Friday, July 31, 2009

The Wanderers: Geoffrey Lewis

Here at Cinema Styles I occasionally showcase what I refer to as a wanderer, an actor who goes from job to job, is constantly working and has no major lead role to his credit but at the same time isn't a supporting player with Oscars or recognition like a Thomas Mitchell or Thelma Ritter. These are the actors that don't get the credit they deserve for a lifetime of hard, consistent, quality work. Today is the birthday of one of those actors, Geoffrey Lewis. He's 74 today.

I'd like to write a brilliant essay on the talents of Geoffrey Lewis but all I can get out is that I love the guy. If you watched television or the movies in the seventies through the mid-eighties, you know Lewis. He was everywhere. I probably couldn't say with any accuracy when is the first time I saw him. He guested on The Rookies, Starsky and Hutch, Police Woman, Streets of San Francisco, Alice, Laverne and Shirley, The Six Million Dollar Man, McCloud, Hawaii Five-O and on and on and on. I could have seen him for the first time in any one of those shows and not known I was looking at future favorite Wanderer Geoffrey Lewis.

The first time I remember seeing him was in 1978's Every Which Way but Loose with Clint Eastwood. A good movie? Hardly. But Lewis stood out for me. That face and his almost defeated way of speaking, like the world had destroyed his dreams before the first word even came out of his mouth, stuck with me. I recognized him every time I saw him after that. The most notable occasion would probably be Salem's Lot. The rocking chair, the dirt covered clothes (from Danny Glick's grave) and the line, "Look at me, teacher. Loooook at me." This casting choice fascinated me. It fascinated me because I found Lewis to be so non-threatening as a vampire. I just assumed any vampire played by Lewis would eventually, and quickly, give up on trying to lure and kill human victims and just drink the blood from whatever dead animal he happened across. And in fact his quick exit out the window when confronted with opposition lent credence to this hypothesis. That's because Lewis excelled at playing the guy who's been beaten down by life. The undead life shouldn't be any different.

The Oscars are rarely held up by a cinephile as an actual measure of quality in filmmaking and yet there is a heavy air of legitimacy that hangs over them. An unfair sense of legitimacy that goes to a very few. Even though we can all admit the awards have little actual meaning it doesn't stop me from wishing sometimes that a lifetime achievement award would go to someone who, just once, was never nominated for anything in their career prior, never had a role bigger than a minor supporting role and never achieved name recognition beyond a few dedicated fans but achieved facial recognition the world over. Actors like Geoffrey Lewis, with over 200(!) credits on his IMDB page, who have never disappointed, never phoned it in and never stormed off a set.

Happy Birthday Geoffrey. It may not be an Oscar, but you're a Lifetime Achievement Wanderer as acknowledged by Cinema Styles. And you deserve it.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dancing with the Stars, Vintage Style

Regular readers of these pages are probably aware of my predilection for old, archival photos and vintage artwork. There's not much technicolor on these pages and that's the way I like it. And right now, for whatever reason, I'd love to be here, at the Moving Picture Ball.

I'd ask you to name all the stars (you can click to enlarge the artwork) but I don't have a legend and they are drawn so badly I cannot even be sure of two or three of them. The rest I am fairly sure of as you most likely are too. I'd also like to ask you to join me at a Moving Picture Ball today but the stars involved would not be the ones I would want lighting the firmament so I'll just have to settle for dreams of time long since past.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Facing Up to the Future

Are blogs and websites dying? There was a time when a website or a blog stood for the height of instant gratification as well as self congratulatory satisfaction. A paper might take a day to cover a story but a website or blog could do it instantly. Still, it was just a different means of publishing. Film, book and music sites and blogs still went to the trouble, and still do, of writing entire reviews, articles and essays upon which the reader could kindly, or harshly, comment and converse. It was a different way to get the information out there but the information was still presented in essay length format.

Now there's Facebook and Twitter and the actual published content itself is changing. No more essays, just a few sentences, a link to a video, a picture. Twitter limits its users to 140 characters. Others will follow until surely a service will come along that allows only posts of single character emoticons. In the face of this heavily abridged competition how much longer can the the blogs and websites survive? My guess would be as long as Facebook and Twitter do. You see, to turn the phrase around a bit, I come not to bury Facebook but to praise it.

I am by most standards a technology hold-out. I love new technology and am fascinated by anything new that comes along and promises change but I always wait to join in. I still remember the lessons of my childhood as I watched friends and neighbors spend hundreds of 1970s dollars on Texas Instruments calculators that three years later cost only twelve bucks. Or VCRs in 1981 for 900 dollars that by 1984 cost around two hundred. Or computers. Okay, computers I couldn't wait on. I worked on them in the eighties in classrooms and at work and in 1992 finally decided I had to have one. I still remember the cost too. For a 420 megabyte hard drive (tip-top of the line in 1992 I'll have you know) with 4 megabytes of ram and a 386 processor I laid down $2400 dollars. Yep, two thousand four hundred dollars for something that my daughter's DSI could out-maneuver in two thirds of a nanosecond.

Yes the lessons of cost depreciation have stayed with me even as the new internet technologies increasingly come free of charge. It's not the price obviously that holds me back but the idea that the first folks in have to deal with the bugs, the screw-ups and the mindless "I have to be first with everything" blather hounds. And so it goes with Facebook. I held back, waited. Waited to make sure the kinks were worked out by everyone else and to make sure it wasn't just a flash in the pan I was going to devote time and energy to only to have abandon it all and start over somewhere else. When I was satisfied that Facebook was "settled in" so to speak, I joined. And I'm glad I did.

My visits and pageviews here at Cinema Styles haven't changed. If anything they continue to slowly increase. Same with The Invisible Edge although while I am at home with my daughter for one more week while she is not in camp it will continue to receive only one update a week. And my photo blog Unexplained Cinema, which I just recently redesigned for visual consistency, has really taken off and has even been featured on photo websites I am proud to say. So my blogs are doing just fine. Of course, there is a difference. The difference is that the conversations that go on in the comment section have shifted to a more suitable forum, Facebook, leaving the comment section for actual comments and conversation about the post itself. But that's not the biggest difference. The biggest difference is the freedom of having two different forums to post in depending on the subject.

