Wednesday, April 23, 2008

TriBeCa Diaries 2: The first day


It's a thrill, being on this side of the festival operations. As a fully accredited press person at the TFF, I'm sitting here writing this entry not in my chaotic, book-and-DVD-strewn apartment in Brooklyn, but in the swanky press office here in the East Village. Nice. And much different than the homey but low-budget amenities we offered at the Dahlonega Film Festival when I was its Programming Director back in 2002 (which was the year the TFF bowed, by the way).

So now the movie watching really begins. I think tonight I'll be seeing Amos Poe's new experimental documentary about Manhattan titled Empire II. It's three hours and it's supposed to be stunning, which I take to mean that it's not a repeat of Andy Warhol's interesting-once-but-that's-it Empire (an eight-hour static shot of the Empire State Building, in case you didn't know--and yes, I've seen part of it; I was lucky enough to catch the exciting part, where day turned into night). Poe is a world-renowned filmmaker (he did the groundbreaking punk documentary The Blank Generation), so I believe this is a good choice to kick off the festival.


I attended the introductory press conference this morning, which featured cameo appearances by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Governor David Patterson, both of whom were touting the new 30% increase in tax credits for filmmakers choosing to make their movies in New York. Recently, Mayor Bloomberg explained, the city and state have been losing film production contracts to neighboring states like Connecticut (where TFF co-founder Robert De Niro is ironically busy filming a movie) Vermont, and Rhode Island. So the increase in tax credits is designed to lure more filmmakers back into New York.

TFF Co-Founder Jane Rosenthal and Artistic Director Peter Scarlett let us know that, out of 4800 films submitted for approval, this year's festival has settled on 121 features and 79 shorts. 54 titles are World Premieres (including Opening Night's Baby Mama, starring Tina Fey and Amy Pohler, and Closing Night's Speed Racer, the new action extravaganza from The Matrix braintrust The Wachowski Brothers). 30 films are North American Premieres, and 16 films were shot right here in New York City. Pretty impressive.

And director Doug Liman (Go, Swingers, The Bourne Ultimatum), himself a jury member, let loose the names of those who're serving on the various juries this year: David Bowie, Callie Khouri, Annabelle Sciorra, Fred Durst, Peter Dinklage, Jay McInerney, Matthew Modine, Whoopi Goldberg, Christine Lahti, Lili Taylor, Mario Batalli, and a whole host of other industry notables.

It looks to be a great time here in TriBeCa! A really great time...

TriBeCa Diaries 1: The Universe of Keith Haring

I'm going to take a break from reviewing old favorites for a bit and concentrate on the experiences in store for me at the TriBeCa Film Festival taking place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan April 23 through May 4.


In addition to being fully accredited as a member of the press (as the Film Correspondent for The Latest Show on Earth--see it at www.downtowntv.com or host Joe Hendel's www.thelatestshowonearth.com), I will also be volunteering for the festival's Screening department. As my producer Steve Paul told me "That means you're an expert AND a mensch!" But I think I stumped the volunteer coordinators tonight at orientation when I revealed I was also going to be carrying a press pass. I was wondering if there would be any conflict between the two positions. A bit confused, they said they had never been faced with the situation, so I merely said that I would handle whatever comes my way. I'm concerned I may miss some press screenings because of my volunteer work, but I'm sure in any case I'll be seeing a bunch of movies over the next two weeks.

After getting the full rundown tonight of our duties and privileges, the festival treated us to a screening: The Universe of Keith Haring. Here's my review:

Annie Leibowitz's stunning portrait of Keith Haring (1958-1990)

I've always liked Keith Haring's work. An automatic abstract artist myself, and one unconsciously similar to Haring in style (not in talent, mind you), I especially find nowadays that I appreciate his free and easy manner. As one of the interview subjects opines in Christina Clausen's new documentary The Universe of Keith Haring, he was very much like a musician with his visual art, making marks here and there that came together into full orchestrations. His work, heavily influenced by cartoons and comics (which is probably why they speak to me personally) is alive with color, movement, sexuality, generosity and meaning.


While Clausen's documentary is fascinating in its exhaustive visual research--there's plenty of footage of Haring at work and play here--it unfortunately feels markedly unadventurous. Rarely does the movie itself ever feel as frisky as its subject's art. Instead of opting for a more difficult telling of Haring's story, Clausen simply recounts a birth-to-death narrative that is nowhere near what this groundbreaker deserves. This structure makes The Universe of Keith Haring merely into a finer-than-usual A&E Biography.

A few outstanding problems exist with some of the filmmaker's aesthetic choices. An irritating recurrence comes in the introduction of each new interview subject. When Kenny Scharf, Yoko Ono or Fab Five Freddy appear to speak of their times with Haring, Clausen inexplicably has the camera zero in on her subject's left eye, whereby the screen turns glowing red. What is this, The Terminator? I don't get the reasoning for this repetitive, time-wasting element. And I have a further beef with the director's use of music, which makes the common mistake of dictating our emotions. When her interviewees begin discussing, for instance, Haring's death in 1990 from AIDS, of course Clausen resorts to sad tinkling notes from a piano to play at our heartstrings. It never works. And when dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones talks of his dance piece backed by only the clicking sounds of Haring's brush against the paint can as he toiled in the background, Clausen can't muster up the bravery to let us experience this near silent piece for more than a moment.


I do like where the movie goes in its latter half when it examines the effect that mounds of money had on Haring's work. Always one to give his art away, his advisers told him to stop doing that because the laws of supply and demand would drive his prices down. But that didn't keep him from donating murals to cities his work was shown in (the above photo has Haring standing in front of his last public mural, "Tuttomondo," painted on the wall of the convent of the Church of Sant'Antonio in Pisa, Italy). He donated murals to hospitals, houses and museums, and would not only sign his name for children he visited, he showed his adoration for youth by offering detailed drawings they could call their own. This portion of Clausen's movie is effective and emotional. But it still remains that the film feels padded out to achieve full-length status.


Even so, like a lot of pop culture documentaries, if you're already a fan of the art, then you're gonna wanna see the movie. And, to be sure, they're enjoyable, those glimpses we get of Haring swiftly at work in the subways, or gallivanting cheerfully in experimental film pieces made for Club 57 on St. Mark's in NYC's East Village, or communing with an adoring Andy Warhol (whom he took as his "date" to Madonna's doomed marriage to Sean Penn). Even if the movie does deliver these fine moments, don't expect an emotional or intellectual steamroller like the king of all artist documentaries, Terry Zwigoff's Crumb. The Universe of Keith Haring plays it much too safe to reach those heights.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Film #40: Vampyr


Carl Th. Dreyer’s hallucinatory 1932 Danish masterpiece Vampyr has a unique creepiness all its own. It’s easy to see where some present-day filmmakers (chief among them David Lynch) got some of their ideas once you experience this moody trek through Cortenpierre, where vampire hunter David Grey (Baron Nicholas De Gunzberg, acting under the alias Julien West) has stumbled upon an atmosphere fraught with supernatural dealings. Shadows defy their owners and do as they please; two sisters seem to be decaying into members of the undead; and, in the most famous sequence, David wanders into a room where he sees himself laid out in a flower-bedecked coffin, eyes dreadfully open but nonetheless ready for burial.


