Feb 23, 2008

Hamilton, Mid-Course Correction and whatever else enters my brain as I type this....

Man, I bitch a lot.

This morning I was re-reading through a lot of old posts on this blog, and most of the entries not devoted to film reviews usually vent about lousy sales, lousy attendance at trade shows, and lousy attendance at screenings. I had created ESR as a refuge to escape to, not as something else to complain about. I realize that all dreams, no matter how big or small, are only realized through a lot of determination and hard work, and sidestepping obstacles is the rule not the exception. But rather than share and celebrate all the unique and interesting experiences that ESR has garnered, it seems that all I do is complain, and quite frankly, I don't need any more negativity in my life.

What with my worrying that I'm going to put myself into cardiac arrest with the stress surrounding my day job(s), and the constant frustration of not finding another position in my industry because everyone only wants to hire a 25-year old babe instead of a world-weary 40 year-old who has, you know, experience, the day-to-day "What the fuck am I doing?" as I look into the mirror, and the resolution amidst the process of finding visual ideas for Gordon's reading project that I don't have a creative bone in my body, and regardless of how all or most of the above may be true, I really don't need to crab about anything else, thank you. And plus, in light of the recent disaster downtown (see below), I am sick and tired of the daily fog and malaise that has clouded my existence. It is time to focus on something positive, no matter how big or small it may be.

I think a lot of my decision to embrace the light instead of retreating to the dark corner may have to do with the fact that on this morning's commute, I finished Paul Cox's autobiography, Reflections (proper review coming soon), which affected me much the same as his own films: astute, subversive, yet mostly haunting in a quiet sort of way. Here is a man who has consistently battled many obstacles to make his personal films, despite their small budgets, in the face of many financial committees who fret that they aren't commercial enough.

And despite that there are numerous anecdotes throughout, chronicling his efforts to fund such works as Island and Man of Flowers, what actually remains in the memory after one closes the book, are the quiet moments of beauty. The latter is also a phrase I often use to describe what I most remember coming away from one of Cox's own films. Throughout are passages about stopping to admire some natural beauty, and taking the time to appreciate the little moments. And in our world, this is something increasingly hard to do. But where I'm going with this narrative, is that this blog needs more moments like that.... more emphasis on those precious little moments and less on the adversity.

Three weeks ago, I was invited by Mark Innes, whom I met at the 2006 edition of the Hamilton Small Press Fair, to come down to his own version of the Hamilton Small Press Fair, which he was holding the following weekend. The people who originated the fair in 2005-6 apparently had no plans to do another, so Mark saw it fit to continue the tradition on his own, yet nonetheless had to re-title the event to "The Crawling Eye."

I never pass up an opportunity to go to Hamilton, as I always come away with a very positive vibe. In fact, before we continue, I'd like to do another of my classic segues... and don't worry, it will fit the subsequent context.... kinda. I've been wanting to share this subtle moment for over a year now, just waiting for the proper opportunity to fit it in. When I was at the 2006 Hamilton Fair, I was invited to a screening the following Friday at this gallery called The Factory. One Friday every month, Hamilton has the James St. Art Crawl, in which the numerous galleries on the James St. area stay open for people to hop from one gallery to the next to schmooze and check out the new work. Ultimately, people end up at The Factory, which holds a screening on that Friday night. On that night in question, they were showing a retrospective of films by the great Arthur Lipsett, followed by the documentary Remembering Arthur, with its director, Martin Lavut in attendance. It was a lot of fun, with good ambiance all around-- the members of The Factory also gave out free refreshments and popcorn. What I also loved was the loose, yet communal feeling surrounding the event.

On another completely unrelated note, when I got back to Toronto that night and turned on the computer (this was now about 1:30 in the morning), I had learned that Jack Palance died. At that moment, I watch a bit of my DVD of the Palance spaghetti western It Can Be Done, Amigo, and Luis Bacalov's enchanting opening song score (right-click or apple-save here to download it) has stayed with me all this time. In fact, whenever I think of this night in Hamilton, that song instantly appears in my head. That is my quiet moment of beauty.