There was a part of me that felt odd basing an entire post around a thought like, "I think this scene is brilliant" or "Wasn't this film underrated?". Facebook affords me that opportunity and the same opportunity for every other film blogger. Just yesterday Kim Morgan posted the dueling banjos scene from Deliverance and a terrific discussion followed centered around the film and several of its scenes. I myself put up a scene from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid about a week ago and also enjoyed the conversation that followed. Facebook has also allowed me a place to post pictures that I don't necessarily want to devote an entire post to on Cinema Styles.

Aside from that there are elements of Facebook that amuse me to no end. One is the way comments are archived. Once a comment section exceeds four or five in number, Facebook publishes the comment the posting party made and the last one or two with a "view all comments" option in the middle. This has led to a favorite Facebook game of mine, the "What in the hell happened between comments 1 and 17?" game. You know, first someone posts a status update of "Greg thinks Chaplin's best work was CITY LIGHTS." Then the first comment says, "A true masterpiece but I think I prefer GOLD RUSH." Then there's the "view all comments" option. Then below that is comment 18 which says, "Exactly! That's why I will never eat an infected cow's heart again!" You don't know what happened between comment 1 and comment 18 and you almost don't want to spoil it by clicking on "view all comments."

Things I could do without on Facebook are the endless multitudes of mindless applications that apply to nothing useful at all, for me at least. But as a forum for quick thoughts on film and discussion of ideas I love it. I really do. Things have changed quite a bit since I started blogging back in early 2007 and I assume they will continue to change, to evolve, to endlessly move forward. I look forward to it. And I look forward to continuing the conversation on film in a forum that gives blogging a whole new face.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Hey, Are You Old Enough to Work?

Jill St. John, born Jill Oppenheim, with mother Betty Lou Oppenheim, getting another work permit for Jill in April of 1958. In the bottom picture she emerges with permit in hand. She's good to work! That August she would turn 18 and never have to head to the Motion Picture Work Permit Office again. Thirteen years later at the age of 31 she would be the Bond girl, Tiffany Case, in the last official Sean Connery Bond movie, Diamonds are Forever. Next year she turns 70. That's right, Tiffany Case will be 70. God I feel old.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Heaven's Gate: A Look Beyond the Reputation

Recently I reviewed Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession on these pages. In that documentary F.X. Feeney, the film critic for the defunct Z Channel Magazine and close friend of Jerry Harvey, programmer of the Z Channel, remarks that in the future critics will be bewildered at the fuss and negativity that surrounded the release of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. The Z Channel had given Heaven's Gate a second premiere, so to speak, showing the director's cut on its airwaves in 1982. Apparently, the second time around it even got good reviews. Because of all of this I was curious to see Heaven's Gate, a film up until now I had never seen. What's more, I wanted to like Heaven's Gate. I did. Hell, I wanted to love it. I wanted to thumb my nose in the face of all those who unfairly lambasted it all those years ago. But I couldn't. It's simply not the great movie I was hoping to see.

However - and let me stress that this is an enormous "however" - it is nowhere even remotely close to as bad as critics said it was, particularly Roger Ebert who perhaps gave it its most famous bad review. In fact, it is so far from being that bad that I can agree with Feeney on one point: While I don't see a re-evaluation of Heaven's Gate in the future that establishes it as a great film I do believe it will cause bewilderment among those seeing with the expectations of it being a cinematic disaster. As such, reviewing it is a complicated endeavor.

Heaven's Gate tells the story of the Johnson County Wars in Johnson County, Wyoming in 1892 between wealthy land-owners and smaller immigrant land-owners accused by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association that represented the wealthy land-owners of thievery and cattle rustling. The lead characters in the film bear the names of the actual figures involved in the wars but gives them quite different outcomes. Jim Averell, played by Kris Kristofferson, is a sheriff in the film while in reality he was a shop owner. Ella Watson, played by Isabelle Huppert, is a Madam of a brothel in the film, a cattle owner and homesteader in reality. In reality both were lynched in before the wars even started. Other characters such as Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) and Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) more closely mirror their real life counterparts. In 1892 the Association brought in a small army of hired killers to wipe out the immigrant settlers and the war between them and the sheriff's posse set to fight against them finally ended when the U.S. Army intervened. The build up to this war makes up the first two hours of the film with the last hour and a half devoted to the war itself. It's a slow buildup with a somewhat chaotic payoff.

As I said at the beginning of this review, Heaven's Gate is not the great movie some claim. Many of the criticisms I have read of it are indeed valid. That which is most valid is probably that there is far too much padding for what in the end is a slightly told story. I have heard that the edited shorter version is particularly bad but quite honestly I can only assume it is better for conveying the story in tighter terms although I would concede that doing so would rob the film of much of its visual beauty and to do so to simply make the story clearer seems foolish. Nonetheless, there is nary a scene in the film that doesn't run at least two or three minutes past its expiration date. Some simple editing of scene length, not the excising of entire scenes, just the editing down of the scenes themselves, would easily cut an hour off of the film and tighten up the narrative tremendously. I believe what happened however was that whole scenes were excised and I can see how this would prove to be a fatal error.  And again, the visual beauty of the scenes themselves calls into question the whole idea of editing something down simply for story purposes.

All other criticisms beyond that are uninformed. I say that not because there aren't other things wrong with the film, but because the reviews I have read do not cover anything else. After critiquing the padding they simply plunge headlong into snark. Roger Ebert, a longtime favorite critic, is the most read of all the critics I could find and, as such, I would like to elaborate on this by going through his review of the movie. I do this because the film's reputation weighs so heavily upon it that I feel the best way I can review it is to separate the fiction from the reality when it comes to its critical reaction.

Here is how Ebert begins:

I know, I know: He's trying to demystify the West, and all those other things hotshot directors try to do when they don't really want to make a Western. But this movie is a study in wretched excess. It is so smoky, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen. A director is in deep trouble when we do not even enjoy the primary act of looking at his picture.

