Wednesday, May 21, 2014
1902. The golden days of the "old west" are dead (if, in fact, they ever existed). The Industrial Revolution is well underway. In the mountains of Washington state is a shantytown centered around a filthy saloon/hotel, where the snow and mud never seems to end. This is where the title characters meet, opportunistic John McCabe and seasoned professional whore Constance Miller, surrounded by bearded men who haven't seen in a bath in months and a trio of hookers with little experience and even less sex appeal. This is a western? A mere two years after Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (both 1969), it's not surprising that Warner Brothers not only balked when distinctive director Robert Altman delivered his final cut, but had no idea how to market this genre-defying oddity. Naturally it did poor business. The years have been kind, however, to McCabe & Mrs. Miller. As in many Altman films, the overlapping dialogue and lack of discernible storyline take some getting used to at first, but patience will be rewarded with a film virtually like no other.
Altman gives us the barest of storylines: McCabe comes into the filthy mountain town, establishing himself as a fabled gunfighter and a skilled card shark before setting up a piss-poor excuse for a whorehouse. After riding the girls into town (juxtaposed with a cross being erected at the top of the newly built church), the women set up shop in outdoor tents; one goes nuts and tries to stab a john to death. Enter Mrs. Miller, a British import with vast experience in the cathouse game, who partners with McCabe to build a bigger, better house of pleasure for the town's men. This all threatens to fall apart when a mining company makes an offer to buy McCabe's share of the town, an offer he refuses at his peril, as the company is known for hiring professional gunmen to plug a bullet into anyone they can't reason with. This synopsis makes McCabe sound far more intricately plotted than it really is. The dialogue is tough and memorable, the characters complex and sharply drawn, but story is secondary to mood and atmosphere, captured splendidly in the film's isolated Canadian wilderness locations. Imagine Altman's M*A*S*H* in the early 20th-century in the dying west, minus the gallows humor, and you have a pretty fair idea of what to expect from this film. Altman cast one of Hollywood's most handsome leading men, Warren Beatty, in a role that is perhaps his best work, and Julie Christie gives a mesmerizing performance that shows off quite a bit of range, earning an Oscar nomination in the process. The cast includes a number of Altman favorite regulars, including Shelley Duvall, Michael Murphy, Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, John Schuck, Corey Fischer, Hugh Millais (perfection as the smarmy killer), and Bert Remsen.
Judging by the number of walk-outs during the film at today's screening, it might be safe to say that this unusual Altman film is still a polarizing work and not the established masterpiece we film folk rightly believe it to be. It is barely a western, even in superficial terms, taking place in a locale several hundred miles north of the usual genre locations; the climax of the film takes place amidst swirling snow. Our protagonist is not much of a hero, or an anti-hero for that matter, and his heroine transforms from strong-willed business partner to uneasy drug addict. Both of them are at their lowest points by the finale. But that's what makes McCabe so interesting. Besides the gob-smacking visual style courtesy of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, its deconstruction of western mythos makes it perhaps the most original revisionist western of the 1970s. There are nods to genre film classics that may be easy to overlook amidst all the grime and discomfort. As in The Gunfighter, among others, McCabe is presented as a man with a past he's trying to leave behind. This past turns out to be pure folklore. As in High Noon, no one helps McCabe duke it out with the assassins sent to take him out, but to be fair, they're a little occupied trying to put out a fire that threatens to destroy the town church. The town forges on without him, making his survival by the end credits vastly unimportant. Business will continue as usual without him, leaving him behind in the wake of "progress". The film's most gut-wrenching scene actually recalls a pretty consistent western trope, wherein a naive young man is tricked into pulling out his gun, then shot in cold blood for sport. That is the best of many scenes that will stick with you once the credits roll.
Adding another love-it or hate-it element to the film is the score by Leonard Cohen, made up of acoustic folk songs with lyrics that sound improvised on the spot, with a kind of rambling weariness that fits in perfectly with the rundown atmosphere of the film. While watching the film, I was reminded of the unusual scrubbed-clean musical western Paint Your Wagon from two years previous. There are obvious similarities in characterizations and narrative elements, but McCabe is without doubt much more interested in brutal realism over genre escapism.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is showing twice more this week, Thursday and Friday at 1:30 in MoMA's Theater 3. See it!
Friday, May 9, 2014
Orson Welles may be the only classic Hollywood auteur who has a following for what he almost accomplished. The man was seemingly incapable of delivering a complete masterpiece, full of false starts and moments of genius in films unfortunately damaged by his massive ego. Even Citizen Kane is not the perfect film as many claim, though it is certainly his best. Witness Othello, a film that took three years to complete yet still feels rushed in many spots. Welles' connections to Shakespeare went back to his youthful theatrical days, when he was mounting an all-black production of "Macbeth" (where Welles, as an understudy, first performed in blackface, as he does here) and a fascist Italy variation of "Julius Caesar". There are moments of that rebellious Welles to be found in this troubled production, even if you sometimes blink and miss them. The most noteworthy must be his re-imagining of the Cassio assassination attempt, now set in a bathhouse due to a costuming snafu leaving the production without the proper attire for the sequence. Welles, in a moment of creative innovation, clad his actors in towels and carried on with the shoot. Time is money. The entire production history was recounted in star Michael MacLiammoir's book "Put Money in Thy Purse". If it's anything like his performance of Iago, it must be sinfully good, campy reading.
