Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The NFR Project #4: 'Edison Kinetographic Record of a Sneeze; aka Fred Ott’s Sneeze'

Edison Kinetographic Record of a Sneeze; aka Fred Ott’s Sneeze
Dir: William K.L. Dickson

 Who was the first film star? It was good old Fred Ott, the office cutup.

The official debut of cinema, in the hands of the Lumiere brothers, was still almost exactly two years away. Thomas Edison was busy trying to crack the problems of making and showing sequential images for profit.

The protean American inventor was also an exceptionally sharp businessman and master marketer (and litigator against rivals) as well. In the hands of his deputy Dickson, after more than two years of experiments, the first public exhibition of a Kinetoscope was held on May 9, 1891. (The film shown there, “Blacksmith Scene,” I have written on previously in the NFR series. The link is here.)

Soon Dickson was filming “actualities” to fill the short-duration loops the Kinetoscope could accommodate. The playback devices were coin-operated, hand-cranked, and could only accommodate one viewer at a time. Cranking the spindle, the images, backed by a light source, would pass in front of a set of magnifying glasses set in a frame. The images were printed on tough, flexible celluloid trimmed to a width of 1 3/8 inches per frame – 35 millimeters, the standard through to the digital age.

Oddly enough, when the first Kinetoscope parlor opened on April 14, 1894 at Broadway and 27th Street in Manhattan, this film wasn’t on the menu with the familiar “Blacksmiths,” “Horse Shoeing,” “Highland Dance,” and seven others. This film is composed of a demonstration strip of photographs taken to illustrate an article for Harper’s Weekly about the new process (Edison also knew how to work the press).

On January 7, journalist Burton Phillips came to Edison’s East Orange, New Jersey lab. He requested “some nice-looking person” perform a sneeze. Casting about the office, they settled on Ott, a jovial prankster, who was happy to comply.

In the five seconds of the film, we see an affable, sharp-nosed, big-eared, well-fed, luxuriously mustachioed man. He feigns taking a pinch of snuff, sneezes, then looks up just as the film ends. I have run this hopped-up filmstrip a dozen times. 

Is it my imagination, or does Fred Ott give us a coy, sly look at the last millisecond? I think he does, making this the first film to really capture feeling and illustrate character. In that last millisecond, film shows its potential. And I think that’s what makes this snippet memorable, crowding out the contemporary shorts of trapeze artists, wrestlers, fighting cocks, and the like.

Two days later, Dickson and his assistant copyrighted the film, as a photograph, at the Library of Congress, making this the first identifiable copyrighted film. Oh, Fred Ott, what have you wrought?

Friday, November 20, 2015

10 strange Sherlocks

Some of the 26 episodes of Sherlock Hound (1984-1985) were directed by Miyazaki.
I wrote the (hopefully) definitive list of top screen Sherlock Holmes for Westword a few weeks ago; you can read it here. Upon publication, it was greeted with resounding disinterest. Still, being a typical obsessive Sherlock fan, I compiled another list at the time and thrust it aside. I have far more important things to do than write another wacky list no one seems to want to read.

And the list kept floating to the top of the pile. It called softly, insistently to me. It cried in the wee hours of the morning. So . . . here goes nothing.

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most recognized literary characters in the world, and one of the most malleable. He has found himself amenable to adaptation in stories by other authors than Arthur Conan Doyle, so-called “Sherlockiana.” In them, he shows up in familiar and non-familiar forms. He is gay; he is a woman. He has been portrayed as an addict, an idiot-savant, a murderer himself. He has fought Jack the Ripper, Dracula, and Fu Manchu. He comes from the future; he’s an alien being. The possibilities have been explored.

It seems that Holmes can get on your nerves as well. Conan Doyle bumped him off once, only to resurrect him due to popular demand. Basil Rathbone, the archetypal Golden Age Hollywood Holmes, had fun spoofing the character, as this snippet from anarchic comedy team Olsen & Johnson’s 1943 romp, “Crazy House”:

Nowhere has Holmes been toyed with more than in film and TV. The instant visual association snaps the stereotype of the brilliant intellect into place, and the viewer goes with whatever premise is being proffered. I may not have found the most disturbing variants on Holmes, but it’s not for lack of trying.

Marty Feldman and Gene Wilder discover they have an insufficient amount of pants in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother.

Gene Wilder, Sigerson Holmes
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother
(Gene Wilder, 1975)

Gene Wilder’s directorial debut is shaky, but delivers some laughs. He plays Sigi, the insanely jealous and none-too-bright younger brother of Sherlock. When he gets involved in stopping a plot to destroy the kingdom, complications ensure. Silly fun with a supporting cast that includes Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Leo McKern, Roy Kinnear, and Dom DeLuise, it would be difficult for it not to be hilarious in places. And it contains the funniest and only parody of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera on film.

John Cleese, Arthur Sherlock Holmes
The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It
(Joseph McGrath, 1979)

It’s a dodgy, cheaply made, and intermittently funny modern satire/send-up, chiefly interestingly for watching Cleese work his tormented magic as Holmes. Arthur Lowe is wonderful as the densest Watson in history, and Connie Booth plays Mrs. Hudson. When it does make sense, it’s terribly black sense.

Peter Cook, Sherlock Holmes
The Hound of the Baskervilles
(Paul Morrissey, 1978)

Directed by the twisted genius behind Warhol films such as Flesh for Frankenstein, this muddied, almost incomprehensible nightmare on film distorts the whole Holmes oeuvre. It’s disturbing, really. It also contains the cream of British comic actors of the time – Roy Kinnear, Hugh Griffith, Spike Milligan, Penelope Keith, Terry-Thomas, Denholm Elliott – and Dudley Moore as Watson!

Philip Proctor, Hemlock Stones
The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra
(Firesign Theatre, 1974)

Not as well-regarded as their first four albums were, this Firesign Theatre romp is just as dense with mayhem and cultural references as a typical Nick Danger outing. It’s another parable about the evils of the modern state, writ large in genre. As always with Firesign, listen with headphones – the sound engineering is impeccable.