Okay, first off, I see this as an historical picture, one that, as stated earlier, is telling the story of the Johnson County Wars. I don't see this as a Western per se, just because it is set in Wyoming in the 1890's. His "hotshot director" remark is unnecessarily contemptuous. Then there is the criticism about the dust and smoke. I had heard this from other critics. Are there dust filled scenes? Yes. They occur when hundreds of men, women, horses and wagons are moving about the land. One would expect such things to create dust. However, Vilmos Zsigmond, the cinematographer, keeps drawing in the focus on those characters unobscured by dust and using the dust to create an other worldly feel throughout. I found Zsigmond's work to be excellent and understand why he felt heartbroken at the criticisms, as he states in the Z Channel documentary. I found the movie to be quite beautiful to look at despite Ebert's remark and even if the dusty scenes did bother me, and they didn't, they comprise a small percentage of the film's running time so why make it sound as if the entire film suffers from this problem?

Ebert continues:

But Cimino's in deeper trouble still. Heaven's Gate has, of course, become a notorious picture, a boondoggle that cost something like $36 million and was yanked out of its New York opening run after the critics ran gagging from the theater.

Really? Ran gagging? And so what if they did? Is Ebert using the reactions of other critics to bolster an argument he has yet to even make? Then Ebert goes back to the cinematography:

... it is so incompetently photographed and edited that there are times when we are not even sure which character we are looking at. Christopher Walken is in several of the initial Western scenes before he finally gets a close-up and we see who he is.

That is simply untrue. Either Ebert is outright lying, something I doubt, or he has missed some early shots. I never at any point was unsure of who I was looking at. From the first moment I saw Walken I recognized him. Here in fact is his very first scene:

Does anyone have difficulty seeing him? He's center frame, medium shot. It's as clear as day. True, the cloth is flapping in the scene but a couple of times, like the one shown here, Walken's face is seen.

Ebert again:

John Hurt wanders through various scenes to no avail. Kris Kristofferson is the star of the movie, and is never allowed to generate enough character for us to miss him, should he disappear.The opening scenes are set at Harvard (well, they were actually shot in England, but never mind).

John Hurt's character is a commentator on the action, a chorus so to speak. And he is a pointed type: The overly intellectual and thoroughly ineffectual elitist. His actions and comments to "no avail" are the point. The real war must be fought and won by men of action, not men of sarcasm. The fact that Ebert so clearly misses this is somewhat embarrassing. As for the Kristofferson line I'm not sure what he is driving at. He is given as much character as is needed and I liked his character very much. Yes, I would have missed him had he disappeared. Finally, as to the parenthetical aside about the Harvard scenes being shot in England I can only ask, "What the hell?" So what? Why did he even write that? Would he write of his favorite film Casablanca, "The opening scenes on the streets of Casablanca (well, they were actually shot on a soundstage, but never mind)"? No, I didn't think so.

Ebert again:

In a movie where nothing is handled well, the immigrants are handled very badly. Cimino sees them as a mob. They march onscreen, babble excitedly in foreign tongues, and rush off wildly in all directions. By the movie's end, we can identify only one of them for sure. She is the Widow Kovach, whose husband was shot dead near the beginning of the film. That makes her the emblem of the immigrants' suffering. Every time she steps forward out of the mob,somebody respectfully murmurs "Widow Kovach!" in the subtitles.

Sorry, but again, this is untrue. It simply doesn't happen that way. The immigrants, there being hundreds of them, are indeed shown in group gatherings. However, several are also presented as individual characters, at least six that I recall. Any more and the film would have had a dozen or so lead and supporting characters which for any movie, becomes confusing. So, the immigrants are shown in group "town hall" type gatherings, yes, but each time individual characters emerge from the group to personalize them. As for the Widow Kovach I watched for what Ebert was saying having read his review before seeing the film. Yes, I watched for it. It wasn't there. Of all the immigrants the ones the viewer clearly remembers are those portrayed by Brad Dourif and Jeff Bridges, not the Widow Kovach. Why Ebert latched onto her I don't know. I wish I did. His review is downright baffling at times.

While the foreigners are hanging onto Widow Kovach's every insight...

They aren't. Again, why the straw-man?

...the cattlemen are holding meetings in private clubs and offering to pay their mercenaries $5 a day plus expenses and $50 for every other foreigner shot or hung. I am sure of those terms because they are repeated endlessly throughout a movie that cares to make almost nothing else clear.

I counted. The terms are mentioned three times. Yes, three times. Twice by Frank Canton, once to the Association and once to the hired killers (makes perfect sense both times) and once by Averell when warning a saloon owner (Jeff Bridges) about how far the Association will go. And then Ebert says almost nothing else is made clear. At no point did I have any problem whatsoever following this movie. None.

The ridiculous scenes are endless. Samples: Walken, surrounded by gunmen and trapped in a burning cabin, scribbles a farewell note in which he observes that he is trapped in the burning cabin, and then he signs his full name so that there will be no doubt who the note was from.

Walken's character, Nate Champion writes the note and places it in his pocket and then runs out of the cabin knowing he will be killed. The note, however, he knows will be found by Ella as long as he can get clear of the burning cabin. This is embarrassingly obvious. And here's a bit of history, about the real Nate Champion, directly quoted from Wikipedia: "Champion was besieged inside the log cabin... During the siege, Champion kept a poignant journal which contained a number of notes he wrote to friends while taking cover inside the cabin... The last journal entry read: 'Well, they have just got through shelling the house like hail. I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes, if alive. Shooting again. It's not night yet. The house is all fired. Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again.'" So not only is it obvious what he is doing in the film, but the film is in fact recreating the actual events themselves which would mean Ebert is saying reality is ridiculous. I think it is more than safe to say at this point that his interpretation of this scene is ridiculous.

Kristofferson, discovering Huppert being gang-raped by several men, leaps in with six-guns in both hands and shoots all the men, including those aboard Huppert, without injuring her.
It's three men. All three are in a position of almost eye-level height with Kristofferson after he jumps in through the window. They get up, Huppert stays down. He shoots two and the third gets away. Nothing - NOTHING - ridiculous about that scene whatsoever. Nothing.

In a big battle scene, men make armored wagons out of logs and push them forward into the line of fire, even though anyone could ride around behind and shoot them.