Many of Dreyer's previous films--like the incomparable Passion of Joan D'Arc--and later works like Gertrud and Ordet--fell on the more spiritually nurturing side of the fence. But I suppose if you're going to be a filmmaker who admits the chilly existence of God, then you must also be one to recognize the burning face of evil as well. Vampyr does this better than almost any movie I can think of. It's masterfully photographed by Rudolph Mate, later the cinematographer of Hollywood classics like The Lady from Shanghai, Gilda, and Dodsworth. Mate gives the film an otherworldly glow that is difficult to shake come bedtime. Despite its being Dreyer's first sound work, Vampyr is a prime example of a movie that uses silence and darkness--two of a horror movie maker’s best tools--to ultimate, spine-tingling effect.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Side Orders #1

Side Orders is going to be a regular column devoted to three or four little scenes from various movies, with the occasional video, short, commercial, and trailer popping up. Unlike my reviews, which can be long, I will brief in these pieces. They're designed for me to write quickly so you can read 'em quickly. Anyway, here we go:

I first wanted to feature a series of trailers that I liked, but I couldn't think of one, really, that ever made want to see a movie more than than the preview for Francis Coppola's 1983 film of S.E. Hinton's Rumblefish. I was convinced that this was going to be one of the greatest things to hit the screen in a long time--and it so was not. This piece is a perfect example of trailer alchemy--when a trailer producer gets a so-so movie to promote and makes it look like a masterpiece. This one is exceedingly well-edited and benefits greatly from the movie's clattering Stewart Copeland score. Truth is, since it's completely reliant on sound and imagery alone (and is, of course, much shorter), the preview's quite a bit snappier than the often overbaked film.



This next item is instantly famous to anyone who grew up during the 1970s. In fact, I'd say that this is in the competition for most well-known TV commercial of all time, and certainly one of the most economically powerful. Its lead is Iron Eyes Cody, the Native American film and TV performer who was, in reality, of Italian decent. Cody adapted two Indian children with his wife and worked tirelessly for the rights of Native Americans before his 1999 death. The asshole in me sort of thinks it's funny that he's in this famous bit of "Indy" pop culture...


Ken Shapiro was the co-writer, director and star of 1974's pioneering skit film The Groove Tube. Without this spoof of television, complete with fake commericals and new shows, would there have been an SCTV or even a Saturday Night Live? Probably not for a while longer, at least. Anyway, this is the picture's final segment, and I just think Shapiro's impassioned and seemingly off-the-cuff performance makes it a guaranteed smile (especially that bit with the surprised cop).


And, finally, I was going to write about the movie Hair, but I think I just wanna put up, for right now, my most treasured moment from the movie. You don't need to know anything about the plot to enjoy this stand-alone scene commandeered by decisive performances from Dorsey Wright (as hippie "Lafeyette") and Cheryl Barnes as his abandoned wife who confronts him in Washington Square Park with their young son in tow. I saw this 1978 movie first on cable in 1979/80, and I remember even then breaking down crying at this part of the film. Barne's performance of the song, and her compelling acting, coupled with the extremely smart, restrained direction by Milos Forman, and the clean backing track production all still really get to me. I recently saw Hair play again under the Brooklyn Bridge here in NYC, and when "Easy to Be Hard" washed acoss the screen, I was again reduced to tears (so much so that a nearby kid voiced concern about me). It rightfully recieved a long ovation from the crowd, because it is subliminty in four minutes flat.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Film #39: Full Metal Jacket


Maybe it's bizarre to start this review off with such an observation, but the problem with Oliver Stone's pre-emptive achievement with 1986's Platoon lay in that it, in effect, was Stone's (but perhaps not Hollywood's) simple way of glitzing over the true state of affairs during the Vietnam conflict, all in the name of good, clean, All-American storytelling. Stone's musculature was admirable; he'd finally brought out the fact that, deep down (for its fighters, at least), 'Nam was a war--not a cause for the generals or the protesters--but a bonafide war. That, in itself, was a telegram that required delivery.


But Platoon's downfall was thinly hidden within its maker's naive notion that warriors could be categorized into two broad subsets: the good and the bad. He oversimplified the matter, transforming the Vietnamese jungles into mere substitutes for the rolling plains of John Ford's Monument Valley, where the dirty virtuous fought--not always successfully--for victory over the supposed sinful. (Actually the film's not even as good as the typical John Ford western--it's more like a good b-film.) But that's not the end of Platoon's faults. Stone also made no attempt to address any of the real moral issues that inevitably surface in a war-time situation. He just showed the Vietnam jumble as how it's easiest to recall--as an updated, twisted rehash of Hollywood's Big One, WWII. There's the good sargeant (Willem Dafoe) and the bad sargeant (Tom Berenger, in embarrassingly ridiculous scar makeup). Now, to which one is our hero (Charlie Sheen) going to be loyal? Anyone who couldn't guess how this was all going to turn out was sound asleep.


That's why it's criminal Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket was released at a time in which it'd inevitably be compared to Stone's parable. For people who thought that 1986's Best Picture winner Platoon fully defined the Vietnam conflict, Kubrick's 1987 should have come as a harder, heart-stiffening jolt. It's nothing like Platoon; in fact, it's its antithesis. Platoon featured a group of men (including Johnny Depp, Kevin Dillon and Forrest Whittaker) whose enemy was discernable--they were all just a bunch of camouflaged gooks lurking in a few horizon-line bushes.

But, in Full Metal Jacket it often turns out that, in a militaristic environment where a soldier's life is threatened by the second, the enemy is very much within the predator as it is the prey. And whereas Stone preached the possibility of a black-and-white existence, Kubrick combats that with the view that the world and this relatively short-lived (but representative) situation is charcoal-colored. In this great director's purview, all death--Vietcong and American, hero and villain--is gory. As our hero, Private Joker (an extraordinary Matthew Modine) narrates while standing over a mass grave: "The dead know only one thing: it is better to be alive."


It is for this reason that Full Metal Jacket is the definitive Vietnam film. Very few filmmakers have even attempted to revisit it since its release in 1987, which should tell you something. Like the war itself, Kubrick's film has a rather "traditionally" unsatisfying ending, as it fails to provide audiences with pithy "don't let this happen again" axioms. And unlike the typical American vision of the war, Full Metal Jacket has sympathy and respect for ALL its characters, even those who didn't get a noble chance to fight. It finally, frankly realizes the utter madness that comes not only with combat itself, but with all things associated.


Based on Gustav Hasford's equally terse short novel The Short-Timers, Full Metal Jacket sports a completely gripping first third. In it, we're introduced to the freshly-shaved heads belonging to a new group of recruits, led by a tack-spitting D.I. named Sgt. Hartman (energetically played by real-life drill instructor R. Lee Ermey). It's Hartman's opinion that every man who enters the corps is destined only to be an emotionless, remorseless killing machine that's at no man's mercy. Throughout Ermey's thirty minutes of monologue time, we find his aim is to drive this notion home to his charges--even to those hardily resistant ones. Referring to all grunts by names he personally hands them (thereby reducing them to newborns), Hartman runs roughshod over sarcastic Private Joker, pipsqueak Texan Private Cowboy (Arliss Howard, in an overloooked performance), black Private Snowball (Peter Edmund) and a sloppily overweight bumbler deemed Private "Gomer Pyle" (Vincent D'Onofrio, in another of the film's acting standouts). Sgt. Hartman puts these men and more through a meat grinder of transformation: they become dull organs in a massive olive-drab death machine.