Michael Caine, Reginald Kincaid
Without A Clue
(Thom Eberhardt, 1988)

Here’s the pitch, boss – we make a Sherlock Holmes movie, but Holmes is a dumbass! Whaddaya think? Ben Kingsley is the brilliant Dr. Watson, whom no one believes is brilliant due to his Holmes construct, played by actor Kincaid (Caine).

Playfair/Holmes (George C. Scott) and Dr. Watson (Joanne Woodward)
George C. Scott, Justin Playfair
They Might Be Giants
(Anthony Harvey, 1971)

Scott is a judge driven to madness by the death of his wife. He believes he is Sherlock Holmes, and his brother sends a psychiatrist to certify him insane. Unfortunately, that doctor is Dr. Watson (Joanne Woodward), and Holmes makes sense. It’s a beautiful little film about the dream of a world in which crimes are solved and justice is done.

Data (Brent Spiner) as Holmes and Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton) in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Data (Brent Spiner), Sherlock Holmes
Star Trek: The Next Generation
(Various, 1987-1994)

The android Lieutenant Commander Data was fond of the detective, and sometimes played him in recreational holodeck situations, the subject of a few episodes in the series.

Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Coke Ennyday
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish
(John Emerson/Christy Cabanne, 1916)

A “hallucinogenic odyssey into the absurd.” Fairbanks is a parody of Holmes only in that he wears checks and shoots up lots and lots of cocaine (the film was made a year before opium and cocaine was made illegal in the U.S.). It’s a weird short subject, a trick film in the manner of the more popular When the Clouds Roll By in 1919.

Buster Keaton, Projectionist/Sherlock Jr.
Sherlock Jr.
(Keaton/Arbuckle (last uncred.), 1924

One’s of Keaton’s best, the only reference to Holmes is glancing, but it motivates the entire plot. This is the film with the legendary sequence of Keaton stepping into the film and being flung from scene to scene, an inspiration for Chuck Jones, Woody Allen, and others.

Daffy Duck, Dorlock Holmes
Deduce, You Say!
(Chuck Jones, 1956)

It’s the wacky waterfowl as Holmes, with Porky as Watkins, versus the, as Daffy would put it, “Thropshire Thlasher”. It goes about as well for Daffy as you might expect.

Monday, November 9, 2015

FORMATIVE FILM 11: Life at the Lake Shore – “Death Wish”/”The Longest Yard” (1974)

Death Wish
Dir: Michael Winner
Prod: Hal Landers, Bobby Roberts, Michael Winner, Dino de Laurentiis (uncred.)
Scr: Wendell Mayes
Phot: Arthur J. Omitz
July 24, 1974

The Longest Yard
Dir: Robert Aldrich
Prod: Albert S. Ruddy
Scr: Tracy Keenan Wynn
Phot: Joseph F. Biroc
August 30, 1974

Lake Shore Drive In
17th Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard
Edgewater CO

Into the valley of misanthropy, misogyny, and substance abuse we go.

No, I’m not talking about a trip to the Elks’ Club (kidding guys -- Dad was a faithful member. The hour of 11 has a tender significance.)

I’m talking about the drive-in trash we undoubtedly were, the last wave of the target demographic for the boom in films projected outdoors and watched from your car. My latest historical tally of drive-in theaters in the Denver/Boulder area runs to 21 – marvelous names such as the Star Vu, the Kar-Vu, the Star-Lite, and the Motorena, as well as the prosaic Compass Drive-In chain, which consisted of the North, South, East, and West, and others.

The first one to go up was the East, in 1947. The Valley Drive-In came down in 1977, and housing developments began to gobble up the rest. By the time we were parents ourselves, there were few left, and most of them were eyesores that collected wind-blown garbage crucified against the chain-link perimeter fences, and abandoned furniture and clothing in the rear corners of the lots.

Now, outdoor cinema is booming. For the first time in decades, a new drive-in was built and opened, in 2015 – the Denver Mart at I-25 and 58th. Of the original drive-ins, only one survived, the venerable and renovated 88 at 8780 Rosemary in Commerce City. That it did is a tribute to its unwieldy location – in a largely industrial area smack up against the former Rocky Mountain Arsenal. It’s as close as you’re going to get today to the vintage experience.

Our Denver days were marked with drive-ins. The night we moved to town, we stayed in a motel that overlooked the Wadsworth Drive-In – and there, moving with silent authority, was the 40-foot-tall Cinerama puss of Sean Connery as James Bond in You Only Live Twice. This was a mind-blowing experience I deal with more thoroughly here at an earlier Formative Film chapter.

Of course, we went a lot as a family (it was cheaper, even more so if they charged by the carload). You brought your own food (and dad brought his beer, both parents smoking freely, at will, copiously) and you jammed a filthy metal speaker, looking like a refugee from a steampunk/Flash Gordon collision, into the viselike grip of your driver’s-side window against the doorframe of your car.

We put on our jammies and ran around like little maniacs, high on Mountain Dew (no one thought it had caffeine in it) and Sugar Babies, playing on the little playground that, unfortunately for all al fresco cinephiles actually trying to enjoy the film, set right in front of the screen. 

We stuck with the Wadsworth, and included the Nor-West sometimes. After a few years of this, we kids got bored. We dawdled back and forth from the snack bar, and crept into the back of the lot, where it seemed more interesting things were happening. We could smell weird things burning, and hear the clink of bottles, and the windows of some of the cars were steamy and some weren’t and guys yelled at us to get the fuck out of there.

This was for us! When did we get on this action?

Later than sooner, my friends starting getting their driver’s licenses. At last, we had scroungy little half-jobs and had a little folding money. (Allowances were for rich kids, no one of whom we knew. We thought they looked like Reggie in the Archie comics – tennis racquet, sneer.) We gathered our forces. Once we had accumulated four cars and someone who looked old enough to buy beer, we planned our escape.