He must actually be kidding now. Perhaps the review is a parody of a bad review. The armored wagons are being pushed towards the encircled hired killers. Should a hired killer attempt to leave their fortified position and attempt to ride around them he would be shot before leaving the line. Was Ebert even watching the movie? He ends his review thusly:

There is more. There is much more. It all adds up to a great deal less. This movie is $36 million thrown to the winds. It is the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I've seen Paint Your Wagon.

A story about the Johnson County Wars, told a little too slowly, with a little too much padding, excellent cinematography and fine performances all around, is the "most scandalous cinematic waste" Ebert has ever seen. Uh... okay. For a major critic, he hasn't seen much. And then the final swipe against Paint Your Wagon, a film I don't very much like but would hardly consider holding it up as the high water mark for cinematic waste. Why is that even in there? I believe after the initial pan by Vincent Canby that critics walked into it expecting the worst and looked for it. I believe even Roger Ebert is capable of falling into this trap and I believe he did. It was inevitable he would find fault with this film even if he had to make it up because he was looking too hard for it not to. I don't necessarily believe his lies about the action in the film were intentional but most likely the result of a bit of self-delusion built on the expectation that he was going to be seeing the worst film ever made. When he didn't he had to convince himself that terms of hire were repeated endlessly, that Champion writing the note and leaving the cabin was somehow absurd, that the immigrants were a faceless mob with only Widow Kovach as their spokesperson. He had to. The real evidence he needed, desperately wanted, wasn't there.

In the end, I can't whole-heartedly recommend Heaven's Gate but feel the need to defend it against the mean-spirited venom directed at it by critics then and now. As I said, I don't think it's the great movie some want it to be but it is far from awful. It's an ambitious film with many good points and beautifully shot. It's good, sometimes very good but rarely excellent. It is a worthwhile venture that is, in the end, weighed down by its own ambition. A little tighter, a little faster and it would have succeeded grandly. But just because it didn't fully succeed is no reason to mercilessly destroy it. As Alfred Hitchcock used to say to Farley Granger (according to Granger in an interview run on TCM) when Granger would apologize for flubbing a scene, "It's only a movie." Watch it, or don't. Like it or don't. But cut it some slack. It's only a movie. And a lot of people working on it did the best they could. I can't fault them for that.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Z Channeling Jerry Harvey

The Z channel has been mentioned here before. In a long ago post on the Oscars in the seventies it was mentioned how the Z Channel in Los Angeles was responsible for Carol Kane's nomination for Hester Street and James Whitmore's for Give 'em Hell, Harry! because both of those movies had been run around the clock as the Academy members were sending in their submissions. It was a cable channel, one of the first pay cable channels in the country, that ran features not likely to be seen anywhere else. Its program director was Jerry Harvey and he was responsible for making it the most successful channel in Los Angeles even after years of competition from HBO and Showtime. He was the friend and champion of filmmakers from Sam Peckinpah and Michael Cimino to Henry Jaglom and Robert Altman. He pioneered the idea of the Director's Cut and proved that one can build an audience based on consistency of quality. Sadly, he was also clinically depressed with a family history of psychosis. Both of his sisters committed suicide and Jerry told friends that he feared one day he would lose the battle as well. He did. On April 9, 1988, Harvey shot and killed his wife, Deri Rudolph, and then turned the gun on himself.

The 2004 documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession details the rise and fall of both Harvey and the Z Channel and does so in a way not only satisfying but fulfilling as well. Director Alexandra Cassavetes takes the two together, Harvey and the Channel as if they were one separated by a split in the psyche. By profiling Jerry's madness on the one hand and the grand achievements of the Z Channel on the other we can mourn when the end arrives, even after the wreckage of a homicide/suicide. Cassavetes knows, and her legion interview subjects as well, that people don't have much sympathy for mental illness when it claims the life of a bystander, and so it is the channel's demise that is given the position of greatest mourning, paralleled by what happened to Harvey and his wife.

When Jerry Harvey took over as programming director of the Z Channel he immediately began wheeling and dealing with the artists of Hollywood, not the executives. He pursued people like Sam Peckinpah, who eventually became one of his closest friends, and changed the landscape of how films were shown after their initial run. Harvey told Peckinpah he would run his films the way the director wanted and when Peckinpah, and later Robert Altman, stuttered that the studios owned the prints Harvey replied, "Who cares?" Harvey knew the studios would never interfere once the initial run was over and he was right. The night Harvey and Peckinpah ran Peckinpah's version of The Wild Bunch at the Beverly Canon Theater in 1974, the Director's Cut was born. Later, on the Z Channel, Harvey would premiere many more, from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Once Upon a Time in America to 1900 and Heaven's Gate. And many of the Director's Cuts run on the Z Channel are still unavailable to this day. In the film Quentin Tarantino delights in the fact that he has boxes of old VHS tapes of Director's Cuts of films shown on the Z Channel that no one who didn't watch them there has ever seen.

It is through the interviews with practically every member of the seventies Hollywood "A" List that we get to know Harvey and the Channel and understand just how much it accomplished at a time long before DVDs, streaming movies online and bonus features aplenty. Harvey ran films letterboxed before anyone even knew what that meant. And he would choose a director few if any people had heard of and highlight them for the entire month, from Henry Jaglom and Stuart Cooper to a little known filmmaker named Paul Verhoeven. When a film was premiering on the Z Channel he would host interviews with the relevant players and hold forums leading up to the feature night. In short, as stated in the film by many of the interviewed, he made a cable channel into a viable alternative for people who couldn't get to film festivals.

As one may suspect, it couldn't last. The company that was going to prop up the channel in the mid-eighties got hit hard by the stock market crash and the Z Channel was sold to a company interested in combining sports telecasts into the mix. The previously commercial free channel would now run ads and mix sporting events with movies. That may not sound like much when read here but when watching the film, seeing all the achievements of the channel, seeing Robert Altman, Charles Champlin, F.X. Feeney, Henry Jaglom, Theresa Russell, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch and others lavish praise upon it for its championing of the artist, it is sad indeed when the camera sits before a programmer of Z who recounts the story of Ingmar Bergman's The Silence being shown on the channel after the change in ownership. Before the movie ended the picture squeezed up and a yellow chyron ran below detailing the Dodger's game time as an announcer shouted, "Don't miss the Dodger's game, NEXT!" It was over. The Z Channel died and was replaced by SportsChannel Los Angeles in 1989. Within a twelve month period, both the channel and its pioneering programmer were gone.

