Sep 13, 2009

Remembering The Nostalgic Cinema

Although the date was actually the tenth, it was actually this second Sunday in September of 1989 that I first went to The Nostalgic Cinema. For years I had read their movie listings in The Toronto Star every Friday when I would peruse the “Entertainment” section for the new movie reviews. In my long-range plan to flee my small town roots for the big city, it had always been my ambition to check out this place once I had planted roots in Toronto.

I had already moved into residence at York a week prior, and classes were to officially begin the following day. For whatever reason, I went back to the town of my birth for the Friday and Saturday nights. However, Sunday morning I was on the 403 back to Toronto, filled with an incredible sense of euphoria. I’ve already rhapsodized elsewhere in these pages about the life-changing year I had upon returning to high school in 1988-89, and don’t want to repeat myself here. However, I’m listening to Laura Nyro as I write this, so forgive any melancholia I do inject into this post. Yes, I had traveled a rewarding but laborious path to get into film school, and the summer of 1989 had its tribulations due to the fact that I had to cut loose all or most of the new life I had made- a fact I never truly got over for some time.

But despite the bittersweet emotions that pervaded the times, that Sunday morning drive to Toronto saw me filled suddenly with vigour, and excitement for my new chapter in life. On this day, I decided to give a little present to myself by finally checking out The Nostalgic Cinema in person, rather than just living vicariously through their Friday listings. Three days earlier, I had read that they were showing five films on the Sunday, and decided that this would be a better introduction than any. (I should add, this was back in the days when I could see more than one or two films in one day without any guilt or thoughts that I should be doing something else.)

I arrived in the big city at lunch-time, just enough to drop off whatever stuff I had brought up to residence and to make it back down to the first film at The Nostalgic. It was a tiny cinema in the second floor of the Kingsway Cinema at Bloor and Royal York, which had its own entrance to the left of the building. I had bought a membership card, which still saved me money from simply getting regular admission prices for the five films.

The afternoon opened with The Penalty, a 1920 crime melodrama starring Lon Chaney Sr. without legs, followed by a nifty, forgotten supernatural crime thriller, Hole In The Wall (1929), starring pre-Little Caesar Edward G. Robinson. Then came the 1929 version of Mysterious Island, which contains scenes silent and with sound. Apparently unseen in Toronto for decades, it was great fun (and the ancestor of Close Encounters and The Abyss). Then the evening came with Murders In The Zoo and Dr. X, both with Lionel Atwill.

In between screenings, you could mosey from the 100-seat screening room into the library to pore over vintage literature on cinema (although with the brevity of breaks, I don’t know how prodigiously one could peruse any of it). Or, anyone in for the long haul might have had just enough time to get a microwaved sub from Becker's, or to go grab a cigarette. A cute little brunette in a fedora brought up some soda and popcorn for sale from The Kingsway (at prices curiously lower than what they were downstairs). A guy in a LOUD plaid suit-jacket (I swear he was there every time I was) looked over the old lobby cards. Being in this place felt like being in a scene torn from a Woody Allen screenplay- it was its own world separated from the outside. In this dimly lit little dwelling, the literature of the 20th century was being upheld.

I belonged here. This was not a movie crowd of cell-phone wagging, bottled-water popping posers who were playing their favourite variation on cine-snobbery. Seldom have I seen a more eclectic crowd of moviegoers than during any night here: real people, strangers all, united by a shared love of a piece of celluloid from the past.

One must remember that this was in the day when there were still glaring absences of classic film titles on video, and much of what The Nostalgic offered wasn’t readily available to see at home on VHS or the late show. Each eight-week schedule was a treasure trove of little gems from cinema’s golden age: Universal horror films, vehicles with your favourite comedy teams, silent classics you could only read about, film noir, westerns, romance, you name it. They used to show two films a night, and also run a Sunday afternoon program. (On Thursday nights you could see the second film free.)

Sadly, after too many moves, I had lost whatever schedules I had acquired from them (a four-page flyer on newsprint, with a screening grid on one page, and individual write-ups in the center spread), and they were always a joy to read. (For instance, in a capsule reviewer the editor would elaborate upon a bit player who makes a token appearance in that certain film.)

After that night’s films ended, I chatted briefly with Dave Eustace, the owner and projectionist, who also recommended the Tuesday night film, Beggars of Life, as I had enquired about it (prior to this, I was only able to read about Louise Brooks). And true enough, I trucked down there that night to see it (to date, it remains my favourite of her films, and my bias is likely influenced by having seen it in a cinema).

For the rest of the school year, I would make my treks out to the west end to see films: Laurel and Hardy movies, The Old Dark House (on Halloween night!), Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon silents, and Freaks, just to name a few. Typically, I would misplace my dog-eared membership card, yet thankfully they would remember me as enough of a regular to let me in with a member’s admission price. And as far as I can remember, the magical evenings would end with a vintage slide saying “Good night” being projected, as big band music filled the theater. My final screening at The Nostalgic was in the spring of 1990- the Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

A typical night at The Nostalgic was usually one of joy. This little cinema was a little time capsule from which one could sequester themselves from the modern world for a couple of hours to revel in a piece of history that one could share with surrogate companions in a screening room. After being out of the city for a few years, I moved back to Toronto and started attending the usual repertory cinemas again, only to find out that The Nostalgic had closed in that spring of 1994. Sadly, its owner, Dave Eustace, had to turn off the projector permanently due to health reasons. (He passed away in 2003) For years after, when I came out from seeing a movie at The Kingsway cinema, I would sit in the Second Cup on the corner and reminisce about the little cinema above it.

One time during the intermission of a double bill at The Kingsway, I went upstairs to the washroom (which was shared by Nostalgic) and sauntered up to the doorway that led to the former palace of wisdom. Peering through the window, I could see across the hall into a former darkened room which now had glaring light resonating from Bloor Street. The walls were stripped of memorabilia and the projection system was half-destroyed. On the window in the entrance from Bloor St., something rather eerily remained for a few years. It was a laminated paper with a clock design printed on it, with two plastic hands that one manipulated to show a designated time. The writing above the clock said, “The next screening will be at”

A rather fitting last shot, really.

Seeing that clock face there years later invited the idea that maybe they would be back some day, but as we know, sequels only happen in the movies, and even then, they're haphazard at best in reliving a magic moment. Perhaps The Nostalgic Story is emblematic of life in the past 20 years, as within those two decades I've experienced death, disappointment, regrets... all typical aspects of the life cycle mind you, but of an epic story that doesn't necessary end on a crescendo like the larger-than-life characters we flock to see projected 24 times a second.

But more to the point, the Websters definition of nostalgia is a longing for the past, and that too plays into my life, as I've spent many of my years foolishly trying to recreate past glories until I was finally able to accept that the past is gone and move on. And perhaps because of that magic number "20 years", I've been reminiscing more about the glory days of late, even going as far as tracking down former school chums, but to what avail? What am I searching for, exactly? But The Nostalgic wasn't so much longing, as preserving and celebrating pieces of our past. It too, has now became part of our collective past. Like the films it celebrated every night, The Nostalgic Cinema is a piece of culture that would have an even greater uphill battle trying to sustain itself in today's climate (for reasons better left to another post), but rather than lament that sorry reality, we can rejoice in what it stood for. Isn't that why we see old movies, anyway?

Jun 23, 2009

The Notorious Newman Brothers (2009)

Over two years ago I was given a review copy of the movie Bums, starring, co-written and co-directed by siblings Jason and Brett Butler. This was the second of their "brews" (Canadian alternatives to Spike Lee's "joints"?)- an amusing and honest "twentysomething" relationship ensemble comedy.

In short order, I saw the writing-directing team's third offering, Confusions of an Unmarried Couple, screened at Innis Town Hall. This comic nightmare of revenge, longing and bitterness after the end of a relationship is a mini-marvel- excellently acted by a cast of two, and is as wickedly funny as it is perceptive.