The kink in that Hartman eventually does his whipping job too well. The one man he's hardest on--the one that proves to be more gristle than apparent fat (Private Pyle)--is goaded too far into the game. He becomes, with the insolent help of his unsympathetic peers, one of the sharpest walking ironies that Kubrick and company ever concocted. Pyle इस the essence of what the Marines require of each of its enlistees: cold, concrete malice. But Pyle also personifies fully-armed insanity, the one condition that can do the military more harm than good. (Kubrick injects a bit of typical black comedy when he has Hartman holding such military-trained psychopaths as Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald up to his students as heroes to be emulated faithfully.)

After this gut-wrenching prologue to the real war (as if it hadn't already started), Kubrick's camera, to the appropriate tune of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Were Made For Walking," then turns to the battle-shredded streets of Vietnam, where Private Joker, along with his enthusiastic photographer Rafterman (Kevin Major Howard), is stationed as a reporter for Stars and Stripes, the military's in-barracks newspaper. After a few skermishes with the VC, Joker and Rafterman, both longing to get into the fight, are sent to the bullet-ridden streets of Hue City where the VC are trying to gain a foothold before the Tet offensive. There Joker is reunited with boot camp mate Cowboy, who is now third in command in a platoon that includes characters like leader Mr. Touchdown (Ed O'Ross), Eightball (Dorian Harewood), a vulgar and morbid hick called Crazy Earl ("You just don't lead 'em so much"--an memorably unfeeling line delivered by Kieron Jecchins), and a pitifully brutal grunt aptly named Animal Mother (yet another splendid performance, by Adam Baldwin).


All of this leads up to the second half of Kubrick's one-two punch (this is the very rare movie you'll see that doesn't have a third act--a courageous choice), in which the platoon led by Cowboy is having its members slowly picked off by an unseen sniper. The viewer, identifying with the extra-personable Cowboy, is confronted on all sides with such nerve-knotting stress that s/he hardly knows which way to turn: the company is miles away from its destination; the sniper is blocking a needed passageway; no assistance is coming; the enemy must be found, but can't be; two men are hurt but still alive; and what's left of the platoon is wasting its ammo on futile attempts at retaliation. The future, like the Vietnam sky, looks blighted and bleak. In this ultra-realistic, fatalistic finale Full Metal Jacket becomes almost unwatchable--which is, of course, Kubrick's goal.


If comparisons must be made to the director's past works, then this movie most closely resembles A Clockwork Orange more than its on-the-surface cousin Paths of Glory. Like the popular cyberpunk cult classic, Full Metal Jacket primarily deals with, in Private Joker's Nietzschian-appropriated words, "the duality of man"--the very fact that peace and violence coexists in all men (the famous graphic from the film's poster is the helmet worn by Joker that displays both a peace symbol and the painted-on boast "Born to Kill"). In A Clockwork Orange, one feels sorry for Alex (Malcolm McDowall) when he's driven to suicide by an enemy, even though earlier we sympathized with the enemy himself as Alex victimized he and his wife. In the same way, we feel hatred for towards the "Viet Cong" when they obstensibly mow down members of Cowboy's squad, but we also feel sickened at the film's end, or previously when joyous helicopter gunner Crazy Earl undiscerningly exterminates Vietnamese farmers as his chopper hovers over the innocent and the guilty as they run scared through an endless field of grain.

All of Kubrick's usual elements are certainly present in Full Metal Jacket: the fully-contorted, mask-like faces of the actors; the omnicient narration, delivered without feeling; the carefully chosen music (it's the first Kubrick film since Dr. Strangelove that doesn't contain any classical pieces--all of the original music is written by Abigail Mead, a thinly-veiled psuedonym for his daughter, Vivian Kubrick); the sumptuous, documentary like camerawork by Douglas Milsome (without which subsequent great war films like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down would not've been possible); the scarily accurate art direction, all erected not in the Phillipines, like Platoon, but controvercially in merry old England by the late art director extraordinaire Anton Furst, later an Oscar-winner for his famous work on Tim Burton's Batman; the punny word play (Private Pyle, wrongfully sitting on a commode in the middle of the night while loading his M-14 is warned by Joker that, if their D.I. catches them, they'll be "in a world of shit," after which Pyle searingly exclaims amidst tens of toilets "I AM in a world of shit"); the extremely accurate writing by Kubrick, Hasford, and Dispatches / Apocalypse Now writer Michael Herr (who later composed the revealing, loving 2000 memoir Kubrick); the inventive setting (I love that the film takes place largely in a city, and not in the jungles as in most every other Vietnam movie); and a characteristically strange climactic mix of optimism and pessimism.


It's one trademark alone, though, that makes Full Metal Jacket essential viewing for anyone who even has a passing like for movies: Stanley Kubrick himself. Once again, in 1987, twelve years before his last movie Eyes Wide Shut, he proved himself the genius the filmmaking world always knew him to be. Bravo to a man who, until recently, may I say, was verily walking godlike upon the earth.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Movie Time! Movie Time!

When I see the bits of long-lost film I've included in this post below, I feel the adrenaline rush through my body full-force. In the 1970s and 80s, these little animated films would always be my intro to a new cinematic experience (even if a lot of the time it was via television). I love the graphics for these things--bright, sparkly, Vegas-y, space-agey (I, of course, especially like the ABC Movie of the Week reel because it was obviously produced with Doug Trumbull's Slitscan machine--the same one he used to film the "trip" sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey). And I rock to their chugging music, especially the CBS Movie of the Week reel and the "Coming Attractions" bit seen at theaters (as well as in Tarantino's Grindhouse and Kill Bill). Somebody should sample these and make a dance hit out of 'em. Anyway, here's what it was like sitting down to watch a movie on TV in the 1970s and 1980s--thrilling!











And even though this next one is even more TV-centric, I have to say I love this compilation of scary 70s/80s TV production company logos; with their synthy music and hat-tippings to 60s experimental animation (which always was trying to look quasi-futuristic), these logos evoke bizarre, unsound emotions in me that, I suppose, are related to the fact that, when all us 70s kids saw these logos in our childhoods, they were at the END of the shows. And this meant that (a) you were saying goodbye to your TV friends for the time being and (b) that, 50 percent of the time, you were probably being sent to bed for the night.
Still, now I find these little bits of film indescribably beautiful...but still a little scary.

Film #38: Precious Images

If I'm on this shorts kick, I thought, what better short to include on a movie-themed website than Precious Images. Originally created by Chuck Workman for the Directors Guild of America in 1982, this awe-inspiring montage of the greatest moments in cinema history is downright riveting, especially for film junkies who will inevitably try and name all the movies sampled here. Give it up, guys--it can't be done. Over 8 minutes, we see flashes of over 500 movies. If you can name 'em all as they come up, you'd be in Guinness as the world's fastest talker, among other things.

This is obviously an updated version of Precious Images, since it includes post-1982 movies like Do The Right Thing, Philadelphia, Driving Miss Daisy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Since winning his Oscar for this film, Workman has gone on to working for the Academy Awards show as their resident montage-builder (that's why his cutting style seems so familiar--we've all seen his work on the Oscars before). He's also directed The Source, the fine documentary about the Beat Generation. Anyway, check out his dazzling display of editorial chops!