The film gives the last word to F.X. Feeney, film critic for the Z Channel magazine and close friend of Harvey who believes that the wreckage of Harvey's life shouldn't negate the legacy of what he created. Harvey wanted people to know films were art and in a rare moment of means and desire coming together with just the right person in control, he was able to do this. The film closes with a montage of clips from most of the films celebrated on the Z Channel to the melody of What'll I Do, one of Harvey's favortie songs, as performed by William Atherton for The Great Gatsby. It's a fitting and moving finale. As you watch the clips and feel the faint shudder of something great now lost you realize you are mourning a cable channel. And that's when you realize that anything can exalt great art or even be great art itself, if only someone cares enough to make it so.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Neve(r) Mind

Monday, July 20th was a very important day in history. We all know that by now. I probably don't need to tell you but for those out of the loop it was the day that Ed Howard wrote up Black Book at Only the Cinema for The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club. What? You were thinking something else?

Anyway, as it goes with these things I was introduced to a film I had not yet seen and as it further goes was more than impressed by the lead performance by Carice van Houten playing the heroine with the duel identity of Rachel Stein / Ellis de Vries. I was curious to see what else she had done and did a quick search on IMDB. Coming out later this year was the title Vivaldi and I thought, "Hey, a bio about the composer. I'd like to see that." Curious to find out more I clicked on the link and discovered the first name in the cast was...

Neve Campbell.


Don't get me wrong. I don't hate Neve Campbell (although full disclosure, I don't think much of her as an actress at all) it's just that she doesn't fit in a movie named Vivaldi.

"Wait a minute," I thought, "Beethoven was about a St. Bernard. Maybe Vivaldi is the name of Neve's parakeet or something."

Nope. It's about the composer. The composer named Antonio Vivaldi. The Venetian Baroque composer who lived from 1678 to 1741. And the first person listed in the credits is Neve Campbell.

Let's look at it another way. I like Sylvester Stallone. While I may not think very much of many of his movies I've always liked his presence onscreen. I like him in Rocky, I like him in First Blood and I like him overall. I'm not going to compare him to Robert DeNiro but he's okay in my book. Nonetheless, if I'm looking up a new historical biopic named, oh let's say Robespierre, and I click on it and the first name on the cast list is Sylvester Stallone I'm going to think, "Wow, somebody really dropped the ball here. Somewhere between the pitch meeting and the first day read-through someone really, really blew it."

That's how I feel about Vivaldi. Someone dropped the ball. Someone doesn't care about getting the right person for the job. Although you know, I could be completely wrong. I still remember hearing way back when that Amadeus was being made into a movie and the guy from Animal House was going to play Mozart. Pinto! Flounder's pledge buddy! That was going to be Mozart! What the ...? And yet, for me at least, it worked. So maybe I'm wrong about Campbell and Vivaldi and Stallone and Robespierre (if that movie ever gets made - fingers crossed) but something tells me "No." Something says it's going to be bad and that Campbell's going to employ that insufferable "naturalistic" pausing after every third word that has been the hallmark of her performances thus far. Something tells me when it comes time to buy the ticket I'll turn around and just say, "Neve(r) mind."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Blackbook on TOERIFC Monday

Monday, July 20th is the day for TOERIFC's July selection, Paul Verhoeven's Blackbook (Zwartboek, 2006) to be discussed at Ed Howard's Only the Cinema. As always, the rules for membership are simple: If you've watched the movie recently or just know it well enough, show up and join in the conversation. It's that easy. No weird initiations, no bizarre rituals (Ryan was overruled) no monetary tributes (unless you really, really want to), just good, rich, in-depth film discussion. Hope I see you there.

Out of Sync with Peet

As most in the film blogging community know, Peet Gelderblom has a short film soon to be released entitled Out of Sync. But not everyone's a film blogger so I like to join up with several other bloggers in announcing this filmic achievement and showing my readers the way to Peet's place. Simply go here to read all about and join up on Facebook and friend Peet to get even more in the ways of info and stills.

Although Peet describes the process in his post I am still a little mystified and thus even more anxious to see it. He describes it thusly:

Out of Sync (Dutch title: Los) will be a short film with a gimmick. Only it’s not exactly a gimmick. It will be the first movie filmed in Anamorphic AuDiVision. For comparison, think split screen, but instead of two or more juxtaposed visual sequences it’s the sound that will be separated from the image, leaving it up to the audience to connect the dots between what you see and hear. For those of you who smell “style-over-substance,” I can only stress that this was the very best way to express what I chose to tell.

Go to his site to learn more and join Facebook now if you haven't already and send Peet a friend request. And don't miss the beautifully done self-deprecating trailer:

Friday, July 17, 2009

Gloria Swanson and the Tower of the Hat Boxes

Gloria in 1951 with a small monument to hats. It was the year after her comeback hit Sunset Boulevard but most of her work after that was in television. She was only fifty when she did Sunset Boulevard but for most actresses, Meryl Streep, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck notwithstanding, fifty may as well be 100 as far as Hollywood is concerned

Now as to Sunset Boulevard, I watched it again recently and even though they go out of their way (Wilder and company) to show Joe Gillis (William Holden) being disgusted with her and her advances and further take any opportunity to show the relationship as sexless, I think Joe slept with her in the early stages when he was interested in being kept. The violent reaction (you know, her shooting him multiple times when he tries to leave) she has at the end makes more sense if there was more going on than just showing off a trophy boyfriend. Of course, I always think characters are sleeping with each other (Charlie and Jedediah? Without a doubt.) so I'll leave it up to you.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Zoot Suit Turns 30

From Greg's awesome Facebook page:

"ZOOT SUIT in rehearsal, August 14th, 1978. Playwright Luis Valdez on the far left of the photo with Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Taper Theatre in Los Angeles. In 1979 it became the first play written by and about Hispanics to play Broadway. This year marks its 30th anniversary. And of course we all know who got his start with this right (standing center)?"