This Friday June 26, their fourth brew The Notorious Newman Brothers, is also having its Toronto debut at Innis. This new project is directed by Ryan Noel, who co-wrote and stars with the brothers Butler, and is a departure from their pungently funny studies of love pains. Noel plays Max Chaplin, a wimpy aspiring filmmaker whose ad (canvassing for subjects for a documentary) is answered by these wannabe "goodfellas" the Newman brothers: Thunderclap and Paulie (Paulie Newman- get it?) -played by Brett and Jason, respectively- who recruit him to make a movie about their bad-boy exploits. This comedy combines the well-soiled traditions of gangster film parody and "mockumentary", yet the blending of both genres results in a clever study that gently overturns the conventions of these forms, but it also is a sly commentary on how its characters are influenced by pop culture.

Perhaps this will be an ongoing trend in the work of the Butler Brothers, as the hapless characters in Bums also incorporate discussions of movie characters in their dialog. This pattern of junk culture references is less a nod to the trend jump-started by Quentin Tarantino, yet more symbolic of how their characters cling to these references to get them through their daily realities. In this movie, the vignettes of Chaplin documenting these two-bit hoods at work, are intercut with on-screen quotations from such modern gangster classics as Scarface or Carlito's Way, suggesting a movie world that the Newmans attempt to emulate but are still light-years removed from. In one hilarious moment, they re-enact for the camera the famous "Do I amuse you?" scene from Goodfellas. Their pathetic delivery is reminiscent of a terrible amateur night performer being oblivious to his his own badness. (Perhaps this moment is more evocative of DeNiro's Rupert Pupkin character in King of Comedy, whose routines are intentionally, painfully, bad- therefore true.)

All of the spoofing of gangster machismo is intact (as the Newmans constantly chide the wispy voiced filmmaker for his lack of masculinity), and there are neat jibes at reality TV conventions (as in one scene where Chaplin meets a former associate of the Newmans, the only thing in the image that doesn't get blurred out by the traveling matte is the interviewee's face). But as any "movie within a movie" should, reel life and real life appropriately blur. As we continue to watch these three central characters, we realize that things aren't always what they seem. Much that we perceive to be real becomes as artificial as the glue-on moustache that Max wears to appear macho. Additionally, we see that Max and the Newmans alike are still little boys trying to grow up. Max is a thirtysomething mommy's boy (yes, he lives in the basement), and the Newmans are clearly insecure dolts trying to appear adult, allowing the childhood games of cops and robbers to take over their lives.

The structure of The Notorious Newman Brothers is rather simple. Scenes unfold with a minimum of cuts, to emulate the cinema verité style, capturing the moments as they happen. Perhaps this film is more clever and not as fall-down funny as their previous work, but this is not to suggest that this movie is anything less than enjoyable. Amidst the subtle spoofing of various filmmaking conventions, there are some great laughs, including an elaborate scene in a video store. (Mean Streets as a family rental? Hmmm.....)

After having viewed the movie, and allowing the experience to immerse itself in you, one begins to think back on various scenes and understand more of what is really going on beneath the surface. Like the desperate characters it documents (on both side of the lens),

Brett and Jason Butler have always managed to make a lot from a little, and this film is no exception. They, as well as Ryan Noel clearly have a lot to say for themselves, and after viewing this effort, once again I offer that it will no doubt be interesting to see what they come up with next.

The Notorious Newman Brothers screens Friday June 26 at Innis Town Hall at 9:30 PM as part of the ReelHeART International Film Festival. Visit the ReelHeART website for more information. Additionally, you can find out more about the makers of this movie here and here.

Jun 17, 2009

Allan King (1930 - 2009)

In late April, TVO ran a week-long retrospective of Allan King's work (in which the legendary filmmaker introduced some of the films personally), perhaps introducing his work to another audience apart from those who chanced upon whatever theatrical runs or revivals would be accorded him. Among my film friends, getting the opportunity to see a collection of his films from the comforts of our homes was a big event. Once again, Allan King was big news. This is one more reason why his passing just a few weeks later is saddening.

At 79, an age when most artists would have retired (or if they still worked, became in danger of repeating themselves), he was still at his craft, developing a new project as recent as this spring, before learning of his medical condition. As evidenced by his incredible career resurgence this decade, as long as we had Allan King, we could still expect to be challenged, disturbed and moved by his ongoing explorations of human behaviour.

It was in the 1960's when he came to the fore upon the release of two feature-length cinema-verité documentaries, Warrendale (1967) and A Married Couple (1969), both trail-blazing pieces which put in the same league with Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles Brothers, who practiced the same style south of the border. The cinema-verité approach disregarded the usual voiceover or talking-to-camera so customary to the documentary genre, and instead wanted to record activity as unobtrusively as naturally as possible. (The seeds of his work can be seen in earlier short films like Skid Row or Rickshaw, produced for the CBC, not necessarily in style, but for introducing you to people previously not seen as documentary subjects.)

Of course the controversy about the cinema verité movement centers upon the debate of how much on screen is in fact real. Whether one speaks of such work of the 1960's, or even today's "reality TV" (to coin an example of how this style has been distilled for the masses), the camera is still a powerful tool that its subjects can't easily ignore. But people like Wiseman or King would spend time with their subjects before introducing a camera into their worlds, so they would be less influenced (or inhibited) by it. At worst, one could say that we're seeing a magnification of reality.

Warrendale, named for the disturbed children's hospital it documents, would make for an interesting double-bill with Wiseman's Titicut Follies (released the same year). The latter film documented the poor conditions at a mental hospital, yet perhaps its target differed from King's. Warrendale instead focuses on the kids, not the institution, and we eventually see the humanity beneath their dysfunction. Although originally produced for the CBC, the network refused to air it because King wouldn't edit out the childrens' profanity. Instead, it was released to theaters, and received international acclaim, even having a good run in Canada- something unheard of for a homegrown film, let alone a documentary. It was banned from broadcast until TVO ran it in 1997 (where I first caught it).

But perhaps A Married Couple more questions the authenticity of filmed reality, as we witness the disintegrating marriage of Billy and Antoinette Edwards (who fight about everything). On screen we witness what appears to be a chronological study of how their relationship declines, however the scenes were not filmed in that sequence. One could say that the movie was edited in a more linear fashion, but still I don't think that we're seeing anything untrue (as the Edwards' eventually divorced), despite the couples' knack for performance.

Allan King also made commercial fictional features, and despite the earnestness of these (Who Has Seen The Wind; Silence of the North; Termini Station), one learns that the dramas of his "reel" worlds pale before those of "real" life. In this decade, King received some of the best notices of his career with the release of Dying At Grace (2003) (featuring terminally ill cancer patients at the palliative care ward of Grace Hospital), Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005) (whose subjects have Alzheimers) and Empz 4 Life (2006) (about black youth in Toronto).

Every time I see one of King's documentaries, I ask "How the devil did he make this?" (which one can interpret as tribute to how affecting and unique they are). For example, how does a 75 year-old white male produce such a film like Empz 4 Life? How does he get terminally ill people to consent to have their final days recorded? Perhaps his greatest gift was winning the trust of his subjects to present risky topics matter in an honest, unbiased fashion. I remember one quote of Allan King (and I'm paraphrasing) where he says that when he begins a project, he never knows how it's going to end. Thus, one gets the sense that the moments of every new film is unfold with as much surprise to us as they did when King rolled the cameras.

It was his relentless curiosity to explore different facets of human nature, and the constant thrill of discovery, to make such remarkable films that may shock and upset us, but also change us in some way. These overwhelming experiences enrich us all the more for helping us to comprehend some of the harsh realities of life. Allan King was a true visionary--- and of the few filmmakers today (let alone in Canada) that are deserving of that title.

For more on Allan King, CBC has collected three videos and an audio interview which are accessible here.

Jun 15, 2009

Shock, Small Press and Somnambulism


That was an interesting two days on several levels. Usually, when one has a show, that becomes the "big event" of the weekend. However, if you have two (and each long ones at that) within the course of 24 hours, they instead feel like a couple of stops on a long journey. And looking back, these past two days seem more surreal than festive.

During the day on Saturday, I was an exhibitor at this spring's edition of the Toronto Small Press Fair. Once again, there were new administrators for the fair, and this time the location of the event was moved to the Toronto Reference Library-- appropriately enough. Likely to adhere to the library's hours, the fair ran from 9-5, when in the past, it never started before 11:00 at the previous Bloor St. locations, presumably to let people finish their brunches before they went book shopping.

