decade ago), and even some of the city's better known independent shops that have called it a day.

In the past few years, we've seen the closures of Suspect Video and Culture, Queen Video, The Film Buff, Movie Art Decor, and several others. It was re-assuring to see that these guys were still around, and that half of their inventory still consisted of VHS! The bleached poster of Doc Hollywood on its door signified its Precinct 13-like oasis in the midst of changing times. In recent years however, their business hours sharply decreased, since it was run by two men of retirement age. I won't pretend to fall on my sword in false allegiance, as my visits at 2 For 1 have been fewer and farther between over the years, and not just because of shortened operating hours.

The news of their closure comes with little surprise, as they were the only business still open on that north side strip of Bloor St. The second-to-last remaining business, Humber Cinema, abruptly closed this summer. After many years of back and forth, it appears that this chunk of land is now being appropriated for, you guessed it, more overpriced condos.

During the summer, before the news of 2 For 1's closure became known, I had visited the store for the first time in ages. It was saddening to see the disrepair of the store's interior. Paint was peeling, and the musty wall-to-wall carpet was dotted with the foam that absorbs water. Small wonder that these gentlemen sit outside during the four and a half hours that the shop is open for business.

As their final days loom, they've been selling off their entire inventory. This weekend I joined the handful of likeminded collectors who picked through the dust-covered VHS cases, especially looking for rarities that never made the transition to DVD or BluRay. Some of the armful of treasures I brought home were nostalgic choices, "for old times' sake": titles I had rented, which were reviewed in ESR. I had to pick up the Trylon VHS release of The Glory Stompers, which was featured in ESR #2, our first Drive-In Issue. Other mementos included two Luis Bunuel films, Nazarin and Illusion Travels By Streetcar, included in my two-part article on the director's "for hire" films in Mexico.

The Cat's Pajamas Signs Off

What is it about our collective psyche that gives importance to anniversaries ending in fives or zeroes? Are those ending in threes or sevens no less worthy? During this back to school season, my interior landscape is forced to remember a "back to school" anniversary ending in a zero: when I first moved to the city to study film at York University.

School started on Monday the 11th, one week after Labour Day. On Tuesday the 5th, I had journeyed up to move in to residence on campus. The next two days were spent exploring the campus and the immediate neighbourhood. On Thursday, first-year film students had a "meet and greet" at the Faculty of Fine Arts building. My mother came up for the day, chauffeured by my cousin and his wife. For whatever reason, I drove back to Birdtown on the Friday, and returned to Toronto on the Sunday just before one day before classes officially began.

Beginning a new life chapter can also be bittersweet. In the previous year, I had returned to high school to upgrade my average and improve my portfolio for admission to film school. Within those ten months, I had gone from zero to hero: making a feature-length video, appearing in two plays (one of which went as far as the Sears Drama Festival's semi-finals), and obtaining a new circle of friends. Alas, in the final four weeks before university, I was going back to zero again, as that world I had created was dissipating, in light of this new phase. I had achieved what I set out to do, but hadn't expected to pay such a price of finality. It took a long time time to accept that and move on.

In that final month before university, there was no big send-off for this boy. That only happens in the movies, right? Alas, this epic ended with a lot of tiny goodbyes. One of them was film related in a way.

One of the most important film educations during high school age was The Cat's Pajamas, an all-night movie show which ran for several years on WGRZ (Buffalo's NBC affiliate). I have, and will continue to memorialize this program numerous times in this blog, such significance does it have to my personal makeup. It was a veritable film school in its (forgive me) eclectic programming of horror, kung fu, classic comedies, and TV movies, to list only a few highlights. Seeing these films in warmed, less than pristine prints, coupled with static, just added to the dreamlike experience that painted such comforting images onto your oxygen-deprived mind that wavered in and out of consciousness. This program was also a surrogate friend to many in those late-night hours. It is sadly fitting that here was another friend saying goodbye, just before I started university.

On that Friday night cited above, where I came back to Birdtown for the weekend prior to classes starting, I had arrived at my mother's house well after she had retired for the evening. The house was quiet and in darkness. I elected to make a bed out of the couch, so as not to make a disturbance up the creaking stairs. Before nodding off, I put the TV on for a bit, lying inches from the screen, with the volume down low, just like I used to do in those renegade days of sneaking on the late late show when I should’ve been asleep. A very weird movie was on. Under these viewing circumstances, it seemed so otherworldly, so larger than life. It was 1966's Chamber Of Horrors, broadcast on The Cat's Pajamas.

Admittedly, I hadn't watched this program much in the past year, since I was so busy. Only now, upon looking at old TV listings of the day, is it apparent that my inattentiveness was because by then WGRZ's late night schedule mostly consisted of infomercials! The only remnant of traditional Cat's PJs programming was a movie on Friday nights. That night felt like a brief visit with an old friend again. I would later learn that Chamber Of Horrors was the penultimate airing. On Friday Sept. 15, The Cat's Pajamas quietly signed off for good after showing the feature-length TV pilot for Search.

Although I've since viewed Chamber Of Horrors in its entirety and with greater clarity, this night's gaze, viewed with an overtired brain and the volume way down, was a surreal experience. It felt like a satellite transmission from an extraterrestrial being. You don't understand the language, but you know what the cadences mean. It was to say: "Thank for you all your love and support over the years. It is time for us for leave. You are moving on and so must we. Take and use what you've learned from us. Think of us now and again."

Chamber Of Horrors. Add some fuzzy, static filter from your iPhone to achieve woozy "late night movie" effect.


And on this note, we'll leave with some notifications of a couple upcoming events. Apparently there is some big film festival going on right now. But for us mortals who can't afford the $109.75 to breathe the same air as Brad Pitt, here are a couple of interesting options.

Paul Bartel's Shelf Life
Paul Bartel's final feature as a director, 1993's Shelf Life, has never had a proper release. He presented the film in person here in 1995 during an engagement at the long-gone Euclid cinema. Since then, the film has been rarely seen. This Saturday, the Royal is presenting a screening with its cast in attendance! This black comedy, of a 60s nuclear family that spends years in a bomb shelter, is not to be missed. Sat. Sept. 7 at 8 PM.  For further information, and tickets, visit here.

It's Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection
Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett's collection of sci-fi and horror memorabilia is on display at the ROM until January 5, 2020. But why wait? That $41.75 TIFF gala will be an eight dollar DVD before Christmas. Check out this amazing exhibit today! For further information, visit here!

Thanks for reading. More cinematic goodness next week!