The film was released in 1981 and generally received good notices. I liked it when I saw it but that's the one and only time I ever did see it so another viewing is definitely in order. It's available on DVD and Video on Demand so there's no excuse not to.

For a little background on the historical events on which the play and film are based go here and here.

Monday, July 13, 2009

TOERIFC is just a week away

The blogathon is over, the office is empty, the clock is winding down. Time for some new posts, new reviews, new photos and new arguments. Time for new discussion. A new Toerific discussion, coming in just one week. The movie is Blackbook and the host is Ed Howard. Before we delve into the next discussion I'd like to be a spoilsport and call for a renewed vigor to the film club. Don't get me wrong, each discussion has exceeded 170 comments and the discussion has been heated at times, which is great. Sometimes people do get upset, sometimes they don't, and I'd be happier if they didn't but I suppose that's the nature of the beast when discussing cherished films.

However, Flickhead (Ray Young) who hosted the last one (Somebody to Love) was wondering why everything had to be crammed into one day. Originally the idea had been for the discussion to go on and on. The first day would be jam-packed for sure but for a couple of days after it would continue. I noticed this is indeed what happened with the first two posts by Marilyn and myself but after that it kind of died off and now everyone seems to think that after the first day the discussion is over. Now, I don't want to spoil the party for Ed at all, so I'm not suggesting we change anything radically. But I would like to make a suggestion.

One of the things that makes for a bit of confusion is the rapid-fire commenting. Often times a point will be made and get lost in the firestorm of comments or three people will respond to the same comment while the original comment has been forgotten by the next four people already discussing something completely different. And so on. But how to correct this?

I'd like to suggest, only a suggestion you understand, that the host moderates a kind of question and answer session in which he or she poses a question concerning the movie and members in turn give their take on it. In other words, something that would slow the conversation down a bit. I make this suggestion knowing that Ed Howard is the next in line and in Ed I have the utmost confidence. I believe if anyone is up to this task it is Ed.

If that suggestion doesn't go over well with anyone how about this, for much further down the line. Suppose after watching the movie every member writes it up and posts it on the same day. Then we could each go from blog to blog and discuss our reactions to what everyone has written. This guarantees everyone will have a well thought out response to the film. A host will still pick the movie but will no longer bear the burden of single-handedly moderating it

Or perhaps both of these suggestions are lacking and you, dear TOERIFC member, have a better idea. Or perhaps further, Ray and I are the only two who get a little befuddled on posting day and nothing should change. A part of what makes this film club great and the reason I am constantly getting requests to join (which I haven't forgotten about for those who have e-mailed me) is that all of our members come together in striking solidarity once a month for an intense, heated discussion. I don't want that to end but I would like this club to grow, evolve, never remaining static.

Please let me know if any of these ideas sounds reasonable or if perhaps you have a few of your own. Thanks, and don't forget: Blackbook, directed by Paul Verhoeven, Monday, July 20th at Only the Cinema, hosted by Ed Howard.

The Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon

Blogathon Updates:


Glen or Glenda - Nick at Your Stupid Minds

Hi Ed, it's me Ed - The Temple of Schlock

Future Post on Undefined Date - The Flying Maciste Brothers at Destructible Man

Saluting the Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon - Pat at Doodad Kind of Town

I Love You, Ted V. Mikels! - Kimberly at Cinebeats

The Monolith Monsters - Ed at Only the Cinema

Meanwhile, One Month Later - Craig at The Deadly Penguins

Plan 9 1/2 - Pax at Billy Loves Stu

Thank you Mr. Wood - Greg at Cinema Styles

A Hurried Feeling Encased in his Groin - Bill at The Kind of Face You Hate

One is always considered MAD... - Professor Brian O'Blivion at The Cathode Ray Mission

Screwy Details in Night of the Ghouls - Erich at Bright Lights After Dark

Orgy - Neil at The Bleeding Tree

Dracula vs. Frankenstein - Pierre at Frankensteinia

Ed Wood, Postmortem - Arbogast at Arbogast on Film

Weiss and Wood: When Fetishes Collide - W.B. at Micro-Brewed Reviews

Robot Monster - Mykal at Radiation Cinema

The Raven/The Invisible Ray - Ed at Only the Cinema

An Artist Trapped in a Hack's Body - Ryan at Medfly Quarantine

José Mojica Marins Meets the Spirit of Ed Wood in the World of Coffin Joe - C. Jerry at Bright Lights After Dark

Mesa of Lost Women - Erich at Acidemic Film

Plan 9 at 50 - Richard Harland Smith at TCM's Movie Morlocks

The Beast of Yucca Flats - Mykal at Radiation Cinema

The Deadly Mantis/The Leech Woman - Ed at Only the Cinema

Ed Wood's Town (L.A. in the fifties - A pictorial tour) - Greg at Cinema Styles

In Defense of Robot Monster - Darrell at Rancid Popcorn

Oh my... - Bill at The Kind of Face You Hate

Larry Cohen's Original Gangstas - Fox at Tractor Facts

Daughter of Horror - Erich at Acidemic Film

She-Demons - Mykal at Radiation Cinema

Domo Arigato Mr. Dennis-O - Greg at Cinema Styles

The Space Amoeba - Bob at Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind

Tod Browning Double Feature: Mark of the Vampire/The Devil Doll - Ed at Only the Cinema

This may be scientific, but it's pretty horrible - weepingsam at The Listening Ear

Shocking Facts - Robert Cashill at Between Productions

The Father, the Son and the holy(?) spirit of Ed Wood - Ray at Flickhead

Ed Wood He Wood, or Wood he Woodn't "B" Caught Ed? - The Keeper at Temple of Schlock

Observations of an Ed Wood Ignoramus - Rick at Coosa Creek Cinema

Ghost Train: The Lost Pauline Kael Review of Plan 9 from Outer Space - Chris at The Exploding Kinetoscope

Cult of the Cobra - Ed at Only the Cinema

Ed Wood: How Tim Burton was made into Wood because of Batman and Helped Uncategorized Cinema - Alexander at Comment de Cine

Babes in Arms - Marilyn at Ferdy on Films

Jack Arnold Double Feature: Tarantula/Monster on the Campus - Ed at Only the Cinema

By Any Meager Means Necessary - Greg at Cinema Styles

The Unbroken Dream of Edward D Wood, Jr - Mykal at Radiation Cinema

TCM Underground: Plan 9 from Outer Space - Richard Harland Smith at TCM

Ed Wood: A Neighbor on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams - Doug at Boiling Sand

Ed's Hollywood: Trouble, Problems, Heartaches - Bill at The Kind of Face You Hate

Game On (An Orgy of the Dead picture post) - Arbogast at Arbogast on Film

Creature from the Black Lagoon series - Ed Howard at Only the Cinema

Plan 9 From Outer Space - Robert Ring at The Sci-Fi Block.