This year, the fair had a record 96 exhibitors, right in the center of the library on the main floor, as the upper levels of the building loomed around us. Thankfully everyone had enough wiggle room to move around, and the readings were held in another room off to the side, so as not to disturb the vendors. I had spent most of the previous evening printing some more of the latest issue (which, naturally, I didn't end up needing), and so I was still pretty tired during the day. (This drowsiness is helped in no small part by my new diet for which I've cut down on sugary foods. I'm not even supposed to have coffee -despite that I drink it black- but I need something to keep me from nodding off.) Traffic came in the expected fits and starts, but sales were still pretty good.

Friends and fellow Trash Palace denizens Jonathan and Siue were exhibitors at the fair as well, and during the day I had remarked at how much the fair had changed over the years. Eight (count 'em-- eight) years ago, it seemed I was the odd-duck-out. I was initially allowed to sell at the fair in 2001, only after sending them the latest issue at the time, especially because in my first dialogue with the (then) coordinators, they didn't really have arts-related stuff at the fair. And so for the few small press fairs, ESR was the only vendor who was not selling poetry or fiction in any format, but gradually, one saw an emergence of self-published humour or political publications, as well as comic books.

In this age, after the desktop revolution, the meaning of "small press" has become as diverse as the material presently sold at the fair, which hasn't limited itself to the old guard of poetry chapbooks and small runs of fiction. Some of the veterans in the past have expressed disdain with the way that the fair has changed, and I do see their point, as during the year there are venues like Canzine that better support some of the less traditional wares (CDs, DVDs and crafts have found their way to this venue in recent times). However, I do know that there has already been at least one literary fair (where vendors are invited only) that harkens back to what the small press fair used to mean prior to the "zine explosion" of the 90's. (In fact, this year, my neighbour at the tables asked me was a "zine" was, pronouncing it as though it rhymed with "vine".) And by all means, if they want to have their own fair with that distinction, they should! The more ways people can get their work out there, the better.

This time out, surely a highlight for me was that I got to meet Ralph Alfonso, who under the sole name of "Ralph" released four CD's of his euphonic spoken-word beatnik poetry with jazz-garage-tinged accompaniment. He used to put out a monthly four-page fanzine (including a cover), also with the same one-word title, which one could acquire for the price of a postage stamp. The front cover usually had some beautiful silkscreen art which recalled the bohemian style of the 1950's, the centerspread would feature that month's collection of beat-tinged poetry, and the back would have a smorgasbord of album recommendations or other things which caught his interest those four weeks. The fifty issues were anthologized in two volumes: Coffee Jazz and Poetry (issues 1 - 25), and This is For the Night People (issues 26 -50). I had the latter, but the first volume was out of print for years. To my delight, he was selling both of these, as well as some CDs from his own Bongo Beat label.

That night, I was listening to his release of Ian Ferrier's album "What Is this Place?" on my way to the Fox. The artist's spoken word (closer to a whisper), with minimal jazz, rock, soundscape backgrounds seemed to perfectly fit the scenery of desolate sidewalks I was seeing out the streetcar window past 11 PM. Saturday night, or more accurately, Sunday morning, our friend Dion Conflict held the third edition of his "Shock and Awe" all-night screenings featuring grindhouse films. The film I was most eager to see was Hell's Angels on Wheels, which I have always enjoyed, and was excited to see it on a big screen. The headliner was the cult fave Return of the Living Dead which was surreal to see in a theater Sunday morning, but perhaps no less so than the hardcore film Mona which preceded it.

I was exhausted before I even got to the theater (despite having a nap), and slept through one film entirely (Swinging Pussycats), while my friends thrilled to the appearance of Andrea Rau from Daughters of Darkness. But still it was another interesting and unique Dion experience, with blue light specials a-plenty.

Unbeknownst to me, my full-time job was trying to contact me throughout the day, and so Sunday morning on the way home, I had to make a pit stop at the office to look after some stuff. After having some excellent Indian buffet for lunch, I shuffled off home to bed.

Looking back at this weekend, I am less struck by the whirlwind of activity than by how much I seemed to sleepwalk through them. (However, that seems to be the nature of this scene-- everything happens at once, and then nothing for two months.) Singularly, either of these would have been a cultural event unto itself, but one right after the other, coupled with my overtired-ness turned the entire weekend into a waking dream.

Since I had had another incident where my full-time job collides with my other life (AKA- what I don't necessarily make money at, but would rather be remembered for if I had to choose), I thusly had necessary fuel for reflection as we crawled out of the cinema, and were blinded by the sun as is befitting to us subterranean moles. On my third wind, I pondered how different facets of our lives often collide. Whether it's in the dark recess of a movie theater or at the tables of a trade show, we are sometimes reminded how much we must hang on to those honeycombs of culture with which we struggle to define ourselves. Our sporadic visits to the nest may embody who we are, but we still cannot hide from the rest of the world even before the masks come off, and nor can we necessarily bring part of that caravan into our daily lives. Sometimes these side projects must remain as much of a secret as Dion's Film Number Four.

Jun 11, 2009

Doc (1971)

Made during the period of so-called "revisionist" westerns a la The Wild Bunch; Once Upon a Time in the West; and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Frank Perry's Doc doesn't so much redefine the genre as those apocalyptic films. However the release of these (and Italian westerns) surely influenced pictures such as this, and other scruffy titles like Dirty Little Billy or The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. The heroes were painted in shades of grey, often against changing landscapes, and the films were rife with profanity, sex and violence for a new liberal audience. Perhaps these movies were closer to depicting the grubby reality of frontier life not necessarily seen in the classical pictures of John Ford, but even so these eccentric movies often had an otherworldly quality.

Doc surely is closer than most films in painting an accurate picture of the Earps. The famed OK Corral battle (while depicted as briefly in here as the actual historical gunfight really was) is seen more as a struggle for money-grubbing opportunism than law and order. Still, it takes some liberties with history-- and if we're going to take this film to task for inaccuracies then it's only fair to do the same for John Ford's My Darling Clementine (usually regarded as the definitive movie about Wyatt Earp and the OK Corral). For example, Doc Holliday's constant traveling companion "Big Nose" Kate Elder (with the nickname removed here, perhaps because Faye Dunaway's nose wasn't large enough) meets him for the first time just days away from his rendezvous with the Earps in Tombstone, Arizona leading up to the famed gun battle.

However, just as Julie Christie's glamourous image was erased in McCabe, so too is Faye Dunaway with some well-placed mud on her cheeks in low-lit interiors. Wyatt Earp (Harris Yulin) is a cold, smug lawman whose frequent activity is sneakily hitting people on the head with his gun barrel. Doc Holliday is no Shakespeare-spouting dandy a la Victor Mature-- instead, he's an opium-addicted lout who coughs up blood in every other scene (the gunfighter was slowly dying from consumption). Stacy Keach has added another interesting credit to his roster of unusual films in this period (End of the Road, Watched, The Traveling Executioner-- his Doc Holliday is equal parts charismatic and cad, dashing and disgusting.

But Doc is a superlative, wonderfully vulgar look at the old west. Pete Hamill's morally ambiguous script debunks the well-scrubbed white-hatted cowboys of previous movie lore, and presents us with frontier characters who curse, flatulate, fornicate and (it's implied) fellate. The production was shot in Spain, no doubt to emulate the Spaghetti Westerns of the time (which were often filmed around Almeria). Thusly, this film gives a supra-real effect: this "realistic" depiction of life in the old west is also given an otherworldly, larger-than-life, perhaps mythic, feel. Particularly striking are the moments in which Doc and Kate journey through the desert en route to Tombstone. The tone is nearly Biblical.

Frank Perry was surely one of commercial cinema's most interesting figures in the 1960's and 70's. His films (many scripted by his ex-wife Eleanor) always took chances. And if perhaps some of them were inconsistent, they nonetheless succeeded as gripping studies of unusual human behaviour. Whether it was the dysfunctional love stories of David and Lisa or Last Summer, quirky rural adventures at Rancho Deluxe, or Hollywood melodrama played to the hilt in Mommie Dearest, his scenarios implode the conventions of whatever genre they study, and present us with unconventional characters in these worlds. Doc is surely one of his finest.