We determined to go to the Lake Shore, at 17th and Sheridan across from Sloan’s Lake, for two reasons. One, none of our parents would go there and two, there was a giant tear in the chain-link fence at the dimly-lit southeast corner rear of the lot. Scouting missions consisting of smaller groups had successfully penetrated the perimeter in recent, evaluative forays. It was time to get most of the 27 14-to-16-year-olds in for free. (At other times, did we really use to smuggle people in the trunk to save money? Absolutely.)

They dropped us off in small groups, the advantage of we immediately canceled out by gathering together and creeping noisily along under some streetlights. I’m sure that, if we had looked deep into the minds of those running the theater, we would have found the words COULD CARE LESS. No one jumped us as we contorted through the gash in the mesh.

Trunks full of illicitly purchased beer, the quartet of vehicles made their way into the entertainment area, springs squeaking, headlights bouncing violently up and down. The preferred method of speed control in drive-in lots was to make every path a moto-cross-like pattern of hill and gully. Many a brave muffler was struck off its prime. Finally, the show began.

I had never deliberately sat own and had a beer before. Of course, there were the humiliating public sips proffered by adults, who laughed uproariously when you tried it and made a face. I still made a face. It still tasted awful. Still I worked at it in as manfully a manner as I could muster.

My friend Carl Johnson was a lot better at it. We always called him by his full name; it had always been thus. Carl Johnson was my soul brother forever, as we had listened to Wish You Were Here for the first time together. Minds blown. Carl Johnson was cracking beers and cackling.

This was really new cinematic territory for us. We were finally breaking into brown-up films. That we started with Death Wish was unfortunate. This is the genre film that started the whole film and TV cycle of grim men with big guns taking the law into their own hands, until we were flooded with wisecracking vigilantes.

The impulse is understandable. The country was in the trough of apathy, distrust, and cynicism. The economy was lousy (remember the New York Daily News headline of October 30, 1975, “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD”). The cities were crime- and drug- and poverty-infested shitholes – ironically, the war-zone New York City of my later youth. People felt powerless, especially insecure middle-aged professional white men, oddly the first to feel aggrieved if not emasculated by anything less than smooth control of their environment and others.

Enter Paul Kersey, architect. He’s played in Death Wish by Charles Bronson, who was at the apex of his popularity. He went to Europe to make a name for himself in movies such as Once Upon a Time in the West and Rider on the Rain, and now the French called him the monster sacre – the holy monster. He was cranking out a string of tough-guy actioners, but Kersey is a more troubled soul.

In fact, Brian Garfield’s original novel specifically condemns vigilantism and gun violence. Director Michael Winner took it the opposite way, invoking metaphors from and references to movie Westerns to instill an Old West mentality into Kersey, making him the archetypal good man pushed into violent action after his wife and daughter are assaulted by thugs.

The initial assault is one of the most problematic in film, just as disturbing as Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs three years earlier, and much less thoughtful. Kersey’s wife and daughter, barely sketched as personalities, are ambushed in their Manhattan apartment. The wife is killed and the daughter is graphically sexually assaulted. In fact, pretty much every woman in this film is a victim.

Even at that young age, beer in my lap, it did not feel right. In that scene, the camera is a bystander, a voyeur. The shots are not trying to invoke our compassion, they are not condemning what we see, they are simply recording sexual humiliation, making a sex object out of the character just as much as the thugs are. An anti-crime film is trying to have it both ways, to ogle the forbidden while condemning it. My eyes were drawn to it, and I felt bad. (That one of the thugs is Jeff Goldblum in his film debut doesn’t help any. When viewing today. There are a surprising number of familiar faces here – the always-great Vincent Gardenia, and Christopher Guest, Olympia Dukakis, Paul Dooley, Al Lewis, William Redfield, and Sonia Manzano, Maria of Sesame Street fame. She recommended Herbie Hancock, who wrote a great score for the film)

Of course Bronson is up to the challenge of baiting, hunting, and killing no-goods, all poor, few Caucasian. People are no damn good, rehabilitation is a joke, might as well blow them away. The message here has the simple appeal of brutality – it is swift, unthinking, undiscriminating, easy to implement. It turns live problems into corpses. Death Wish gave gun nuts, open-carry martyrs, and murderers scads of justification and positive reinforcement – Bernie Goetz, anyone? The epidemic of would-be gunslingers, springing up and killing randomly almost every day? It would be much appropriate if Brronson just sodomized every bad guy he came across. As another classic 1974 film, "Zardoz," puts it, "The Gun is good! The penis is evil!"

And of course having a random killer on the streets in Death Wish really helps keep the crime rate down, so the cops love him. When he’s wounded and captured, the police let him leave town. “By sundown?” Bronson ripostes, his flinty eyes glinting even under sedation. The last we see of him, he’s pointing his finger at some punk-ass teens. Our psychopathic hero inspired four sequels.

By the time this film was over, I was busy helping Carl Johnson puke. “It’s OK, Carl Johnson,” I said as I patted his back. “BLUKKKUKGAK,” he replied. On to our second feature!

The original version of The Longest Yard was much more upbeat. Burt Reynolds as a washed-up former quarterback leads a wacky bunch of misfit imprisoned underdogs Рa kooky m̩lange of murderers and rapists -- against the prison guards in a game and wins, and Burt learns about himself and grows as a human being and all that stuff.

Unfortunately, he gets to jail by assaulting a woman, which we get to watch. He’s drunk at the time, and she’s a “bitch,” which evidently makes grappling her by the face, throwing her to the ground, and stealing her car an amusing comeuppance. This is not the wit of Cary Grant face-shoving Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. It’s ugly.

The only other woman in the film is played by Bernadette Peters. She’s the warden’s secretary who hands over game film of the guards -- in return for sex with Burt of course. Oh, ladies.

While we absorbed all these subliminal moral lessons and the beer, the climactic football game came up. We dashed to the restrooms and stole all the toilet paper. Every time the convicts scored, we launched huge, curling ropes of t.p. at and over the screen, hooting and shouting, flashing our lights, honking our car horns and jumping up and down. Except for Carl Johnson. By now he was fast asleep.