Whatever misgivings there are about this film, it remains the best screen version of Shakespeare's tale of treachery and marital jealousy, which ultimately says more about the other lackluster approaches to the material. Its ragged production history shows, especially in bewildering editing choices that would make Doris Wishman blush in embarrassment and unfortunate post-dubbing that will look familiar to fans of low-budget Italian exploitation films. But emerging triumphant through the production errors are the sterling performances of Welles as Othello, bold and bombastic as the role should be played; MacLiammoir, slimy and reptilian, holding a little dog as a Bond villain would stroke his cat; Robert Coote, the perfect simpleton Roderigo. The right actors reciting Shakespeare's prose makes all the difference in the appreciation of the work. Where the film soars and everything works is the final act, including the bedroom scene between Othello and Desdemona. The suspense is palpable, the lighting moody, the editing taut. It makes one wonder why Welles never attempted to make a pure horror film. This surely is the mood and scene delivery Shakespeare dreamed of when the bard envisioned the original play. The wonderful Fay Compton, familiar from so many Hollywood film character roles, is given her chance to shine in the final act as Desdemona's maid, Emilia.
Welles' Othello is a fascinating mess, with flaws aplenty that actually contribute to its charm and appeal. The dubbing, often teased by critics, gives the whole affair a distinctive otherworldly ambiance, and some of the awkward editing beneficially amps up the pacing. Especially worth noting, the cinematography is a startling thing of beauty, capturing the gorgeous sets and scenery in a lavish and cost-effective way. Any other shortcomings are very easy to overlook when they're presented in such pretty wrapping paper. And I have to give Welles all the credit in the world for doing what often feels impossible in movieland: making something cinematic and captivating out of traditionally stage-bound Shakespeare plays. Very few films are able to pull this off. Welles' Othello certainly does. The film is currently touring the US in a new restored version courtesy of Carlotta Films. You should go out of your way to experience what all the fuss is about. I imagine you will be pleasantly surprised. See it.
Playing at Film Forum is a little film from Poland called IDA, which is doing the nigh impossible. Through quiet, thoughtful observations of two women from a family destroyed by the Holocaust, it approaches the historical tragedy from a very different perspective, disquieting because of what it doesn't show or say but what is often left unspoken. Writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski chooses his words carefully, or abandons them altogether, as he follows the mismatched pair through small villages and cold forests on a quest for the truth behind a painful family secret.
Shot in stark black and white, IDA perfectly captures the bleak hopelessness of Communist Eastern Europe as it existed for decades and in some cases still endures if you go off the beaten path in former Soviet satellite nations. The atmosphere is still permeated with the aura of tragic recovery that this film vividly captures so well. The sky is perpetually overcast, the landscapes barren and forboding. The cities are largely empty, reminders of the previous generations extinguished decades previously. Photographed primarily in motionless single shots, the film at times resembles a series of aged snapshots of a time long past. The unpaved roads, the jazz band (the genre became very popular in Soviet Europe), the suspicious citizens, it's all so eerily accurate. And what of these women? The title character, Ida (or Anna, her adoptive name), is discovering the truth of her identity after being raised and nurtured into a life of nunnery in a convent. In the first scene, she learns she is in fact not an orphan and has one surviving relative, an aunt named Wanda. The mother superior insists that Anna visit Wanda and stay with her as long as she needs before taking her final vows. Their first encounter is awkward, almost confrontational. Wanda reveals that Anna is in fact named Ida, and she is Jewish, the sole descendant of a family exterminated during the war. Wanda has become a Soviet judge, sentencing enemies of the state to death, but seeing her niece, who is a dead ringer for her deceased mother, brings back vivid memories of her lost family and an important crime whose culprits she has never brought to justice.
First-time actress Agata Trzebuchowska is appropriately angelic and curious for the role, and makes a large impression with those deep searching eyes, but it is the cast's other Agata, Agata Kulesza, who runs away with the film as Wanda. Her character is sardonic, bitter, driven by anger and self-hatred, and absolutely captivating throughout all of her moods. Kulesza has won two Best Actress awards on the festival circuit and in a more just world she would be in the running for an Oscar. It's one of the most moving performances you'll see this year.
I'm positive that the ending of the film will divide viewers down the middle. Personally I hope to see the film again soon to catch the nuances and moments I may have missed, and to re-evaluate how I feel about the paths of Wanda and Ida by the rolling of the credits. The fact that you will keep thinking about this film days later is a testament to its very effective dramatic power. There is a narrative moment involving a stained glass window that left me breathless. Cutting through many other releases of grander scope and scale, IDA has quickly vaulted to the front of my list of favorite films of the year. See it.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Presenting a report on my New York City theatrical experiences in the calendar year of 2013.