Jun 9, 2009

Reefer Madness (1936)

As I gradually pick my way through my old VHS tapes, I re-acquaint myself with titles that I haven't seen in years (decades, even). In some cases, one reunites with an old friend, in others, one sees a movie with a different pair of eyes (for better or for worse). I've always enjoyed the misguided epic Reefer Madness, tonight's visitation was perhaps the most enjoyable time I've ever spent with it.

This dated cautionary fable (also released with the title Tell Your Children, still seen at the end) was rediscovered in the 1960's and quickly became a midnight cult favourite at college screenings or revival houses. Today it remains in high circulation as on public domain DVD labels. You don't need to be stoned to giggle at the ludicrous fear-mongering (as the narrator informs us of some kid who got high on pot and killed his parents with an axe), but I don't think it would hurt.

However, as you get older and have seen more movies, you get to put this misguided picture into greater context. No longer does one merely see this as a midnight camp classic. After the passage of time, one sees how a relic likes this fits into our popular culture.

The structure of this picture would still be used decades later in similar scare pictures (which masquerade as educational, but are exploitation at heart): a fire-and-brimstone authority figure would preach to a room full of shocked parents (or even addressing the viewer) about assorted depraved behaviours which exist just beyond our doorstep. Whether it was the evil vine of drugs, promiscuity or juvenile delinquency ravaging our land, our narrator would relate a story of how an innocent soul would be corrupted by one of these demons. And whatever thrills the public paid to see (dope smoking, cheap sex), they would still have far less screen time than all the sermonizing. Even as late as The Violent Years in 1956, this formula didn't change much.

In this sordid tale, Bill and his high school friends start hanging out at this adult couple's apartment where they are given the evil weed, along with the laughter, piano playing and cheap sex it accompanies. Today, this flick is a camp classic because the people begin laughing before they finish the first puff of the wacky tabacky, no-one inhales, and of course, for the stoned characters' irrepressible urge to play the piano with a storm that would do Cecil Taylor proud. ("Faster! Play it faster!")

However, my favourite scenes are the film's feeble attempts at action: witness the hilarious moments where one teenager hits a pedestrian with his car (you actually see the man duck a good six feet away from the vehicle), and when a distraught female can no longer cope with the damage perpetrated by marijuana and jumps out a window!

Seeing this film again after so many years, I was struck with the notion that Reefer Madness could also be an ancestor to all those educational films we saw in public school. And the fact that those shorts used stereotypes that were already outmoded in this flick is completely dumbfounding. The teenagers in this movie all look to be in their late 20's, and their abundant "Gee whillikers" dialogue is hackneyed to the extreme. Bill is such a wimp that he has to get his mother to stop his younger brother from teasing him. (One look at these two, and Bill looks old enough to have fathered him!)

Where a lot of early exploitation films usually expend their novelty value after one screening, Reefer Madness remains a delight. Like Dwain Esper's Marihuana, this naive antique continues to tickle the funny bone after repeated viewings.

Jun 3, 2009

My Very Own Private Sgt. Pepper Revue

Yesterday, there was an amusing bit of news about how House actor Hugh Laurie had once had a pact with his friends while teenagers, to kill themselves before the age of 40, because their juvenile minds had assumed they would have accomplished all that they would've needed to do by that magic number. Needless to say, this act was not carried out, but what interested me more about this piece was the actor's final statement. Laurie, who is approaching 50, added: "You hope that your teenage self would like and forgive your 50-year-old self. It would be awful to think that they'd be ashamed and appalled - that you were a betrayal of everything they thought they'd become."

Generally, I neither report nor comment on whatever piece of celebrity piffle currently masquerades as entertainment news, but this one comes rather timely, as I too have been self-reflexive on such things. Just this morning, I had an interesting philosophical chat with a colleague, who like myself still pays his dues in the trenches awaiting the big break. His concluding statement "I really feel that the clock is ticking for me..." is one I can certainly relate to.

All of this however coincides with a post I've been meaning to write for some time this year. To coin a lyric from the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band record, "it was twenty years ago today..." where I ended perhaps the most pivotal year of my life. (I had previously alluded to this way back in my "Pasta With Mr. Pleznik" post two summers ago.)

At the age of 20, I had made the daring, but insurmountably rewarding decision to return to high school and upgrade my Grade 13. Even during my two years previously spent in the work force, there was little doubt that I wanted to pursue a career in the film industry. However, I was biding my time (while making some money in the process) to decide if this was truly what I wanted to do. No starry-eyed individual was I-- the hardships and sacrifices I would encounter were already a reality; it was simply a matter of my deciding if I was prepared to take those risks. Therefore, in September of 1988, I re-enrolled in high school, with a full course load to upgrade my marks, and however possible turned every experience I could into something integral to getting accepted into film school.

Those crazy ten months to date remain the most overwhelming, trailblazing and rewarding moments of my professional life. In addition to taking a full day of classes, all while doing full-time shift work, I still somehow found time to be in two plays, and write and direct a feature-length video... all while forging bonds and being blessed with experiences that I still continue to cherish. The fall of 1988 understandably began low-key until I gradually became immersed in the arts-theater community at school. However in those early weeks, even then I needed only to look back a few months to my previously shiftless life, and compare to the then-present, where I was re-anointed with the possibility that I could do anything, and I damn near did.

But of all the things I had the good fortune of doing that year, the one that made me was the feature-length video, The Broken Circle. This was a dramatic piece about two friends who are killed in an alcohol-related car accident, and how the tragedy affects their friends and family. We managed to get money from Citizens Against Drunk Driving (or CADD, in its popular acronym) due to its subject matter, but I completely resisted turning it into a dry educational film, and instead made a narrative in which I could also explore some of my favourite themes as a writer even then (specifically mortality and time).

What it lacked in technical expertise, continuity or experience (it was the first time I used a video camera, let alone directed anything), I feel it made up for in ambition. To be honest, I had a great storyboard in my mind of how to shoot the movie, but couldn't due to lack of equipment, improper locations, and not having the experience of course to adapt to such changes. Still, for what it is (Tigger in a china shop), it probably remains the single most rewarding thing I've done to date creatively. It played on local cable for (I'm told) two years, and the Governor General (I'm told) received a copy. Most importantly, this was the thing that helped me solidify some friendships, and of course was the catalyst to help me get into school.

So, upon leaving school in June of 1989, I felt that I had the world on a string. My future seemed secure, and in place, and I also had the brains, the drive and guts to make it a reality. Now if someone had posed the question upon me as to what my life would've been like 20 years from then, no doubt my answer would've been that I would've been married, had a couple of kids, and was some hotshot filmmaker in the city of Toronto. For all that though, not once did I have glossy dreams about making a pile of money, and not, certainly not, about working in Hollywood. My modest goals were comfort and respect.

Still, in another imagined scenario, I'd be very interested to see what the precocious younger me of 1989 would have to say about my present setting. I didn't make the great Canadian movie, I don't have any little ones running around, and now perhaps more than ever, I am filled with indecision over what to do with the rest of my life. I am not turning this post into a pity party, because I don't necessarily regret how things have changed. Instead, things opened up to new and valuable life experiences. I've happily been with a special someone for almost fourteen years, and since I've been doing this publication on the side (which thereby begat screenings, webcasting and any other way I could spread the gospel about the kind of cinema I adore), I have forged new friendships and have had valuable experiences along the way. (In fact, most of the people in my current social circle I can attribute in one way or another due to this little magazine I sporadically publish.) For this little thing which is essentially a hobby and barely a business, however I would prefer to think that people take me seriously for what I do. And if given the choice, I'd much rather be remembered for it than what pays my rent. So therefore, I don't necessarily look back on my professional life with shame and scorn. On the flip side, had I ventured down my chosen path, there is a possibility I'd be starving right now, too.

This of course brings me to my next point-- another in our philosophical conversation this morning. The older we get, the more comfortable we are in our setting, and the harder it is for us to take risks due to the increase of obligations (among other things). In my current state of mind, I wouldn't care if I showed up on a film set for the rest of my days (although I grudgingly admit it is a necessary evil for any little projects I do). I no longer wish to be that hotshot filmmaker. My current passion is in my writing, and sharing my love and knowledge of film history. The clock may be ticking, but I don't necessarily perceive that as a threat, despite our youth-obsessed culture, and despite that too much of the clock ticks by while I spend too much time thinking instead of doing, and let things become excuses for not taking the risk or exerting the ambition.

