Monday, October 20, 2008

PEET GELDERBLOM TALKS ABOUT ALL THINGS DIRECTORAMA



Though I’ve never met Peet Gelderblom in person, he’s been a close friend of mine for nearly four years. Peet was one of the first people to directly contact me after I started this blog in November 2004—he wanted me to contribute a re-edited version of one of my first posts as an article for his prestigious 24 Lies a Second website. The fallout from that collaboration with Peet and 24 Lies editor Jim Moran resulted in an transcontinental back and forth that has made room for mutual constructive criticism and input on various creative projects that have come up in the interim, and even an old-world-style pact to marry off his sons to my daughters, which will theoretically produce results even more precious than a good piece of film writing. (You didn’t think I was kidding about that arranged marriage idea, did you, Peet?)

Over the past year Peet’s film writing gave way to a new obsession-- cartooning—and this past month saw the publication in book form of the entirety of his output so far, a series of film-inspired single-panel pieces which themselves inspired the ongoing strip known as Directorama, all of which are available in this new volume. It’s a brilliant book—sharp, precise, broad, knowing, bawdy, even poignant—and seeing Peet’s progression through his cinematically firmamental narrative by turning a page rather than waiting for each new weekly Internet installment adds weight to his achievement (some of which is directly related to seeing formerly exclusively electronic works wedded, as beautifully as they are, to the supposedly waning print format). Why, it’s even got a foreword by Yours Truly which, on the strength of Peet’s original concept and charmed execution, the book survives quite nicely, thank you.

Though we have still yet to exchange words in person, I recently, along with the rest of the wired world, had a chance to hear Peet’s speaking voice for the first time when he talked about Directorama with the good fellas who head up the Movie Geeks United podcast. Not to be outdone, Peet and I went keyboard-to-keyboard recently and chatted about movies, growing up movie-obsessed, movies, movies, and, of course, Directorama, and it went a little something like this:


Dennis Cozzalio: First of all, I have to say it was a delight to hear your actual voice on the Movie Geeks United podcast, but a bit of a shock to hear you pronounce your name, which sounded nothing like my Americanized phonetic bastardization of it.

Peet Gelderblom: Well, that's nothing compared to how I bastardized the English language in that interview. Dutch is impossible to pronounce correctly. Just stick to phonetic American--I wouldn't want you to risk a throat disease in trying to nail our hard G.

DC: What were some of the movies that got you started along the path of a movie-obsessed life?

PG: Are you ready for an atheist's confession? I believe the very root of my movie obsession may be found in church.

DC: Again, Ingmar Bergman must be nodding his head in approval from the afterlife. Your obsession origin story is starting out like the setup for a Directorama gag!


PG: I kid you not, sir. Where I grew up in Holland, there used to be some sort of a commission which screened children's movies every Saturday morning for the price of one guilder or so, and they used the local church as their cinema. They actually had a screen up on the altar where instead of offering up solace and scripture they projected movies like Flipper, Famous Five and Tintin and the Lake of Sharks. In school, we would always get flyers with a synopsis of the movie that was playing that month and I was there every single time, with or without a friend, through sickness and health--a true disciple. I was raised agnostic, but in many ways film has become my religion. This explains a lot, doesn't it?

DC: My friend Peet, bowing at the flickering, craven image of a celluloid dolphin!

PG: But of course, it didn't stop there. I cherish the times when my big brother and I were allowed to stay up and watch Clint Eastwood flicks together with my Dad on late night TV. Whenever a Western was aired that looked a bit old for our taste, my Dad would re-spark our interest by saying: "Great, an oldie. All the more will die!"

And then there was the summer of 1984, when I truly, deeply realized how much I was addicted to the movies. We went to Canada and made a camping trip up North. As soon as the sun went down and mosquitoes appeared, we rushed to the nearest Multiplex to see Romancing the Stone or The Temple of Doom, the first Indiana Jones I ever saw. Boy, was I hooked! Doom is still one of my favorites: a relentless, celluloid beast that swallows the audience whole; the very definition of unadulterated cinematic experience. With my first-earned money I bought a VCR. That's when I developed a taste for movies so atmospheric you thought you dreamt them: Altered States, The Elephant Man, Don’t Look Now, Runaway Train, The Brood, De Vierde Man, After Hours. I've always liked that hypnotizing mix of darkness with lyricism.

DC: Your work first came to my attention through 24 Lies a Second, the now-defunct website created by you and Jim Moran, which originated in a mutual interest in the films of Brian De Palma. What was the first De Palma movie you ever saw?