Top 10 Repertory Experiences of 2013:
Note: I am not counting the "In the Flesh" series because of personal involvement. Otherwise it would have obviously been #1 :D
10. Mods Go to the Movies: Scopitones! (Anthology Film Archives)
9. Son of Summer Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: Jason and the Argonauts w/ The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Thing from Another World w/ It! The Terror from Beyond Space, Strait-Jacket w/ Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Things to Come w/ Just Imagine, Alien, Aliens, Curse of the Demon w/ Cat People (Film Forum)
8. Allan Dwan: While Paris Sleeps, One Mile from Heaven, Trail of the Vigilantes, Woman They Almost Lynched (Museum of Modern Art)
7. Sidewalk Stories (Film Forum)
6. Wild at Heart (BAM Cinematek)
5. That's Sexploitation!: A Smell of Honey a Swallow of Brine, Double Agent 73, The Pickup (Anthology Film Archives)
4. Yasujiro Ozu: An Inn in Tokyo, The Only Son, The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, What Did the Lady Forget?, The Munekata Sisters, A Hen in the Wind (Film Forum)
3. Antoine and Antoinette (Film Forum)
2. The Glandscape Artist - Russ Meyer: Mudhoney, Vixen!, Supervixens, Motor Psycho, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill, Blacksnake (Anthology Film Archives)
1. 20th Century Fox Classics: 3 Women, Valley of the Dolls, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (Walter Reade)
Film Forum and Anthology Film Archives once again tie for me as the best repertory theaters of 2013.
Movies by Theater:
Those marked in red were bad experiences due to patrons, print issues, or the movie itself.
Those marked in gold were among the best/most memorable experiences I had in 2013.
AMC Loews 7 (2)
May 14 - Mud (2012)
Aug 2 - The Conjuring (2013)
Angelika Film Center (13)
March 18 - No (2012)
March 19 - Ginger and Rosa (2012)
March 19 - Koch (2012)
May 8 - What Maisie Knew (2012)
May 8 - Renoir (2012)
May 10 - Stories We Tell (2012)
May 29 - We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013)
June 19 - 20 Feet from Stardom (2013)
June 27 - Before Midnight (2013)
June 29 - The Attack (2012)
July 24 - Only God Forgives (2013)
Aug. 1 - Blue Jasmine (2013)
Sept. 26 - Enough Said (2013)
Anthology Film Archives (28)
May 14 - Overdue: Delmer Daves: The Red House (1947)
May 14 - Overdue: Delmer Daves: Cowboy (1958)
May 16 - Overdue: Delmer Daves: The Last Wagon (1956)
June 6 - Unessential Cinema: Really Bad Prints
July 11 - Unessential Cinema: United Artists Theaters Training Videos
Aug. 3 - Mods Go to the Movies: Scopitones!
Aug. 3 - Mods Go to the Movies: Having a Wild Weekend (1965)
Aug. 5 - Mods Go to the Movies: Just for Fun (1963)
Aug. 16 - The Glandscape Artist - Russ Meyer: Mudhoney (1965)
Aug. 17 - The Glandscape Artist - Russ Meyer: Vixen (1968)
Aug. 17 - The Glandscape Artist - Russ Meyer: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
Aug. 17 - The Glandscape Artist - Russ Meyer: Supervixens (1975)
Aug. 18 - The Glandscape Artist - Russ Meyer: Motor Psycho (1965)
Aug. 18 - The Glandscape Artist - Russ Meyer: Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill (1965)
Aug. 21 - That's Sexploitation!: That's Sexploitation! (2013)
Aug. 21 - That's Sexploitation!: A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine (1967)
Aug. 22 - The Glandscape Artist - Russ Meyer: Blacksnake! (1973)
Aug. 27 - That's Sexploitation!: Street Corner (1948)
Aug. 27 - That's Sexploitation!: Olga's House of Shame (1964)
Aug. 28 - That's Sexploitation!: Let Me Die a Woman (1978)
Aug. 28 - That's Sexploitation!: Double Agent 73 (1974)
Aug. 29 - That's Sexploitation!: Hot-Blooded Woman (1965)
Aug. 29 - That's Sexploitation!: The Pickup (1969)
Nov. 12 - The Gilgo Beach Murders (2013)
Dec. 5 - In the Flesh: High Rise (1973)
Dec. 6 - In the Flesh: Through the Looking Glass (1976)
Dec. 7 - In the Flesh: Take Off (1978)
Dec. 8 - In the Flesh: Wanda Whips Wall Street (1981)
BAM Cinematek (1)
May 11 - Booed at Cannes: Wild at Heart (1990)
Chelsea Clearview (2)
Aug. 8 - Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) w/ Hedda Lettuce
Aug. 9 - The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Cinema Village (4)
Aug. 3 - Fill the Void (2012)
Aug. 12 - The Hunt (2012)
Aug. 14 - The Machine Which Makes Things Disappear (2012)
Aug. 27 - Blackfish (2013)
City Cinemas Village East (4)
May 12 - The Sapphires (2012)
May 12 - The Painting (2011)
July 30 - Fruitvale Station (2013)
Aug. 31 - We're the Millers (2013)
Film Forum (51)
March 18 - M (1931)
May 7 - Voyage to Italy (1954)
May 9 - Post Tenebras Lux (2012)
June 10 - Yasujiro Ozu: The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952)
June 13 - Yasujiro Ozu: An Inn in Tokyo (1935) & The Only Son (1936)
June 20 - Yasujiro Ozu: The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941) & What Did the Lady Forget? (1937)
June 24 - Yasujiro Ozu: The Munekata Sisters (1950)
June 27 - Yasujiro Ozu: A Hen in the Wind (1948)
Aug. 9 - Intolerance (1916)
Aug. 9 - Son of Summer Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Aug. 13 - Son of Summer Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: Jason and the Argonauts (1963) & The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