As much as our culture tells us otherwise, I really don't think that life is a race-- if you play all your cards at 25, what are you going to do for an encore? You have to learn to make the best out of your situation, and value the experiences you garner along the way. I'm not one for self-help books, but one thing of late which has helped me gain more focus than I've felt for months, is list-making. Ultimately, I ask myself three questions ("What makes me happy?" "What in my life do I hate, and how can I change it?" "What do I want?") and vow not to answer them falsely.

I don't necessarily think I've betrayed who I was twenty years ago, it's just that I've found a different set of values, and have found happiness in other unsuspected ways. If anything, I am simply restless about what new experience I want to take on. Two decades later, as certainty recedes to confusion and energy wanes to a purring lull, one could say I wouldn't have all the answers I had hoped to achieve. Instead, I am still learning to evolve.

May 29, 2009

A Cat's Pajamas Flashback

This is enough to make a grown man cry. Since Issue One, Page One of my publication eight years ago, I've seen fit to discuss "The Cat's Pajamas" at any available opportunity. Coming of age in the 1980's, "The Cat's Pajamas" was my induction into the "late late show" experience. This all-night show, broadcast from WGRZ (Buffalo's NBC affiliate), usually ran two films every night, interspersed with commentary from the affable host (and WGR weatherman) Barry Lillis. There would even be old television shows, "Our Gang" shorts, newsreels, and regular news updates from Bob Gist at News Centre 2.

Finally, someone in Cyberspace has posted a clip from this show (this one dates from 1983-- two years before I was a viewer). What strikes (and thereby endears) me most about this segment is how lo-fi it is-- very off-the-cuff (Barry stubbing out a cigarette, reading from lined paper), in a non-descript lounge area, without pretension or over-the-top delivery. It's as low-key as a late-night conversation would be, as that friend in the box is speaking to you this moment from downtown, saying "I know you're out there-- I'm here to help." All of these 25 year-old feelings of identification come flooding back in two minutes of video.

And either I had forgotten or didn't know, there was actually a Cat's Pajamas Fan Club (see Barry welcome new members!) and they gave out T-shirts! (I'm checking eBay for those!) The end credits by the way, come from the 1940 film, The Mortal Storm.

Enjoy. And if anyone out there has more Cat's Pajamas video, please make it public!

May 3, 2009

The Third Floor Drive-In: Season 5, Episode 3

Tonight's film: Ghetto Freaks (1970)

(preceded by trailers for The Pusher and The Hard Road)

It was an unusually cold night at The Third Floor Drive-In ® . We were shivering in our blankets, quivering while sipping coffee as Ghetto Freaks unspooled. As it turns out, the conditions couldn't have been more appropriate to view such a film. This hippie exploitation avoids the usual locations of sunny California in the "summer of love", and displaces the action to wintertime in Cleveland as these long-haired kids hand out pamphlets on the streets while freezing to death. The production history of this movie is as interesting as the onscreen shenanigans. This was originally titled Love Commune (and far more accurately at that), but it was re-released as Ghetto Freaks with two minutes of a silly hippie cult initiation scene, in which the African-American member of the commune . It was directed and co-written by Robert J. Emery, perhaps better-known for his later string of Florida-produced exploitation (Ride In a Pink Car was in an earlier season of The Third Floor Drive-In ® .

By the time of its release, there had been many films made about the counterculture, yet this one is one of the best-- both an exaggerated caricature and plain presentation of the hippie movement. Witnessing the sex orgy scene (with anamorphic lenses, great bad rock music and well-endowed flower children) might make you want to tune in, turn off and drop out too, but otherwise shows that hippie life isn't the soft-focus Utopia evoked by Laszlo Kovacs' lens in Psych-Out. These long-haired kids are constantly harassed by fascist cops (reminding us once and for all about the turmoil of the decade not recalled in K-Tel compilations), get bugged by gangsters wanting to push their drug cartel into the scene, and eke out a living hustling underground newspapers on the street. All fifteen of them live in one apartment, and are led by a guru named Sonny, who looks twenty years older than he ought to be (but didn't they all, in these hippie flicks?). In one amusing scene, all the kids get on one bus with the same bus pass that is circulated by handing it out the window to the next person to board the vehicle-- doesn't the bus driver notice? Among the vague linear threads of this fascinating time capsule is the burgeoning yet tragic relationship between Sonny and the newest commune member Diane, a runaway from her upper-class but ultra-conservative upbringing.

Ghetto Freaks is an interesting contradiction. On the surface it attempts to be a gritty expose, and largely succeeds thanks to Paul Rubinstein's docu-like photography (the numerous street scenes seem off-the-cuff) and the likely improvised, overlapping dialogue between the pothead protagonists. But no film with such an overlong drug-trip sex-orgy sequence can be taken as "the real thing", and it also has a strange Brechtian device a la Godard, where in one protest sequence, a film crew is clearly in view. What at first seems to be a mistake occurs again after the shocking finale- actors and crew stand around movie lights at the previous location while the credits roll, as if to say "up yours", much like the early scene where a hippie gives the viewer the peace sign and the finger in a single shot.

Are we to presume that the movie was just a big put-on? Ghetto Freaks thusly (and perhaps carelessly) raises more confusions than conclusions, but only makes this flick more thought-provoking than was intended. The cameras finally become turned upon the viewer forcing one to consider how we as a society have been portraying the movement in media. I'd be interested to know what -if any- response this perplexing picture received in its theatrical runs. People probably just wanted some sex and drugs, which it does deliver, plus a whole lot more bang for their bong.

View the groovy trailer for Ghetto Freaks here:

Apr 30, 2009

The Third Floor Drive-In: Season 5, Episode 2

Tonight's film: 10 Violent Women (1982)

(preceded by trailers for The Doll Squad and The Corpse Grinders)

Tonight, The Third Floor Drive-In ® honours the eightieth birthday of the legendary Ted V. Mikels, who has tirelessly been offering micro-budgeted genre fare for over forty years. Many of them, such as Astro Zombies or The Doll Squad have become midnight movie favourites. And God bless him, he's still at it-- as we speak, he is preparing the third installment to Astro Zombies!

And to be certain, each financially challenged project has had liabilities both technical and thespian, but more often than not he has succeeded in delivering entertaining fare. In many cases, the films have a disarmingly childlike playfulness to them despite any sordid subject matter. In honour of tonight's occasion, I felt it appropriate to give another look to 10 Violent Women. Years ago, I had submit an IMDB review, more of derision than delight, prior to my "re-appraisal" of the canon of Theodore Mikacevich and have always meant to give this one another chance.

Well in all honesty, this film bewilders me even on a second viewing. That feeling begins even with the title: there are not ten violent women- only eight! Did two ladies drop out or was the arsenal shortened due to budget cuts? Heck, even if this was called Five Violent Women, it wouldn't have hurt its box office potential.

Anyway, after a still-stupefying opening, when the girls get even with some pervert who tries to assault one of them while they're all working together in a mine (or something), these gals decide to strike out on their own, by plotting an intricate jewel robbery, and then attempt to fence the goods. One by one, the octet dwindles in numbers until the remaining few are arrested, sent to a women's prison, and plot to escape.

Presumably, the actresses in this epic came from Ted V. Mikel's fabled castle, in which he lived with ten women. And as for the acting, well, the most controlled performances ironically come from Mikels himself in a fun cameo as the criminal whom the girls try to sell the jewelry to (and gets a spiked heel in the chest for his trouble), whoever plays the kindly prison guard Miss Robbins, and the other anonymous lady who plays the traditional butch lesbian warden (in fact, she may remind you of Selma Diamond in TV's "Night Court"). As for our heroines, their thespian skills come off best when it seems that they're not rehearsing from a script in those moments of overlapping freeform dialog which suggests how comfortable these castle ladies are with one another off camera. But the overacting award goes to the effeminate jewelry store owner who should be out appearing in Andy Milligan Dinner Theater.

But still, the juvenile charm of the picture wears thin real fast. The film plods along once they get into prison, and since the movie seems to have been shot with one light, the numerous night-time exteriors and scenes in jail cells are hard to view.