The Calamari Wrestler - Peter Nellhaus at Coffee, coffee and more coffee

Sporting Wood - Ray at Flickhead

The Spirit of Ed Wood - Pax Romano at Billy Loves Stu

Ed Wood related images all week by Pierre at Monster Crazy

Wood Before Cable - Erich at Acidemic Film

In Defense of Ed Wood - Greg at Cinema Styles


The Heartwarming Arthropod of the Baskervilles

Changing the Name of the Turd


Fever Night aka Band of Satanic Outsiders at the New Beverly Cinema, Friday July 24th, Midnight Showing.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Thank You Mr Wood

... and so He did. If you're an Ed Wood fan the above photo and caption not only make sense to you but you probably used that whiny female voice from the movie when you read it in your head. And of course, I don't have to tell you which movie. If you're not an Ed Wood fan, well, I hope after this blogathon you've been persuaded to at least give a couple of his films a look.

I've been blogging for a while and never held a blogathon until now for a couple of reasons. One, I could never think of a topic, and two, I feared no one would show up. The 50th anniversary of the release of Plan 9 from Outer Space (released in July of 1959) gave me the topic that had so long eluded me and my friends and fellow bloggers proved to me I had nothing to fear. With over 50 submissions (fitting given the anniversary) I think I can declare this blogathon a screaming success and I owe it all to Ed Wood. He's the one that actually brought everyone together and did so for a reason that makes me proud. I've heard time and again how we bloggers employ scorched Earth policies on a regular basis and don't enjoy writing about film so much as tearing it down. Of course, I know and you know and any sensible person knows that's not the case. Just look at the outpouring of love whenever a member of the film community falls ill or passes away. And 99 percent of blog content is about movies the blogger loves, not hates. And so it is with Wood.

Ed Wood has been called the worst director of all time but you wouldn't know it from this blogathon. I don't think one of the 50 plus submissions bought into that notion. Most of us are in agreement that Ed was not a very good writer and was certainly sloppy and rushed as a director but he was inspired and sincere and to a lot of people that counts for something. I know it does to me.

From the personal stories and remembrances to reviews of almost all of Wood's movies as well as movies by filmmakers other than Wood, I want to thank everyone who participated from the bottom of my heart. I have had a busy weekend and it continues with a birthday for the youngest son today and the return of the oldest daughter from work on a water filtration project in El Salvador tonight. I may not have time to read and comment on every entry today (although I will certainly try) but know that I appreciate it sincerely.

And now I'd like to take a break for a day or two, well until Tuesday morning at least, and relax. Running a blogathon was quite frankly more work than I thought it would be but I enjoyed every second of it. Monday I think I'll finally set up a Facebook account so prepare to be hit with friend requests from me (and behold my handsome visage). Until yesterday, as I told Bill in an e-mail, he and I were the only two bloggers left on Earth who weren't on Facebook, then the bastard e-mailed me that he had just joined. Son of a bitch beat me to it. Oh well, I'll see Bill and all of you there on Monday.

In the meantime, please - PLEASE - read each and every post in the blogathon if you haven't already. It's one hell of a list of entries and I plan on keeping a permanent link to it in the sidebar, as a sort of repository of all things Wood so that future generations may come here to study the legacy of Edward D Wood, Jr. and stare in gaping awe.

And once more, THANK YOU, each and every one of you who participated either with a post, a suggestion or engagement in the comment section. Thanks to all of you for making it all worthwhile. And thanks in advance to anyone posting today as well.

And now I'm off, like Eros and Tanna surfing the skies in a blazing saucer headed into the unknown of the future, where each of us will spend the rest of our lives. Thanks again everyone!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Ed Wood's Town (L.A. in the Fifties - A Pictorial Tour)

Hollywood Boulevard, 1953. Do you know what's playing at the theatre?


Groundbreaking for the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel, 1953. Along with some questionable construction workers are Jack Carson, Connie Towers and Byron Palmer.


The famous Capitol Records building, 1959.


To the left is Grauman's Chinese Theater, in 1954. Sadly, Ed never had a premiere here.


Hollywood and Vine, complete with little girl staring at the camera, 1953.


Hollywood Savings and Loan. Maybe Ed had a bank account here. Maybe not.


Hollywood Boulevard gets a million dollar facelift in 1956. Attending the ribbon cutting ceremonies are Peggy Castle, Chill Wills, Lori Nelson and a couple of red-tapers on the city's dole.


The West Hollywood Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. Maybe Ed did research here. Maybe not.


Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetary, 1956, final resting place of the stars. And no, Bela isn't here, he's here. Criswell is here and Ed is nowhere. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea.


Hollywood Freeway. Maybe Ed drove it to work. Maybe not.


Finally, the photo I had to end with. It's an auto parade in 1958 and the lead car in this photo has been made to appear to be wearing, that's right, an Angora sweater. Now that's a car Ed would've loved.


Please click on all the photos to enlarge.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Domo Arigato Mr. Dennis-O

If there is any consensus to this blogathon thus far, from reading all the posts submitted, it is that Ed Wood was not the worst director of all time. No one who made films as entertaining and quickly paced could be completely awful. His films are filled with errors, mistakes and accidents. But the movies themselves are simply low-budget sci-fi/horror no better or worse than most else offered up in the fifties. The main thing is that Ed didn't do retakes to correct errors. If someone walked into a wall or the shadow of the microphone was seen or someone clearly forgot their line, Ed didn't reshoot it. This resulted in the effect that his movies are like watching feature length blooper reels. And that makes them very entertaining. So the consensus seems to be that the spirit of Ed Wood is one where the artist is sincerely making the effort to construct a worthwhile piece of entertainment but because of a lack of self-awareness to his own shortcomings the finished piece is entertaining but for all the wrong reasons.