Aug. 14 - Son of Summer Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: Kronos (1957) & Invaders from Mars (1953)
Aug. 15 - Son of Summer Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: The Thing from Another World (1951) & It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958)
Aug. 16 - Son of Summer Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: Mothra (1962) & Gojira (1954)
Aug. 18 - Son of Summer Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: The Mad Magician (1954) in 3-D! w/ Spooks (1953)
Aug. 18 - Son of Summer Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: The Tingler (1958) & Homicidal (1961)
Aug. 20 - Son of Summer Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) & First Men in the Moon (1964)
Aug. 21 - Son of Summer Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: It Conquered the World (1956) & I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)
Aug. 22 - Son of Summer Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: Strait Jacket (1964) & What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Aug. 27 - Son of Summer Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) & Mysterious Island (1961)
Aug. 28 - Son of Summer Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: Things to Come (1936) & Just Imagine (1930)
Aug. 31 - Alien (1979)
Aug. 31 - Son of Summer Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: The Howling (1981)
Sep. 1 - Son of Summer, Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: Quatermass and the Pit (1968) & Village of the Damned (1960)
Sep. 3 - Aliens (1986)
Sep. 3 - Son of Summer, Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) & It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
Sep. 5 - Son of Summer, Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror: Curse of the Demon (1957) & Cat People (1942)
Sep. 6 - Contempt (1963)
Sept. 27 - Antoine and Antoinette (1947)
Nov. 12 - The Freshman (1925)
Nov. 12 - Sidewalk Stories (1989)
Dec. 4 - Sandra (1965)
Dec. 4 - Mauvais Sang (1986)
Dec. 6 - Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman (1931)
Dec. 7 - Stanwyck: Double Indemnity (1944)
IFC Center (21)
March 20 - 56 Up (2012)
May 7 - The Source Family (2012)
May 9 - Room 237 (2012)
May 11 - From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
May 14 - Portrait of Jason (1967)
May 18 - Frances Ha (2012) x5
June 4 - Performance (1970)
June 8 - Dirty Wars (2013)
June 21 - Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
July 12 - Crystal Fairy (2013)
Aug. 11 - The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Aug. 11 - Zipper: Coney Island's Last Ride (2012)
Aug. 16 - The Swarm (1978)
Aug. 20 - This is Martin Bonner (2012)
Aug. 30 - Passion (2012)
Aug. 31 - Our Nixon (2013)
Sept. 27 - The Wicker Man: The Final Cut (1973)
Landmark Sunshine (7)
May 16 - In the House (2012)
May 16 - Sightseers (2012)
June 6 - Shadow Dancer (2012)
July 11 - I'm So Excited (2013)
Aug. 29 - Short Term 12 (2013)
Aug. 29 - The Spectacular Now (2013)
Aug. 30 - In a World... (2013)
Lincoln Center (Walter Reade) (3)
Aug. 10 - Fasten Your Seatbelts (Part 2): 20th Century Fox: 3 Women (1977)
Aug. 10 - Fasten Your Seatbelts (Part 2): 20th Century Fox: Valley of the Dolls (1967)
Aug. 15 - Fasten Your Seatbelts (Part 2): 20th Century Fox: Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974)
Museum of Modern Art (22)
May 10 - An Auteurist History of Film: The Cry (1957)
May 15 - An Auteurist History of Film: Les Cousins (1959)
May 15 - Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions: Old Dog (2011)
May 20 - Celeste Bartos: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
June 6 - An Auteurist History of Film: The 400 Blows (1959)
June 8 - Allan Dwan: Man to Man (1930)
June 8 - Allan Dwan: The Half-Breed (1916) & A Modern Musketeer (1917)
June 9 - Allan Dwan: Chances (1931)
June 9 - Allan Dwan: The Mother of the Ranch (1911) & David Harum (1915)
June 12 - Allan Dwan: One Mile from Heaven (1937)
June 12 - Allan Dwan: Zaza (1923)
June 15 - Allan Dwan: While Paris Sleeps (1932)
June 21 - Allan Dwan: Trail of the Vigilantes (1940)
June 22 - Allan Dwan: Wicked (1931) & 15 Maiden Lane (1936)
June 23 - Allan Dwan: Rendezvous with Annie (1946)
June 24 - Allan Dwan: Woman They Almost Lynched (1953)
June 27 - Allan Dwan: Friendly Enemies (1942)
June 29 - Allan Dwan: The Restless Breed (1957)
Aug. 1 - An Auteurist History of Film: A Woman is a Woman (1961)
Museum of the Moving Image (1)
Sep. 1 - Fun City: Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Nitehawk Cinema (1)
Dec. 7 - Black Christmas (1973)
Quad Cinema (1)
June 10 - Evocateur: The Morton Downey, Jr. Movie (2012)
It happened. An opportunity presented itself and I grabbed it. Anthology Film Archives, home of some of the edgiest film programming in New York City, gave this untested programmer the chance to put together a festival of adult films. Working together with Steven Morowitz at Distribpix, home of the four films screened from 35mm prints, and Joe Rubin of Vinegar Syndrome, we all put on a show from Thursday through Sunday, giving away prizes for answers to trivia questions, including trailer reels before every film, and conducting Q&A's with special guests involved with the productions. It was simultaneously thrilling, nerve-wracking, and fascinating.