Anyway, here's a trailer for tonight's movie, which in the true tradition of the drive-in, makes this tawdry exercise very enticing. That's the exploitation business for you!

Apr 28, 2009

The Third Floor Drive-In: Season Five, Episode One

Tonight's Feature: Play Misty For Me (1971)

(preceded by the Casper Cartoon "Boo Moon", and the trailer for From Noon Till Three)

Play Misty For Me is Clint Eastwood's first feature as a director, and after all these years, it remains one of his most enjoyable films, before or behind the camera. In this thriller, he plays DJ Dave Garber who hosts a groovy radio show "with a little verse, a little talk and five hours of music to be nice to each other with", who begins a casual affair with a fan who soon reveals her psychotic tendencies. We've seen the plot for this film mirrored in later pictures like The Fan or Fatal Attraction, but still for my money, this remains the best of the "psychotic admirer" franchise. And as each year passes, this little gem becomes more enjoyable, especially because Eastwood has seldom been so vulnerable onscreen, and it is hilarious to see this iconic macho man constantly befuddled by nearly every female in the cast- not just the psychotic Evelyn. He is kept in check by his old flame Tobi, and even is put in line by his cleaning lady! (And by the way, Jessica Walter is excellent as his number one fan.)

At the age of 41, Clint made a "student film" with the game energy of a precocious filmmaker a generation younger- lots of interesting camera work, ambitious visual ideas, and of course, a couple of indulgences that would become typical of his work behind the camera (need I say more than the interminable scene with the Lady Chablis in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil?) In this case, before the third act, Clint films a love scene scored by Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", which runs for the complete four minutes of the track, thusly offering more shots of waves, leaves, pull focuses and soft dissolves than you'll need. And of course, we see two acts at the Monterey Jazz Festival when one would suffice (but since the second is Cannonball Adderley playing "Country Preacher", I'm glad it's in there.

As solid as the thriller plot is, truthfully I've seen this flick a dozen times more because I like the ambiance of the coastal Carmel setting, and back in my college broadcasting days, I wanted to be Dave Garber! I really dug his bohemian lifestyle, driving along the California coast in a hot car, and spinning all that groovy music at the station. It truly is a relic of its era. (And upon seeing Dave's swinging pad, I kept wondering how much his job paid!)

It was a lovely evening at the Third Floor Drive-In. The "you-are-there" feeling was high, with the breeze blowing through the ozoner, complimenting the atmosphere onscreen.

Apr 7, 2009

Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006)

I have to admit- at first I wasn't too crazy about this movie. Not because I didn't like the music- I mean, it's Neil freaking Young, man! But this document of Neil's performance in Nashville's Ryman Auditorium (where he debuted the songs of his "Prairie Wind" album) gradually warmed me up like a ray of morning sun climbing over the horizon. What most irked me about this movie is that it felt more like an "Austin City Limits" episode than a film, with its clinical shooting style being neither obtrusive nor terribly adventurous.

However slowly, Neil Young: Heart of Gold worked its charms. By its finale, an aching rendition of "One of These Days" (after his band of old friends, including Emmylou Harris, had spent a half-hour playing some old favourites), I couldn't move. The tone of this performance is as autumnal as the yellow-brown pallettes that dominate the background: the lyrics explore themes of passing time, faded dreams, empty nest syndrome, and death (the film is dedicated to his father who passed away two months prior to filming). It's an older, wiser Neil Young onscreen this evening, and God bless him, forty years later, he's still doing his thing, with a loyal curtain of friends who have remained with him over the decades.

Ultimately, this film is about the bond that exists between its players; in the opening, his bandmates humourously reveal how they ended up with Neil all those years ago. Despite that this is the only interview footage in the movie, this document succeeds over all the other many Neil Young concert films by portraying him as a person: in between numbers, he is reflective and dryly humourous. As this movie slowly builds to its crescendo, we better understand the strong ties that keeps these musicians together, as the filmmakers become more passionate about capturing the knowing glances that are exchanged among the chords.

Where Were You on April 7th?

2009 marks a silver anniversary of sorts. It was 25 years ago, where yours truly had officially proclaimed cinema as his primary interest. As superfluous as it may sound, it was indeed January 1, 1984 where I began wearing my newfound devotion on my sleeve, commencing with logging in notebooks every movie I had seen from that date forward. In a series of Hilroy 3-ring workbooks, I would devote one line per film: its title, year of release, rating, and primary leads, all preceded by date said film was viewed... and I was adamant about using only one line per title. So on July 21 1985, when I jotted down Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, I hardly had room to fit Dustin Hoffman.

This practice was kept continuously up until some time in 1999. It is a routine I wish I still kept. Not only was writing down the title a good way to commit to memory what one has seen, but more importantly, these pages turned into a veritable diary. Over the years I had always meant to write diaries, but thank my lucky stars I didn't, for fear of them being read by others and a greater dread of reading back about whatever now-trivial problems I would have whined about in those pages all those years ago. Instead, these movie entries act as a surrogate diary, made only accessible to me, just like one should be. Each line acts as a hitching posts to a more vivid memory. Leafing back through these pages for the first time in years, it easy to recall what was going in my life at the time I had viewed whatever film. For example, a 1987 entry for a Saturday afternoon viewing of The King of Marvin Gardens helped me remember that that was the day I was caught in a flash rainstorm earlier that day while driving on Highway 3, and developed an ear infection. Okay, not a pleasant thing to remember, but you get the idea.

Since 2007, I have been writing titles of films I had viewed down in the bottom line of each day in my planner, but still have to prod myself to remember to do it. But when I flip through these old notebooks, it is interesting to see the different patterns of my viewing experiences, based upon what was made available at the time. For example, one cluster of lines would have a lot of titles I would have viewed while "Six Gun Heroes" was still on WQLN, or on CBC Saturday morning, and of course, those many entries made possible by the rich programming of "The Cat's Pajamas" on TV-2. And naturally, these thin workbooks indirectly chronicle my progression from aimless teenager to a twentysomething existentialist, from university to college, from being friendless and single to being in love... quite the epic graduation from teenage misfit to, well, adult misfit.

Let's see now, April 7....
1984: San Francisco / In Old Chicago / Stalag 17
1985: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
1986: Grand Hotel
1987: Kentucky Fried Movie / Now Voyager
1989: Bloodsucking Freaks / Maxiumum Overdrive
1990: W.C. Fields shorts / The Snake Pit / Hangover Square / Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism / The Perils of Pauline
1991: Hellzapoppin
1995: A Child is Waiting
1996: The Ten Commandments
1997: Unhook the Stars

Jan 13, 2009

Sunset Carson: Six Gun Heroes

Sunset Carson (born Winifred Maurice Harrison in 1920) had a brief career in a string of B-westerns in the latter half of 1940's, produced by Republic Pictures. After having travelled the circuit as a trick shoot artist for so many years, in 1980 he was hired by a South Carolina public television station to host the series "Six Gun Heroes", in which he would introduce a B western from the 1930's or 40's. I caught the show circa 1983-4 when Erie PA's PBS affiliate WQLN used to broadcast it on Saturday nights at, if memory serves, 7:30 PM. which would be followed by "Q Classics" (featuring a twin-bill of classic movies which would be repeated the Sunday afternoon of the following weekend). In those days, I was still trying to convince my mother that the big TV set in the living room wouldn't screw up with such newfangled gadgets as converters or VCR's, so to see anything outside of channels 2 to 13, I would ascend the stairs to the little black-and-white TV with the rabbit ears in my room to watch the show at Channel 54 on the UHF dial.

I've always loved westerns, but in this period, I was particularly ravenous for them. While early on the bar had been set for me with my adolescent viewings of For a Few Dollars More and Once Upon A Time in the West, in truth any oater, big or small would be a television event for me. CBC had periodically shown matinee westerns in the stream of RKO second features they would routinely show on Saturday mornings (those times are deserving of a post all their own), but I had not yet seen any B westerns of the "singing cowboy" variety (in which stars like Roy Rogers or Gene Autry would often play characters with their own names) until I began watching "Six Gun Heroes". Even at that young age, I was struck by how innocent these films were, as they were geared toward pre-teen boys, therefore people seldom died (or certainly not in a gratuitous fashion), and the only smooching going on would likely be with Trigger. Having already been introduced to spaghetti western nihilism at such an impressionable age, these movies appeared quaint even then, but I still appreciated their charm.

