Tuesday, August 31, 2010


(Photo courtesy of Vintage Roadside-- click image to enlarge.)

While poking around searching for some old photos on the Web a couple of nights ago, I came across a literal blast from the past. A Flickr photo page from Vintage Roadside Productions offered up this vivid photo of the downtown district of my hometown, Lakeview, Oregon, pop. 2,500. The photographer estimates that it was taken sometime in 1960, the year I was born, and a look at the automobiles parked on the street bears this out. That bank building, quite the totem of modern architecture for a cow town like where I was hatched and grew up, still stands, with only a minimal nod to technological progress—there’s an ATM kiosk at the front entrance now. The Indian Village Restaurant and Bar has a different colored paint job, but otherwise remains as you see it in the picture, and I’d wager the menu hasn’t changed much either. (Prices have gone up, of course, but no Lakeview resident would be much surprised to learn they’re still cutting steaks from 50-year-old cows.) I also love how the caption underneath the photo characterizes the scene as “a fairly quiet day in downtown Lakeview”-- as if there were much of any other sort of day on the Lakeview calendar, excepting the usually raucous Labor Day weekend, which annually plays host to the Lake County Round-Up and Fair.

But it was the end of the caption that really caught my eye: “Visible are the Indian Village Restaurant and the Marius Theater.” I have long searched for photos of this old movie palace with nary a ripple of success, and even this photo, with the Marius barely visible down at the end of the street, is only a partial treasure. But given that the Marius was the theater where I saw my very first movie, I’ll take it. I was only three years old, and my mom and Aunt Norene, having no idea what kind of rock they were about to push downhill, took me to the Marius to see the Abe Levitow-directed cartoon feature Gay Purr-ee (1962), written and animated by Chuck Jones and featuring the voices of Robert Goulet, Judy Garland, Red Buttons and Paul Frees. The movie bears an interesting resemblance to Disney’s The Aristocats, which would come along eight years later, and it is far from a classic. But it’s also no stretch to imagine a pre-school film buff getting his fuse lit by movies far duller than this. Though I cannot recall anything specific about it (I haven’t seen it in probably 35 years), I still get a strange frisson of vague memory whenever I catch the girls watching it on DVD.

As for the fate of the Marius, it was razed around 1965 to make way for a USDA Forest Service administration building, and therefore I have absolutely no memory of the exterior or interior of the theater. Seeing this picture was my first real vision of what the big movie palace at the corner of 1st and “D” Streets in downtown Lakeview looked like. The owner of the Marius, who also owned the town’s other walk-in and the drive-in, had his office in that building, which was officially called the Marius Building, and there were a couple of times when his son and some other friends and I went exploring the basement and foundation areas. We were surprised to find the main stage construct still intact, and we even discovered some old remnants of the theater box office—a façade and some cash register and ticket-dispensing constructs. It was a fascinating adventure, spelunking around the ruins of an old movie theater that existed only as an inaccessible memory, an important place for all of us that we had no recollection of actually seeing with our own eyes.

The picture provides a tantalizing hint of the theater’s place of majesty in the middle of town, and it has really piqued my interest in getting a closer, better view. I can only hope that someday soon someone with an old collection of photos of the town might discover some pictures of the Marius that might provide a new perspective on an old ghost, and that those pictures might find their way to a scanner and an open Web address.

Here’s a look at some other old single-screen theaters that are still in operation in Oregon and Washington. (Take a peek at the website for the Egyptian Theater in Coos Bay, Oregon, and get your heart warmed over a small town who knows the treasure they have on their hands and are quite active in its preservation.) And of course, Cinema Treasures will lead you to pictures of old and new movie houses from wherever you may be.

Question: What was the first movie you can remember seeing, and where did you see it?

(By the way, if this query piques your anticipation for another SLIFR quiz, fret not—there’s a new one just around the corner. It’s been a while, but the professorial staff has regrouped and is ready for another school year. Stand by!)


(Photo of the Royal Theater courtesy of Iwantmyownname-- click the image above to enlarge.)


Monday, August 30, 2010


UPDATED 8/31/10 1:07 p.m.

Always one to be counted on to mistake technological achievement and advances for art, James Cameron got back on his high horse this week regarding his latest fetish, 3D, all in service of the hype surrounding Avatar’s ho-hum big-screen rerelease. The Biggest Movie of All Time has been retrofitted with more Footage of Pandora and some extended Na’vi nookie, in case you didn’t get enough during the original version’s near-three-hour running time. And Anne Thompson reports today on a conversation published online in Vanity Fair in which Cameron wants everyone to know that he shouldn’t be blamed for the pervasiveness of 3D and its relative lack of quality.

I love Anne’s lead-in: “Much like God looking down on Adam and Eve’s bad behavior and saying: ‘I created them, but I am not responsible for what they do,’ similarly, James Cameron continues to argue that he may have led the 3-D revolution but he is not responsible for what other people do.” The entirety of Cameron’s interview spiked my tolerance for blowhard movie directors and their impatience for those who don’t have $300 million to spend on a single project, or the time and/or inclination in between gigs to develop new techno-toys for use in developing said director’s newest budget-busting excesses—in other words, business as usual for Cameron. I was tempted to let Thompson’s account be my entire reference point here, but it turns out the Vanity Fair piece is classic Cameron and as such should be cautiously experienced. The director is rather generous in bestowing praise on movies like Alice in Wonderland (a 3-D conversion) and How to Train Your Dragon (originally authored for 3D), but he wants you to know that the current glut of 3D (and, presumably, the ticket-gouging that comes along with it) should not be laid at his feet. “There are a number of good movies that are being natively authored in 3-D that are coming out,” says the director, “But what you saw was sort of the gold rush. After Avatar, people tried to cash in.” To these ears and eyes, this sounds awfully close to a claim, after having developed a 3-D technology that is obviously meant to resist market pigeonholing as a trend or a novelty, that he did it best and anything that was green-lit as a 3D film in Avatar’s Academy Award-winning wake should be seen as opportunistic and unworthy.

Cameron then pats the audience on the head and offers this jewel: “The consumer needs to be aware that just because a movie is in 3-D doesn’t mean that it’s good.” This may be news to some high-priced film directors, but listen, just because a movie is on film is no guarantee that it’s going to be good. If audience reactions to the glut of trailers for 3D productions that can be seen before any given 3D feature are an indication, there may already be the smell of blood in the water. The flattening out of that market and the increased audience resistance to paying $16 to see a movie while wearing clunky glasses that they probably wouldn’t even pony up for in 2D (I’m thinking Wes Craven’s My Soul to take as an example pulled out of the clear blue) is audible in the rumblings of impatience that greet most of these new previews.

And speaking of blood in the water, one would think that there was not a horse high enough for the Oscar winner to climb upon when pontificating about a certain current 3D hit to which he has the most tangential of connections. The Vanity Fair writer asks Cameron if he experienced any sense of nostalgia upon the release of Piranha 3D, and this is the director’s typically reserved response:

“Zero. You’ve got to remember: I worked on Piranha 2 for a few days and got fired off of it; I don’t put it on my official filmography. So there’s no sort of fond connection for me whatsoever. In fact, I would go even farther and say that... I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but that is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3-D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3-D horror films from the 70s and 80s, like Friday the 13th 3-D. When movies got to the bottom of the barrel of their creativity and at the last gasp of their financial lifespan, they did a 3-D version to get the last few drops of blood out of the turnip. And that’s not what’s happening now with 3-D. It is a renaissance—right now the biggest and the best films are being made in 3-D. Martin Scorsese is making a film in 3-D. Disney’s biggest film of the year—Tron: Legacy—is coming out in 3-D. So it’s a whole new ballgame.”

Hubris, anyone? First of all, Cameron would like you to know that he is one filmmaker who doesn’t treasure his experience in the Roger Corman stable and that he does not consider Piranha 2: The Spawning (full official title) “A James Cameron Film.” Of course it is perfectly within his rights to take that stand. It would be an even more powerful stand to take, however, if Cameron’s subsequent filmography wasn’t, apart from the escalating budget of each new project over the last, rooted in precisely the same kind of exploitation movie rehash philosophy as is Piranha 2: The Spawning. Cameron’s first hit picture The Terminator was dogged by convincing claims of plagiarism launched by Harlan Ellison, and more than one observer noted the clear resemblance of Avatar’s primal narrative to those of Broken Arrow, Dances With Wolves and several others. The recycling remains the same, but the argument Cameron might make, if he were to admit ever watching other movies and thus open himself up to charges that he cribbed from them, would probably be along the lines that the recycling is made more palatable because of the outrageous money spent on each new variant on the same old thing to make it gleam and glisten as if new and original.