Film #37: The Tell-Tale Heart

Stephen Bosustow's UPA Films had a juggernaut of a run back in the 1950s. From 1949 to 1957, this producer was nominated for 14 Academy Awards, winning three of them (one year he was nominated for all three awards in his category). Given the short time period, this surely must be a record. Not even Meryl Streep could get these numbers.


During this time, UPA adapted Dr. Seuss's Gerald McBoing-Boing into at least two acclaimed films, turned Ludwig Bemelmans' classic children's book Madeline into a short, and came up with the long-running rich old blind man character Mr. Magoo, which probably made them rich for life. The thing that set UPA Films apart from their contemporaries was their strict art direction and distinctive animation style. Being an independant company, they used a lower frame-rate (that is, number of drawings) to keep costs down, but they made up for it with intricate, radiant backgrounds and detailed directorial choices. This method of work ended up changing popular animation styles around the world (though not always for the better).

In 1953, Bosustow and director Ted Parmalee produced The Tell-Tale Heart, and thereby contributed the single best adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's work to film (the best feature is still Roger Corman's The Masque of the Red Death). Narrated frantically by James Mason, it is complete dread and bliss all at the same time. What fine colors, and what brave use of the darkness to ilicit fear. And what a faithful adaptation--all of Poe's high points make it in to the script. The Tell-Tale Heart is an incredibly effective example of animation art.

Film #36: Frank Film

I'm so excited, my heart is racing! This is the fifth in a series of short films I'm featuring on filmicability. I just got my newest entry off of YouTube, and it's Frank Mouris's Academy Award-winning animated biography Frank Film (his wife Caroline Mouris gets credit on IMDB as a co-director, by the way). This is one of my favorite bits of animation ever, and certainly in the running for my favorite short (live action or animated) of all time (I saw it first on HBO in the early 1980s, when they were showing classic weird animation between features). Funny thing is, I've only seen it maybe twice, and a long time ago, too--I've looked for it on video for years and years. So not only am I excited to see it again, I'm thrilled 'cuz I'm gonna perform an experiment. I'm writing this now, but after I see it again, I'll add in my impressions, right below the clip. So, watch and then you can read my reactions after I watch it with you.



Okay. Are you as speechless as I am? This is one of the best damn things I've ever witnessed, EVER! What a great movie!! Wow, I'm on another plane of existence. Gotta come down. Okay, I'm back. Seriously, think of all the years Mouris had to work on this...and how his dream of success, detailed within, ultimately came true (at least up to the point the film was made). It's too bad Mouris' output subsequent to this 1973 film has been almost nonexistent. I'd really like to know what the man has been up to over the past few years. He and Caroline DID do this piece, which I would love to see in its entirety:



It's fantastic that the couple did a combination Caroline and Frank film. But I'd like to see another! Each must be in they're mid-sixties at least, so maybe they don't want to spend their emeritus years on an essential repeat of something they've already put down so perfectly, but I think it's a necessity for film history! I love that the 1973 piece is named Frank Film, because Mouris is being so "frank" about his past. I ravish the swirling graphic imagery, of course, and the sense of breakneck movement. The two dueling soundtracks, Mouris' deadpan narration style, the dictionary of f-words, the beautiful colors, the universality of the film's themes--the brain overstimulation this movie sparks is radically orgasmic to me.

I'm gonna watch it again!!!

Film #35: The Critic

This is the fourth in a series of posts devoted to some of my favorite shorts. This one is popularly attributed to Mel Brooks, who came up with the concept and the narration. But it's a film by Ernest Pintoff, and I understand when he took home the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1963, it caused a rift between them. Well, Mel got his Oscar five years later for The Producers, so I would think the bad blood over The Critic should be long gone. A simple idea, done perfectly. Fun to watch, fun to listen to--a great little movie.

Film #34: Quasi at the Quackadero

Yet another short I like (look at the two others below) is by Sally Cruickshank. Titled Quasi at the Quackadero, it's the closest that cartoons have come to replicating the feel of underground comix. The colorful, even trippy animation coupled with the wonderful voice work (I love Anita's nasal whine) captivated me when I first saw this on the big screen at the Rhodes Theater in Atlanta. I bought a book recently called The 50 Greatest Cartoons, and I was happy to see this made the list. I have a lot of affection for it.

Film #33: Special Delivery

This cartoon, by John Weldon and Eunice Macauley, is one of the funniest bits of animation I have ever seen. Everything works together: the soapy organ music, the inventive scripting, the sardonic narration, and the fun colored-pencil animation style. I saw this on HBO in the 1980s, not long after it took home an Oscar in 1978 for Best Animated Short. I remember being slightly shocked at the sight of a nude man in the piece, but also remember regarding the inclusion as one of the movie's funniest bits. Special Delivery is a high point for the National Film Board of Canada, and that's saying a lot, since they're the tops when it comes to animated and live action shorts. It's a favorite of both mine and my mother's--we would laugh hysterically at each and every turn in the story, no matter how many times we saw it! I know she'll be glad to catch it again. And if you're seeing it for the first time...Enjoy!

Film #32: Timepiece

Jim Henson's Timepiece was Oscar-nominated for Best Live Action Short in 1965. I saw this unusual pre-Sesame Street short on HBO in the early 1980s and have remembered it ever since as one of the strangest moments I ever had watching a film--such a bizarre notion, that "Kermit" is behind all this madness. I still am not sure what Timepiece is all about, except to say that it explores beats, syncopations, and spacial relations. Whatever. It's fast-paced, funny and extra-60s flavored! That's Henson as the lead in this odd, be-bop influenced work.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Film #31: Titus

After mounting such grand Broadway productions as the acclaimed The Lion King, director Julie Taymor was seen as a natural to make the leap over to movies. Her first film, Titus, proved right those willing to take a chance on her. While the movie's extraordinary design suffers from the scale-down to television, Titus -- one of Shakespeare's most maligned plays -- now crackles as a most contemporary work, due to Taymor's correlation between bloodlust staged for 16th century audiences at the Globe Theater and carnage decorating modern screens.


Anthony Hopkins is commanding as Titus Andronicus, the battle-ravaged warrior returning home to find himself stranded at the losing end of a revenge plot hatched by Rome's new empress, Tamora (an impassioned Jessica Lange). Collaborating at full throttle with art director Dante Ferretti, costumer Milena Canonero and photographer Luciano Tavoli (who work in a jumbled period setting, with motorcycles and video games co-existing with swords and armored suits), the Tony Award-winning director demonstrates her filmmaking mettle with this blitzkrieg of rape, back-stabbing, throat-cutting and pie-tasting, all adorned with transfixing impressionism (like the duel-declaring stare shared by Titus and Tamora, backlit by rollicking flames and severed limbs).


Cavorting throughout this satire are the annoying Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, the engaging Alan Cumming (as tantrum-throwing emperor Saturninus) and a searing Harry Lennix as Aaron, the nefarious Moor who sins mightily for fun and racial vengeance (his joyful boast of past villainy, emitted before a swinging noose, is the movie's best moment). At nearly three hours, Titus can boast of Shakespeare's mellifluous words and Taymor's color-saturated vision; consequently, it bores us not once.

Film #30: Electra Glide in Blue

It's a strange feeling to write about Robert Blake movies now, after so much has happened to him in his personal life. But, all that aside, if you think about it, Blake had a long and fascinating career in movies. Under his real name Mickey Gubutosi, he was Mickey in Hal Roach's Our Gang series of short films. He went on to play Little Beaver, the Native American sidekick to Red Ryder (Bill Elliott) in a long, now-forgotten series of westerns. He had a memorable two-scene role in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as a kid trying deperately to sell a lottery ticket to a busted Bogart.