"Six Gun Heroes" ran for an hour, including Carson's wraparound segments. The films he presented usually clocked in at just under an hour on their own, so I am uncertain if the movies were trimmed to fit a broadcast schedule. The titles I can remember seeing on the show include Springtime In the Rockies and Oh Susanna, both with Gene Autry (the former was the first B western I ever saw that used automobiles; the latter featured a memorable scene where Autry lip-synchs to a phonograph record in order to get out of prison); The Vigilantes of Boomtown, with Allan "Rocky" Lane as Red Ryder (co-starring little Bobby Blake, after "Our Gang" but way before "Baretta"); and His Brother's Ghost, in which Buster Crabbe's twin brother gets murdered, and therefore poses as his brother's ghost to fight the bad guys. (The latter synopsis should tell you how much of an open mind one needed to appreciate such films). I haven't watched any of these pictures in years-- it would be fun to relive their charms all over again.

Sadly, I have no memory at all of Sunset Carson's segments as the host, other than the finale, where we would see a silhouetted image of a cowboy riding in front of a horizon at dusk, while the cheap Chyron titles rolled, and this song played (which remains in my mind a quarter century later):

"...and you ride
Into the sunset
No goodbyes
Just so long for a while."

This musical interlude may have subconsciously played a role in my faithful viewing of the program, as the lyrics encapsulate the restless wayward spirit of my youth, and why I most remember this moment from "Six Gun Heroes". This spoke to the little cowboy in me, much as the original films must have done to their audience back in the glory days of the Saturday matinee.

Bill Landis 1959 - 2008

This weekend (after a week full of obituary notices) I was shocked to hear that author Bill Landis had passed away on December 23 from a heart attack, at only 49 years of age.

Landis was a projectionist in the last glory days of New York's 42nd St. grindhouse era. Before this area was plowed over in favour of gentrification, these ancient theaters like the Rialto would unspool such sensational titles as Let Me Die a Woman, Bloodthirsty Butchers, and Farewell Uncle Tom, to name only a few. From 1980 to 1983, he published the influential fanzine Sleazoid Express, which not only documented the antics onscreen, but all of the rough trade and other deviant behaviour which went on amongst the seats. In later years, he and his wife Michelle Clifford had revised the namesake for a short run of zines which are still available on their website. And then they collaborated on a book, also entitled Sleazoid Express (seen above), with separate chapters devoted to such genres as roughies, mondo films, blaxploitation, et al, revolving around one of the crumbling moviehouses that specialized in such choice fare.

Despite that this fabled movie strip had now been overrun by druggies, prostitutes and petty thieves looking for new blood to hustle, there was still an allure for people to tread into such dangerous territory to sate their appetite for anything but antiseptic mainstream cinematic fare. Unfortunately, I haven't seen the zines, but the book offers the next best thing to having been to "The Deuce". The prose offers the viewer a visceral experience with unapologetic descriptions of such cinema sleaze, the decaying theaters that showed them, and the desperate people who filled the seats or made the films. (In fact, the style of Mr. and Mrs. Sleazoid, as they refer to themselves in the text, is not dissimilar to Jimmy McDonough's equally visceral writing that cinematically captures the lives and works of Russ Meyer and Andy Milligan- the latter gets a chapter in the Sleazoid book.)

In addition, Bill Landis also penned the superb biography, Anger, on Kenneth Anger, which similarly offers a visceral experience of the man's work, while deconstructing a lot of the myths that the filmmaker has created about himself.

Landis' sporadic legacy is absolutely essential film writing, not only because he has documented material seldom covered in mainstream press (or least, covered without a sardonic irony), but his "gonzo" approach is unique to the field, eschewing, say, Andre Bazin for Lester Bangs or Hunter S. Thompson, where the circumstances surrounding the screening is integral to the celluloid being reviewed. Rather than offering homogeneous consumer guides, his style instead offers the reader a chance to live these worlds vicariously-- a cinematic approach to reviewing a visual medium. The grindhouse experience has of course been absorbed by the mainstream, much as "The Deuce" has been replaced by Disney... distilled for mass consumption, and becoming a pale imitation of its inspiration. Instead of Bad Girls Go To Hell, it's now Snakes on a Plane. And despite many postmodern writers' attempts to lionize the genuine films after having viewed them on such a displaced medium as home video, they too pale in comparison to the pen of Bill Landis, simply because the man has lived it all. His work is an important document of a piece of renegade cinema history that is a vital part of our popular culture.

Jan 10, 2009

ESR Meets The Hepcats at Off Beat Cinema

(l-r): Bird, Maxwell, Zelda, The G-Man

In the early fall, I had a telephone interview with Eddy Dobosiewicz, otherwise known as "Maxwell Truth", the front man of the long-running late-night movie show, Off Beat Cinema, whose good vibes are transmitted from Buffalo's ABC affiliate at WKBW-TV. I had long been a fan of the show, which airs in our area Saturday night (or if you like, Sunday morning) at 2 AM. Each week, the hip beatniks named Maxwell Truth, Bird (Tony Billoni) and Zelda (Connie McEwen) introduce some way gone flick from their humble hang out The Hungry Ear Cafe, peppered with enough hip talk ("It's a mad pad, Dad") to keep an aging hepcat like me in vogue. While perhaps they're best known for showing such B-movie classics as Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster and House on Haunted Hill, the show also presents bona fide arthouse films like Breathless or The Third Man. But you don't just watch Off Beat Cinema to see a movie-- the discerning insomniac gets a whole package, including musical guests, comedy bits, trailers and shorts. Even their commercials (from regular sponsors like Curly's Bar and Grill) have a "beat" sensibility that reflects the show's ambiance.

Since its debut in 1993, Off Beat Cinema has grown from an amusing curiosity into an institution, since it has been picked up in other markets in the United States. Its arrival couldn't have been more timely, as the late-night airwaves were inundated with infomercials and chat line ads. It has become the last bastion of the "late night movie" experience, those fabled times of yore, when there was a movie on after hours instead of generic plugs for salad spinners, usually introduced by a local celebrity or TV station personality. These shows became a night light and a veritable companion for the lonely souls who were still awake. It is a delight to see OBC still going strong after fifteen years. It has become a tradition in my house- many Saturday nights would have me coming home in the wee hours, and then hitting the remote to see "what's on the beatnik movie"- and now it likely has a new generation of followers who probably weren't even born when the late show was in abundance!

Having seen OBC grow over the years (from when they used to have Mingus' "Pithecanthropus Erectus" as the theme song before David Kane and Them Jazzbeards gave the show its signature soundtrack), it had long been an ambition of mine to interview someone from the show, and never had I a better reason than for ESR's latest issue, the tribute to Late Night Television. Mr. Truth was a gracious interviewee, and as the conversation neared its close, we felt a kinship as both OBC and ESR were projects that people do secondarily-- the things we do out of love at the end of the day after we do what we must for money. At that moment, Eddy had said "We gotta get you on the show." True to his word, he followed up a couple of days later, with a message saying he was looking into some dates, and before long another message arrived, asking me how Nov. 13 was for me.

That rainy afternoon, Susan and I hopped in a rental car to Buffalo, crossing the border just after 6 PM. Our self-made tour of the city prior to the taping was a delightful contrast from The Big Smoke. It was a haunting experience to drive through the fluorescent-bathed streets in the downtown core of the city nearby the TV station, as there were hardly any people walking around. And during the numerous times we spent a moment too long at a changing traffic light to figure out where we were going, not once did I get an impatient horn honking from behind me. (Try duplicating that moment in Toronto 2.4 seconds after a green light appears.)

Upon arrival at WKBW for the 7:30 taping, the cast and crew couldn't have been any more gracious. Even the director was oddly touched by our arrival, by saying: "You came all the way down from Toronto for this?" The taping itself had lasted two hours in total. The beatniks were taping four or five inserts for their Christmas special which aired December 13. (featuring vintage TV holiday-related episodes of such things as "Ozzie and Harriet", and a long special with Liberace- including an excruciatingly long take where he introduces every one of his band members and relatives who come to his home.) WKBW has two studios- the smallest one is devoted entirely to the news desk. The second one is a huge space which holds about four or five sets, some from what I presume to be morning shows, ad well as the weatherman's screen. For historical purposes, the studio also holds two Promo the Robot costumes from the fabled kids' morning show, "Rocketship 7", and there's even a framed photo of WKBW icon Irv Weinstein ("It's 11 o'clock- do you know where your children are?") from "Dialing For Dollars." And then, in the corner, is the homey Offbeat Cinema set, which actually appears larger on television. (Hey, so does my waistline.)