The first film, on Thursday night, was 1972's High Rise, the only adult film from the late Danny Steinmann. Steinmann passed away in late 2012, but the most enduring aspect of the film is its original score by prolific composer Jack Urbont. Remembering I had spoken with him about the film a few years ago with positive results, I invited him to join us as our special guest. He hadn't actually listened to the score in some time, so watching the whole film (which sometimes works as a series of music videos for his varied and intricately produced score) proved to be quite the experience for him. Jack sat down with me for a Q&A and detailed his incredible career, from Broadway to commercial jingles (Bumblebee Tuna) to soap opera themes ("General Hospital"), which helped drive home the fact that the film's soundtrack benefited from a professional composer with a strong musical background and an ear for catchy hooks. The stellar 16-minute version of the theme song, playing over a lengthy "aw-gee" sequence, even made him ask himself how he actually wrote and recorded it all. Most moving was his revelation that the violin solo during an artistic lesbian scene was performed by his father.
Second in the series was Through the Looking Glass (1976), a psychological horror masterpiece from Jonas Middleton, who only made three adult films. This, his last, is his best. Middleton has given few interviews over the years and to my knowledge had never appeared in public with his film, so approaching him was a rather difficult idea to get my head around. I managed to find an e-mail address for him and Steve Morowitz worked out all the arrangements for him to attend the screening, his first time greeting the film's audience in-person and answering the many questions posed about his work. This screening proved to be the one with the largest audience, most likely due to the film's crossover appeal to horror fans. Middleton hadn't seen the film in quite some time, and he told me after the screening that it had deeply disturbed him. My Q&A with him delved deeper into his motivations in making the film, revealing personal philosophies regarding religion and female sexuality, the films and directors that inspired him, and memories of the film's stars, including the luminous Catherine Burgess, brooding Jamie Gillis, and promising child actress Laura Nicholson. Middleton's preference is for the soft version of the film, and I can say without even seeing it that I'd probably agree. The feature works because of its disturbing narrative and visual flourishes, the performances of the cast and the swirling score, and the sex has always been a distraction for me.
The late Armand Weston's Take Off (1978) is, frankly, a film I was concerned about regarding audience reaction. Its length is sometimes seen as a frustrating thing; 103 minutes is epic for an adult film. To my delighted surprise, it had the best laugh responses of all the comedies in the series. The audience also included a number of familiar old-time movie fans from the repertory scene in NYC that stayed through the whole film, laughed along with the jokes and gags, and stayed for the Q&A with the film's still photographer, Larry Revene. Larry was someone I approached from the get-go to be a part of the series, and I think we both had a tremendous time on both nights he appeared. His Q&A revealed some famous names and faces in the film, a cameo by renowned sexploitation distributor Sam Lake, set stories of Armand Weston and Daria Price, memories of Wade Nichols and Leslie Bovee, and was enlivened by the surprise cameos of cast and crew members rising from their seats to say hi! We were also blessed with the presence of illustrious adult film legend Carter Stevens in the audience.
Closing night featured a screening of Wanda Whips Wall Street (1981), Larry's wonderful comedy about corporate espionage, female-style. The film's star, Veronica Hart, surprised us all by flying in from the west coast to join Larry for a Q&A that turned into a merry remembrance of Chuck Vincent before morphing into a dramatic monologue by actor Scott Baker, reading from Larry's marvelous memoirs. In addition to our special guests, we had a number of adult film writers and performers in the audience as well, cheering on Larry and reuniting under one roof after, in some cases, a long time apart. Reactions to the event were overwhelmingly positive, a good time had by all, and I couldn't be happier! Seeing so many familiar faces immediately got me thinking how we could involve them in future series, what films they were in, if prints were available, etc. It felt to many like a class reunion, and illustrated very well the family atmosphere that developed around both cast and crew within the golden age industry.
Other than a hiccup with the Take Off print (repeating two scenes after a reel change), all the prints were surprisingly good considering the track record of adult film prints being projected into oblivion over the years. Fading, debris, skips, and grease marks were to be expected, and did not detract from the experience of seeing the films on 35mm.