My favorite nugget re all this is the company line when someone, in this case the VF writer, notes Avatar’s apparent parallels to other big, familiar Hollywood movies. “I’m not really influenced by other movies that much,” Cameron says in the interview. “To me, storytelling is organic to the story you’re trying to tell. Which is not to say that there weren’t movies during that time period that I liked. I’m a big movie fan, but I tend not to be overly influenced by other films.” I think those comments speak plainly enough for themselves (except for that bit about storytelling being organic to the story you’re trying to tell—- Would anyone care to take a crack at interpreting that?) I can't think of another Hollywood director who has so garishly flourished by employing this recyclable narrative philosophy; perhaps the persistent existence of Piranha 2 is too sharp a reminder even for Cameron of where his roots really lie.

But this part is really good: “I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but (Piranha 3D) is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3-D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3-D horror films from the 70s and 80s, like Friday the 13th 3-D. The tenor of this “we are not amused” finger-wagging couldn’t be more absurd even if it wasn’t coming from the priest of high culture responsible for True Lies and the avant-garde success d’estime also known as Titanic. What is inherently offensive about acknowledging the cheap gimmickry at the heart of a currently popular technological process whose roots in exploitation cinema were designed to counter-program the offering of a new beast—- television—- over 60 years ago? Cameron avoids such acknowledgment because it doesn’t play into his delusion that he’s reinventing or somehow refining cinema with his bag of tricks. Instead he worries aloud that these kinds of 3D sequels and horror remakes are nothing but the last refuge of the cinematic scoundrel whose only concern is trying to wring a few more drops of blood from a creatively expired turnip (a tack the creator of Terminator 2 would never take). But then he does an about face and describes the current cycle of 3D movies as representing a renaissance— a renaissance which presumably would not include Piranha 3D and the upcoming Jackass 3D. “Right now the biggest and the best films are being made in 3-D,” Cameron claims, and even in the context of mentioning Tron: Legacy and Scorsese’s upcoming 3D film of Hugo Cabret as examples, this comment is notable primarily as a variation on a central theme of his entire career, that being a specious equation of the biggest and the best. Really, it’s hard to conclude much of anything from these self-inflating comments beyond the fact that, on or off the technological cutting edge, James Cameron seems to be a bit of a 3D snob.

When I read the Vanity Fair interview, I immediately flashed on Stephanie Zacharek’s funny and sharp-eyed appreciation of Piranha 3D, a movie to which she neither condescended nor indicated that she had to engage in slumming in order to write about. And I think she offers the best rejoinder to Cameron’s 3D elitism, even if it was written a week before Cameron held court at Vanity Fair:

“And you may be wondering if the 3D effects actually make Piranha 3D any scarier or more fun than your random 2D horror cheapie. The answer is probably not — and yet the 3D effects here work because they’re a joyous exaggeration of everything we go to a movie like this hoping to see. Big boobs coming right at ya, bloody stumps waving hither and thither: Piranha 3D has it all, and it confirms my conviction that with rare exceptions (Henry Selick’s marvelous Coraline being one of them), 3D technology should be reserved for high-quality motion pictures like this one, not trumpeted as the “immersive” future of all moviegoing. Piranha 3D wasn’t 10 years in the making, and it shows. Thank God.”

A.O. Scott may have had one eyebrow arched to the hilt when he ended his review of the 3D fish feast with the exclamation, “Welcome to the future of cinema” (one reprinted sans sarcasm in the newest spate of newspaper ads). But I prefer a market for 3D that risks oversaturation if it can, even for a brief time, make room for such diverse 3D outings as How to Train Your Dragon, Despicable Me, Piranha 3D, Jackass 3D, Joe Dante’s The Hole, Scorsese’s Hugo Cabret and Tron: Legacy, all films I’m either excited about or excited to see. Cameron’s brand of lowest common denominator blockbuster-itis has little or nothing to do with the kind of individualistic visions that are getting these other 3D films realized on the big screen. He’s obsessed with propagating his own legacy of bland, derivative, mass-appeal fantasy and it’s this kind of pandering that will turn 3D into a bore, despite all the fussiness over places like Pandora, faster than any low-budget shocker which has the smarts to remember why 3D was fun in the first place. If a future of cinema populated by upcoming Avatar sequels is the director’s ideal option-- doing his best George Lucas impersonation (“It was always meant to be a trilogy!”), he warns us in the interview they are coming—well, it’s one that will have to go on without my participation. Welcome to the future of cinema, indeed. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to e-mail some friends and finalize plans to see Hollywood treasure Jerry O’Connell get his dick chewed off for the third time. Au revoir, summer!


UPDATED 8/31/10 1:07 p.m.: It's on! Earlier today Piranha 3D producer Mark Canton laid out a 1,400-word response to Cameron's Vanity Fair comments over at Movieline, and it looks to be a rip-snorting read. The tone of Canton's response is most probably summed up by a quote from the letter that Movieline uses as part of their header: “Jim, are you kidding or what?" Gee, it's just about lunch time, and here's something compelling to read over my celery sticks and peanut butter. Thanks, Movieline!


Friday, August 27, 2010


When last we left the discussion between myself and Farran Nehme Smith, the Siren, as Farran is well known around the Internets, got off a nice little jab at those in the moviegoing community who somehow place more value on the obsessions of fanboys than those of, well, fangirls— “Excuse me, but your fantasies about being a scientist in a really cool iron suit are not any more serious than my fantasies about Manolo Blahnik. They’re just not.” And with that we published our little get-together in the hopes that her readers as well as mine would find the option of keeping our company as enjoyable as we did in keeping each other’s.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the comments forum. Once posted, our conversation started getting the kind of notice from other readers and bloggers than one can never plan for nor expect, but that is always welcome and satisfying if and when it does come. David Hudson and the kind folks at MUBI were the first to highlight our summit, bringing with them exactly the kind of look-ins that dreams are made of. The piece ran all during the chaos and happiness of my birthday week, and in the midst of that week I got a note from Farran pointing me to some other well-known (and entirely unsolicited) voices that joined in the promotion of the interview, including James Wolcott and Tom Shone.

But perhaps the most gratifying comments came via Glenn Kenny who, after a protracted bit of nastiness involving his comments thread (and those on other sites as well) seemed particularly grateful for the tone of the talk between the Siren and I in his post entitled, "Looking for a Good (and Civil!) Read This Weekend?”:

“Then allow me to direct you to Dennis Cozzalio's ever-wonderful blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, which you ought to be going to regularly anyway. Although I myself have been slightly amiss, or else I would have directed you to this sooner: A "Movie Blogger Summit" between Dennis and the wondrous Farran Smith Nehme, known to the millions as The Self-Styled Siren. The two discuss their blogging origins, aesthetic affinities, aesthetic differences (My Lovely Wife had to walk me to the fainting couch after I was reminded again that the Siren, beloved of us both, has no love for Once Upon A Time In The West) and so on. The duo chatted on Skype back in May, and Dennis lovingly transcribed the proceedings. And it's good, good stuff, and a real tonic for me personally at a time when, for reasons you'll forgive me for not once again dredging up, I had started to perceive the internet as some kind of combination lunatic asylum/cesspool.”

What was great about Glenn’s post was not just the props offered regarding our respective sites, but the fact that the comments thread quickly became yet another fascinating discussion between a group of people, including Glenn, Farran, Bill Ryan, Tom Carson, Kent Jones, Jean-Pierre Coursodon, Keith Uhlich, Hollis Lime and Lazarus, all of whom are in the mix because they love the movies and love talking intelligently about them. (I even got in on the conversation for a bit, once I was alerted to it, but I began to feel like I needed a life preserver.) It was as if the post came to exist as a proving ground that smart talk doesn’t have to get stamped out when bilious posturing threatens to take over the conversation and trample everyone’s spirit in the process.

And this notion did not escape the notice of some notable readers who did not join the chat but were inspired by it anyway. This past Monday Richard Brody, gatekeeper of the movie blog at no less than Pauline Kael’s old stomping ground, The New Yorker, gave everyone involved at Glenn’s blog the grandest possible review. Using Paul Brunick’s superb (and even-tempered) overview of the state of online film criticism as a reference, Brody expressed his own satisfaction at being able “to point directly at the kind of wonderful discussion—or, more precisely, a discussion about a discussion about a discussion—that is among the best examples of film criticism I’ve read all year. (Italics mine, Mr. Brody—you have my undivided attention):

“Here’s the story: two of the best bloggers around, Dennis Cozzalio (Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule) and Farran Smith Nehme (Self-Styled Siren), had a discussion via Skype about movies, their blogs, and themselves, and posted the transcript of the first part of it at the former site. On Saturday, Glenn Kenny, whose blog Some Came Running is the one I read most frequently, for his trenchant, wide-ranging, and deeply personal writing about movies, posted a heads-up about that talk. (That’s level two.) The commenters to the post—including Glenn, the two writers who are its subject, the great critic Kent Jones, Jean-Pierre Coursodon (who co-authored a vast history of the American cinema with Bertrand Tavernier), Tom Carson of GQ, and a writer whose name was unknown to me, Hollis Lime, who cuts to the heart of the subject with an exhilarating precision and energy. The subject, aptly, is Sergio Leone; in particular, Once Upon a Time in America; very precisely, the director’s depiction in that film of the protagonist’s rape of the woman who is his lifelong love; and, in general, what it suggests about Leone’s attitude toward women, and how the morality or immorality of the events shown in a film, and the director’s apparent attitude toward them, influences the aesthetic evaluation of it. And I’m not jumping in right now, just pondering in admiration and calling attention to a conversation that merits attention from anyone who cares deeply about movies. It’s an exemplary trove of critical insights, and it’s exactly the sort of thing that debunks, in practice, the handwringing about the Internet killing film criticism, or writing, or thinking.”

