Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dear John Cassavetes: I love you, you fascinating bastard

It doesn’t break any ground to recognize John Cassavetes as “the father of independent cinema” – a misleading title that shortchanges his real achievements. Like most geniuses, he got screwed over while he was alive and then was canonized and miscategorized after death.

Actually, independent cinema has been churned out since the medium was invented. At the beginning, it was ALL independent, wasn’t it? -- before the integration of production and distribution created the mainstream studios, which studiously crushed the competition. (A complete primer of off-center, innovative work can be found in Treasures from American Film Archives, More Treasures from American Film Archives, Treasures III and IV, Kino’s marvelous Avant-Garde and Avant-Garde 2 collections, and the dauntingly large 7-disc Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film.)

Cassavetes entered the scene an as actor; for better or worse, under the influence of the Method. The quest to delve into the self for meaning, to find and project authentic content as a performer, transformed the profession.

It was an improvisation Cassavetes came across while teaching the Method that led to his inspiration to make his first film, Shadows. To show you how well-received it was, it couldn’t get any U.S. distribution – it had to win the Critics award at the Venice Film Festival in order for European distributors to grab and show in the States – as an import!

The bedrock of his approach is to strip away all the trappings of “quality cinema” – the production values and internalized code of taste that kept mainstream movies the safe, bland product it was sculpted to be. It’s just the script, the characters, the actors in focus and up front, and it lives or dies on those values.

You can see Cassavetes’ discomfort with the dominant Hollywood paradigm in his performances. He is typically cast as the wise guy, a smartass, an outsider who knows that the system is rigged – at the end of the scale a duplicitous, untrustworthy cynic. His Academy Award-nominated performance as Franko in The Dirty Dozen, his doomed Johnny North in the awful The Killers remake, even his Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby are desperately tired, scratching at the walls, almost but not quite rolling their eyes at the gimcrackery around them.

When Cassavetes gets behind the camera, he relaxes. He wants something real, and by God he goes and gets it.

His cinema is one of obsessively curious observation. There are no pat answers, no denouements, no moments of cleansing catharsis in them. Cassavetes films are full of stutter-steps, blind alleys, agonizingly long takes. Watching takes patience, forbearance, but it pays off.

He only made 9 films the way he wanted: Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, Gloria and Love Streams.

Of Cassavetes’ 9 “personal” films, "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" is the most frustrating and revealing. Of course, people hated it. As usual, I loved it.

Its center, strip club owner Cosmo Vitelli, is in a way Cassavetes himself. He’s marvelously played by Ben Gazzara. He’s a little guy with big dreams. As the film opens, he pays off a loan shark the money he owes on his club, the Crazy Horse West, finally owning it outright.

It’s a shithole, frankly, a tawdry showplace that’s nominally enlivened by a stage show that’s a cruel parody of its namesake, the erotic Paris nightclub that features elaborate stage shows. Here, the handful of dancers trot out and intersperse flashes of breasts with jokes, punctuated by the damp, unenthused singing and musing of the show’s emcee, the portly, balding, top-hatted “Mr. Sophistication.”

But Cosmo loves it. It’s his dream, his love child, his creative offspring. He stands in the back of the room, everything fresh and alive in his eyes. Later that night, he takes out three of his dancers to celebrate – charmingly, bringing each a corsage like some smitten prom-goer.

But Cosmo blows it. He and the ladies go gambling. The same impulses that push him on undo him, and he finds himself in debt to the tune of $23,000 to some shady types. They have him by the balls, and the squeezing begins. Before you know it, they have pressured him into the title act.

Although the movie has the structure of a tight noir tragedy, this is Cassavetes, and the plot takes a back seat to the people involved. Digressive swoops give us insight into Cosmo, his workers, the “bad guys,” and any incidental characters that pop up along the way. Every character, no matter how brief his or her time on the screen, gets their moment, gets to define themselves.

Along the way, we keep seeing Cosmo in shifting perspective. Is he a competent businessman? A killer? A clown? Right away, the conventions of the genre break down. The stolen car given to Cosmo to take him to the hit blows a tire on the freeway. Cosmo flees, and calls a cab. While waiting, he calls his club and checks on the show, quizzing the staff and berating them when they don’t even know where in his scenario the action is.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” says Cosmo’s victim, off camera before he pulls the trigger. “I’ve been a bad person.” It’s as if Cosmo’s killing himself, or at least the part he thought was safe, the part that would last. Later, when the killing’s contractors come after him to silence him, he seems unsurprised, resigned. Unimpressed by the danger. Indifferent.