Something I decided to do to make the screenings a little more special for the guests and the people involved with production was send professional invitations to all surviving cast and crew in the tri-state area that I could find, which could be turned in at the box office for free admission for two. Having access to the Distribpix archive helped, and I had accumulated contact info for others over the years. Steve Morowitz helped me design them and I got them all printed out and mailed in slick envelopes. Some came back in the mail, and I received a few RSVP's from people who were either excited to attend or couldn't attend because any publicity surrounding their appearances would result in termination from their jobs. It's still that kind of a world we live in, folks, where appearing in or working on an X-rated film decades ago will be held against you. Because the invites were intended to make it easier for cast and crew to attend discreetly, I won't reveal who did attend, and the series has a permanent policy about surprise guest audience members: what happens at "In the Flesh" stays at "In the Flesh". I will say that it was great to see so many people who hadn't seen each other in 30 or more years reconnecting after the screenings. Many of them hadn't ever seen their finished work on-screen, let alone an appreciative audience reaction. That was a very touching experience, to see these talented people before the screening and then hear how much they enjoyed themselves after, especially because of my concern about their possible outrage. The series is all about reviving these films and appreciating the people who made them, and including as many people involved with the productions as possible made it even more of a celebration. For those who were invited and didn't attend, perhaps positive word of mouth about the series may convince them to reconsider in the future?
So many people to thank for the series being such a success! The guests (Jack Urbont, Jonas Middleton, Larry Revene, Veronica Hart), the audience (so many people attended all four nights), the venue (Anthology Film Archives), the sponsors (Steve Morowitz at Distribpix, Joe Rubin at Vinegar Syndrome). My friends for turning out in support, the staff of Anthology for accommodating us, the New York Post, Wall Street Journal, and other news/media outlets that helped promote the screenings, the cast and crew members who joined the celebration of their work and the golden age in general. Our next installment will be four "porn noir's" in March. Here's hoping it's just as much fun as this was!
Saturday, August 10, 2013
I don't enjoy seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show on the big screen. There, I've said it. At one point, it was a fun experience bringing "virgin" friends, but that was long ago. These days, I prefer to enjoy the film at home, on DVD, far from the hurled insult humor and juvenile and sexualized cast re-enactments. Because believe it or not, despite its reputation as a bad movie deserving of this midnight treatment (even among its fervent followers), Jim Sharman's colorful melange of perverted horror movie in-jokes and outrageous musical numbers is a well-made and truly marvelous genre-blending, gender-bending classic. Initially conceived as a stage musical by British actor-songwriter Richard O'Brien (who also plays Riff Raff), both O'Brien and Sharman, as well as original cast members Tim Curry, Little Nell Campbell, and Patricia Quinn, made the transition from stage to screen with the support of producer Lou Adler and 20th Century-Fox.
To recap the story of Rocky Horror Picture Show (hereafter shortened to RHPS): Brad and Janet, a conservative couple from Denton, Ohio, find a road journey cut short by a flat tire. They walk through the rain to a mysterious castle, where butler Riff Raff and maid Magenta introduce them to Dr. Frank N. Furter, a tranvestite mad doctor who has created life itself in the form of muscle man Rocky. Frank's former lovers Columbia and Eddie are thrown into the mix, and so is Dr. Scott, a wheelchair-bound scientist who tries to save Brad and Janet from Frank's dastardly plans. The storyline actually becomes far more complex than expected, but it's all part of the fun.
I will be bold here: anyone who continues to assert that RHPS is a bad movie is ignorant. All of the humor is intentional, and it works. In the end, RHPS is a cheeky spoof of a multitude of B-movies, from the "old dark house" genre to This Island Earth, with a generous splash of twisted sexuality that has no doubt contributed to the film's following. The songs are killer, with the "Time Warp" trying to introduce a new dance craze, "Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me" singing the praises of abandoning chastity for balls-to-the-wall sluttiness, and "Sweet Transvestite" the perfect introductory number for the outrageous Frank N. Furter. I've always had a soft spot for "I'm Going Home", Frank's swan song, but there really isn't a dud in the bunch. Even the songs usually omitted from soundtrack albums, Rocky's "The Sword of Damocles" and the ensemble piece "Planet, Schmanet, Janet", are superb.
You can't even fault the film for technical flaws. Beautifully shot, nicely edited, and with an ever-impressive set design, this is not some cheap-jack production, or if it was, it surely doesn't like to show it. The mostly British cast is of course highlighted by Tim Curry as Frank, in a performance that in a more liberal year should have won him a Best Actor Oscar nomination. He's just that good. Visiting Americans Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon equip themselves very well within the campy proceedings, with Sarandon especially fun as the corrupted innocent Janet, and rocker Meat Loaf makes a brief but strong impression as Elvis-wannabe biker Eddie. His song "Hot Patootie" is nothing short of spectacular.
Many have continued to say that RHPS is the original cult film, or the ultimate cult film. Well, if a film enters the mainstream and is loved or enjoyed by just about everybody...that cult seems to have transformed into a religion, or at the very least ceased to be a cult. Everyone knows about the midnight screenings and it's a rite of passage for many young people getting in touch with their sexuality or just hoping to fit in. In my opinion, to continue to be a cult film, there should be resistance to it from the general movie-going public while it is embraced by a minority of followers. No one resists RHPS anymore. It's part of the pop culture lexicon.