Next time: Rocky Horror and the rage for living

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Mars and/or Bust: 12 Essential Films about the Red Planet

Naura Hayden in The Angry Red Planet -- see how everything's red? This indicates they're on Mars. Wish her helmet had a faceplate.
 The success of Ridley Scott’s The Martian is the latest in a string of movie hits set in outer space – Gravity, Interstellar, et al. As the closest planet in our solar system, Mars has inspired dreams and speculation for decades, from War of the Worlds to The Martian Chronicles. “Martians” has become shorthand for alien invaders, but we pass on those here and focus on the reverse – our imaginary invasions of Mars. Here’s a survey of the best films relating to our scarlet sibling.

The Constructivist design of Mars in Aelita.
 1.      Aelita: Queen of Mars (Yakov Protazanov, 1924)

Soviet explorers travel to Mars and find that there, the workers are being exploited too! So they lead a revolution. The sci-fi elements, alas, constitute only a small part of this earnest film, but the crazy Constructivist production design bridges the looks of the earlier Cubist Cabinet of Dr Caligari and the later Art Deco excesses of Flash Gordon.

Bus and Marvin in Haredevil Hare.
2.      Haredevil Hare (Charles M. Jones, 1948)

Bugs Bunny volunteers to be the first creature on the Moon (OK, he’s in it for a rocket ship full of carrots). However, once there he finds Marvin the Martian, complete with Roman helmet and sneakers, who is ready to blow up the Earth with his Uranium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator. Can our furry hero defeat his nefarious plan? Well, what do you think, kids? He’s Bugs Bunny, after all!

Look at that matte painting off in the distance! Rocketship X-M.
3.      Rocketship X-M (Kurt Neumann, 1950)

This low-budget extravaganza was whipped out in record time, in order to beat the rival film Destination Moon to the theaters. An expedition to the Moon goes awry and ends up on Mars. There, the radioactive remains of great cities are all that’s left of Martian civilization. That, and some cavemen (?) who attack the team. Helpfully, the screen is tinted red whenever they’re outside on Mars – so you know they’re outside on Mars. Aside from some early performances from Lloyd Bridges, Hugh O’Brien, and Noah Beery Jr., not too remarkable. They changed the original title from None Came Back – someone figured out that was a bit of a spoiler.

Look closely at the monster's tongue -- it's actor Ray Corrigan's chin. (The mask was too small.)
4.      It! The Terror from Beyond Space (Edward L. Cahn, 1958)

“In the silent void of outer space, puny man matches his cunning against a monster from Mars, running rampant!” Just as Indiana Jones was cribbed from The Secret of the Incas (1954), so was Dan O’Bannon’s idea for Alien ripped off wholesale from this indie no-budget gem. In 1973 (!), a nuclear-powered spaceship goes on a rescue mission to Mars, and finds only Marshall Thompson left alive. He swears a murderous alien killed his crewmates. They bring him aboard, lock him up, and head for home. But people keep dying . . . A variant of the classic The Thing from Another World (1951), but with the alien monster as a homicidal stowaway. Sound familiar? With kooky old character actor Dabs Greer, and B-movie icon Ray “Crash” Corrigan, who had a lucrative sideline playing gorillas and monsters, in his final film role.

The mouse/bat/spider monster in The Angry Red Planet -- a rare case of bad creature design being more terrifying than a skillful job.
5.      The Angry Red Planet (Ib Melchior, 1959)

“I can’t say that I recommend spacesuits for beautiful young dolls. What happened to all your lovely curves?” It’s the ‘50s, so of course there is one easy-on-the-eye female scientist who’s offfhandedly sexually harassed throughout the film. Filmed in 10 days using “Cinemagic,” which attempted to blend live-action footage and hand-drawn backgrounds together seamlessly and cheaply (it didn’t work). Instead, the director double-exposed all the Martian exterior scenes and threw the reliable Red Filter on it to boot. Kooky, illogical fun with radio stars Gerald Mohr, Les Tremayne, and Jack Kruschen.

(From left) Barney, Paul Mantee, and Victor Lundin in Robinson Crusoe on Mars..
6.      Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Byron Haskin, 1964)

With a decent script and special effects, not nearly as bad as it sounds. Everyone involved with the project took it quite seriously, despite the kids’-matinee subject matter, and there’s an attention to detail that distinguishes it from most other early sci-fi. Adheres closely to Defoe’s original novel, including a Martian “Friday” who’s rescued from slaver aliens. With Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, and Adam West – and Barney as Mona, the flight-test monkey!

Ahnold suffers from rapid decompression in Total Recall.
7.      Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)

“Get your ass to Mars!” One of the best sci-fi movies made, it preserves the complexity, satire, paranoia, and uncertainty (is this real or a dream?) of the Philip K. Dick story from which it is taken. Arnold Schwarzenegger is or isn’t a secret agent who must go to Mars to overthrow its corrupt boss Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). A tangled tale of deception and turnabout, this film was so violent that it earned an X rating before cuts were made. This last pre-CGI blockbuster is a marvel of animatronics and practical effects. With Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, and Rachel Ticotin.

Why so glum, chum? Running out of air in Red Planet.
8.      Red Planet (Antony Hoffman, 2000)

Well, dammit, they tried. This massive flop tries to tie in to the wisecracking, gung-ho spirit of the high-adventure film (in fact, you may recognize some of Mars as Jordan’s Wadi Rum from Lawrence of Arabia) but it tries too hard – killer robots, flammable flesh-eating bugs, it all gets confusing. Great cast and great production design, to no avail. The director never got another chance to make a feature. With Val Kilmer, Carrie-Ann Moss, Tom Sizemore, Terence Stamp.

