THROWING PUNCHES: Re-animator Director STUART GORDON Talks About His Upcoming Film Series at the New Beverly Cinema
In person, speaking before an enthusiastic audience waiting to see his notorious and much-revered Re-animator at a recent midnight screening, director Stuart Gordon couldn’t have been more affable and genuine, a real pleasure to listen to as he, alongside actor and frequent collaborator Jeffrey Combs and costume designer Robin Lewis-West, discussed the film and the duo’s current touring production of Nevermore- An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe, the one-man show Gordon conceived for Combs which has become an unexpected touring hit. The 62-year-old director cuts an imposing figure—he’s a big, burly man who looks like he could take just about anyone out of the crowd and stomp them into a nonthreatening puddle of film geek grease. And though he threw no punches at the Re-animator screening, Gordon’s career has been marked by a distinct pugilistic tendency right from the start. In March 1968, while he was a student attending the University of Wisconsin, the acting troupe he founded—Screw Theater—produced a purposely provocative and unexpectedly interactive piece called The Game Show. According to Gordon, "The Game Show was written as an attack on apathy but ended with the audience attacking the actors. It was set up as a sadistic game show in which the audience were the contestants and were humiliated, beaten, stripped and tortured. The worst abuse fell upon plants (actors posing as audience), but the real audience members believed it was all real and that their lives were in danger. They rioted at the same point in every performance." (Remind you of anything?)
Later that same year he and his wife, actress Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, strained Peter Pan through a kaleidoscope of hallucinogenic imagery for a controversial counterculture take on J.M. Barrie that landed them both in jail. And in 1970, after severing ties with university administrators and their increasingly oppressive mandates for monitoring the content of Screw Theater’s productions, Gordon and his wife founded Chicago’s Organic Theater Company, which staged plays such as David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago as well as Bleacher Bums and ER (both of which were written by Gordon, the latter even adapted into a short-lived TV sitcom), all under Gordon’s tutelage as the theater’s artistic director.
After several years with the company, and spurred on by a desire to make his mark in film, Gordon conceived, alongside Organic Theater playwrights Dennis Paoli and William Norris, an adaptation of six H.P. Lovecraft stories centered on Dr. Herbert West and his attempts to find the secret of bringing back to dead tissue the stuff of life. The movie, Re-animator (1985), was an exuberantly gory, blackly comic and quite unexpected hit—it got rave reviews even from the likes of Pauline Kael. (She called it “close to being a silly ghoulie classic—the bloodier it gets, the funnier it gets” and went on to note that the movie was rowdier than something like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.“It’s not out to scare you,” Kael wrote, “it’s out to make you laugh at what other movies have scared you with, and at what they’d have scared you with if they hadn’t pulled back.”)
In the years since Re-animator’s release Stuart Gordon has indeed made his mark as a film director adept at adapting Lovecraft (1986’s From Beyond,), Poe (The Black Cat, The Pit and the Pendulum), Mamet (Edmond) and mounting original productions like the splendidly creepy Dolls (1987) and 2007’s Stuck, starring Mena Suvari and Stephen Rea in an incredible story based on the actual case of a drug-addled nurse who hits a homeless man with her car and, rather than take him to the hospital, parks the car in her garage, with the man still stuck in the windshield, and waits for him to die. And now Gordon brings his enthusiasm for film back to the New Beverly beginning this Friday, January 15, with a short series of favorite titles which he chose personally for the occasion. Gordon will be at the New Beverly on opening night of each of the three separate bills, as well as the Friday midnight screening. I recent caught up with Stuart Gordon via the magic of e-mail and over the course of a delightful exchange I was able to coax him into dishing on love for the specific titles he chose, his own tendency to spark fierce debates about the movies he loves, and even the scrappy tendencies of one of his stars. I began by asking how he came to choose the six titles that constitute his short visit as guest curator of the New Beverly Cinema.
STUART GORDON: When Julia Marchese (the theater’s director of special events) invited me to program a week’s worth of screenings at the New Beverly last May, I realized that this was an amazing opportunity to see some of my favorite films, some for the very first time on the big screen with an audience. I sat down and wrote a quick list off the top of my head: Little Big Man, Theater of Blood, Being There, A.I., Nightmare Alley, Cinema Paradiso, Two for the Road, The Swimmer, Amadeus, True Grit, The Tingler, Duck Soup and Irreversible.
DC: Were there any titles you especially regretted having to leave off of your initial list?
SG: Well, I left off my favorite film of all time, which is 2001: A Space Odyssey because it had just been screened recently in 70mm at the Cinematheque. I also left off all of my own films as I’ve seen them all so many times. So I presented my list to Julia, she said she’d see what she could do.