Cosmo takes a bullet, but there’s no heroic end for him. Things slowly unravel, and he marches on, schmoozing with the help backstage, starting the show, lingering outside on the sidewalk waiting to greet the customers and hustle them inside, even as he quizzically dips his hand into his jacket to feel the blood dampening and spreading there.

There the filmmaker stands, too, seemingly unashamed of his rickety product, dying or not dying of his wounds, obdurate to anything that stands between himself and the fulfillment of his dreams, however crass and untidy.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Formative Film, Part Four: 'You Only Live Twice'

You Only Live Twice
Dir: Lewis Gilbert
Prod: Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman; Stanley Sopel (uncr)
Scr: Roald Dahl; Harold J. Bloom (uncr)
Phot: Freddie Young
Wadsworth Drive-In
5050 Wadsworth Blvd.
Arvada, Colorado
June 13, 1967

When I was six years old, we moved west from our farmland home in Iowa. At the end of the road was a new home, and a completely new phenomenon for me – the drive-in movie.

This was back in the days when you would spend your entire career at the same company. Being a loyal credit sales supervisor for the hardware chain Gambles-Skogmo, Inc., my father was subject to a regional reposting to the Denver area – and when they told you to go, you went. The movers came, we got in the car, mom and dad in front, myself and my infant sister rolling around loose on the back seat (seat belts were not legally mandated until a year later).

Surprisingly as it may seem now, the Jefferson County public schools west of Denver were highly rated (they are now mired in controversy and protest for suppressing negative U.S. historical information from their advanced-placement curriculum). This spurred my parents to settle down in the bedroom community of Arvada, Colorado – it turns out that we were only 12 miles downwind from a nuclear weapons plant, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

My primary impression of that ride was straining to see the mountains loom in the distance. That shut me up for about an hour after we crossed the Colorado border; they finally sprang into view near Keenesburg. In the midday sun they lacked all depth and definition and looked to me like painted stage flats.

We didn’t take possession of the house that night. Instead, we put up at a motel, staying on the second floor. After eating and getting ready for bed, I was told by my father to look outside.

Out there in the evening was a huge ribbon of movie floating in the darkness. A distant roar and rustle of echoing soundtrack trailed the images on a slight delay. A man was flipped up into a wall inside a Murphy bed and riddled with machine-gun bullets. I had just walked into the opening of the fifth Sean Connery James Bond film, “You Only Live Twice.”

I was flabbergasted. I was absorbed by Maurice Binder’s patented stylized title sequence. I saw them bury Bond at sea. His bandage-swathed corpse sank to the bottom. But wait! Here came some scuba divers!

Of course, my parents continued their long tradition of showing me something fascinating and then telling me to go to bed. They had to pry my clutching fingers from the balcony railing and drag me inside, whining.

It took about five years until I could actually see the whole film and finally satisfy my curiosity. (Spoiler alert: Bond doesn’t die . . . I had worried.) The exuberance of Roald Dahl’s extremely free adaptation of Ian Fleming’s source novel is grandly scaled, full of plot holes and non sequiturs. The film opens with kidnapping and murder in outer space, then kills Bond and resurrects him. THEN shoots him out of a torpedo tube.

This film sports the best incarnation of Bond villain Blofeld as well, the inimitable Donald Pleasence. With his blank stare and quietly creepy sense of menace, it’s a performance that seems now to be predestined for parody (Mike Meyers’ Dr. Evil). It’s not often you get to write or recite lines such as, “The firing power inside my crater is enough to annihilate a small army,” and the mishmash of enormous filming stage, miniatures, and just-flat-bad rocket animations pushes “You Only Live Twice” into the state of fever dream.

The male fantasies of power find their perfect distillation in Connery’s Bond, a great, hairy Scotsman who happens to be a genius at killing people and destroying things. Charming without being pleasant, his Bond is a superman sans cape, he beds everything he meets with a reflexive carnivorousness. And his associates keep herds of women around – even good-guy “Tiger” Tanaka grandly states, “I will share all my possessions with you,” as a cross-fade brings up a serving line of bikinied Japanese women at his home, ready to service whoever their boss brings home, evidently.