Your enjoyment of seeing RHPS with cast re-enactment and audience participation entirely depends on two things: the cast and the audience. Truth be told, both will likely be filled with high school and college drama and/or improv students who, desperate for attention, enjoy being loud and in the spotlight. This is part of the problem. The youthful reverie of contemporary RHPS screenings surely cannot be what they originally were like in the 70s and 80s, when the tradition began. There is almost non-stop yelling at the screen of mostly unfunny barbs at the expense of the cast and the film, with some tasteless pop culture nods tossed in for topicality. Some jokes land, most just seem childish and desperate. There are just as many inside jokes between cast members and recurring audience members, which don't add to the "fun" at all. Was it always like this? I always leave RHPS screenings with a splitting headache. This also begs the question: what is the purpose of making fun of a comedy or a spoof? All the laughs are right there on the screen. Perhaps it's a desire to interact with or contribute to the humor within the film, but I don't think that's the case with the RHPS audiences.
It's interesting to note how the Rocky Horror revelers intensely dislike the film's sequel, Shock Treatment (1981). This may be one of the most underrated and unfairly maligned sequels in film history. In many ways, it surpasses the original with its humor, and the score is equal to, if not better than, the RHPS score. However, perhaps it's best that it remain a true cult film, enjoyed by a select few. I imagine it would suffer the same cruel fate as its predecessor if the midnight movie crowd got a hold of it.
Monday, August 5, 2013
Over the years, it has just become a common assumption that any British Invasion rock group vehicle movie released in the wake of A Hard Day's Night (1964) is terrible. This must stem from one simple fact: none of these bands are the Beatles, so both their music and their movies shouldn't logically hold a candle to those of the Fab Four. Perhaps after all these years, it's time to re-evaluate the band vehicle genre without comparing all of its films to Hard Day's Night and Help! (1965). Yes, even though Herman's Hermits are kinda ridiculous as a band, their star vehicles Hold On! (1966) and Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter (1968) are not at all terrible. Cliff Richard and the Shadows, who never really hit big over here, still do not disappoint with Finders Keepers (1966). At this rate, I'd be willing to bet that even...ugh...Freddie and the Dreamers aren't so bad in Seaside Swingers (1965) and Gerry and the Pacemakers' Ferry Cross the Mersey (1965) couldn't be as disappointing as one expects (by the way, when will these see the light of day?).
Continuing this surprising pattern, Having a Wild Weekend (1965; also released as Catch Us if You Can), the Dave Clark Five's star vehicle, is an unexpected delight. To begin with, the band members doesn't play themselves. The quintet is a stunt team working on an advertising campaign for the meat industry of Britain, which is using perky blonde Dinah (Barbara Ferris) as its poster child. When Steve (Dave Clark) and Dinah have had enough of the ad game, they take off from a commercial shoot in a rented car and make plans to escape to an island Dinah is considering buying for the weekend. Along the way, they are pursued by the ad company president's henchmen and encounter a group of pre-hippie burnouts, a lecherous middle-aged couple who whisks them and the other four stuntmen to a costume party, and an enterprising farmer attempting to turn his sprawling home on the Moors into a wild west-themed tourist trap.
Directed by a pre-Hollywood John Boorman and photographed by the superb Manny Wynn, Having a Wild Weekend looks great and actually plays like a dramatic road movie more than a musical or a comedy. In fact, the film only really stumbles when Boorman attempts to turn it into a comedy, with a poorly blocked and edited slapstick chase scene taking the honors as the film's worst moment. Even the title is slightly misleading: the entire film is spent trying to get to Dinah's island for said weekend, but in fact the "wild weekend" is the journey itself, as the youthful semi-romantic couple shuns elder authority figures and attempts to renew their love of life. In fact, for a rock vehicle film, it's shocking what little rock there is to be found here. There are no musical numbers in the film, and there are a mere 4-5 Dave Clark Five songs heard on the entire soundtrack, most repeated throughout. The group spends very little time together, as Dave Clark is pushed into the starring role, relegating his four band mates to the background. They're practically comic relief while Clark plays an early version of the angry young man archetype found in late-60s films. Clark's brooding and handsome act is very believable, and he probably could have successfully pursued an acting career if he'd wanted to. Barbara Ferris, so good in a variety of projects like Sparrows Can't Sing (1963), Children of the Damned (1964), and Bitter Harvest (1963), is quite excellent as the girl with more going on behind that pretty face. It's also a nice surprise to spot some interesting cast members, including an uncredited Sheila Fearn as one of the teenage dropouts, the unusual-looking Yootha Joyce as Nan, the upper-class wife drooling over Steve, and comic character actor Robin Bailey as Guy, her husband attempting to seduce Dinah with his vintage movie memorabilia. Remind me to try that trick sometime.