About the meet the Wizard, in Mission to Mars.
9.      Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma, 2000)

They loved it in France! This mystically-tinged saga is a classic De Palma effort – it is a magpie’s nest of influences, in this case space movies from Kubrick to Spielberg. It flows across the screen, unimpeded by even a shred of logic. Another great cast literally wasted. Gary Sinise is made to say things like, “We’re millions of miles from Earth inside a giant white face” and “They’re us, we’re them.” Even Morricone’s most over-the-top score can’t save the day. Registers zero on the Sense-o-Meter. With Don Cheadle and Tim Robbins.

How long do you stay fresh in that can? Stranded.
10.  Stranded (Jose Magan, 2001)

Did this movie piss Andy Weir off so much it inspired him to write The Martian? Is this another example of the Battle Royale/Hunger Games Syndrome, whereby concepts teeter ever-so-close to plagiarism? This low-budget indie flick is about some astronauts who are – wait for it – STRANDED. On Mars! At least it was filmed in the pleasant land of Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands. With Vincent Gallo, Maria de Medeiros, and for some reason, perhaps best left un-understood, Johnny Ramone as a NASA scientist.

Ice Cube has 99 problems, but lack of ammunition is not one of them in John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars.
11.  John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (John Carpenter, 2001)

Mars plus ghosts plus badass cops and criminals plus massive amounts of cursing, violence, and tough John Carpenter-style buddy love equals ridiculous fun. Come on, it’s a John Carpenter film – that is what you are getting here, and you can roll with it or not. Who else could put Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Pam Grier, and Jason Stratham in close quarters and make it work . . . kind of? Carpenter claimed this movie burned him out on Hollywood. It’s not his best, but he’s our John Ford – his movies are about people, codes of honor, and society, and that’s always interesting – even when a city full of mutilated, possessed miners are trying to kill our protagonists.

Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) meets John Carter.
12.  John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012)

This movie was in turnaround for 79 years – animator Bob Clampett pitched a cartoon feature adaptation idea to Edgar Rice Burroughs himself in 1931, and even made some test footage. OK. Just to show you where my sensibilities lie, at the end of this film I applauded, while innocent, wide-eyed children around me booed cynically. I, like Disney, thought that since CGI had made the superhero movie possible, it would work wonders for the epic, swashbuckling fantasy series, turning it into a long-lived franchise. Nope. Still, it’s a wonderfully realized world of adventure, in which the post-Civil War-era protagonist, magically transported to Barsoom (as the Martians call it), has the strength of a superhero. With Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Ciaran Hinds, and Willem Dafoe as the voice of the 15-foot-tall, four-armed, tusked green Tars Tarkas.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Light in the corners: ‘Unseen Cinema’ and ‘Homemovies’

"In Youth Beside the Lonely Sea" -- triple-screen innovation by creators as yet unknown.
Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1894-1941
Bruce Posner, curator
Image Entertainment/Filmmakers Showcase

Hosts: Bill Hammel, Nick Fraser

A dizzying, 7-disc, 19-hour compilation of experiments, ephemera, visions, and follies on film. An hour of TV a week from a converted Quonset hut that played people’s home movies.

What do these two things have in common? They champion the Weirdness.

If you’re not familiar with film writer Manny Farber’s famous essay in Film Culture in 1962, he raises the idea of “White Elephant Art” versus “Termite Art” – specifically, bloated and pretentious mainstream film versus the B-film, the genre piece, the low-budget quickie. Farber felt the latter was inherently transgressive -- a more efficient, aware, and effective kind of art that’s vastly more in touch with the spirit of the times.

The essay changed how we think about film, and spawned a generation of critics and writers who found new depths and dimensions to both “low culture” and works way off the beaten track of consensus-driven artistic success. Armed with this new analytical tool, all those obscure delights, guilty pleasures, and splendid misfires became worthy of examination. The boundaries between high and popular culture dissolved as Sontag, Kael, and others spread their nets.

Bruce Posner’s research and selection on “Unseen Cinema” goes to further lengths than any I’ve seen. He reaches back to the film industry’s crude beginnings, ending his survey around the time of America’s entry into World War II. He ferrets out everything from the initials use of in-camera effects to archival dance recordings to funny newsreels, socialist and capitalist propaganda film, a healthy dose of self-indulgent, self-consciously avant-garde work, and some stunning animations.

Some highlights:

Disc 1: The Mechanized Eye: Experiments in Technique and Form

The first panoramic and tracking shots are here, and the negative-image superimposition of the eerie short “Ghost Train.” There’s the strangeness of 1936’s sing-a-long “Melody on Parade,” and the non-narrative montage of “Poem 8” (1932-1933). “In Youth Beside the Lonely Sea” (1924-1925) is a beautiful and innovative three-panel poetic work that predates Abel Gance’s famous use of a triple screen in “Napoleon” (1927). Amazingly, its creators are unknown.

Disc 2: The Devil’s Plaything: American Surrealism

Long before "Inception" and 32 years before Fred Astaire's famous "dancing on the ceiling" bit in "Royal Wedding," Douglas Fairbanks Sr. does the revolving room gag in "'Til the Clouds Roll By."
Here are the absurdities of trick photography, as in Billy Bitzer’s “Impossible Convicts” (!905) and Edwin Porter’s Dream of a Rarebit Fiend  (1906). Dream sequences by Victor Fleming (“When the Clouds Roll By,” 1919) James Cruze (“Beggar on Horseback,” 1925) segue into Cubist masterpieces such as the 1926 “Fall of the House of Usher” and Robert Florey’s famous “Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra,” and the film fantasies of Joseph Cornell.

Disc 3: Light Rhythms: Music and Abstraction

Here are some of the touchstones of avant-garde cinema – Man Ray’s “Retour a la Raison,” Leger and Murphy’s “Ballet Mecanique,” and Duchamp’s “Anemic Cinema,” Steiner’s “H2O” and “Seaweed” are essays on the art of seeing. A kinetic party scene from Lubitsch’s “So This is Paris” (1926) is here, as is Busby Berkeley’s geometric “By a Waterfall” sequence from “Footlight Parade” (1933).