Hamilton was-is a second home to me, as back in the 80s on Friday nights while I lived in the town of Simcoe I'd drive down to go record shopping. And because I live in Toronto, with a population of two million versus a town of fifteen thousand, I consider myself to be a long way from my roots. Yet, Hamilton brings me that much closer to "home" because it's a smaller city, geographically closer to my hometown, and I still easily see the ghosts of my youth as walk down its streets.

So for all of this, I happily accepted Mark's invitation to come on down to Hamilton on the 9th. The event was held at the Sky Dragon Centre downtown on the Friday and Saturday, but I could only make the Saturday show. Upon my arrival, Mark told me that the Friday night fair was really happening, as there were about ten vendors and lots of traffic, as it was held in conjunction with the James St. Art Crawl. On the Saturday, Mark and I were the only two vendors, and traffic was down to a trickle. However I did sell one Roger Corman issue. And in truth, Mark was more concerned than I was that I hadn't sold enough to even pay for the bus fare I spent to come down. That's the kind of guy Mark is. But I think appearing at this fair was more of a spiritual necessity than a financial one. And as such, it felt good to be back for an afternoon, learning about the scene and old haunts I used to visit.

If anything, I'm grateful to Mark and his generosity for putting the event on, and for keeping that community spirit going. He has been a publisher of comic books for about 20 years, and is still going at it. That weekend he launched what is perhaps his magnum opus, "The Comic Eye", seen above. This book is a collection of comics, submitted by many artists with widely diverse styles. Each story is about the appeal of comics-- collecting them, and their influence in the authors' lives. In fact, some of the styles in the book will remind you of other comics which you would have read thirty years ago-- this only adds to the nostalgia. I haven't bought comic books in well over 20 years, chiefly because I became more interested in film (appropriately, another medium that told a story within a frame), but also I grew tired of the long underwear superhero titles. And in a small town, that's all one had exposure to-- the indie direct sales boom did not hit us. If I had had more exposure to those books, which were much more personal and spoke to the livelihoods of their readers, I'd likely still be reading them today. So picking up this marvelous anthology was another way in which Hamilton felt like home.

To order your copy of "The Comic Eye", visit Mark's website here. To learn more about events at The Factory, click here.

Feb 17, 2008

An introduction by Paul Cox....

Right now, I'm reading through Reflections, a memoir written by Australian director Paul Cox, first published in 1998. And once I've completed the book, I will post a proper review of it here. But for now, I wanted to share this passage that paraphrased his opening introduction for his star Isabelle Huppert, when he was invited to the Telluride film festival for his 1986 film Cactus, in which the two worked together. He had just seen Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice, and the experience moved him so deeply that he decided to rewrite his introduction completely, and ultimately it had less to do with Isabelle Huppert, than with the whole dichotomy of the American film industry. I hope Mr. Cox will forgive my adding of such a long quotation, but it touched me so much that I had to share it.

"Thank you for inviting CACTUS to Telluride and for paying this tribute to Isabelle Huppert. I can't think of anyone who deserves it more, especially here where people, for a few days at least, are serious about film. So far I haven't heard the word 'product' once and even the question, 'What's your next project?' hasn't been asked.

Unfortunately I have to digress a little here, as I've just seen the real sacrifice Andrei Tarkovsky made with his film THE SACRIFICE. From the town of Larissa in Greece to the city of Arles in France, I've recently seen Rocky fighting for his tenth title, Rambo committing more obscenities and Arnold Schwarzenegger terminating anything that moved around him. Today I saw an extraordinary film made by an extraordinarily courageous man. No American producer or company wanted to help him make the film, yet you're all here now celebrating his sacrifice. It must be embarrassing for any thinking, feeling American to find even the smallest cinema in Europe loaded with films like, TEEN WEREWOLF, THE KARATE KID or TOP GUN representing your country, together with McDonalds and Kentucky Fried, while you could have been the proud producer of this important contribution to contemporary cinema.

Walking the streets of Manhattan is a far more exciting experience than watching the average American movie. Why is this in a country that harbours the amazing Julliard School of Music, has the finest dance and opera companies and a bubbling cultural life that embraces many cultures? Why all this wonderful activity can't rub off a little on your cinema, is an appalling mystery. Cinema in this country is nothing but the manufacture of bad taste, which is pretty tricky stuff when you realise that the right marketing of chicken winds or hamburgers can change the form and shape of less advanced countries.