Now, quite different from the rock group vehicle film is the 60s rock musical genre. Films in the latter group feature a number of different performers and groups in musical numbers, most often tied together with some semblance of a plot. The best of this genre is arguably The TAMI Show (1964), which is just one performance after another by superstars like The Supremes, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, and The Beach Boys, among others (Marvin Gaye, Jan and Dean, The Barbarians, The Blossoms, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, etc.). Its follow-up, The Big TNT Show (1966), with Ray Charles, The Byrds, Ike and Tina Turner, Bo Diddley, The Ronettes, and many others, is also killer. But rock musicals seem to have been kickstarted as far back as the 1950s by Sam Katzman, who produced a number of twist and rock cash-in films for Columbia (1956's Rock Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Rock, 1961's Twist Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Twist). The incredible number of rock musical films of this type is staggering, and capturing such a variety of performers on-camera is musical gold. Even if the films are less than stellar, hearing and seeing so many interesting varieties of music is always worthwhile.
Just for Fun! (1963) is billed by Anthology Film Archives as a vehicle film, but it's actually one of these rock musicals packed with performances by both well-known and obscure acts. As might be expected from any musical, the story is slight and is merely there to hang plentiful musical numbers on. However, the sheer volume of music vs. plot makes for an exhausting film when one song ends and another begins almost immediately after. This wouldn't be a problem if the music was consistently good, but as the last gasp of pop music before the British Invasion rocked the globe, I concluded the film with two questions: "Where are the girl groups?" and "Can't the Beatles show up already to save music?"
The plot, which is peppered with terribly unfunny moments, follows two political parties as they change the voting age to include teenagers, but disregard anything the teens have to say about the issues. In this case, the sole issue is that TV will stop showing so many musical programs. No way, man! The youth of England, led by singers Mark Wynter (yuck) and Cherry Roland (who has trouble not looking at the camera), then starts its own political party (yeah, don't ask how) and throw some musicians into the running as their candidates of choice. We never learn who their elected representative is in the race for Parliament, just that the Fun Party wins, but if you thought Wild in the Streets (1968) was the beginning of anti-youth youth films, that nonsensical film must have grabbed its ending from this import.
So who are the acts in the film? Maybe more importantly, who are the good ones worth hearing? It's doubtful you've heard of most of these bands, though there are some names here. Brian Poole and the Tremeloes are probably the best-known; Poole is geeky hot and their song "Keep On Dancing" (no relation to the Gentrys song) is great. The Springfields, with Dusty front and center, are superb performing "Little Boat". The aforementioned Cherry Roland opens the film with gusto singing the title song. There are three good instrumental groups, the Sounds Incorporated, the sleek Joe Meek-produced Tornados (best known for the organ-driven "Telstar"), and the superior Jet Harris band, who are photographed dressed all in black with sparse lighting highlighting the band members' faces and instruments. Harris returns with Tony Meehan to sing a so-bad-it's-good cover of "The Hully Gully", highlighted by the use of a bored-looking female drummer on stage with the singers. It's camp-tastic.
There are visiting Americans in the mix, too, and not to be biased, but they're among the highlights of the film. Ketty Lester (a decade before her turn as a horrifying morgue vampire in Blacula) sings a sultry soul number; Bobby Vee sings two tunes, including his hit "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes"; The Crickets sans Buddy Holly, but still trying to sound like him and/or the Everlys, also play two songs, both very good; Johnny Tillotson sings "Judy", a song that feels about five years past its prime, but he sells it. The most surprising appearance, and maybe the best of the film, is by a Swedish band, The Spotnicks, who are actually head and shoulders above most of the British groups, with their heavily accented cover of "My Bonnie" performed in astronaut suits. In the film, the Spotnicks are telecast in via satellite to lend support to the Fun Party, and on that note, it seems that the UK version of the film had Sylvie Vartan doing the same from France. She would have enlivened the proceedings quite a bit, I imagine. Jimmy Powell is also missing from the US version from Columbia, which is a shame because he's kinda dynamite, too.
Now the rest... Goofy-looking Joe Brown, a kind of mix between Jim Carrey and Billy Idol, sings two songs. Kenny Lynch, who you may remember from Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), also sings a pair of forgettable songs. Lynch, the sole black British performer, has zero charisma or soul. Mark Wynter, the male lead, contributes harmless fluff to the soundtrack. Freddy Cannon seems like the Roy Orbison of England: decidedly un-hip-looking, but with a killer voice. He sings two songs, both forgettable, and that can't be said about Orbison; Cannon can also do better, trust me. The absolute worst music in the film is courtesy of The Vernons Girls, a wannabe girl group who merely sing a song in unison, no harmonies and no attempt to be in the least bit interesting. In 1963, girl groups must have been a distinctly American phenomenon, or at least we were the ones getting it right. The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las would have beat the tar out of the Vernons. There are solo girl singers, too, like Louise Cordet, Lyn Cornell, and Cloda Rodgers. No unsung gems are these ladies. Only Cordet's "Which Way the Wind Blows" is mildly fun. It should also be noted that almost all of the acts are introduced by three famous 60s disc jockeys, Alan Freeman, David Jacobs, and Jimmy Savile, kind of like the UK Alan Freed or Dick Clark equivalents.