The big reveal here is the work of animator Mary Ellen Bute, who created astonishing abstract work with Ted Nemeth such as “Rhythm in Light” (1934), “Synchromy No. 2” (1936), and “Parabola” (1937), all here. These works, synchronized to classic music, are proclaimed to be “moods for the eye.” Their techniques were shamelessly ripped off by Disney for use in “Fantasia.”

"Spook Sport"
Disc 4: Inverted Narratives: New Directions in Story-Telling

From Lois Weber’s innovative “Suspense” (1913), through the agitprop of “Black Dawn” (1933), and the sheer randomness of Christopher Young’s perplexing “Object Lesson” (1941). Oh, and as early as 1937, there’s already a parody of the pretensions of the avant-garde – Barlow, Hay and Robbins’ “Even: As You and I.”

Disc 7: Viva la Dance: The Beginnings of Cine-Dance

Straight performance captures alternate with more interesting fare such as Stella Simon’s “Hands” (1928) and a rare film of Tilly Losch (“Dance of the Hands,” 1930). Some of the unused footage from Eisenstein’s unfinished “Que Viva Mexico,” silent, haunting, and powerful.

"Dance of the Hands"
Here is more animation as well, including Gross & Hoppin’s insanely beautiful “Joie de Vivre,” and Oskar Fichinger’s “An Optical Poem” for MGM in 1938 (evidently, some of these avant-garde pieces crept into general view as shorts in distribution packages by the major studios). Norman McLaren’s idiosyncratic work is scratched directly onto the film, decades before Brakhage. (His collaboration with Bute and Nemeth, “Tarantella” and “Spook Sport,” are here as well.) The final disc closes with David Bradley’s experimental epic “Peer Gynt,” starring Charlton Heston in his first film role.

Seemingly at the other end of the scale is “Homemovies.”

From 1981 through 1992, it played, by and large live, direct from the public TV station KBDI in Broomfield, Colorado. It was the crazy brainchild of hosts Bill Hammel and Nick Fraser, who combined amateur filmmakers’ submissions, comedy sketches live and taped, interviews, musical guests, and miscellaneous ridiculousness.

What is now the far classier and better-funded Colorado Public Television was then housed out in the boonies, in a dingy industrial park. Our live studio was the parking bay of the station; we would roll the garage door up on nice nights, or when a guest wanted to drive onto the set.

KBDI's original studio. The "Homemovies" set is the parking bay.
Here’s the kind of station it was -- they measured the transmitter temperature with a meat thermometer. The station once on-air-auctioned one of the Residents’ donated eyeball heads during a pledge drive, and did quite well. The signed Lionel Ritchie photo, not so much.(The early music video program “FM-TV”/”Teletunes” was incredibly, transgressively awesome; its VJs contemptuously elbowed us out of the way as they set up for their broadcast after ours.)

The only rules for film submissions were: no cursing, no sex – nothing that would get us kicked off the air . . . as though we were on any official anyone’s radar. They played miniature action movies, inept stop-action animation, bad slapstick comedies, anguished teen meditations, sci-fi, horror, an endless stream of martial arts sagas. Student filmmakers mailed in class assignments. Once in a while, they played real actual home movies, the filmmaker narrating live in voiceover from the show’s signature faux-leopard-skin-draped couch.

Bill Hammel (left) and Nick Fraser open the show.
We invented the faux music festival Broomstock as a theme show, years before it happened for real in Broomfield. (Life imitates comedy.) And who can forget the annual glory of the Homie Awards-- a fabulous event featuring Barbie dolls spray-painted gold and stuck to film reels as prizes?

“Homemovies” was nothing if not a haven for termite art. For a few years, I was one of the gang – writing bits, taping them, doing whatever needed to be done on camera and off. The budget was whatever cash we had in our pockets. We made our own props, gathered thrift-store costumes. You would find something in a dumpster while driving down an alley, stick it in your car, hose it off, and write a sketch round it.

I was in my 20’s, just starting out in comedy, and “Homemovies” was part playground, part laboratory. Nobody knew what we couldn’t do, giving us perfect freedom to break all the rules. We were a favorite of stoners and other freaks within range of our signal, and I loved saying goodnight to my oldest child, who waited up to see me on TV once a week.

I play a doctor in need of a drink in "Rehab No-nos" sketch, sometime during the Reagan years
Bill could give you a lot more details. A good archivist, he posted many bits and skits from the show here -- https://www.youtube.com/user/Homemoviescolorado. My stuff is embarrassing to watch now. It would have to improve by several orders of magnitude to be considered sophomoric. But, I have embraced that pain. Sometimes, you need to explore a path and find out that you’re no damn good at it so you can move on. I was no good at television.

Did “Homemovies” show any deathless classics, or showcase the early work of future geniuses? I have no idea. The show winked out of existence just as the Digital Age dawned, and the station outgrew its ragtag origins. We had fun. We laughed a lot. If that is the only benefit “Homemovies” conferred upon the world, for us and the freaky faithful, it was all worth it. It was uncut Weirdness, straight to the vein.

In future, regional boundaries would be erased, films could be made anywhere by anyone with ease, and shared instantly. In analog days, “Homemovies” was a vital, non-judgmental (OK, really judgmental) outlet for creative talent in a world where no one had easy access to the cinema’s means of production. They were pipelining public access to the airwaves, subversives and clowns on the margin, at the bitter end of your broadcast TV dial.

And who knows? Like the films in the “Unseen Cinema” collection, perhaps “Homemovies” selections will live to see another day, lit up again and revalued.

In fact, the 19 hours of “Unseen Cinema” footage I waded through had some rough patches. Does collecting these random pieces legitimize them? Are they valuable only when they are commodified? No, but we need that access to make up our own minds. An aesthetic canon can be just as deadening as any other dogma, a kind of White Elephant avant-garde that risks and accomplishes nothing. (If you think it’s bullshit, guess what? It probably is. Trust your instincts.)