After spending the first half of the year listening to Richard Schickel wearily trash the entire practice of film criticism, with special toxicity reserved for those who dare to practice it online in this age of crumbling and reconstituting models for what film criticism even means, Brody’s comments were much appreciated, like a bracing shot of tonic water to a thirsty traveler. But Brody’s words also felt like the best kind of validation and support from someone who is able to understand how the world is changing and is willing to highlight examples of what he finds worthy without being threatened or needing to condescend to it. It hasn’t gone unmarked how much it means to writers like Farran and me to be recognized by people like Glenn Kenny and Richard Brody, generous writers who know their stuff. But even more gratifying was their descriptions of how our conversation organically branched out into an example of interactive film criticism that highlighted how the practice can work on the Internet and the value it can have for those who choose to stay outside the actual conversation and simply read it instead, whether on the computer or printed out.

So on behalf of Farran and myself, I’d like to thank all of the above mentioned writers who took it upon themselves to call attention to something they thought worthy of their time and that of their readers, as well as everyone who has offered their comments and support at my site, Farran’s, and on all the other social networking venues by which we can be reached. As I told a disbelieving Schickel at that film critics panel back in March, everyone whose name you see here is in it for the love of the movies— in some cases the absence of pay may be an uncomfortable fact, but it hasn’t kept any of us from spending long hours writing what we had to write. I am so grateful for Paul Brunick’s essay (part two of which is in the upcoming issue of Film Comment) for many reasons, and one of the big ones is the way Paul pointed out what should have been obvious before—that our most revered critics didn’t just pop out of an egg somewhere and start writing in high-profile venues. Andrew Sarris didn’t just appear on the scene, his typewritten copy of his adaptation ofles politiques des auteurs under his arm and ready to be lapped up by film culture. He spent many years writing for no (or very little) money before he ever built up the intellectual muscle to carry through with his most famous work. Pauline Kael wrote program notes for a Berkeley rep house—gratis-- and held down every menial job under the sun while writing spec pieces years before she ever landed her first paying gig. Why, I’d even venture to guess that Schickel himself had dues to pay before his writing career got started, a trade which eventually landed him within the walls of Castle Eastwood as the star’s official biographer. Another fairly sharp observer of the human condition once repeatedly posited, in one of his many moderately regarded books, “And so it goes.” And so it does. And so it will. Please enjoy now part two of a mutual interview, a blogger’s summit between myself and Farran Nehme Smith. The coming-to-the-end part makes me wish it could just go on and on. I hope you’ll feel the same.


DC: I remember beaming like a proud big brother when I first heard of your opportunity to work with Lou Lumenick and Turner Classic Movies on the ”Shadows of Russia” series. There are so many things I want to ask you about this, and I feel like we could easily spend the rest of our time talking about it, but I’ll try to be concise. When you announced the series, you thanked Jack Warner right alongside Lou and TCM. Why Jack Warner, and why Russia?

FNS: That was just me being mischievous, because it was—Warner probably considered it one of the biggest mistakes he ever made producing a movie called Mission to Moscow. He did it for purely patriotic reasons. At one point he was claiming he had done it more or less at the direct behest of the Roosevelt administration. When he was hauled up in front of HUAC, he backed off of that somewhat. Mission to Moscow was the genesis of the whole “Shadows of Russia” series. I wrote an obituary/tribute for Cyd Charrisse, and she has a very brief part in it as Galina Ulanova, the great Soviet ballerina, and I mentioned having always wanted to see Mission to Moscow. Lou popped up in the comments thread and started talking about what a weird movie it was, and we continued the conversation via e-mail, batting back and forth the idea of having a series that would focus on the almost schizophrenic attitudes that you had toward Russia in American movies. There were the earlier campus comedies of the 1930s where they were making light of Russia; and then you had movies like Ninotchka; then you had red scare stuff; then you had “Oh, our buddies, the Soviets,” and then, wham, after the war all of the sudden they’re the Evil Empire. So we just thought to look at them on a timeline, or even to group them by theme, which is what we ended up doing, would be really interesting.Mission to Moscow was sort of a personal obsession of Lou’s for many years, though. It was very hard to find a screening, and when TCM showed it, it was often at weird hours of the night. He just really wanted to try and get it in front of a wider audience as an important historical artifact, and also as an interesting movie. It was directed by Michael Curtiz, and Jack Warner really came to bitterly regret ever having made it. (Dennis Laughing) He said something along the lines of, “It doesn’t pay to stick your neck out—You’re a dead pigeon either way.”

DC: Thinking about this movie and later stuff like Bonnie and Clyde, I get the feeling maybe he had lots of regrets.

FNS: I don’t know. I think he basically liked himself. But Mission to Moscow definitely turned out to be a pain in the ass for him. So the wisecrack was just me saying, “Hey, Jack, at least it benefited somebody, even if it took almost 70 years!” (Laughs)

DC: Going into “Shadows of Russia,” did you have a lot of background knowledge about specific areas of inquiry about Russia that spurred your interest in the project?

FNS: No, it was just another one of my weird intellectual hobbies, that’s all! (Laughs)

DC: That’s how we learn. At least that’s what my old woodshop teacher used to say, but there was usually blood flowing whenever he said it.

FNS: I had always really liked a lot of Russian literature in translation—I don’t speak the language. And Russian history was always very interesting to me. And I guess too it was—Growing up in Alabama there was also a certain rebellious element to it. Everybody kept telling me Russia was bad, bad, bad, evil, evil, evil, and it was like, “Okay, that sounds great to me.” (Laughs) “Let me check out a few books!” That’s the kind of cussed person I was.

DC: Were there shadowy figures following you home from the library and monitoring your comings and goings?

FNS: No, no, everybody knew I was weird. Nobody wanted to bother. (Laughs)

DC: I guess weirdness has its advantages then, after all. Well, personally, it was really fun for me to see you on TCM. I didn’t catch nearly as many of the movies as I would have liked to, but what I did get was a strong sense of the movies that I wanted to pursue if I missed them there. A lot of what ends up resulting from projects like this that we take on or create for ourselves—and certainly this was one of the most ambitious projects I’ve seen from anyone in our specific circle—or from even just writing about things that everyone else isn’t beating to death—You don’t expect your audience, however it is constituted, to necessarily look at things in the same way you do so much as to just raise the level of awareness and pique people’s interest in something they might not have ever considered before so they can find out about it and develop their own thoughts. Whenever I write about something I know isn’t on everyone’s radar, that’s what I always hope happens.

FNS: Definitely. All right, shifting gears—Oh, gosh, I’ve been waiting for this question. (Laughs) And without preamble, your readers know exactly why I’m asking. If you could force Richard Schickel to read just one of your blog posts, which one would it be?

DC: Wow. You know, I had to think about this for a while, because I suspect that a lot of what I’ve written would probably just confirm his every horrific stereotype about online writers.

FNS: Oh, I don’t think so at all! (Laughs)

DC: Well, maybe I’m feeling a bit touchy and paranoid. But when I was thinking about it I realized there are probably several things I would want to show him that would provoke an argument, and I’m not sure anything would be achieved other than the satisfaction of my inner imp. There were, however, a couple of things that jumped into my head when I first saw the question, and one of them was a write-up that I did in 2008 when Joe Dante had brought a series of movies to the New Beverly Cinema. In addition to a long series of films he had hand-picked to showcase the movies he loved and that were influences on him, he also brought along this gigantic, lumbering beast he had created with Jon Davison back in 1968, when they were both in college, called The Movie Orgy.