We were being indoctrinated, but it didn’t quite take. The American New Wave was a year from arriving, and the cascade of changes in film, and the social revolutions of the ‘60s and ‘70s, would shatter the suppositions that came before . . . to a degree. Bond films still make money, and Bond’s descendants populate almost every action movie made.

In retrospect, “You Only Live Twice” is for me the last unambiguously self-assured Bond film -- the last before Connery’s hiatus of discontent, and the imposition of a wife on the next Bond, George Lazenby, in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” When Connery returned in “Diamonds Are Forever,” the fun seemed gone, the sexist platitudes stale and anachronistic. The series began to comment on itself, a gamy, joking self-awareness that would expand during Roger Moore’s tenure as Bond. Only after much struggle during the Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan years would the Daniel Craig reboot restore a thuggish complexity to Bond’s character.

Meanwhile, the drive-in wouldn’t become a focal point of my film-watching career again until we got driver’s licenses and used them as places of refuge for forbidden behavior. We’ll get to that in a few more chapters.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Alan Arkin's 'An Improvised Life'

 An Improvised Life
Alan Arkin
Da Capo Press, 2011

This is not a critical review. This is not analysis. It’s excessive gushing followed by extensive quoting. Hope that works for you.

I’ve idolized Alan Arkin all my life. First, he made me laugh until I hurt in “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming!” Then he scared the crap out of me in “Wait Until Dark.” Then he made me cry in “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Then he did all three in “Little Murders.” And on it’s gone, to my delight, for decades since.

When I found out he got started, along with many of my other performing heroes, in improv, I was determined to do the same. I spent 15 years on stage making things up, and loved it. Except for that time I got a concussion. Or the time I ate the cigarettes. Or when I challenged 150 people to a fistfight. Those are other stories for other days.

So, when I saw his memoir on the shelf, I grabbed it. I can happily say that it’s one of the most readable reminiscences I’ve encountered in a long time – especially because it’s not really that. I’ll explain.

Most autobios retail anecdotes – I did this, then I did that, I slept with her, him, them, I got this award, that honor, I was great. Arkin serves his readers by focusing specifically on the art of improvisation and its transformative power. Reading “An Improvised Life” is a rewarding experience for those who know the craft, those who are curious, and those who became, like me, burned out and dead-ended in the discipline. Arkin’s book will remind the latter why this calling is so intoxicating, fruitful and worth the struggle.

Arkin wisely provides us with just enough of his life story to set the stage for his thoughts on performance. Indeed, watching the writer get out of his own way is in itself a treat. His professional ups and downs, marriages, and relationships with his offspring are subordinate to his discussion of the use of the form to promote self-understanding and growth. He is more interested in being a genuinely good person than a star.

He sees performance as a revelatory (but not self-indulgent) process, instead of as an act of commodification. He writes:

“We live in a culture where everything is selling. I watch TV and I don’t see events, I see people selling me events. The newscasters are not reporting the news, they are dramatizing it, selling it, selling themselves as good reporters. They’re making the news “interesting” . . . actors are selling products they have no feeling for; the political forums are all jazzed up and contain endless faked fights . . . We’re so imbued with the onslaught of selling, selling ,selling – products and personalities – so bombarded with hype and false excitement that I think we forget what a real experience feels like . . . we begin to believe that since we are expected to have an experience that we are actually having one.”

I’ve often referred to this as “the Broadway experience.” If you shell out big bucks for a concert, play, movie or activity, it’s very difficult to admit disappointment or even dislike. Along with the rest of the audience, you are on your feet at the end, applauding. Why? Well, because you feel like a dupe if you don’t. Early in my career as a critic, I was often unduly harsh in reaction to the complacency I perceived. (Needless to say, my snarky comments didn’t bring the revolution.)

Arkin, like me, is a big fan of Shunryu Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” and advocates throwing away stale behaviors and perceptions onstage and off, getting fresh eyes. The second half of Arkin’s book deals almost exclusively with his work directing improvisational seminars, and it’s his demand that people stop looking for the punch line, to STOP ACTING, that I find so exciting.