DC: You said the original list of films was conceived all the way back in May of 2009. What happened to get that longer list whittled down in the time between then and this week?
SG: As it happened, during the following months I noticed that several of “my” films were screened elsewhere. Being There was shown as part of a Hal Ashby retrospective at the Academy, and The Tingler was presented to coincide with the release of a William Castle boxed set. And Theater of Blood was actually screened at the New Beverly around Halloween, which made me wonder if I had given them the idea or if it was just a case of parallel development. Why some of the other films failed to make it, I assume had to do with print availability. (Or maybe Julia just thought they sucked!)
DC: What’s the one title that didn’t make it onto the schedule that you most regret not being able to screen?
SG: I have to admit that I’m a little disappointed that Little Big Man isn’t being shown, because it came to mind when I saw Avatar. The critics keep comparing Cameron’s film to Dances with Wolves, which itself always seemed like a pale imitation of Arthur Penn’s masterpiece. However, the last time I saw Little Big Man on the big screen it upset me so much that I got into a fistfight afterwards. So maybe its omission is for the best.
DC: Your list is intriguing for a couple of reasons. First, though you originally intended there to be, in the final cut there are no horror films listed (unless you count Irreversible, I guess). But also, the pairing of True Grit and A.I. made my sensors perk up a little. Is there some cleverly hidden thematic through-line that connects the two pictures? I’ve puzzled over it ever since the New Beverly calendar was published, and unless I’m missing something, there’s no commonality other than the fact that they are simply two very entertaining, compelling movies. That they’re on the same bill reminds me of how double features were put together at my hometown theater when I was a kid—just get two movies on the marquee that people want to see! Diversity of themes was a kind of tenet of local theater exploitation back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
SG: Well, the first time I saw the final list was when the rest of the world did, a couple of weeks ago. I had nothing to do with the pairing of the films as double features, so I can’t take credit for putting John Wayne and Steven Spielberg together. But I agree that there are some weird combos, which I rather like. My brother and I once went to a double feature of Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers and Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs. We spent the four hours trying to figure out what the two films had in common, and the only thing we could come up with was that both films shared a scene of an aborted suicide attempt.
DC: Maybe the thinking was, Mel will cheer you up after Ingmar’s put you through the wringer.
SG: Maybe. I will leave it to the audiences (myself included!) to work out the connection between the films that make up my double features.
DC: So let’s go down the list. What was your criterion for choosing the movies that we will see over the next week at the New Beverly?
SG: I’d have to say that each movie is there because I love every one of them and I have never forgotten them. They each have been burned into my brain for all time. The Swimmer (1968) is a haunting film by the great but almost forgotten Frank Perry and based on a John Cheever story. I saw it when I was in my 20’s and ended up living the film. And Nightmare Alley (1947; Edmund Goulding) is one of those movies that you can’t believe ever got made. I first saw it on late-night television and have never seen it projected onscreen with an audience. It even inspired a religion created by my old friend William J. Norris called “Geekism.”
True Grit (1969; Henry Hathaway) is my favorite John Wayne movie, and I’m a big John Wayne fan. Years ago I met with the head of Paramount and talked to him about remaking it. He had never heard of the film.
DC: Oh, God…
SG Now the Coen Brothers are redoing it, which I’m sure will be wonderful. But it won’t star John Wayne. A.I. (2001; Steven Spielberg) is a chance to see one last Kubrick film. Everyone thinks that Spielberg softened the ending, but I recently discovered that he was true to Kubrick’s finale. It always makes me cry.
Amadeus (1984; Milos Forman) shows us that even if you are Mozart, some asshole is going to give you notes. Finally, Irreversible (2002; Gaspar Noe) is one of the most disturbing and controversial movies ever made. I recently got into a heated argument about its merits with Mena Suvari and we almost got into a fistfight. Anyone who has seen her in Stuck knows that this is not a good idea.
DC: I may have to steel up my courage and finally see that one. It’ll be interesting to hear you talk about it.
SG: Yes, I’ll be attending the opening night of each film and would welcome discussion, even if you hate the film. But I’m getting too old for fistfights.
(The Swimmer and Nightmare Alley run Friday and Saturday, January 15 and 16. True Grit and A.I. will screen Sunday and Monday, January 17 and 18. The director’s cut of Amadeus, approximately 30 minutes longer than the 1984 release version, touches down on January 20 and 21. And Irreversible will screen at 11:59 p.m. on Friday, January 15. Please visit the New Beverly Cinema website for show times, directions, prices and other information.)