It was a bizarre, free-associative collection of clips that he and Davison had put together on 16mm with physical splices—AVID digital editing was still a dream that nobody had dreamt as yet—and yet these guys were putting together exactly this kind of wildly allusive, id-connected visual collage, with clips and references to old and forgotten TV series from the ‘50s. They were messing with the form and structure of these shows in a really explosive way, highlighting political humor of its time that’s now 30 or 40 years past its sell-by date. I’d interviewed Joe before he screened the film, which runs just shy of four hours in its shortened version, and he was very nervous about the way people were going to react to it, or if they even would react to it. He thought, Well, we did this when we were beery college kids for other beery college kids, and who knows what an audience in 2008 is going to think of this. Well, the theater was packed—the screening was free because the movie was one big four-hour rights violation—but also because the audience was smart enough to know they were going to see something that had been kind of vaguely remembered and whispered about for 40 years or so, something no one had seen in all that time, including Dante. Well, the place went nuts for it. The Movie Orgy turned out to have structure, rhythm, a sensibility— it wasn’t just a bunch of junk thrown together, and you can clearly see in it the roots of Dante’s sensibility as a film director. He was so happy with the movie’s reception at our screening that he ended up taking it to the Venice Film Festival later that year, where again it was a big hit and a hot ticket. (Farran Laughs). To see Joe Dante come out of the New Beverly that night was such a delight. I wrote about the movie and the evening, and I feel like the piece I produced—As often as I’ve tried to convey the feeling of experiencing a movie in my writing, The Movie Orgy was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever written about in simple terms of trying to capture and communicate not only what was in it and how it worked, but what it was like to see it. I feel like I met my goals with that piece, so maybe that would be one that I would offer to Mr. Schickel. Another might be a back-and-forth discussion with fellow blogger Bill Ryan that lasted a week last summer upon the release of Inglourious Basterds.

FNS: Oh, I remember that!

DC: It was a really interesting movie to dig into, not only because of the stuff that was in it but because of the things that were perceived to be in it, the things it was perceived to be about. What went on there might go a ways toward dispelling or refuting some of Schickel’s negative ideas about us cellar-dwelling film bloggers. (Farran Laughs) At that film critics panel last March, Schickel was so offensive in his degrading characterization of the blogging community in general—we all breath through our mouths, apparently—but he made specific disparaging reference to Harry Knowles. Taking issues with what Knowles writes, or how he writes, or why he writes are perfectly valid points of conversation. But Schickel went off on a tirade, wondering out loud why anyone would pay any attention to anything he said because “he’s a gross human being.” Thank God for Peter Rainer, who piped up and said, Richard, take a look at us. We’re not exactly beefcake up here either! I came away from that panel realizing he’s not interested in discussion—he’s burnt out and cynical and he’s cranky because not everyone is as sour as he is. I also wrote a piece in defense of Pauline Kael which I would direct his way just to annoy him, because he spent the evening being as hostile to her and her memory as he could possibly be.

FNS: I remember that piece too. That was one I thought was particularly good.

DC: Thanks. I get kind of defensive about her sometimes. I realize she’s not perfect, but she really did write like no one else, she was exciting to read, especially for someone who hadn’t read a lot of real film criticism before, and she was the gateway into understanding how to express myself about movies. Discovering her book Reeling was a life-changing experience for me. So if Schickel could put up with reading any of those, I’d send them to him without hesitation.

FNS: Maybe we should just spam him.

DC: You know, I knew there was a good reason for hanging out with you! And there are an awful lot of them, as I’m discovering talking to you “in person.” But one of the things I love to think about when I think about your site, and you in general, is the level of respect that you’ve managed to achieve as one of the oft-disparaged online film writers. What are you thoughts about the high profile you enjoy?

FNS: Okay, I’ll tell you what I think about. I think about John Nolte of Big Hollywood-- bear with me here. Sometime back John got attacked by a liberal blog called Sadly, No!, which has a fairly big following. They won a Weblog Award a couple of years ago. His response was to say he wasn’t gonna take any kind of stick from guys who had less traffic than his local Home Depot enjoyed. They actually have pretty good traffic, and I remember reading this and thinking, well, if they’re Home Depot, then I’m the corner bodega. (Both Laugh) I have this thing called Stat Counter, and if I star getting uppity all I have to do is just click on it. It’s certainly much higher than it was even two years ago, but it’s not a high-traffic blog. Realistically, it’s never going to be. What I do really enjoy and appreciate is the kindness and respect that I get from fellow film writers. I gather that the blog is fairly widely read by other people who write about film, and that gives me an enormous amount of pleasure. And also I have a fairly consistent group of very knowledgeable, articulate commenters that come back time after time, and also people who prefer not to comment who occasionally just e-mail me—“Hey, I liked this,” or “I really liked that,” which is also extremely nice. I have a lot of people who have sent me DVDs of hard-to-find movies over the years. That’s also really great. And I also now have a group of personal friends that I’ve met through the blog. So all of that has been extremely rewarding.

But I think the best use that I was ever able to put the blog to was the Film Preservation Blog-a-thon that we did back in February with Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films. We raised $13,500 for film preservation, and it was definitely my proudest moment as a blogger, that I was able to be a part of that with so many different bloggers participating, so many different people donating. It was an immensely satisfying thing, and it made a lot of other stuff worth it.

DC: It’s putting your money where your mouth is, something that so many of us don’t do or don’t think creatively enough to do with the situations presented to us. That was a really spectacular gesture and achievement, and it really speaks volumes to your commitment and your passion for what you’re writing about, and I for one was very grateful for it. Congratulations. (Just a few days after this interview was recorded, there was revealed in the New York Times news of 75 silent films previously thought lost that were discovered in New Zealand and are being restored through the efforts of the National Film Preservation Foundation. Two of those 75 films were directly sponsored by the grass-roots fund-raising efforts of Farran, Marilyn and others. -- Dennis)

FNS: Thank you! Okay, it’s my turn to field a question. This is a good one. In the past you and I have joked about the areas where our tastes diverge.

DC: Claudia Cardinale, if you’re reading this, stop reading!

FNS: (Laughing) I’m so sorry! I do find her very beautiful—extremely beautiful. And I love her voice too—she had that beautiful, throaty voice.

DC (momentarily drifting): Yeah…

FNS: She just… kind of… can’t do much with it. (Laughs) But I do love reading your posts about movies that I would never seek out or even movies that I didn’t much care for myself. So if you could give me a homework assignment—Okay, Farran, you have to watch one movie totally out of your comfort zone, what would it be? And would you let me do the same?

DC: Oh, absolutely. That’s the kind of homework I love! Me first!

FNS: Okay.

DC: I came up with three really good suggestions, so if you’ll indulge me I’ll give them all to you and then choose the best one. The first one—And again, I don’t know if you’ve seen these movies or not—is a movie Peter Yates directed in 1973 called The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

FNS: That one I have not seen yet.

DC: It’s a very low-key, somber character drama about a two-bit hood who’s looking to redeem at least a part of himself and everyone he thinks he can trust is, um, not so trustworthy. It’s got a very interesting, haunted quality—it’s not pitched toward garish violence or the kind of hard-boiled strutting you sometimes get in thrillers from this period, or, say, in some Scorsese films. It exists in the same space with a lot of gritty early ‘70s crime dramas, yet it’s almost recessive when compared to something like Charley Varrick. I really think that you would like it, so I guess it’s not particularly out of your wheelhouse; it’s just the kind of movie you don’t often write about.

The other one, from about the same period, is the diametric opposite of a quiet, devastating picture like Eddie Coyle-- it’s called Freebie and the Bean.

FNS (Laughs): I have not seen that one either!

DC: All I will tell you is that it is directed by Richard Rush, who went on to direct The Stunt Man.

FNS: I love The Stunt Man!

DC: The Stunt Man is terrific, and you can see its ancestry clearly in Freebie and the Bean, yet the early movie is definitely absent The Stunt Man’s playful philosophical/metaphysical tendencies. James Caan and Alan Arkin are mismatched buddy cops—In fact, the whole buddy cop genre might have its roots squarely in this movie. It is full of the kind of coarse, borderline racist banter that you would expect from a movie comedy born in the era of Archie Bunker, and it is, if you’ll forgive my coloring your first impressions, hilarious. It’s full of great car chases and crashes—everything a 14-year-old boy needs (that’s how old I was when I saw it)-- and Caan and Arkin make a great comedy team.

FNS: Well, I must say, you’re being very kind to me so far, Dennis. These choices do not fill me with dread. I was somewhat afraid—I mean, a lot of people were writing about The Friends of Eddie Coyle when it came out on DVD, and I might even have it somewhere in the depths of my Netflix queue. Freebie and the Bean I hadn’t considered. But I was somewhat afraid that you might seize the opportunity to assign me Cannibal Holocaust or something!

DC: Oh, no! I’m not that sadistic. And I’ve never actually had much desire to see that myself, so—

FNS: Okay, so your goal was not to give me a complete nervous breakdown. That’s good! (Laughs)

DC: No, no! My last suggestion, though, maybe will push the envelope a little bit. It’s a documentary of sorts, mixed with extensive recreations, shot in 1922 called Haxan: Witchcraft Throughout the Ages.

FNS: Aha! That one I have seen.