Later, he was in Pork Chop Hill (the best Korean War movie, by Lewis Milestone), Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (the western that was only the second movie by once-blacklisted Force of Evil director Abraham Polonsky), Richard Brooks' In Cold Blood (as Perry), David Lynch's Lost Highway (in a scary white-faced mask), and most famously, he became the unorthodox TV cop Baretta, playing alongside a cockatoo named Fred and a streetwise best friend named Huggy Bear (Antonio Fargas). He was well-known for his funny 70s motor oil TV commercials and his manic Johnny Carson appearances. Pretty good career, really. But now, after all his court troubles, this all seems quite far away.


Still, I have a fondness for the actor, mostly stemming from 1973's Electra Glide In Blue, the only film written and directed by--get this--the founding member of the supergroup Chicago! James William Guercio delivered, in his only screen outing, the single best motorcycle cop movie ever made. In it, Blake plays John Wintergreen, a diminutive, Alan Ladd-loving Arizona patrolman whose desire to be a state detective throws him feet-first into a bizarre murder investigation. His enthusiasm garners him a mentor, detective Harve Pool (the despicable Mitchell Ryan), who eventually on him and sets roadblocks up against his acceptance into the detective program.

This moody picture is endlessly influential (one of its opening scenes has been aped by Rambo and Aliens, among others). Guercio was lucky enough to coerce cinematographer Conrad Hall--Oscar winner for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Beauty and Road to Perdition--into throwing his talents into the ring, resulting in a luciously-colored widescreen frame throughout. (The film's long, extended final shot MUST be seen--it's one of the most indelible images in movie history.) Blake is quite likable as Wintergreen--perhaps the most likable he'd been since buddying around with Spanky and Darla. I personally love the scene where he's trying on his detective's uniform for the first time, stepping outside, cigar in mouth, before realizing he's forgotten something essential. Yeah, it's a little silly but through moments like this, or when he's arguing with a coroner (the creepy Royal Dano) for the further investigation of a desert bum's murder, we can feel his excitement, his passion, his capacity to always do the right thing. And when he's punished for it, we're heartbroken (SPOILER ALERT: the ending is some kind of retribution for the climax of Easy Rider).

The cast is rounded out by Billy "Green" Bush (excellent at Zipper, Blake's over-the-top partner), a sexy Jeannine Riley, a more-crazed-than-usual Elisha Cook Jr., key cameos from Chicago members Peter Cetera and the late Terry Kath. Oh---and THE star, Blake's glorious Harley Davidson Electra Glide motorcycle. As one might expect, Guercio's horn-laden score is excellent, with songs by The Marcels, Mark Spoelstra, Terry Kath, and Madura (who perform in live concert footage). And the closing song, by Chicago, called "Tell Me," is a sad, majestic ballad about the vanishing wilderness---it's a song I'd like to have a copy of (anybody out there got one?) Now, if we could only get Guercio to make another movie...and put Robert Blake in it.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Film #29: Inside Moves


I'll never forget catching Inside Moves on cable back in the early 80s. It was like finding buried treasure, it really was. This 1980 film has now been almost totally forgotten--it's not even on DVD. But if you ever get a chance to see it, and have a prediliction for the sentimental, the beguiling, the intelligent, the well-crafted film, then you will love it as much as I did.


Richard Donner, normally the director of blockbusters like Superman, Lethal Weapon, The Goonies, and The Omen, dialed down the grandstanding he does so well to create this little personal movie about refound hope. After a fantastic credits sequence, we meet Rory (John Savage, in one of his few leads), a walking corpse whose attempt at suicide leaves him severely disabled. Across the street from his recovery house, Rory discovers Max's Bar and, inside, a vaudevillian trio of long-term patients (wheelchair-bound
Bill Henderson, blind Burt Remsen, and Harold Russell, in only his second film after winning two Oscars for playing a WWII soldier who'd lost his hands in 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives). Behind the counter is bartender Jerry (David Morse), a wanna-be basketball star with one leg shorter than the other. It's here, with these guys, that Rory does his healing.

It's impossible to conceive of the person who wouldn't like this winsome movie. The performances alone carry you through. Add the brilliant John Barry score, the tender scripting by Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin, and the rich cinematography by Lazlo Kovacs, and you've got an unbeatable force. Yet, it's weird how this title has disappeared from people's view. For instance, it has one of the best Christmas-related scenes of all time (John Savage and Oscar-nominated Diana Scarwid slow dance to Sinatra's "Put All Your Dreams Away"). I'd play this film on TV at Xmas in a heartbeat. But where is it come yueltide? Nowhere. More importantly, why wouldn't Inside Moves be out on DVD yet? Music rights issues, perhaps? The Sinatra estate, maybe?


Yes, okay, the movie can be charmingly trite at times, with its subplot about Jerry's prostitute girlfriend (Amy Wright, a familiar face around the early 1980s) and her dealings with a red-suited pimp named Lucius (Tony Burton). But its scenes of genuine emotion, particularly between Savage and Scarwid, and between Savage and Morse, are enough reason to seek it out. I remember interviewing Richard Donner back in 1985 when he was going around the country promoting Ladyhawke. Though I was just a lowly college journalist, he graciously agreed to meet me for a one-on-one chat in Atlanta's Central City Park. I was a fan of some of his movies at that point, but mostly of this one. When I threw out how much I liked Inside Moves, his eyes lit up. "Wow," he said, "rarely does anybody mention it, but that's my favorite of my own movies." Justifyably so...

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Film #28: Point of Order!


Anybody who saw George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck and was interested in learning more about dirty ol' Joe McCarthy should rent Emile de Antonio's 1963 documentary Point of Order! Cut from hours of old kinescopes of the 1953 Army hearings that destroyed the red-baiting senator and his evil minion/lawyer Roy Cohn, Point of Order! is one of the greatest historical documents ever put to film. Devoid of talking head interviews or drony narration, the movie's as engrossing as the most suspenseful political dramas, with Army council Joseph Welch emerging as a camera-ready star. Going up against McCarthy's blustery hate-mongering, Welch's country-flavored wit steamrollered the cocky junior senator from Wisconsin, reducing him to stuttery back-tracking and airless defenses. (Subsequently, Hollywood showed its appreciation: his fame from this case led Welch to a showy role as the judge in Otto Preminger's classic 1959 courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder, which would make a good companion piece to Point of Order!).


Welch is great here, uttering the now-famous "Have you no decency?" line to the senator, who looks increasingly haggard and drunk as the testimony goes on. By the film's end, McCarthy's swabbing off his almost-bald head and slinking out of the courtroom, obviously crushed. Very satisfying, indeed--sad, but satisfying. De Antonio contributed more to the documentary genre later with In The Year of the Pig (which untangles the reasons behind the Vietnam War) and Underground (about the radical group the Weather Underground). Those are great films, too, but I'm telling you, even if you don't think you can get into seeing a buncha old guys sitting around yelling at each other for 80 minutes, trust me, you WILL be absorbed by Point of Order! Just take a look at the clips from the hearing below if you don't believe me...