Film wasn't invented to patronise and corrupt our children and to appeal mostly to our lower instincts. America is the country that has the power to change the future use of the medium, to restore some balance, to allow people like Tarkovsky to speak. After all you control, legally or illegally, most screens around the world and could bring love and peace and true imagination to those screens, instead of constant exploitation. I know of many marvellously talented people in your country who, in this climate of exploitation, will never get a chance to show what this country really has to offer.

I'm not totally condemning what most of you think is 'the right stuff', but I'm pleading for some balance. I'm asking you to restore the cinema to its true potential and once again make it available to grown-ups.

I did see TOP GUN and was appalled. Its budget was at least thirty times more than that of THE SACRIFICE. To think that TOP GUN will be seen by a hundred million people and THE SACRIFICE by a handful, is horrifying.

I'm here to introduce Isabelle Huppert and I'm sorry I had to digress. I just wonder what would have happened to Isabelle had she been born and raised in America and THE LACEMAKER had been a 'package' aimed at a particular youth market. Most probably the film would never have been made or, if by some fluke the film had gone through the system, it would never have had the same poignant integrity. Too many experts would have stood by to tell the director Claude Goretta how to make it more marketable."

Understand that this passage was said during a time when the Pac Man generation had taken over the box office, and before the indie boom of the 90's, which at least gave American cinema some however brief flirtation with the consideration of art before commerce. But once again, we find ourselves back at those times when bubblegum reigns supreme, and it is still difficult to see smaller, independent films (let alone get them funded), and as such, these comments ring true once again. This section is classic Paul Cox- savage and uncompromising, but in a unique way-- forcing us to consider truths we may not want to think about.

Sunday Morning random thoughts.....

.... no one looked cooler with a pair of sunglasses than Marcello Mastroianni in The Tenth Victim.

....try though I might, I still can't get past the introductions of two books by Robin Wood.

....I wonder how Brian Donlevy felt in his later years fighting giant turtles?

...why isn't Verboten on DVD?

Feb 11, 2008

RIP Roy Scheider

Yesterday, actor Roy Scheider passed away at the age of 75. This terrific leading man was obviously best known for playing Chief Brody in some obscure shark movie called Jaws, but was also in other key pictures of the 1970's, such as The French Connection and All that Jazz. Having broken his nose in his earlier career of a boxer, he had an unconventional look for a leading man, but his image was perfect for the 1970's, when other actors like Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman or Elliott Gould would be stars, whose everyday looks gave them credence as leading man as well as character actors- perfect for the blue collar milieu that dominated the films of the era.

As such, Roy Scheider was always a joy to watch. His affable personality and strong presence made us root for his characters. Before he made Jaws, he had already proven himself a solid leading man in The Seven Ups, a terrific and lesser remembered crime thriller from French Connection producer Philip D'Antoni. His hard boiled look made him a natural for action or suspense films, and yet his features also made him properly vulnerable for such gems as Jonathan Demme's Last Embrace Frankenhemier's excellent underrated 52 Pickup, and even Robert Benton's also underrated Still of the Night.

He was such a solid actor that he still managed to shine through such vanity projects as William Friedkin's infamous Sorceror, and Bob Fosse's All that Jazz- for which he received an Oscar nomination as the director's alter ego. The latter is perhaps his most unconventional role, but he was superb as the pill-popping dancer. Fosse's wildly excessive movie, where Broadway meets 8 1/2, includes death fantasies and other over the top indulgences, but it is Roy Scheider's human element that keeps this grounded and believable.

As such, Roy Scheider would still keep busy for the next 25 years in leading or supporting roles. In the 1990's he was on TV in "Seaquest DSV", and was also quite sinister as a gangster in "Third Watch".

I've known people who worked with Roy Scheider on set (since this is Canada, I'm assuming they're referring to time spent on Naked Lunch), and by all accounts he was one good guy even when the cameras weren't rolling. And that is probably a fitting epitaph... "one good guy". We always rooted for him, as his characters connected to us on a deeply personal level, and his screen presence was so great that even when he played less than honourable people, he still stole the show. He was also a great interviewee in the monumental documentary "A Decade Under the Influence"- the superb film about 1970's cinema. And while most of his key films were made in that decade, he was always a joy to watch. Class acts like this don't come to cinema quite often.