DC: Damn. I thought I might have got you with that one. I remember people looking quite stunned as they stumbled out of the theater where I saw it last year. It’s a fascinating, troubling, creepy movie, funny in a lot of ways, but thoroughly compelling in the way it documents the way Satan has been represented in art and in our societies. I’ve never seen a movie like it. What did you think of it?

FNS: I liked it quite a lot, actually. Visually it was extremely interesting. The way it assaulted you with this imagery, I felt like my brain had been rearranged. I don’t know that I would ever cite it as a deep, personal favorite, but I certainly wasn’t sorry I sat down and watched it. So it sounds like I’m going to get Freebie and the Bean. Car crashes! No grindhouse classics for me!

DC: No, I knew that going in.

FNS: Well, I would have done it, just out of pride! (Laughs) I might have sent you the therapy bill afterward, though.

DC: Well, I’ve seen some things lately that have really put me off in that particular genre, so I wouldn’t dream of forcing the issue.

FNS: Thanks! Okay, for you, the first movie I would have to track down for you, and that one is The House on 56th Street (1933)*, which is an old Kay Francis movie directed by Robert Florey, who did The Beast with 5,000 Fingers, which you probably have seen.

DC: Yes. Anything with the word “beast” in the title, odds are good I’ve seen it.

FNS: It’s very much a women’s picture of the time—Kay Francis suffers a great deal down through the years in this house. They showed it as part of the TCM Kay Francis month last year, and I was really impressed with its tight visual imagery and the classical way her tragedy progresses. I had heard it described as treacly or whatever, but I didn’t find it that way at all, so I’d be really interested in what you thought of it. But as I said, it’s not on DVD, so I would have to scour eBay, but I’m more than willing to do that for you.

DC: Does it show up on TCM with any kind of frequency?

FNS: It does not. One of the things that was so delightful about that month for Kay Francis fans was that it brought together a bunch of movies that they don’t have in heavy rotation, you know, things that they show every once in a while. The second one is Le Fin du Jour (1939) which is directed by Julien Duvivier, and that one I do have a copy of. It was sent to me by David Cairns who is, as we know, very evangelical on the subject of Julien Duvivier. It was probably taken from a VHS that was recorded off TV, so the print is not going to wow you, but I really think the movie might. It’s about actors in an old folks’ home and it’s really quite marvelous. There was one more, and that was a movie I loved as a child and still love—it still works really well for me—called Back Street (1941) with Margaret Sullivan and Charles Boyer.

DC: Sure!

FNS: That one you’ve seen?

DC: I think my grandmother sat me down to watch that when I was maybe nine years old, but my memory of it is so vague that my next viewing of it will be a total surprise. I would definitely be up for another swing at Back Street.

FNS: Even when they made it in 1941, the whole theme of a woman having to be kept in the shadows was sufficiently old-fashioned that they had to set it at the turn of the century. For me it still works really well, but it is absolute full-throttle romance and unabashed sentiment, so really—-

DC: Well, God help me, I’m totally susceptible to a movie like So Dear to My Heart, so—

FNS: Oh, that’s a man’s movie!

DC: Yeah. So really, I’m a pretty easy mark when it comes to overarching sentiment. Back Street might be just the ticket. All right, my last question. Since we’re talking about movies we enjoy, wondering how the other person might feel, name a movie that you think would surprise the readership of Self Styled Siren to find out that you like or enjoy?

FNS: I had to think about this one really hard, because if you’ve been reading me for five years you probably do have a pretty good bead on my tastes. It’s not that I think of myself as predictable, but I think I do have a set of criteria that’s fairly consistent from movie to movie. And then there’s an extra number of elements that are liable to take me from just admiring a movie to actually loving a movie. The only time I can really recall getting surprised reactions from people was when we were asked to do a list for 10 favorite foreign films for a survey that Edward Copeland was doing. One of the ones that I listed was Bullet in the Head. There were a number of people who were, like, “What?!”

DC (laughing): I think I was one of them!

FNS: Not only that I liked the movie, but that I liked it enough to put it in my top 10! I thought it was a tremendous movie. But actually, if you think about it, maybe it’s not that strange. There is a very strong romance in there, there’s this big historical canvas, there’s this sweeping story about friendship, the camerawork is gorgeous, there’s some very strong and dark political themes in it. So I guess it’s not so very surprising, but I very much doubt that people would see that that was playing at the New Beverly and immediately think to take me as their date! (Laughs)

DC: It’s the whole playing loose and free with human skulls in the movie that probably throws people off in thinking it might be for you.

FNS: Is that available on DVD?

DC: It was available from Tai Seng video back in the late ‘90s, which is where I got my copy, but that edition looks like it may be out of print. There is a spiffy new(er) version available from HK Film, however, which is probably pretty nice.

FNS: I’d love to see it again.

DC: Well, your birthday is coming up, right?

FNS (Laughs): Okay, this is it, the last question. Your posts frequently touch on the personal, sometimes in a very deep way, and I’ve always found that it enriches your film writing for me as one of your readers. So what would you say to those who maintain that the personal element has little or no place in serious criticism?

DC: It’s about the myth of objective journalism and whether you still buy into that or not. There really is no such thing. If you’re talking about news reportage, it’s really just a matter of how deeply the bias is buried. Objectivity is something to be strived for in news journalism, especially these days when networks like Fox News, and to a lesser degree, CNN flaunt their bias as a matter of course. But I don’t put much value on objectivity in film criticism. Objectivity in film criticism is a plot summary and a list of cast and credits. I think film criticism is at its best when the author invests himself in the subject at hand. You don’t have to get deeply autobiographical or take up a lot of time searching your own back story, but I don’t understand how that element of the personal can be anything but helpful and illuminating toward setting the general context for a writer. That’s one of the best things about following someone’s blog with passion and interest and a keen eye—after a while you accrue this sense, like you were referring to earlier, of what the person’s tastes are, how they think. All of that comes from being open to the idea of putting a little bit of yourself in your writing. Now, there’s a difference between finding the personal in an essay and reading someone who writes, “Well, I grabbed my Doritos and my hot chocolate and sat down for another screening of Casino in my brother’s den where he’s got the 60-inch plasma.” (Both Laughing)

FNS: Or someone who’s already probably come up too much here bringing up how he lost his virginity while he was interviewing a director! (Laughing) That’s a whole new dimension—the film review as a vehicle for sexual boasting!

DC: Right! The Penthouse Forum of film criticism! But seriously, folks, Pauline Kael, in early reviews and even in The New Yorker, often got called out for doing exactly what we’re talking about—writing in an autobiographical context about her life experiences and using that as kind of an introductory text. One example that stands out is her review of Frederick Wiseman’s High School. She spent a lot of time, really—certainly more than was usual—talking about some of her experiences in high school and how they were brought flooding back by the images and the situations that Wiseman captured in his film and, of course, how that informed her reaction the movie and what she felt it was saying. When I first read the piece I thought that was a brave thing to do. Now we live a culture where everybody airs out their underwear in public and so maybe that kind of personal examination in a review has been devalued in that it’s not particularly unusual. But for me there’s really no other way to go about it. I’m not enough of an academic to stand on my intellectual prowess and claim a great knowledge of film theory. A lot of what I write about comes specifically from how I learned to love movies and what they mean to me and how the important people in my life shaped my feelings about them. I see so much of the same in the writing you do, and I think we both just have to hope that translates somehow into something interesting for the reader. And if people are reading on a regular basis, then I guess we have to say, yeah, it’s getting across.


(Look for my review of Julien Duvivier’s Le Fin du Jour, the movie that actually came in the mail from Farran—not Back Street-- coming soon. I hope also to soon be able to link to, if not a full review, then at least Farran’s sure-to-be-animated comments about Freebie and the Bean. Thank you, Farran, for making this blogger summit such an enjoyable experience!)

* Peter Nellhaus sent me a message mere moments after this interview posted alerting Farran, me and everyone else to the fact that The House on 56th Street is indeed available on DVD from the Warner Archives Collection. Thank you so much, Peter, for passing along the info!


Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Okay, it's official. Any day that I actually go home from work, that's serious. I don't take many sick days, so when I do I know (even if no one else does) that rest is in order. Flickhead speculates that it might be overexposure to the gnarly 3D gore on tap in Piranha 3D. I'm not convinced of that explanation, and I openly hope it's not true because I'm gonna try to make it back for another helping this weekend. But I know that I will not be doing myself any favors by spending the day finishing the transcription job on a certain anticipated feature, which is how I originally intended to while away my afternoon. So if I may beg your indulgence, Siren fans and anyone else who had their appetites whetted by part one of our conversation last week, I promise that as soon as my coconut stops feeling like it's the featured instrument at a Kodo concert, I will knock that thing out. My hope has now been adjusted for Friday. Until then, where's that DVD of Cop Out I just rented from Red Box? What better sedation, I ask you?