PG: Gee, I'm not sure. Either Dressed to Kill, Carrie or Blow Out. In my memory I discovered these three pictures almost simultaneously. Whatever it was, I watched it in horrible pan-and-scan and was mesmerized anyway. What really triggered my interest in De Palma were a few preview clips of Body Double on TV; that marvelous beach scene and a bit of Jake Scully running to save Gloria from that hulking Indian with the giant drill. I was too young to be allowed to see it in the cinema, but I made a vow to rent Body Double as soon as it became available. The restrictions for theaters were harsh, but in the early ‘80s a 13-year-old could go and rent Faces of Death and no one would blink an eye.

DC: Did you, like so many film geeks (myself included), commandeer your family Super-8 movie camera and direct your own productions as a kid?

PG: Yes, yes, I certainly did. I started out filming the family on vacations and went on to direct my own shorts. I starred as the son of Flash Gordon in one of them. Remind me to burn the original after this interview, will you?

DC: I will do no such thing. Not unless we can burn some of mine at the same time! How elaborate did your productions get?


PG: You wouldn't believe the art direction. I made a miniature moon with huge, gaping craters out of clay, broke off the wings of my brother's F16 toy model to make it look vaguely like a rocket and shot these against a clear blue sky as backdrop. Next shot would be me, Flash junior, behind the wheel of our Volkswagen, watching the stars like a hawk. What's funny is that I shot everything in sequence, because I tried to avoid editing. Three seconds of my Dad sabotaging the spaceship - STOP! One second of my Mom puppeteering an alien I created - STOP! And on and on and on. The films were silent, but I played a cassette tape with bits of roughly synchronized soundtrack during screenings. I kept on churning out Super-8 shorts until I was 15 years old or so, always using the same circle of friends. They must have hated my guts; I was a demanding little fuck. I asked them to trash their bikes, spit ketchup blood out of the corner of their mouths, or had them beat each other to a pulp in simulated slow-motion. Nothing has changed much since then, except that I use actual slow-motion now and the CEO of Philips is one of my cast members.

DC: How long have you been drawing/cartooning?

PG: For as long as I can remember. My room was a giant pile of unfinished comics, ‘zines and school paper illustrations. Ironically enough, by the time I went to Graphic University, when I was around 18 years old, I simply stopped. Other hobbies and interests took over: music, writing, filmmaking. Apart from the two birth cards that I drew for my sons, I didn't pick up a fine-liner again until about two decades later, when I started posting cartoons on my blog. Drawing is like biking, though: you never forget. I'm still more or less on my old level in terms of pure skill, but my visual sense has developed over the years. Having said that, Directorama is drawn in an intentionally rudimentary style; I know my limitations.


(Click on the cartoons to enlarge)

DC: Describe the genesis of Directorama.

PG: Shortly after Ingmar Bergman's 89th birthday, I posted a dull, gray cartoon of him behind a colorful birthday pie, with the Grim Reaper sitting beside him.

A week later I read in the paper that the man had died, which came as a big shock to me. Antonioni passed away only a few hours later, and almost immediately the idea behind Directorama presented itself: What would happen if these two met each other in the afterlife? What would they and other late filmmakers of their pedigree think of movies that are made right now? What if this whole pantheon of cinematic greats in heaven would be forced to inspire their successors?

DC: It seems to me you could draw a direct line from your “Nighthawks” essay, a 24 Lies a Second original in which you posited an alternate universe of movie characters from throughout film history colliding with each other to comment on issues of watching and seeing films, straight to Directorama. How did ”Nighthawks” affect your thinking and how you ended up developing Directorama?


Peet with 24 Lies a Second editor Jim Moran

PG: Writing “Nighthawks” was a big deal to me, and it's to Jim Moran's credit that I finished it at all. It might be the most radical thing I've ever undertaken, and it still has a special place in my heart. Too bad people weren't ready for it. Perhaps they'll never be! Mickey Mouse and Travis Bickle in a Yellow Cab stuck in the Twilight Zone, getting all meta on film--the sheer audacity of the concept demanded a huge leap of imagination on the part of the reader. The quiet reception made me realize that the Internet doesn't lend itself well to long-form experiments in non-expository film criticism. Directorama uses a similarly far-fetched approach to its subject matters, but served up in bite-sized chunks and with the added value of illustration.

DC: Did you get direct comment on “Nighthawks” that led you to believe it wasn’t being accepted? Because I’ve always thought that the Internet was the perfect place to allow yourself the rope to take on a meaty and difficult concept like the one you tackled with that essay. And I certainly think you came up with some fascinating, well-executed ideas in that piece.