Film #27: My Best Fiend


Werner Herzog's My Best Fiend chronicles the masterful German director's unbelievably volatile relationship with the late actor Klaus Kinski, whom he'd known and worked with for three decades. Before this film hit theaters in 1999, stories of these two massive megalomaniacs locking horns on troubled sets were already part of filmmaking folklore, thanks largely to Les Blank's landmark 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams, about the making of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo.

My Best Fiend lifts some portions from Blank's work but mainly gives us Herzog, speaking English throughout with a dignified German growl, as he leads us on a singular, bizarre tour through his life with Kinski, including his first exposure to Kinski's acting onscreen. He takes us to the Berlin apartment they shared, where Kinski broke up a party by smashing into the room and declaring that his acting was not merely great, "it was epochal!"


And he takes us back to the jungle, where he relives the shaky times Kinski threatened the completion of both Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo with his volcanic temper (which so frightened the South American Indians working on Fitzcarraldo that they gladly offered to murder Kinski); his overzealous quest for realism (he smashes a supporting player in the head with an ax and almost kills him); and his deafening belief that he was sent by God to instruct the world on the art of acting. By the time we get to the final shot, a rustic portrait of a gentler Kinski, we realize that Herzog -- a man who obviously thrives on chaos -- feels immeasurably enriched in having known his friend, this fiend with two faces. You'd be wise to rent the incredible Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde, and Woyceck (all recently remastered and re-released) before seeing My Best Fiend, but see it you must.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Film #26: My Bodyguard

Dave Grusin's jazzy, string-flecked score hits me first every time I see My Bodyguard. It takes me back to 1980 instantly and I am happy for it. It's bouncy, joyful, mopey, and erudite. It exemplifies Chicago--where this movie was filmed--all in a few bars. In fact, the only things that remind me of Chicago more than My Bodyguard are John Hughes movies, The Bob Newhart Show, and...Chicago.


Chris Makepeace, here playing the teen who acquires special protection from the school bullies threatening him, had one good period as a film moppet--1979-1980. With My Bodyguard and the Bill Murray vehicle Meatballs, he got his puss in front of a lot of young moviegoers that year. But I think his crazy-unruly hair and his intensly serious face likely hurt his further progression. Even though Makepeace was fine in both films, most kids (then, at least) preferred their on-screen counterparts to NOT look like they'd be good at chess.

Matt Dillon brings his usual roughneck energy to Moody, the lead bully. This means he commands the screen, and this is only his second movie (after the memorable cult hit Over The Edge). His bathroom torture of Cliff, for instance, stops the movie; he yells unexpectedly, slams the kid against the wall, takes deadly aim with a giant spitball, and keeps his stare going straight into Clifford's soul. Tight-shirted, hair slicked back, aviator glasses on, he's the epitome of the asshole that everyone wants to avoid.


Then there's Adam Baldwin. As Ricky, the hulkster that Clifford hires to be his bodyguard, he is smudged and shell-shocked. His size and inner rage are great, but look at those big eyes and you can see this guy's a lover, not a fighter. Baldwin (who is not, I repeat, not one of the Baldwin brothers) would graduate into playing full-time warriors like Animal Mother in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and as the gruffest member of the crew in the sadly short-lived Joss Whedon series Firefly. He still has a believeable gentleness about him, I think.

One kid here, redheaded Paul Quandt, never made a movie again, but he stands out as a screen presense. As Carson, Cliff's acerbic classmate with a scientific interest in the gum stuck under the desks, Quandt is certainly the one child actor participating whom you WILL NOT forget. And it goes on, this cast: look closely and you'll see Joan Cusack debuting as one of Cliff's most sympathetic buddies (the Cusack family is famous for their Chicago acting school). Look real close and you'll see glimpses of a pre-Flashdance Jennifer Beals. And, of course, you have the adults: an understated Martin Mull as Cliff's hotel manager dad, Kathryn Grody as his concerned teacher, and best of all, Ruth Gordon as his rowdy grandmother (what other kind of maternal figure did Gordon play?). I look forward to Gordon's scenes with Makepeace. They genuinely look like they're having fun (like when she surprises him exclaiming "Bats!" "Bats!" and flapping newspapers in his face). When they talk about the smell of a new book, or when Gordon calls someone a "greasy wimp" and Makepeace can't hold back a chortle--this is all very real stuff.


The writer, Alan Ormsby, never betrayed that he'd something this sweet in him, having been previously most famous for collaborating with Bob Clark on Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things and Deranged. And director Tony Bill--a former actor-turned-producer (The Sting, Taxi Driver, Close Encounters of the Third Kind)--captures the freedom of youth and of standing your ground with equal parts honesty and good old fashioned corn (I can like me a corny movie, I have to admit). Bill has sheaperded a lot of films to us the past 35 years, most recently the 2007 WWI aviator epic Flyboys. But none have stuck with me like My Bodyguard. It has punch and punch is enough.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Film #25: The Incredible Melting Man

The Incredible Melting Man is one of those "good bad-movies" that people with a taste for irony or simply with a lot of time on their hands
seem to love. I have a lot of these guilty pleasures way on down my extensive list of favorites, but I find as I get older, I have less time for things that suck. But this movie--this one was an event I'll always remember from my childhood,so I guess I have no choice but to have a fondness for it. I recall getting an issue of Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and inside was the proclaimation of The Incredible Melting Man as "The next great movie monster!" So when the film hit the drive-ins, of course I begged my parents to go see it. God bless 'em, though they had sense, they took me anyway.

A real z-grade affair, the plot is hardly worth recounting. Astronaut (the extra-memorable Alex Rebar) makes a space trip, gets a space disease, returns to Earth and glops all over the place looking for fresh human blood to keep him going. The guy's leaving mozzerella-style drippings on tree branches, trailing thin streams of creamy caramel and Karo Syrup wherever he goes--looks like dude wuz just bounced from Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Lemme tell ya, it's not a pretty sight.


I love the constant replaying of space transmissions from the astronaut's trip as they ring in his almost-gone ears! I love the slow-motion near-escape of a big-boned nurse! And I treasure the moment when a little girl runs through the woods, playing hide-and-seek, and stumbles across Melty (as I like to call him) just as he's losing an eyeball! She screams like...well, like a girl...and runs away, of course. As a matter of fact, everybody runs away from Melty! Poor Melty. Hey, he just wants a hug. This man's just disintergrating, ladies! Give 'im a break! What's a little melting action when it comes to love?

Wow. People can be so quick to judge...

The makeup here, an early effort by the now-legendary Rick Baker, is the whole show. It IS really convincing, and suitably disgusting. In fact, surely, just by its title alone, one must realize The Incredible Melting Man is one of the most melancholy and putrid "bad" movies out there. Just stick through to the ending, where we witness Melty's eventual fate. It's gross and extra-cynical, but, I mean, what else could happen? I think, more than anything, it was this sense of sadness about the film that made it stick with me; it's hard not to feel sorry for ol' Melty. What'd he ever do to deserve this?

So, incredible as it may seem, The Incredible Melting Man, for all its occasional laughability, actually has a heart. Of course, if you don't like red-and-orange goo and sloppy ebola-like goings-on, stay away. But if this sounds like your thing, and you got a few beers in ya, pop this in and melt away, baby.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Film #24: Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)


If you're looking for the greatest car chase movie in history, I’ve got it. It’s not The Fast and the Furious, or Bullitt, or The French Connection, or The Italian Job or The Seven-Ups. And it’s not the crappy Nicholas Cage remake that bears this movie’s title. It’s H.B. Halicki’s 1974 drive-in masterpiece Gone in 60 Seconds.