The roots of improvisation are spontaneously play; when harnessed to the exigencies of appearing on a comedy stage, they turn into predictable setups. The standup comic traditionally likes to get a laugh in his or her routine with a frequency of between 15 and 20 seconds. That need caused me and others, countless times, to cut to the gag in an improvised instead of trying a more difficult, less payoff-certain path. Eventually, improv games became routinized, from development to payoff to blackout line. I was bored out of my skull, but didn’t have the wit or ability to push against the compulsion.

Arkin reduces the onstage impulse to intention and the emotional context stemming from same. He reframes the motivating spring between people onstage from “conflict” to “objective,” sidestepping the often fatal flaw of creating opposition in a scene gratuitously. He sees his function in leading a workshop as, one, providing support and a lack of judgment and two, “to help people get out of their heads. Their clever place.” He describes the results as “deeper, more spontaneous and more connected.” I believe it.

Making room for honest feeling and reaction allows players to invest the work with meaning. They don’t have to “buy into” anything, because they are being real, even in a willfully imagined context.

Arkin’s later workshops seem to involve people from all walks of life, not dedicated performers. As someone who has done many of these seminars, and who always felt guilty about taking money for them, I wondered frequently if people really got anything out of the experience, took something home with them that they could use in their “real” lives.

Arkin provides an answer: “If something is to come out of the experience it will come out of devotion to what is taking place right now. I believe this fervently, both in life and in a workshop: that if this present moment is lived whole-heartedly and meticulously, the future will take care of itself.”

That’s quite a punch to the gut, especially for someone as approval- and accomplishment-oriented as I still am. What? I don’t have to prove anything? I can just be? How does that work?

“In the final analysis, it’s all improvisation,” Arkin concludes. “We’re all tap dancing on a rubber raft. We like to think otherwise, so we plan our lives, we plot, we figure, we find careers that will guarantee us early retirement, we look for relationships that are permanent, we fill out forms, we do scientific experiments, we write rules – all in an attempt to solidify, concretize and control this universe of ours that refuses to be pigeon-holed, to be understood, pinned down, categorize, or even named . . . It’s all the nagging, the complaining, the plotting, the fears, the endless need to keep the universe in all its majestic chaos at bay – that with a little more thought and effort we can figure it all out, control it all, the universe, our destiny. This is what kills us, robs us of our spontaneity, our ability to improvise . . . “

Inspiring is an overused term, but appropriate in this case. For those who want to reach a place of authenticity and immediacy, the outline is right here. “An Improvised Life” asserts that there is a significant spiritual dimension to life, and that process trumps both end and means. It redeems much for me. Thanks, Mr. Arkin. Thank you very much!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Filmed in Colorado

Jimmy Stewart in Anthony Mann's 1953 "The Naked Spur," whose key scenes were shot near Durango.
This story originally appeared in 5280 magazine in 2009 and hasn't been updated since then. The "Hollywood, Colorado" exhibit organized by the Boulder History Museum in 2012 is a vastly more comprehensive and up-to-date history. Here's a Westword blog post about it.

If you're from Denver, and you're willing to take a chance on the soon-to-be-released Eddie Murphy comedy, "Imagine That," you'll see a lot of familiar territory. If you were at the premiere of "Catch and Release," the 2006 romantic comedy starring Jennifer Garner, you'll remember Boulder residents cheering themselves as they appeared on the screen as extras, drowning out the principals' dialouge.

Jog your memory of recent films you’ve seen, either in the theater or on the tube. “About Schmidt”? “Nurse Betty”? “The Laramie Project”? “Bowling for Columbine”? If you’ve seen them, you’ve seen Colorado.

From the medium’s beginnings to the present day, Colorado can be seen in the cinema’s parade of images again and again. As backdrop, production base, and breeding ground, it has figured more prominently in film history than a casual observer might suspect. Since silent days, Colorado-based films and filmmakers have covered territory from classic Westerns to cutting-edge documentaries. They include work honored with Oscars and with places in the National Film Registry. These films are as varied as a musical about cannibal Alferd Packer and the seminal work of pioneering experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage.

It all began with the frenzy of film production that followed the first public projection of inventor Thomas Edison’s movies in New York City on April 3, 1896. Edison sent out photographers across the country from his plant in West Orange, New Jersey to record snippets of reality in fifty-foot, thirty-second snatches of film. These “actuality” films recorded persons, places, and events of interest to audiences of the day. Viewers were entranced early viewers with titles such as “Scene from the Elevator Ascending Eiffel Tower,” “Annie Oakley,” and even the vaudeville oddity “Professor Welton’s Boxing Cats.”