The almighty Irv.

The beatniks had done three segments on their own. When they were preparing, Bird borrowed one of the Santa Claus hats I brought (and wore it throughout the show), and Maxwell asked: "Where did THAT come from?" I responded: "Toronto". And then they had me on to do the interview, talking about the publication and about the late night viewing experience, which of course pertained to the new issue. The interview was shot twice. They had used the second take for broadcast, as I presume there was more coverage and better blocking, but in truth the first take was better, more alive, with overlapping dialogue and more spontaneous. In the second take, the questions and answers were the same albeit without the off-the-cuff feel of the first, which actually befits the milieu. Upon seeing the interview the night of the broadcast, I was disappointed that they didn't put my website address onscreen during the talk despite having had me write it down for them later, but I conceded that I didn't appear that terrible on camera despite that I was shot in profile (my worst camera side).

And finally, for the end of the show, I did a bit where I have my Santa Claus hat on, and dole out presents for the beatniks. I had given each one of them copies of "The Roger Corman Scrapbook", since Corman figured so prominently on the show over the years. (In the master shot, you'll briefly see Susan reading.) They had yours truly signing off with their archetypal phrase "Keep Watching The Skies", and then we wrapped.

After we finished the coffee and packed up, Maxwell invited us to see some music with them, and had I planned to stay over in Buffalo that night, I would gladly have done so. We left Buffalo, taking a bit of the show with us, and I don't simply mean the complimentary mugs, T-shirts and DVDs. It was also the feeling of having developed a kinship, as even the technicians responded to how ESR mirrors what OBC means for them-- something you do for love on the side. I have a feeling that, to paraphrase a familiar movie line, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. In fifteen years, Offbeat Cinema has become somewhat of an institution that I hope reigns for years to come, and I would be remiss if I didn't extend our thanks to the cast and crew for allowing us to sharing a piece of it.

Yours truly and Promo The Robot from Rocketship 7.

Expozine and other Autumnal Dispatches

This guy got my vote for most creative display.

Twice in the past few years, I had signed up for Expozine in Montreal, and twice I had chickened out at the last minute. It had long been a desire of mine to attend this zine fair and spread the gospel of ESR at a new location, and partially what deterred me from going in the past were overhead costs and scheduling. But since they made the fair a two-day affair for this year (to accommodate the ever-growing number of presses), it was never a better opportunity to check the event out, and therefore I turned the excursion into a weekend-long trip. But I was also compelled to attend the show this time due to the disappointing sales I've had in 2008 at my regular venues. This could be attributed to people's frugality due to the economy or the sad notion that small press, while more prolific than ever, is dwindling from interest of the public eye, or simply, I need to find some new blood. And since it gets ever harder for me to promote and distribute ESR properly (without putting myself further in the hole), I felt that it was never a better time to expand my operation however possible.

Even now, people ask me why I don't put my stuff in stores. The simple, if perhaps no less longwinded, response to that is: I started in the zine scene way too late. In 2001, the zine world was still thriving, as desktop publishing became more prevalent in homes, and the internet hadn't yet replaced a lot of the printed material. But in short order, a lot of consignment places like Towers, review publications like Factsheet Five, and independent distros, who all were instrumental in promoting awareness of zines, had closed up shop. In the following years, film publications even more professional, and obviously more widely known, than mine have closed up shop due to financial considerations. The greater the overhead, the greater the loss. I much prefer the direct approach, where I can communicate with my customers in person, on the road and at shows. As such, I value all the more any new comrades I pick up along the way. Case in point, this fall at Canzine, when Brian Random and I had tables together, we befriended writer-musician Robert Dayton, and found quick allies in Katie Durant, who was launching the first issue of her zine, "So Bad It's Good Movies", a refreshing, irony-free pub that I hope continues to grow.

Still, I knew that this scene was waning, and wanted to stake some new ground elsewhere. Therefore, on to Montreal.....

Two consecutive traveling companions had opted out of accompanying me to Quebec due to other commitments, and so I nervously made arrangements for myself. (I sheepishly admit that I have never been to Montreal before-- one of my greatest regrets is that I did not travel when I was younger and had more time and money to do so.) Since I had was up until the wee hours the previous couple of nights printing stock for the show, most of the train ride up on the Friday was spent sleeping, but was excited to have arrived at this unfamiliar location.

My hotel (a rather no-frills, but homey establishment) was a fifteen minute walk from the fair, and despite the cold, we were blessed with sunny skies for both days, as I would leisurely explore the neighourhood on the way to and from. The architecture of my surroundings was awe-inspiring. 13 years ago, friends of mine would say that if I ever I went to Montreal, they would never get me out of there. They were 100 percent right. On the Sunday, it hurt to leave the funky bohemian location I had inhabited for two days. My hotel was right beside an excellent Vietnamese restaurant which I sampled on the Saturday night. And within a one-block radius, there were quatre depanneurs for those last-minute beer runs. Since I had more time to kill on Saturday evening, I explored the immediate neighbourhood. Perhaps it was the quiet ambience, the velvet neon, and the retro decor which was an amalgamation of historic buildings and remnants of 60's counterculture, which had strangely reminded me of downtown Hamilton at night.

Expozine is held in the basement of the Eglise Saint-Enfant-Jesus, holding a whopping 250 exhibitors over the course of two days (many vendors -including myself- set up shop the full weekend, but there were a few new faces on the Sunday). There was also room for a lunch counter (which sold beer! in a church! Eat that, Ontario!) Out of tradition at Canzine, I took my roost right in front of the stage, as DJs from a local radio station played a (forgive me) eclectic range of music over the weekend, and unlike Canzine, not at decibels so loud that we have to scream to speak to customers. After returning home and doing a count, I realized I had sold less than I thought. I don't mean this detrimentally, because traffic was constant at this show-- as far as I was concerned, there was seldom time to take breaks- whereas every other fair this year I've usually spent half the day waiting for people to arrive. Customers would customarily buy something and then chat with you for about ten minutes-- no wonder it felt like I sold more, because I was so busy.

And despite being six hours from home, I hardly felt like a stranger in a strange land. Familiar faces from Great Worm and Toronto Comic Jam were among those who travelled from the big smoke. Also, ESR was happily received by warm patrons (to my surprise, there was really no other film-related pub at the fair), and I discovered that my French wasn't too rusty (as long as people didn't speak too quickly). Although the fair went to six o'clock both days, I had to cut out an hour early on Sunday, in order to catch the train back to Toronto. It actually hurt to leave, as even one hour prior to closure, there were simply no signs of letup. I had booked a cab to pick me up at 5:15, and I just had enough time to wolf down a sub and hop on the train back to Toronto.

On the six hour ride back to the big smoke, I managed to watch three movies on my handy portable DVD player, and remarked to myself that this chunk of time was the most relaxed I had felt in ages, as being away from home or the office thusly didn't make me compelled to be doing a hundred different things. After arriving in the city at midnight, and getting home an hour later, I was still so excited that I couldn't sleep until about three in the morning, and then still had enough of a natural high to wake up (as planned) at six to head to the office for the big day I knew would be happening.

I'd gladly do it all over again in '09!

At these events, customers and exhibitors alike suffer from sensory overload, as there is simply too much stuff for sale, that we can't take it all in. For that, and for obvious financial reasons, we can only be selective. Because I was so busy, I didn't have a chance to chance and explore like I had hoped, but will report on a couple of interesting finds. I picked up a zine by Warren Hill, where every issue (filled with short stories, poetry and music reviews) comes with a mixed tape of rare 45's revolving around whatever theme surrounds that issue's big record review. But the thing I was perhaps most excited about cost me a whopping two dollars and twenty-five cents in total. These vintage "citizens band postcards" (seen below) are just the coolest thing, a refreshingly lo-fi artifact from yesteryear. God bless the underground.