PG: It may have worked better on paper, that's all. The plain fact is that I don't know if people cared for it or not. Maybe it'll spark a comment or two when it's reissued on The House Next Door, now that people know where I'm coming from.

DC: How do you see Directorama fitting in with your other writing and filmmaking? Is it a complementary enterprise, or something that exists on its own plane?

PG: There's an astronaut and an astrologist in me. The astronaut wants to create stuff, the astrologist theorizes. Both sides feed off on each other. Over time, I've found that more and more of my abstract musings seeped into my filmmaking, while my articles on film became increasingly creative. In that sense, Directorama is an ideal middle ground. It allows me to philosophize in the most expressive manner possible.


DC: How does Directorama work as commentary? What are your targets, the concerns you want to address through the strip? And how does Directorama work as a form of film criticism?

PG: Directorama is supposed to be fun, first of all, and readers shouldn't expect a well-rounded thesis or detailed analysis. What I try to do is carefully choose the scenarios that allow me to provoke the right questions. That Ingmar Bergman and Orson Welles pretty much hated each other's guts is not something I made up. I'll use actual quotes from different directors to juxtapose contrasting points of view on the medium, leaving it up to the reader to make up their own mind. Altman really did think that film is an actor's medium, for example. And obviously, when a trio of directors fabricate their ideal woman and end up blasting her to bits, I'm giving a somewhat stinging commentary on the way actresses are handled in Hollywood.

DC: The strip is genuinely funny, sharply satirical, and even has moments of true poignancy in its subtext and in its surface concerns. What are your greatest satisfactions with the finished strips and with the new book? Any disappointments or dissatisfactions?


PG: My biggest satisfaction lies in having the freedom to do exactly what I want, without concession, and still have people enjoying my stuff. I don't need to stick to someone else's briefing or cater to a specific demographic, as is the case with my day job. The Internet is great that way. You find something you're passionate about, put in a little effort and you can bet that somewhere out there is a niche audience that'll appreciate it. My biggest regret is that I see considerably less movies than I saw before I embarked on this project. It just takes a lot of time to produce these and I have other loves and obligations. The stripped-down backgrounds, the orange robes and the choice of four fingers instead of five... they're all ways to save time. I'd love to publish more episodes per week, but it's simply not realistic.

DC: Can you envision an extended future for the strip? What can we look forward to in Volume Two?

PG: The new website ought to be a sign of my dedication. Who knows? I just follow my muse. Right now, I'm very excited about the new season, which will start off as soon as I've created a little buffer. It will really delve into the issue of auteurism and what that still means today. I'll also introduce the strip's first original character. You've already heard his name on the Movie Geeks United podcast-- it's none other than Allan Smithee. His entrance will seriously piss off the other directors in movie heaven, because Smithee is the anti-auteur, the ultimate Hollywood hack! So that's gonna be a lot of fun to play around with. In time, Directorama may expand to include other things than the current strip. We'll see...

DC: What were your thoughts when you saw the book for the first time?

PG: This will make one hell of a Christmas present for Dennis. When will he make me one?

************************************************************************************

Check out Peet’s appearance on Movie Geeks United (available for streaming or download directly below), and don’t forget to order the book right away too. Directorama would indeed make a great addition to any cineaste’s library and, yes, a great Christmas present too, even though it does not slice through tin cans or cut potato slices so thin you can see through them or instantly frost your favorite beer mug. (Peet has intimated to me, however, that he is considering including a Popeil Pocket Fisherman with all future orders of Volume Two.) And you can keep up to date with all further developments related to Directorama and Peet Gelderblom at the Directorama website. There’s plenty coming up just over the wide-screen horizon.

4 comments:

Robert Fiore said...

Nothing to do with the topic, but one of the things I'd most been looking forward to was seeing the restored version of Lola Montes, and I was wondering when it might show up in L.A., and I wasn't hearing about it from the places where I was looking, so I Googled Lola Montes L.A. release date and found out it's been playing since October 10 at the Laemmle Royal and Playhouse 7, and October 23 is the last day. I'll be there, and I leave this note for anyone as out of the loop as I am who might not have heard it.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Robert, thanks for the reminder. I was planning on seeing Lola Montes at the Pasadena Playhouse-- it played the first week there, and then was unceremoniously moved to Encino. But if there's any way I can do it, I'll be at the Royal Thursday night too. This sorta qualifies as a can't-miss, eh?

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