In this pursuit, in 1897 the head of the Edison Company’s Kinetograph Department, James H. White, and photographer Frederick Blechynden shot the first extant footage of Colorado, in sequences such as “Procession of Mounted Indians and Cowboys,” and the kinetic “Denver Fire Brigade,” in which horse-drawn engines, careening and chuffing smoke, dart obliquely toward and past the camera as an excited throng crowds both sides of a downtown Denver street.

Meanwhile, one of Edison’s rivals, a former stage magician and theatrical impresario from Chicago named William Selig, chose Colorado as a film site because of its mild climate and many days of sunshine, and the excellent quality of the light (essential in the age of primitive equipment and film stock). In addition, Selig’s film company, Selig-Polyscope, was among a host of competitors who pirated the Edison patents that were vital to filmmaking. In an effort to maintain his monopoly, Edison sued his rivals and enjoined them from making movies.

All this did was force them west, away from the powers of the court. Selig recruited pioneer Denver still photographer H. H. “Buck” Buckwalter as his cameraman. By 1902, Buckwalter had begun his work for Selig on dozens of short films. He took footage of local sights -- “Arrival on Summit of Pike’s Peak,” “Runaway Stage Coach,” and “Panorama of Denver from Balloon at Elitch’s.” In a promotional stunt, Buckwalter advertised the mild climate by filming Denverites strolling 17th Street in their shirtsleeves one January day in 1905 (after unexpected snow canceled a couple of earlier tries). “Denver in Winter” may rank as one of history’s first filmed commercials.

Hot on the heels of the smash success of the first Western, pioneering Edison director Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 “The Great Train Robbery,” Buckwalter photographed Colorado’s first narrative film, a tale of violence and mob retribution -- “Tracked by Bloodhounds; or, A Lynching at Cripple Creek”. The true Western hadn’t arrived out West yet, however. A man would shortly be arriving from Chicago who would change all that -- the creator of the cowboy hero, “Bronco Billy” Anderson.

Actor/writer/director/producer George M. Anderson was born with the decidedly un-Western moniker of Max Aronson in 1883. Changing his name early in his acting career to avoid anti-Semitic hindrances, he eventually joined Edison’s film company, playing three different roles in Porter’s “Robbery” (he’s the one falling off his horse in the chase scene). He continued to learn all he could about the film business, acting and directing for the Edison Company and the Vitagraph Company.

In 1907, the ambitious Anderson went to Selig and convinced him to lend him funds and Selig’s Denver filming crew in order to make authentic Westerns on location, working in the Golden/Morrison area. Displeased with the results, he split with Selig and formed Essanay Studios with George K. Spoor, proprietor of the National Film Renting Company in Chicago. Anderson returned to Denver in the fall of 1909 with money, equipment, and a small company of actors. Here the inventive, resourceful Anderson began rehearsing the ideas and techniques that would culminate in the wildly popular adventures of Bronco Billy.

For the first time, a moviemaker was telling stories of the West in the real West, a place still largely untouched by civilization. There was no need to costume the cowhands who rode and playacted for the camera -- the stories were silly, but the details were documentary. Anderson worked hurriedly, cranking out five films a week (in the next seven years, he would complete nearly 400).

The character he was developing in films shot in the Golden/Morrison area, like “Ranchman’s Rival” and “On the Warpath,” and was to christen “Bronco Billy” a year later, is that of a lively, violent, bluff and hearty good/bad cowpoke. Anderson discovered that establishing a central character with whom the audience could identify in film after film was vital to success, and these recurring appearances became a huge box office draw. Anderson’s persistence and entrepreneurial savvy paid off. With the aid of authentic experience in Colorado, the first Western star was born.

Anderson recruited extras and bit players from the cowboys whose ranches he filmed at, and in doing so sparked the career of Colorado’s only movie cowboy hero -- Pete Morrison.