Monday, August 23, 2010


UPDATED 8/24/10 5:39 pm

Misfiring synapses, several loads of laundry and a condition not unlike what Ted Mack used to describe as “iron-poor blood” (my kids describe it as “Daddy’s feeling poopy again”) have led me to shift gears slightly. I have had to postpone tomorrow’s intended posting of part two of the Movie Blogger Summit between myself and Farran Nehme Smith until Wednesday. I realize the world wouldn’t have come close to crumbling had I just muddled through without making this announcement. I have, however, hinted in various places that it was gonna be available tomorrow morning, and if I can't come through I feel a tiny heads-up is in order. (At least I resisted the press conference option.) As much as I enjoy keeping my word, I don’t think all the Geritol (or 5-Hour Energy Drink) in Los Angeles would have kept me awake long enough tonight to get the job done. So please bear with me— I think that if you liked part 1, then part 2 will be worth the wait. It’s coming on Wednesday, I promise. Until then, go see Piranha 3D-- you’ll need this foundational experience under your belt to be ready for the sequel Dimension Pictures just announced today. Maybe it’ll be ready in time for actual Spring Break next year?

In the meantime, For Your Consideration-- If you haven't seen this yet (or even if you have), let “Hollywood Treasure” Jerry O’Connell lead you through the official Piranha 3D Oscar campaign, courtesy of FunnyofrDie.com.


UPDATE 8/24/10 5:39 pm: A real four-alarm bangeroo is manhandling my cranium at this hour, I've got office deadlines, and I seem to not be able to keep my eyes open. In other words, I think last week's excitement has given way to this week's stress and I'm finally getting sick. At the risk of my journalistic credibility, I will try to get part 2 posted as soon as possible, but Wednesday is looking less likely. Thanks for your patience, everyone. It really will be a lot more fun to read than me whining about my splitting headache. Meanwhile, Piranha 3D awaits...



In this dog day heat, if you were in a multiplex over the weekend, the only rational choice was a cool swim in the refreshing waters of Lake Victoria, where spring break has just sprung. (Yes, it’s the end of summer, but stick with me.) Lots of brewskis, oiled-up, barely clad hotties everywhere, nonstop tunes— And, oh, yeah, if you do decide to take a dip, you might just come out a few pounds lighter, if you come out at all. Because the lake has just been stocked with a particularly vicious variety of prehistoric piranha, and they are hungry for human flesh after millions of years of self-cannibalizing in order to survive. Director Alexandre Aja’s giddy, over-the-top Piranha 3D, a remake of Joe Dante’s drive-in-era (1978) knock-off of Jaws, gets the exploitation spirit exactly right, summoning the spirit of Dante and even throwing in a little Russ Meyer to keep things humming before the body parts really start flying. The 3D image isn’t as clear as it should be (the movie was converted in post-production), but it’s still fun to see what pieces of the unfortunate extras get shorn and then spit back out at the audience. Aja also has a game cast (Elizabeth Shue, Ving Rhames, Jerry O’Connell, Adam Scott and Christopher Lloyd, among others) who make sure the feeding of all those girls and boys gone wild to a pack of very hungry, nasty, meat-eating pescados is as much silly, gory fun as it could possibly be. You can read my full-length review of Piranha 3D right now at Bullz-Eye. Mangia!


Friday, August 20, 2010


It’s a very good week to be a Ken Russell fan in Los Angeles. By pure coincidence, the birthday double feature I chose for the New Beverly Cinema this past Wednesday and Thursday—a grand birthday present from owner Michael Torgan—was Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice (1967), my favorite Connery-era Bond picture, paired with another spy thriller from the same year, Billion Dollar Brain, the third in the Len Deighton-Harry Palmer series (after The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin), all three starring Michael Caine, but this one directed by Russell. It’s definitely the director’s odd man out— his breakthrough hit Women in Love was his next movie (the two share the services of D.P. Billy Williams) and he was just coming off his famous series of composer biographies for the BBC. A strange choice as director for hire, Russell has never much cared to talk about the film—one gets the impression he looks on it as hackwork, and the casual observer could easily see (especially paired with the Bond movie) the influence 007’s popularity had on the Palmer series and Russell’s approach, which matches the go-for-broke grandiosity of You Only Live Twice stroke for stroke.

Billion Dollar Brain is more modestly scaled, over all, but what it lacks in sheer scope Russell makes up for with his visual style. An early glimpse at the sloppy décor of Palmer’s detective agency office reveals a Berlioz album jacket, the first hint at the director’s sympathies. But soon after, for those familiar with Russell’s later movies, figures charting on the stark, snow-bound landscapes of Helsinki allow the director to play with the Panavision frame in ways that seem directly linkable to Women in Love, The Music Lovers and, naturally, The Devils. And for a movie apparently disdained by its director in 2010, the 1967-vintage Russell seems to be having a high old time with the increasingly silly extremities of Deighton’s reverse-polarity end of the world invasion plot, while Caine, co-star Karl Malden and the painfully lovely Francoise Dorleac have a quite bearable lightness of being that complements the escalating anxiety with good humor and just right dash of gravity. But it is Ed Begley, as the Texas military maniac Gen. Midwinter (think Gen. Jack D. Ripper with a serious drawl and ominous good-ol’-boy pretensions) who gets Russell’s complete approval to take the screen in his jowls and shake it for all it's worth. Begley is funny/scary in the all the right and usual ways, but Russell presses the then-nascent distrust for the military to new and perhaps occasionally too intimate heights by giving Begley a character-defining series of wide-screen close-ups in which to shade his already gargantuan portrait of evil. It’s a risky move—Do we really want this many opportunities to gaze up Begley’s nose?—but the picture is lively and has (thankfully) a few other tricks up its sleeve to keep our interest piqued. And Russell makes the most of the movie’s spectacular end sequence, in which a convoy of tanker vehicles under mad General Begley’s command carry a virus meant to destroy the Soviet Republic from within, make their way toward a full-scale invasion of the Eastern Bloc territory while dodging the missiles that could inadvertently unleash the disastrous viruses themselves. Billion Dollar Brain may be unlike anything Russell ever did, but that’s no reason for Russell fans, or Russell himself, to dismiss it. On its own terms it’s engrossing and fun and offers its own grimly funny take on Russian/U.S. relations , and the ways it hints at the flowering of Russell’s visual imagination to come offers plenty of intrigue to keep fans of the director occupied. (If you missed it at the New Beverly Cinema, the movie is available on MGM DVD.)

The New Beverly’s presentation of Billion Dollar Brain dovetails neatly into the American Cinematheque’s very own tribute to Russell, a somewhat shortened but still potent version of the program offered earlier this month by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. The director himself will be on hand for each of the three scheduled double bills, which, if you were there for the AMPAS screening of the digitally restored presentation of Tommy this past May, is its own very special attraction. The “fun” starts tonight with two of Russell’s most controversial pictures—which, given his track record, is either saying a lot or nothing at all—in which the power of love is tested against the forces of religious tyranny and the extremities of unmapped biogenetic terrain. I’ve never been a huge fan of Altered States (1980), and I suppose that has everything to do with not relishing time spent with the insufferable academics at the center of Paddy Chayevsky’s scientific morality play. But Russell brings his usual energy to the party and fashioned a minor hit out of a scenario which starts out fascinating and gets increasingly silly. Not so The Devils (1971), tonight’s first feature, which starts out grim and just gets grimmer. (See attached feature article below for a more detailed account.) The Devils is perhaps Russell’s best film, and it doesn’t look like an official DVD release is due anytime soon, but even if there were it would be a mistake to trade that for a chance to see it on the Aero’s big screen. The show starts tonight at 7:30, and Ken Russell will appear in between films to discuss them… or not.

Saturday night finds Russell at the Egyptian Theater for another screening of the spectacular digital restoration of Tommy (1975), complete with Quintophonic Sound. If you’re a fan of Russell and the movie and missed it in May when it screened at the beautiful AMPAS auditorium in Beverly Hills, I seriously recommend you take the opportunity to see it here Saturday night. To some the phrase “Quintophonic Sound” seems shorthand for some sort of joke on the particular excesses of the ‘70s, but once you hear what’s in store for you at the Egyptian you’ll realize, as I did, that as many times as I’d seen Tommy, on big screens and small, I’d never really properly heard it before. Quintophonic Sound is most accurately described as a precursor to the familiar Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround setup familiar to most home theater connoisseurs, and applied to the soundtrack of this wildly sensate, excessive (yes!) and polarizing “rock opera” it is enveloping in the best sense, as well as downright revelatory. The delirious sound, married to Russell’s pummeling, yet seductive visual assault, altogether makes up for the downturn inherent in Pete Townshend’s original narrative, keeping the audience engaged even when the opera’s religious imperatives begin to get muddled. (And I have to say, I’ve always preferred Townshend’s arrangements and the entirety of the soundtrack of this movie to the Who’s spare, often uninspired original album—Oliver Reed is “singing” in character, folks, and his performance is a booze-soaked, swarthy bit of glory.) Tommy is getting the Blu-ray treatment next month, but again, as great as that disc surely will be, seeing the same digital transfer on the big screen here is just something that should not be missed.