The title refers to the time it takes for this movie’s thieving crew to get into and steal someone’s automobile. Their task here is to steal 48 cars of varying makes and deliver them to the South American buyer in a short amount of time. That’s nearly all you need to know about the plot. Character and dialogue run a distant second to action in Gone in 60 Seconds and that’s the way it should be. Somehow, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced remake screwed this up and gave away precious car chase time for a ridiculous, boring family-revenge plot involving Cage and his brother, played by Giovanni Ribisi. Why, I ask? Why?


The original Gone in 60 Seconds does contain some family strife plot elements, but it’s more concerned with seeing how Halicki—who plays lead stunt driver AND lead car thief Maindrian Pace—gets away with stealing the most coveted buggy of all: a 1973 orange Ford Mustang Mach I code-named “Eleanor.” This serves as the backbone for the film’s centerpiece: a nail-biting, 40-minute car holocaust that was often staged on the real highways of California with barely a notice given to police, onlookers, and uninvolved fellow drivers (there’s one smash-up involving Eleanor and a light pole that was really an accident—one so hairy that the production had to be shut down while Halicki healed up). In fact, now that I think about it, no movie ever has documented so many KINDS of car troubles--from fender-benders and chugging breakdowns to the sort of all-out destruction that eventually has Eleanor looking like a raisin on wheels. By the way, all 93 cars destroyed within these frames were ones that Halicki owned. (Regret to inform: Halicki died in 1989 while performing a stunt for this film’s never-finished sequel.)


Some who’ve never seen this movie before will be struck by one thing in particular. Remember those lame/cool fake wigs and mustaches the Beastie Boys used for their “Sabotage” video? Well, that look came from this film! Now you know this, and having recommended this movie to all whole-heartedly, I must caution those with ADD that GI60S's improvised first half is often hard for some to get through. It was clearly filmed largely without sound, resulting in some weird dialogue scenes where the participants are never seen, and one pointless time-padding segment has the one woman in the midst of all these macho thieves sitting around the office daydreaming while some terrible music plays in the background. (I hate that, for the DVD release, the Halickis opted to replace Philip Katchurian’s once-cool country song score with much blander tunes.) But if you can make it through the first half, Gone in 60 Seconds has some unparalled thrills in store for you.


Finally, and I stole this from the IMDB for fans of the movie, here’s a list of all the cars the guys have to steal in this film, and their corresponding feminine names. Enjoy, car nuts!
"The complete list of 48 cars stolen by Maindrian and his crew for the contract, with the celebrity/business owners, where applicable, is as follows (pieced together from the blackboard in Maindrian's office as well as dialogue throughout the film):
1. Donna: 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood 75 Limousine
2. Karen: 1973 Stutz Blackhawk (The Upstairs Art Gallery)
3. Marilyn: 1970 De Tomaso Mangusta
4. Judy: 1962 Ferrari 340 America
5. Kathy: 1970 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow I
6. Nancy: 1971 Cadillac El Dorado
7. Terry: 1971 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow I (Willie Davis)
8. Dianne: 1972 Cadillac Fleetwood 75 Limousine (Morgan Limousine Service)
9. Christy: 1971 Chevrolet Vega
10. Patti: 1971 Citroen SM
11. Marion: 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham Limousine (The Gamby Mortuary)
12. Janet: 1971 Ford "Big Oly" Bronco (Parnelli Jones)
13. Annie: 1969 Manta Mirage (Whittlesey Motors)
14. Maxine: 1969 De Tomaso Pantera
15. Claudia: 1970 Jaguar XK1500
16. Leona: 1972 Cadillac Fleetwood Station Wagon (Bruce Industries)
17. Ruth: 1974 Lincoln Continental Mark IV
18. Sandy: 1972 Maserati Ghibli Coupe
19. Laurie: 1973 Cadillac El Dorado
20. Patricia: 1974 Cadillac Coupe DeVille
21. Tracie: 1967 Lamborghini Miura (Tayco)
22. Kelly: 1971 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow I (J.C. Agajanian)
23. Rosie: 1959 Rolls Royce Phantom V
24. Dorothy: 1957 MercedesBenz 300SL
25. Eleanor: 1973 Ford Mustang Mach I (Hal McClain)
26. Martha: 1972 Cadillac Fleetwood 75 Limousine (Morgan Limousine Service)
27. Beverly: 1930 Hudson Great Eight
28. Jean: 1971 Chevrolet Corvette C3
29. Betty: 1973 Jensen Interceptor
30. Joanne: 1972 MercedesBenz 200SE
31. Carey: 1966 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud II
32. Mary: 1973 Cadillac Coupe DeVille
33. Dorie: 1973 Stutz Blackhawk (FlorenceWestern Medical Center)
34. Frances: 1971 White Freightliner (Transall Trucking Co.)
35. Maria: 1970 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow I
36. Sharon: 1972 Ferrari 365 GTB
37. Ruby: 1972 Cadillac Fleetwood 75 Limousine (Morgan Limousine Service)
38. Michelle: 1969 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
39. Susan: 1972 Plymouth Barracuda
40. Alice: 1953 Chrysler Coupe Elegance
41. Paula: 1949 Ferrari V12
42. Julie: 1973 Lincoln Continental Mark IV Limousine
43. Renee: 1966 Lotus Europa S1
44. Jackie: 1966 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud III
45. Eileen: 1924 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost
46. Elizabeth: 1927 Citroen B14 Conduite
47. Lorna: 1968 Intermeccanica Italia GFX (Lyle Waggoner)
48. Nicole: 1972 Cadillac Fleetwood 75 Limousine (Morgan Limousine Service)"

Friday, April 4, 2008

Film #23: American Movie


It’s hard to make a movie. Think of it like building a car engine. You have to get all these parts, big and little, and fit them all together until the thing runs. Movies are also machines, and they have essential elements that become small when seen as part of the whole. The art direction, the catering, the casting, the loading of the camera…without any of these and many more elements, the machine won’t even begin to whirr.

Often, the only person who’s concerned enough about the contraption's smooth performance is the director. They are the only ones who have their hands in the contribution of each and every behind-the-scenes person, and they are the only ones who see the pieces of the puzzle fitting in with one another. This can be very taxing on the mind, spirit and body. As a director, one has to inspire one’s own enthusiasm as well as that of one’s collaborators. And if the collaborators are not inspired, either by money or by passion, then the director has to find a way to do their jobs himself. Directors need stamina and true belief, or nothing gets done.


American Movie knows this. Chris Smith and Sarah Price's remarkably humane documentary records resilient Wisconsin filmmaker and movie lover Mark Borchardt's quest to overcome his loser status (32 and divorced with two kids, he works at a cemetery and lives with his parents) by making Northwestern, a stark, black-and-white look at trailer-trash life whose production is halted when the budget fails to show. Along with his cadre of lifelong friends including his best buddy, doughy recovering party guy Mike Schank, an unshaken Borchardt decides to resurrect Coven, a 35-minute horror opus he long ago started but never finished. (Amusingly, he pronounces the title as "CO-ven," which is what you'll be calling it, too). Using funds provided by another of the film's unforgettable characters, his elderly Uncle Bill, Borchardt's plan is to complete Coven and direct-market it on video, thereby giving him the means to finish Northwestern.