Pete and his brothers Chick, Carl, and Bob were grandsons of the town of Morrison’s eponymous founder, George. They were called on to wrangle the Anderson’s rented stock, and were all eventually pressed into service in front of the camera. The Denver Post described the outfit’s activities during the making of “The Heart of a Cowboy” in 1909: “G.M. Anderson ... has been in Denver for six weeks, ‘making pictures’ ... ’Colorado is the finest place in the country for Wild West stuff’ (stated Anderson) ... the company reached Mt. Morrison at 9, where the train was met by a bunch of trained cow ponies and riders under the command of the Morrison brothers themselves.” Pete, Chick, and Carl took to the lucrative pay and the excitement of slapping pictures together.

Anderson ultimately moved his base out to Southern California, where the preponderance of film production was taking place. A few years later, the Morrison boys migrated to Los Angeles together to make careers of movie work. Chick would eventually move behind the camera to become one of Hollywood’s most highly regarded horse trainers, until he was tragically killed by an Arabian stallion he was taming in 1924. Pete caught on as a leading man and appeared in 204 silent Westerns for Universal between 1918 and 1926, only 3 of which survive today. Although his star had faded to the extent that he was reduced to driving mule trains in another film hero’s first Western and first starring role, “The Big Trail” (1930), he was to a have a lasting impact on that young actor’s career. Marion Morrison, concerned that people would confuse him with the popular Pete, changed his name -- to John Wayne.

Another great Western star served his apprenticeship in Colorado. Tom Mix, silent film’s “King of the Cowboys,” was a drifter who had turned his hand to just about every kind of job the West offered when he hooked up with Selig-Polyscope in 1910. A year later, he was part of a band of filmmakers that set up camp August 3, 1911, above Central City. Two weeks later, the Gilpin County Observer reported, “Central City was treated to a sensation today. A group of masked outlaws held up a bank on Main Street in broad day light and carried away with them a sackful of money. But not in dead earnest. The bank was a fake and the bold, bad men were actors of the Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago, who have made our city their temporary headquarters.” After churning out five films in three weeks, the company moved to Canon City. The locals were ecstatic to find glamorous movie folk in their midst, and welcomed the earnings from stock rental and pay as extras (children, $1.00 per day, adults $5.00). The Canon City Record proudly exclaimed, “There is some thought that Canon City may become the movie capital of the country.”

The Selig-Polyscope Company, with Mix, spent two summers in Canon City, renting out headquarters there in a two-story office building at 314 Main Street. The cast and crew made films like “Told in Colorado” and “Why the Sheriff Is a Bachelor,” and joined in the life of the town, attending church and putting on free shows for the inmates at the State Prison. The men whooped it up in the local saloons at night, one anecdote recalling Mix’s penchant for shooting lemons perched in empty shot glasses off the bar in nearby Hell’s Half Acre.

Here Mix began to form his flashy, stunt-oriented, broadly humorous style. Colorado became one of Mix’s favorite places, and he returned often after achieving stardom a few years later in California. In 1926, he filmed “The Great K & A Robbery” in Glenwood Springs, a film memorable for a stunt in which Mix slides down a cable from the top of Glenwood Canyon straight to the bottom, into the saddle of his wonder horse, Tony.

The Colorado Motion Picture Company was formed in 1913 by investors in Denver and Canon City. Production began in 1914, the company taking over Selig-Polyscope’s vacated headquarters in Canon City. The venture was doomed to be cut short by tragedy. On July 1, 1914, the last day of principal photography for “Across the Border,” leading lady Grace McHugh was crossing the Arkansas River when her horse shied and threw her, and she was swept away by the strong current. Cameraman Owen Carter leapt into the river and, grabbing her, struggled to the river’s bank. They almost made it. Both were caught again in the swift current, carried downstream, and drowned. Carter’s body was found a week later; McHugh’s, a week after that. Her family sued, and the judgment bankrupted the fledging company. With rare exceptions, it would be over 30 years before Hollywood visited Colorado again.

Historian Larry Jensen states that “Hollywood didn’t venture into the mountains of Colorado until after highways were improved in the late 1940’s.” These postwar improvements aided companies looking for Technicolor scenery and sweeping stories that would lure viewers away from their televisions. The jailbreak thriller “Canon City” broke the ice with location filming at the State Penitentiary in 1948. It inspired a young local photographer named Karol Smith to promote Colorado in Hollywood, and to eventually form what was to become the first state-legislated film commission in 1969.