Coupled with Tommy is a rare opportunity to see Russell’s notorious follow-up, Lisztomania (1975) in all its maniacal, allusive glory on the Egyptian screen. Stephen Farber, in the November/December 1975 issue of Film Comment, contributed what is probably the most serious consideration of the film ever written. It’s a fascinating piece that considers the director’s output up through the release of his musical fantasia, which considers the apparent reality that Liszt was, in fact, the first true pop music star, and serves up an anachronistic visual feast on the theme that was clearly too much even for the audiences that eagerly gorged on the previous film. Perhaps the difference was Townshend vs. Rick Wakeman’s interpretations of Liszt and Wagner, but I think it had even more to do with Russell’s disorienting, free-associative, sexually unleashed imagery and his insistence on approaching a subject as ripe and provocative as the roots of Germanic military and psychological dominance through a baroque, primarily comic prism. What’s great about Farber’s piece is that it takes the movie seriously enough to report on the many things the movie does well (none of which were much recognized by the general press when it was released) as well as where the movie wobbles under the weight of its own themes and excesses:

“Despite all these stylistic flourishes, Lisztomania has something on its mind; the collage of wild comic images builds to a climax of unexpected intensity. This is a much more adventurous, imaginative film than Tommy, but the critics who loved Tommy are howling in outrage at Russell’s venomous treatment of Liszt and Wagner. The comic-book style is used to attack the crass commercialism of both composers, their obeisance to the popular culture of their time; according to Russell, their lives played like a bad Hollywood movie. As is usually the case in Russell’s biographical films, most of the episodes have their basis in fact, but Russell bends facts when he needs to, takes liberties with chronology, and rewrites history for his own subversive purposes. The jokes and anachronisms—like the Giotto-type paintings of contemporary rock stars that line the walls of Princess Carolyn’s palace—multiply until it isn’t always clear what is being satirized… The major problem with Lisztomania is formal. The pop-art style is effective for dealing with Liszt’s vulgar showmanship, but it limits the scope of the film. Elements of Liszt’s life that do not fit the cartoon pageant—his long-term relationship with the Russian Princess Carolyn, or his decision to enter the priesthood—must be rushed over. Toward the end of the film, Russell seems to want to portray Liszt more sympathetically, but his style is not flexible enough to reflect this shift in attitude, and Roger Daltrey is too inexperienced and vacant an actor to create a character with any complexity.”

Farber digs in where most writers have never cared to travel into the ideas at the foundation of Lisztomania. He suggests, as many have noted, that Russell’s view of the composer is one in which Liszt emerges as “an artist of genuine talent whose music will survive the vulgarity of his life.” But where the film, and Farber’s analysis, gets really interesting is in the latter part of the film, in which Russell uses an onslaught of wildly overstated imagery to suggest the corruption of the German national character of the time, including imagery spindled and stitched together from sources as disparate as Tod Browning, Charlie Chaplin, James Whale, the Beatles and the vaults of DC and Marvel Comics, as well as the emergence of Wagner as the inspiration for a viral evil spelled Nazism. Regarding the German composer, Farber writes that “Russell seems to have made this film mainly to have a chance to get at Wagner (who was in reality Liszt’s son-in-law)” and describes the composer appearance in the film as morphing from that of an innocent boy in a sailor suit who reveals himself to be a vampire of a both metaphoric and literal nature, and eventually leader of an orgiastic pagan cult in which he oversees dressed in Superman tights and cape who creates his own monster, “a retarded Siegfried (who) crackles to life to do his master’s bidding.” Finally, the Wagnerian vampire reappears from the composer’s grave fashioned as a Frankenstein monster crossed up with Adolf Hitler who roams the cobblestone streets armed with an electric guitar which he uses to mow down the Jews in machine-gun fashion. Farber notes the obvious “grotesque oversimplification of history” going on here, but also notes that the shards of truth embedded in even such a ridiculous fantasia such as this before noting:

“(I)t is not really fair to ask a non-documentary film to serve the same function as a careful piece of historical scholarship. Through distortion and exaggeration an artist can provide a flash of insight that might well be obscured by a more dispassionate historical theory. Russell’s vision is like a half-mad nightmare with a core of truth that cannot be discounted. He refuses to absolve the artist of responsibility for social evils, and this is the heresy that music lovers cannot tolerate. Whatever one’s reservations about Russell’s peculiar approach to German history, the climactic scenes of Lisztomania are among the best that he has ever done—blasphemous, audaciously witty, harrowing, and exhilarating.”

Tommy and Lisztomania screen Saturday night, August 21, at the Egyptian Theater beginning at 7:30, and again in the presence of director Ken Russell.

Finally, Russell returns, in person and on film, to the Aero Sunday night for Women in Love (1969), featuring Glenda Jackson’s Oscar-winning performance (and that infamous nude wrestling match between Oliver reed and Alan Bates), coupled with Russell’s follow-up, his first big-screen musical biography, The Music Lovers (1970), starring Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky and Glenda Jackson again as his doomed love. (The Music Lovers replaces Mahler 91974), which was the film originally to appear at the Aero on Sunday night.)

As I said before, this is a prime opportunity for Los Angeles filmgoers to reacquaint themselves with Ken Russell’s films. (I also highly recommend Farber’s article not only for its consideration of Lisztomania but for all of Russell’s films up to that point, especially Mahler.) And in case you need any more encouragement, I offer up my own in the form of a piece originally written after seeing The Devils during the summer of 2007, my second encounter with the film on the big screen. Hard to say if Russell will achieve any kind of critical reassessment as a result of these late-career appearances, but on the strength of the diverse pictures screened at the Lincoln Center and here this weekend it seems such activity is more than warranted, if only to stir up discussion of one of the movie’s most satisfyingly iconoclastic talents.


Is it some kind of heresy, or blasphemy, or out-and-out idiocy to admit that sometimes I miss the dark ages before instant gratification became an expectation, an entitlement in the long shadow of VHS, DVD, Blu-ray and whatever configuration is next up on the horizon to make whatever format you’re backing obsolete? Remember those headless pre-VCR days when you’d go to see a movie in a theater—didn’t matter if it was The Searchers, or The Harrad Experiment, or Mildred Pierce, or Circus World, or The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three-- and have no idea if or when you’d ever get a chance to see it again? Of course, it mattered more to think this if you liked the movie—honestly, there weren’t too many of us who saw S*P*Y*S or Saturn 3 on their original releases who much cared whether we ever crossed paths with those mongrels ever again.

But when you came floating out of a screening of Lawrence of Arabia, or Fiddler on the Roof, or Straw Dogs (did anyone ever float out of a screening of Straw Dogs?), there might have been a pang of regret upon imagining that was the last time you’d probably ever see the movie on the big screen. (Almost worse was imagining re-encountering a bloodied and mangled version of a favorite film after the surgeons at the ABC Sunday Night Movie got through with it.) One way I used to deal with this problem, being a resident of a small town in the Eastern Oregon desert who felt lucky whenever our local theater played anything unusually good, was to load up on screenings the week the movie played. When movies like Dirty Harry, The Poseidon Adventure, American Graffiti, The Seven-Ups, The Groove Tube, Car Wash, Escape from New York, Tron, The Stunt Man, The Fury, Blazing Saddles and Kelly’s Heroes played their Wednesday through Sunday engagements, I and my friends ponied up for at least three shows each, sometimes more if we could. We had no idea we were living in the dark ages, and that in 10 years or less we would find ourselves taking for granted the kind of decadence that would allow you to cough up $1,500 for a 95-pound slab of whirring, wheezing machinery called a Betamax that would play back a limited selection of prerecorded movies, or movies cut and mixed with commercial breaks that you could tape off of TV yourself (with a blank cassette that only cost about $20.)

In the mid ‘70s we movie geeks certainly never expected we’d get to a point where we would have if not the whole, then at least a goodly chunk of film history at our disposal whenever we wanted to see it. And if you think about it, neither did the people who made the movies themselves. As screenwriter Lem Dobbs observes in an upcoming documentary on the early films of John Ford, none of these filmmakers ever imagined a life for their work beyond the initial theatrical run, which makes the lasting poetics of someone like Ford, or the diamond-sharp wit of a Hawks or a Wilder, or the roguish splendor of a Walsh even more notable in how it stood out from the chaff of the day. Sure, even up through the ‘70s every once in a while a popular hit might get reissued—that’s how many of us got the opportunity to see big MGM blockbusters like Gone With the Wind, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and, yes, even 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen for the first time. But more often than not, studio product was treated like studio product, and unless a movie ended up on the bottom half of a smelly double bill somewhere down the line, one didn’t have many chances to see it before some new picture (and they made a whole lot more of ‘em 40 and 60 and 80 years ago than they do now) came along and took its place.