You need a varied cultural diet – Oscar bait and mindless summer action, foreign quandaries, silent gems, patience-testing experimentation, and the unclassifiable detritus of the margins. It’s good for you. It makes you tolerant and accepting, all the different levels thriving and combining freely in your mind. “Homemovies” helped build the appreciation muscles I needed to grasp “Unseen Cinema.”

Victor Hugo wrote, “Success is an ugly thing. Men are deceived by its false resemblances to merit.” Contemporary success has much to do with tuning one’s work to the current cultural norms. The mainstream will flow, drought or flood.

“Unseen Cinema” and “Homemovies” provide, and provided, examples outside that norm necessary to stimulate hope and a sense of possibility in creative minds.They are and were conduits, reservoirs, radiant points, resonant spaces.They demystify the process, teach us that anyone can do this, should try this art. The hits and the classics inspire us but what sustains us is the little TV show, the odd obsessive compilation, the entry-level backstage gig, the local radio show, the open-mike night, the fringe publication, 

We ought not to be just about the White Elephant, well-lit, in the center of the room. Look, there is art, too, there, in the cracks. There is light in the corners.

Addendum: Happy Ending! Bill just informed me that there was one precocious 13-year-old who showed some stop-motion animation on the "Homemovies" show. That kid, ladies and gentlemen, was Matt Stone of "South Park" fame. As Stan Lee might put it, KRAKKADOOM! If only we had put some money on the kid. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Formative Film 10: 'Vanishing Point' (1971)

'Vanishing Point' (1971) -- nothingness all around.
An autobiography in movies

Vanishing Point
Dir: Richard C. Sarafian
Prod: Michael Pearson, Norman Spencer
Scr: Guillermo Cabrera Infante (as Guillermo Cain), Malcom Hart, Barry Hall (uncred.)
Phot: John A. Alonzo
Arvada Plaza Theater
9374 W. 58th Ave.
Arvada, Colorado
March 13, 1971

O who doesn’t want to crank it up a notch or five? Who wouldn’t want to strap in to a boss machine, feel the blissful hiss of the road under your wheels as you bomb, balls to the wall, top-speed from one end of this jacked-up country to the other? Blowing the forces of authority off the road, for no good reason save that takes a hero to be a soulful outlaw? Or something?

This is the basic appeal of the original 1971 feature film Vanishing Point. Part car-chase movie, part Romantic melodrama, part pretentious mystical saga, it’s a ridiculous and transgressive (at least for 10-year-old suburbanites like me) cult masterpiece that shattered so many taboos that it’s still an active reagent of my imagination. Bobby Gillespie of the band Primal Scream, which recorded an “alternate soundtrack” tribute album to the film, said of it, “We love the air of paranoia and speed-freak righteousness.” It’s all that, plus an Existentialism 101 course, as well as a foreshadowing of the cynicism that was creeping up on America in the ‘70s. And, oh yeah, there’s this completely naked young lady on a motorcycle.

It all starts in Denver on a Friday night. A car delivery driver named Kowalski (Barry Newman) pulls into a garage. Please note, Kowalski is his name. His only name. Much is made of this throughout the film. Yes, he's Everyman. He’s terse, focused. He gobbles some White Crosses. He grabs another car that needs to go to San Francisco – a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum, with the pistol grip gear shift and everything!

Kowalski is addicted to speed, chemically and kinetically. He makes a whimsical bet with his drug dealer that he will make the run non-stop, in a time span that guarantees that he’ll have to ignore the law to get there. Got it? Enigmatic, haunted speed freak careens defiantly across the American Southwest, trashing the Man’s puny efforts to stop him with only brief breaks for expositional flashbacks and encounters with various symbolic weirdos.

The film obviously comes from somewhere. Everyone was making road movies after the success of Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider. Road films of the same period such as Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces and Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop were also hip-deep in metaphors.

Vanishing Point’s lead, played by the solid Barry Newman, also adopts the patented macho stoicism of Robert Mitchum in 1958’s Thunder Road (with precedents from James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Brando in The Wild One (1953)). This tough-guy aesthetic would pass through the hot-rod and biker movie subgenres, and on into films such as the original Gone in 60 Seconds, Eat My Dust, Grand Theft Auto, and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry – hymns to speed and stunts that descended into barbaric redneck yawps against authority.

Kowalski’s journey is so freighted with meaning that it’s a wonder the car can get up to speed sometimes. There is no reason why Kowalski has to get to San Francisco so fast. He CHOOSES to do it, that’s all – a perfect existential hero. Kowalski makes Ryan Gosling’s Driver look like a vapid chatterbox, and Ryan O’Neal’s Driver look like a tetchy old granny.

In flashback, we are informed that Kowalski is a) actually the “last American hero,” b. A Medal of Honor winner, c.an honest cop who got fired for standing up for what was right, d. and e. a car and motorcycle racer, and strangely f. a man whose girlfriend informs him she thinks she’s going to die, then goes right out into the ocean and does so (in classic, cheesy cinematic shorthand, the surfboard washes up on shore without her). He has had it with society and life.

Kowalski IS America, man. Don’t you get it? No wonder he’s wacked out of his mind on trucker crank. Wouldn’t you be? He’s got nothing else going on. He has nothing but his existential freedom left. The enemy is everywhere, it’s society itself. America has let its hero down, and his heroics have shrunk, from its perspective, into the shape of meaningless lawbreaking.

In this film, the role of God, or at least blind Tiresian seer, goes to Cleavon Little in his first featured role in film. His Super Soul, a DJ at tiny radio station KOW, monitors the police band and passes information and advice to the hero over the air. He serves as guide, celebrant, conscience, and narrator of the back-road odyssey. Little is great in the role, by turns ecstatic and thoughtful. Super Soul (get it?), the person most hooked into Kowalski’s mind, is at the farthest remove from him.

Also, for the first time, I saw my own city in a movie, itself a staggering experience. Reality and film intersected. Here was a shot of the old Gardner Tools building, down by the Platte, where Kowalski starts out. There he is, going over the old 16th Street viaduct! (I recognize the odd cross-hatched metal railings.)