In 1949, director Raoul Walsh filmed “Colorado Territory” in the San Juan Mountains, utilizing the old Silverton-to-Durango narrow gauge railroad for some scenes. In the next 15 years, over two dozen movies used the line and the surrounding area as a backdrop for Westerns, epics, and adventure tales such as “How the West Was Won,” “Viva Zapata!,” and “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Legendary American director John Ford added Colorado to his palette of Western locales for “The Searchers” and “Cheyenne Autumn.” The San Juans stood in for Leadville in the 1964 musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” -- Debbie Reynolds was so enchanted by the location that she settled her mother there shortly afterwards.

Gradually, filming spread across the state. In 1957, a standing Western set near Canon City named Buckskin Joe was constructed, and is still in use today. Much of “True Grit” was filmed in Ridgway in the southwest corner of the state, and some of the film’s additions to the town’s architecture still stand in place. John Wayne spent some time in local saloons; his Stetson hung for years in a hallowed place behind the bar of the Outlaw Restaurant on Ouray’s Main Street. Meanwhile, Colorado began to be seen as a setting for more than just Westerns. All kinds of movies shot some or all footage here, from the heavy drama of films such as “Scarecrow” and “Badlands” to the buffooneries of “Every Which Way But Loose” (those nostalgic for Sid King’s East Colfax strip club are advised to take a peek) and the National Lampoon “Vacation” series.

At the same time, Colorado blossomed as both a setting and home for documentaries and documentarists. David and Albert Maysles tracked the creation of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s monumental but short-lived environmental art piece that filled Rifle Gap in August, 1973, in their “Christo’s Valley Curtain.” Master documentarist Frederick Wiseman filmed “Meat,” his examination of the processing of animals into food products, in the stockyards and processing plants of Greeley. (Wiseman returned to Colorado in 1991 to film a portrait of “Aspen.”) Chris Beaver’s 1983 “Dark Circle” ruthlessly exposed the traumas inflicted on employees and neighbors of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. And in 1998, Coloradans Donna Dewey and Carol Pasternak took home an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject for their portrait of a deformed Vietnamese boy and his life-changing surgery in “A Story of Healing.”

Boulder served as home, workplace, and inspiration for experimental (“...called ‘experiment’ by those who don’t understand it”) filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who traveled the world as an honored theorist, lecturer and artist. After years of travel, contact with the avant-garde, a stint of commercial film work, and even a brief episode running a theater in Central City, he came to reject commercial cinema.
“There is virtually no art of the film to be found in any formalized motion picture producing system I know of and probably never will be, “ he stated in his document “Metaphors on Vision.” His 1964 epic vision “Dog Star Man,” made in and around Boulder on a shoestring budget, has been placed in the National Film Registry. In it and other early works, Brakhage postulates the camera/eye as first-person protagonist in a “lyrical cinema” that reflects his unique sensibilities. He returned to Boulder in the late ‘80s, where he served as Distinguished Professor at CU’s Department of Film Studies. (Two of Brakhage’s erstwhile students were Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who set their hit series in the mythical Colorado mountain town of “South Park.”)

The past twenty years featured sporadic bursts of industry growth in the state. Viacom’s choice of Denver for the production of its series of Perry Mason TV films (1985-1993) pumped millions into the local economy and involved a number of local talents, and has subsequently attracted similar outside film and television projects. Warren Miller Films, pioneer makers of snowsport films since 1947, relocated to Boulder from California in 1993 and, under the ownership of Miller’s son Kurt and Peter Speek, has stepped up and diversified its cinematic efforts.

Recent films that use the mountains and plains have ranged from determined independents such as documentarians the Beeck sisters (“Grandpa’s in the Tuff Shed,” “Free Boulder”) and CU’s Jerry Aronson (“The Life and Times of Allan Ginsberg”) through the bizarre and seedy noir of “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead”) to unabashed schlock such as “The Dragon and the Hawk,” “Destroyer,” “Brain Creature,” “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend,” “Atomic Train,” “Visions,” and the twin JonBenet Ramsey murder TV treatments -- “Perfect Murder, Perfect Town” and “Getting Away with Murder.”

The state will continue to host filmmakers and those who love them. Who knows? You might find me handling a clapboard slate up in the mountains this summer myself.