It's here that director Smith gives us a harried look at the shooting and editing of a film that no other movie about moviemaking has ever really offered. The making of this 30-minute horror tale about an alcoholic’s entry into a world of witchcraft took a remarkable three years. (This speaks to the one luxury a truly independent filmmaker has: an endless amount of time to fine tune your product.) In its funniest scene -- and American Movie is a platinum mine of laffs -- Borchardt, as Coven's lead, attempts to capture a scene involving himself smashing another actor's head through a pantry door. The effort is hindered by an unbelievably embarrassing display of on-set naivete that leaves his fellow actor dazed and injured.


It’s easy to write Mark Borchardt off as a failed dreamer, but I don’t think he’s a failure at all. He’s just a little unfocused. At least he knows when he’s screwing up as a director. For all his blathery bullshitting, there is also a fair amount of truthfulness. He realizes when he’s not paying attention to the actors, and when he’s failing to give them the proper direction. He knows what he wants to see in the frame, and what he wants to hear on the soundtrack. But his problem is that he sometimes forgets to communicate these things to his collaborators. He needs people around him who are just as passionate about movies as he is, who can see what Mark wants without him having to micromanage them. (I love the scene where Mark is trying to get an opinion about his work from American Movie's directors, steadfastly refusing to answer from behind the camera even as Mark is giving them his best “eat shit” gaze.)

American Movie's greatness hails not just from seeing Borchardt overcoming on-set difficulties and his own taxing personality. The film is incredibly moving in many unexpected ways but particularly in how it portrays Mark's family and friends. The Borchardt clan apparently sometimes consider Mark's cinematic obsession as the sign of a deranged mind; one of his brothers—the one who’s obviously had more of a contentious relationship with Mark--says he can't conceive of the audience that would pay to see Coven and haughtily admits he thinks Mark is best suited for work in a factory. Yet, there's his confused mom, taking time out to run the camera or act as an extra, even though she realistically admits that she doesn’t believe that Mark has the ability to succeed in this venture. And there’s his dad, a guy who’s been beaten down so by his son’s failures that he’s now become pliable, even stolidly supportive of this mad moviemaking scheme.


And then there’s Mike, with his jittery nervous laugh, his droopy facial hair, his love of scratch-off gambling, his litany of acid burn-out stories, and his gentle guitar work (which happily acts as the score for American Movie). He too toils nonstop on Coven, just as a show of undying friendship with Mark. And even though this was a relationship first fomented by a shared love of vodka--or “vot-ka,” as Mike says in his Milwaukee accent—and even though Mike is now vehemently clean, he never rakes his beer-drinking buddy over the embers about his own continued usage (he does draw some boundaries, though). For his part, Mark finds his friend to be an unending source of joy. “Man,” Mark says as the chips are down in one part of the film, “I was feeling all depressed today and this guy came over and put a smile back on my face.” My favorite moment in American Movie comes when Mark is recording the screams of various actors to use on his Coven soundtrack; when Schenk steps up to the microphone, the guy lets out a metal-powered screech that puts smiles of gratitude on the faces of Mark and his crew. How sweet all of this is.


Finally, every scene Mark shares with his once sharp but now feeble, fatalisitic Uncle Bill is a marvelous peer into the unique relationship between a couple of true characters separated by generations. Mark is not just simply using his uncle--he loves him. No, this is much more complicated because, however unfaithful he might be towards Mark's abilities, Bill is still making one last stab at leaving something to a world he feels has forgotten him. Some of Bill’s most cynical remarks are tough to take--these portions of American Movie have a sorrow about them that approaches the levels of the Maysles' Grey Gardens or Ira Wohl’s 1979 documentary Best Boy, both of which also dealt partially with regrets in old age. One thing is for sure, though: Mark hasn’t forsaken Bill; he listens to him, feeds him, bathes him, clips his toenails (“Dude, look at that toenail! It’s, like, three-quarters of an inch thick! That’s a science photo!”), brings him his favorite drink of peppermint schnapps and Sprite, and even gives him the choice honor of having Bill deliver Coven’s first line of dialogue (the amusingly endless recordings of "It's alright, it's okay...there's something to live for--Jesus told me so" should act as a cautionary tale for filmmakers using non-professionals in their movies).

Rarely do movies portray so well an artist's -- particularly a frustrated, even sometimes an inept one's -- hunger for expression and comfort. Directors Smith and Price deftly deliver moments illustrating the determination and heart that go into even the most seemingly insignificant movie produced independent of the Hollywood system. So, by the end of American Movie, when Borchardt is trying desperately to finish the editing of Coven before its first screening, we're so in tune with everyone’s desire to see this project to completion, the payoff is ecstatic, if a little anticlimactic (Mark’s disappointing opening night speech to the audience is obviously delivered in a tired stupor).


I must conclude this loving review, however, with a harsh thought. Upon watching American Movie recently, I returned to a query I’d had long ago: Where is Northwestern, Borchardt’s abandoned tale of “rust and decay?” I wanna see it! Certainly during his time in the limelight, he could have found someone to pony up a few extra thousand for the film's completion. I mean, for all its faults, Coven (included on the DVD) does offer up a uniquely well-filmed atmosphere. But Northwestern hasn’t happened yet, and it's been eight years since American Movie's release! Why? Well, in searching for an answer, I ultimately have to question Borchardt’s true ambitions. He and Mike Schank became cult celebrities after the success of American Movie. I wonder if, having tasted this--having been a regular on David Letterman and cast in other films and such--I wonder if Mark really just wanted a tad of fame and fortune and maybe doesn’t wanna put in any more heartbreaking hard work towards getting a project done. I hate to think this about a filmmaker I like so much, but what else can I do?

Film #22: The Reflecting Skin


This grotesque and downbeat destruction-of-innocence story has Jeremy Cooper playing Seth, a Midwestern ‘50s-era boy whose less-than-stellar upbringing by his pedophile father and mentally diseased mother results in his decidedly off-kilter worldview. Among his fears and delusions are that the pale redhead down the road is a vampire and that the withered fetus he finds in a barn is the reincarnation of his dead best friend (he ends up keeping it under his bed and talking to it). When his beloved war hero brother (Viggo Mortensen) returns home from the army and falls in love with the alleged bloodsucker, the movie becomes dead set on taking us all the way down a bleak, wheat-lined road. The less said, the better, so as to protect the large number of surprises contained within its frames.

Written and directed by Philip Ridley (who wrote Peter Medak's The Krays, about the famed British gangsters), The Reflecting Skin is filmed in a grand, operatic style, gleaning inspiration from sources as diverse as Luis Bunuel, David Lynch, and Francois Truffaut (the final shots of furious adolescent daze are almost as staggering as Truffaut’s landmark
freeze-frame of Antoine Doinel at sea’s edge in The 400 Blows). It's stunningly scored by Nick Bicat and photographed by Dick Pope, with lyrical Andrea French production design that recalls Andrew Wyeth’s often disturbing paintings of Midwestern angst. Unfortunately, this Canadian production is another difficult film to locate, as it hasn't had a DVD release yet. So, as always, eBay and your local art-house store hold your most likely chances to catch this singular achievement. Maybe Viggo Mortensen's newfound popularity will ensure its eventual, essential release.