Oh my God, there he is on I-70! The first big car chase sequence in the film takes place between Rifle and Glenwood Springs, giving the viewer an excellent reminder of what the two-lane road was like through Glenwood Canyon before the massive interstate engineering project was completed decades later. There was a thrill to seeing cars zoom, crash, and squeal along the route you and your family only plodded through weeks before. The idea that amazing things could be conjured up in the midst of the ordinary was a revelation. 

Jesus Lord, even veteran Denver newscaster Bob Palmer is in this film! 
(Loved him. He used to come over to the Denver Press Club, go in the basement, take his toop off, stick it on a lampshade, and play pool. Those were the days!)

In fact, this film has an incredibly high percentage of obscure but important musicians and actors in the cast. Delaney & Bonnie are in a revival-meeting band, as is Rita Coolidge and Ted Neeley. Kim Carnes can be heard on the soundtrack, her first recording, and hey! Who’s that little bearded guy playing piano? It’s David Gates! Small world.

Acting vets Karl Swenson and Dean Jagger are here, as well as a quick scene with Severn Darden, a brilliant Second City improviser and comic actor who did far too little on screen. Blink and you’ll miss character actor stalwarts such as Timothy Scott, Anthony James, Arthur Malet, John Amos, and Val Avery.

Of course the real star of the film is the car, the embodiment of Kowalski's urge to move, his weapon, his symbolic what-have-you. There’s a lot more to indicating speed and travel than just shooting fast cars driving by, and cinematographer Alonzo does a great job here. The stunts and chase sequences are inventive, but not spectacular in and of themselves. He repeatedly shoots the car straining towards the vanishing point (obviously), but he also bolts the camera to the car instead of using a tow rig, and the resulting shots he gets have some vibration to them – they are felt more strongly. Sometimes Alonzo just pans lovingly up the length of the car in motion, setting in on Kowalski’s silent face.

Then there’s the desert. Vanishing Point whips across the wasteland. The “cold desert” of the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada is rarely celebrated in American culture, but that beautiful open space, denuded and spare, under an enormous sky, geometric and elemental, is one of my favorite in the world. The immense distances, the romance of the unlimited horizon, are addictive. In later years, I would zigzag across the country doing comedy, a would-be Kowalski road warrior in a Honda full of fast-food trash, cigarette butts, and empty coffee cups.

And what about the naked lady? I’m not sure who thought it would be a good idea to include a nude motorcycle-riding young woman in the film – it’s not anything on which the plot hinges. 24-year-old Gilda Texter plays the enigmatic “Nude Rider” with a devastating sang froid. (Ironically, she left acting but stayed in the film business as a costumer.) She rides up, she’s naked, it’s no big deal, she talks to Our Hero, and that’s it.

At the time, though, we appreciated the gesture. This gratuitous scene was the first time I or my friends had seen a naked lady. (I had a glimpse of a lightly clad Faye Dunaway in a trailer for Bonnie and Clyde, which piqued my interest.) The first time we saw the movie, our little brains went TILT when this scene came on, and stayed that way until the end. Needless to say, this was a rich source of discussion and analysis among us, one which required repeated trips to the movie house to make surer of what we saw. We were all raging nascent heterosexuals whose latency periods had just ended. Vanishing Point kick-started our sexual curiosity.

However, Kowalski's joy ride couldn’t last forever. In keeping with the sense of defiant nihilism that was rapidly taking over the country’s mood after the bust of hippie hopefulness (remember, Altamont took place only four months after Woodstock), Vanishing Point gives up the tragic finish.

Here, the State of California as manifested through its Highway Patrol Department is the embodiment of evil. It is efficient, well-funded, geared up, uniformly uniformed, and schematized to a fault to neutralize all threats to the State. Kowalski’s path is now tracked by a wall-sized, flashing early electronic map, with bells and whistles that make it sound like nothing else but a pinball machine. The rebel has been reduced to data, a moving target.

SPOILER: Kowalski is doomed, and it comes in the form of two bulldozers, their blades angled into each other, blocking the highway. Switching off his car radio and the voice of Super Soul, oblivious to alternatives, smiling wanly as he accelerates, he rams into the roadblock and his car explodes, killing him. An American crowd typical of the kind that enjoys checking out car wrecks and house fires stands by and watches. (During the end credits, a man pulls a clump of something out of the burning wreckage – in the days before rewind, we watched again and again, arguing as to whether this was Kowalski’s head or not.)

His death was a shock on first viewing (for those of us not still thinking about the naked lady). It makes a great deal more sense in the UK version I never saw until last week, seven minutes longer with a scene right before the end involving Charlotte Rampling as a mysterious hitchhiker who is obviously Death herself. 

Without that costal-cracking nudge to the ribs, to us at the time it seemed random – less so than the twin killings that randomly end of Easy Rider, but random still.

We invested all our emotional energy in identifying with this hero, and he takes the seemingly unnecessary, easy way out. What the hell? We had not encountered this level of cynicism before. Vanishing Point was saying the hell with the whole rotten thing, a hipster march to Calvary.

Kowalski blissed out, seconds before death.
After the second or third screening, though, we bought it. The timing was perfect. We were moving into our disaffected teen years, and the country was distrustful and complacent, burned out from years of turmoil. The ‘70s were here. Kowalski had to die. He was a martyr to the Man.

We left the theater bummed out, but determined not to let the Man get us. American twilight was here, and we were screwed. Now we needed our cynicism to make us brave and defiant enough to keep going. We didn’t know it yet, but there was help. Burroughs was out there, and Captain Beefheart. Lou Reed was on his way, and Iggy Pop, and Jodorowsky, and Herzog and Fassbinder – the artists that were going to tell us our truths. In a strange way, Vanishing Point was the birthpoint of some dark hope in me.

NEXT TIME: Life at the Lakeshore Drive-In -- 'Death Wish'/'The Longest Yard'