Conversely, in an age where digital technology is often the tail that wags the dog, some filmmakers may even be making and editing films thinking less about the big-screen experience and more pointedly on how the film plays on home theater wide-screen TVs. In a recent post on the shaky-cam verisimilitude of the Bourne films, particularly the last two directed by Paul Greengrass, Jim Emerson had an illuminating thought:

“In the middle of the movie, when I should have been into the movie, I found the pile-on style so abstract and distancing/alienating (a Brechtian espionage thriller?) that I began to wonder if Greengrass had actually shot the movie with an eye for the small(er) screen rather than the big one. Perhaps on a reduced scale, even on a large HDTV set, the illusion would be less distracting and more involving. Disorientation can only be pushed so far before it all becomes a blur, like taking a hand-held video camera on a roller coaster.”

But I digress. (Boy, how I digress!) My original thought, about a kind of longing for the days before the glories of VCRS and DVD and the home theater revolution, probably wouldn’t have been jogged out into the open had it not been for a couple of screenings I had the pleasure of attending this past summer courtesy of the American Cinematheque in Hollywood. Both films were hotbeds of controversy when they were released, in 1971 and 1975, respectively, neither had I seen, on big screen or small, in close to 20 years, and after seeing them again in 2007 they both made my personal Top 100 List. And in the aftermath of compiling that 100, I decided I would pop in at random points on the list and take a closer look at each title, with whatever attendant thoughts may be inspired by it. I am looking forward to writing about the far more disreputable of the two, Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo very soon. (In fact, I did)

However, the experience that got me ruminating about the dark ages when our movie-going and consuming habits were so much different came about when the Cinematheque screened Ken Russell’s hysterical, perhaps blasphemous and inescapably brilliant The Devils for one night only about a month ago. When this film made its bowdlerized way across American screens during the summer of 1971 I was seven years too young (legally) to see it—it had been rated X by the MPAA, even sans the notorious “Rape of Christ” sequence. Consequently, it became one of those holy grails for me—a film I was just a few years too late to see, a film not well-championed by critics here, and one rarely revived. Though I had seen Warner Bros.' VHS (!) release first, sometime during the mid ‘80s, it wasn’t until 1987 that I actually saw The Devils on a wide theatrical screen. Twenty years later, I saw it again. And in those 20 years the movie had expanded in my head into a unique masterpiece I was almost afraid to see again, for fear the actual thing would not live up to my vivid, horrible memories of it.

From the first appearance of the hyper-clear Panavision images shot by David Watkin (The Boy Friend, Chariots of Fire, Out of Africa), even when attended by the slight dust and speckle of the print, I felt a sensation, a frisson, if you will (and if I must), that seemed connected directly to the fact that seeing this movie was a special event, something that doesn’t happen every day, that couldn’t happen (for the time being, anyway) courtesy of Netflix or (ha!) Blockbuster.

The very Russell-esque pageant of twisted, intermingled sexuality, politics and religion that opens The Devils was itself a tonic-- an impatient Cardinal Richelieu awaits an audience with King Louis XIII, with whom he hopes to discuss the impending campaign to bring down the walls of the fortified city of Loudon, a self-sufficient city led by the theologically and sexually liberal Father Grandier (Oliver Reed), whose sway over the citizenry (and the libidos of a demented sect of nuns) threatens to swing the city even further away from the harsh influence of the Catholic Church. The event that keeps Richelieu waiting, rolling his eyes and pinching himself to stay awake, is a grotesque performance in which King Louis XIII unveils himself as the lead in a musical staging of Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus. The sequence is deliciously unsettling and sets an approrpiately cross-wired tableau for the conspiracy of these perverse fanatics over setting upon Loudon a militaristic religious assault bent on destroying the priest’s influence, and perhaps even the city itself. This initial sequence has an almost jolly formalism (which Russell would expand into a feature-length exploration of the musical form in his next film, The Boy Friend) compared to the relentless hysteria with which the rest of the film is infused. Russell’s movie, based on Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, is all about the degree to which power corrupts, to which power is corrupted, and the lengths to which those in power will go, with motivations both religious and secular that are equally rooted in the tangled logic of madness, to preserve the belief systems to which they’ve staked their reputations and their souls.

Russell, of course, sides squarely with the sexually ambiguous spiritualism of Father Grandier, even though he makes clear there’s more than a whiff of megalomania about how Grandier conducts himself within the city walls, both rejecting and basking in his increasing role as spokesperson—and martyr candidate—for the doomed citizenry. But Grandier’s hypocrisies and denials are no match for the force of corruption set against his own brand of moral lassitude. The dogs of Richelieu’s religious forces are unleashed—first in the person of a sneering, silver-tongued Baron De Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), an officer in the royal army, and eventually that of the fairly rabid Father Barre (Michael Gothard), an exorcist whose hysteria for the Host of Hosts frequently crosses the line into wanton, animalistic fury. (As does Gothard’s performance; a friend who saw the movie with me suggested that Gothard, with his slender build, long hair and granny glasses, was Russell’s tip of the cap to the younger generation that was, at the time the movie was released, fueling a resurgence in movie attendance, especially for risky ventures like this one. And it’s true—Gothard comes across like the necessarily unholy offspring of Ray Manzarek and Warren Zevon.)

But Grandier is beset from within Loudon’s walls as well, most relentlessly by the pathological attentions of Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), whose own sexual obsession with Grandier will set into motion the political and religious forces that will bring him down. Redgrave’s performance is much more of a piece with the more outré, baroque stylistic indulgences that Russell brings to the table—Reed, as Grandier, is comparatively quiet and introspective, especially for Reed, and quite powerful. His ace in the hole is the simmering anger underneath his posture of theological rectitude, which eventually comes bursting through in the film’s fiery conclusion, when Grandier must finally address the twisted hypocrisy that the Church brandishes as “truth,” a truth by which, if confesses, he will condemn himself in a bed of satanic lies. “If the Devil's evidence is to be accepted,” he rages to his persecutors, “the most virtuous people are in the greatest of danger, for it is against these that Satan rages most violently. I had never set eyes on Sister Jeanne of the Angels until the day of my arrest, but the Devil has spoken, and to doubt his word is sacrilege.”

Redgrave is as riveting as she is repulsive here. Her hunchbacked Sister Jeanne has become so debased by her own delusions, and her own twisted entanglement of religious servitude and sexual passion, that she has transmitted her own madness into the fragile minds of her convent mates, until they all serve themselves up, heaving and screaming and wretching, on the altar of carnal desire for Grandier. From her first moments, gliding toward the camera through the halls of the convent, which recall the dank catacombs of Marat-Sade (the film’s sets were designed by Derek Jarman), she punctuates her fervent tones of prayer with an incongruous cackle that makes you laugh and sends chills through your sternum, and from that moment on the movie belongs as much to her wide, hallucinatory eyes as it does to her director’s all-encompassing vision of hell on earth.

Surely, The Devils is not for the faint of heart, nor for anyone who isn’t already predisposed to see the Catholic Church as a somewhat less than effective (or sincere) vessel for the Gospel of Christ. But it is undeniably powerful, in its excesses and sometimes despite them. In its insistent renderings of nuns masturbating to the memory of would-be lovers recently burned at the stake, the full-on hysteria of those possessed not by demons, or even sundry madness and plague, but by the intoxicating delusions of religious mania, and the mechanics of medieval torture, The Devils remains, 36 years after its release, horribly potent. It is one of the view movies, especially (I would imagine) seen in the uncensored British cut featuring that sensational “Rape of Christ” sequence in which Sister Jeanne and friends have their way with Christ on the cross, that would just as easily warrant and receive an NC-17 rating today as it did an X in 1971. As Danny Peary noted in his 1986 book Guide for the Film Fanatic, the movie’s “repulsive imagery [may be] overwhelming at times, but for once Russell’s seemingly out-of-control, hallucinogenic style is appropriate for his subject matter.” Or, as Sister Jeanne more than aptly puts it, “Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights.” As one who has perhaps more of a taste for Russell’s indulgences than does Peary (and surely many more than just him), I would still agree that Russell is at the height of his powers in The Devils, a movie as deeply rooted in pictorial classicism and movement as it is in heightening its pitch and tone to match the hollow screaming and heaving madness of its midsection. It is a brilliant consideration of the ghastly potency of extremity, particularly when that extremity betrays strains both political and religious, a brutal, searing, splendidly expressionistic specimen of filmmaking that takes full advantage of the scale and power of the wide screen to present a story that no studio would ever have the fortitude to release today. I almost wish it would never find its way to DVD, so powerful is it as a movie that can exist only in the forever affected memories of those who have seen it, a testament to what it was like to experience movies before the rise of the digital realm.