If we trace the spirit of Ed Wood to other mediums where will it lead us? Who is the Ed Wood of other artistic expressions? Weepingsam at The Listening Ear has nominated Dr. John Button in the literature department. I would like to nominate Dennis DeYoung in the music department. Dennis DeYoung for the uninitiated is the founder and former lead songwriter singer/keyboardist for the rock group Styx.

In the seventies I had a fondness for the brazenly bombastic pyrotechnics of Styx. This was a band that knew not the meaning of subtlety. A refrain did not exist that could not be screeched. Witness their first hit, penned by DeYoung of course, Lady. It starts with a lone piano, some soft fanning on the drums, a line or two on a quiet guitar, all perfectly suitable to a ballad of love. And then comes the refrain - LaaaaaaaadEEEEE!!!! Let the screeching begin! It never mattered where a song started, by the time it got to the refrain caterwauling was the order of the day. Babe, The Best of Times, Come Sail Away, Show Me the Way, Don't Let it End - They all start out quiet and finish up shrill. The Rock and Roll Record Guide, a compilation of reviews from rock critics that has seen four editions since the late seventies, once famously said of Styx, referring to DeYoung's songwriting and Tommy Shaw's falsetto singing, that they could take any song, any melody, and "render it virtually unlistenable."

But none of this would put DeYoung on top as the Ed Wood of Rock with so many other contenders out there. No, no. It takes something really special to do that and I think we all know what I'm talking about. I'm talking about Mr. Roboto.

Mr. Roboto is a song on the Styx album Kilroy was Here in which DeYoung envisioned a rock opera where the future sees a police state of moralists who have outlawed rock and roll. One rocker, Kilroy, disguises himself as a robot and brings rock and roll back. Uh huh. So, this idea seemed perfectly reasonable to Dennis and not cheesy at all. And then Dennis wrote a song specifically about Kilroy's plot and Mr. Roboto was born.

Now if you have ever had the pleasure of watching VH1's Behind the Music episode on Styx you will immediately recognize from their interviews that co-leader Tommy Shaw and guitarist James "JY" Young were as confused by this concept as anyone. Tommy and JY immediately smelled the overpowering scent of Limburger but could not convince Dennis otherwise. At a benefit concert in Texas featuring hard rock bands Dennis decided to have Styx perform Mr. Roboto complete with the five minute dramatic stage reading that he had written for he and Tommy to perform. Tommy and JY pleaded with him. "Just let us play Renegade and be done with it." Dennis wouldn't budge. They did the piece, were roundly booed and the seeds of dissent that would eventually lead to Tommy and JY kicking Dennis out of the group he had founded were planted.

And Dennis never saw it coming. He was too damn sincere. And likable in his sincerity. I like Dennis DeYoung and I'm not afraid to say it. In fact, if there is anyone in that VH1 special you come away with sympathy for it's him. Sincerity is quickly becoming a lost art form and Dennis DeYoung is one of the last folks in rock to possess it.

Watch that VH1 show if you have the time. DeYoung is Ed Wood through and through. And that's why his songs will always have entertainment value because he wasn't going for camp with Babe or Mr. Roboto. He was going for gold and even if he didn't achieve it he didn't know he didn't achieve it. And that's got Wood written all over it. All Hail Dennis DeYoung! May the Spirit of Ed Wood live in him forever.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Talk Amongst Yourselves... Ed Wood, Tor and crew talk things over on the set of Night of the Ghouls (aka Revenge of the Dead), 1959. I have to take care of a few things this morning and won't be able to update with my own post or read the great posts of others until around 12 noon. See you then.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

By Any Meager Means Necessary

It may seem obvious but often needs restating anyway: More money doesn't make a movie better. Often times the best movies of the year are those with the lowest budgets. Of course, by Hollywood standards that still means in the millions and these days budgets are out of control. And before anyone starts playing the familiar tune of "but that's because of inflation. Movies have always cost a lot" let me provide some important details. Movies do cost a lot but if you download an inflation index calculator from the Department of the Treasury, as I did a few years ago and have bored people with it ever since, you will quickly discover that budgets in Hollywood have grown far out of whack with inflation.

Here's how the calculator works: Put in a salary of $15K in 1970, about what my Dad was making then, and it translates to $52K today. That's about right for where he was professionally at the time for the same job today. So it works with that example. Almost anything you want to try works (car prices, food costs, etc.) Plug in the numbers for a specific date in the past and they come back roughly comparable to what you would expect today.

Except movie budgets.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise - They have skyrocketed beyond all reason. Let's look at a few examples by going to IMDB where one can get estimated budgets (EB) for movies. For instance, Citizen Kane has an EB of 686,033. What does that come to in 2009 dollars? A little over six million. Nowhere near the average 35 million a lower budget(!) drama runs today. What about the bigger movies, the epics? Well, according to the "making-of "documentary on the special edition DVD of Bridge on the River Kwai, that movie cost a fortune to make. A fortune! So it's a good guideline for how much the big budget stuff went for. It's EB is 3 million in 1957. That comes to 15.8 million in 2009. That's how much Slumdog Millionaire cost to make and it's considered one of the lowest budget sleeper hits in years.

What about that 35 million dollar price tag for the average drama today? Well, let's use Star Wars - 13 million in 1977. Again, watching the documentary on any one of the Special Edition DVDs will alert you to the fact that the studio was ready to shut the production down due to time and cost overruns until they saw a rough cut and dollar signs began flashing in their eyes. What's that massive 13 million dollar budget that had the studio in an uproar come to today? 36 million. Three years later for The Empire Strikes Back Lucas was given unlimited budget to do the sequel - 18 million in 1980. Today that's 45 million. And we still haven't even reached the budget of Changeling released last year with Angelina Jolie and directed by Clint Eastwood, a period drama done for 55 million.

So what happened?

Somewhere in the late eighties Hollywood decided to start paying actors and directors tens of millions of dollars per film. Folks old enough to remember will recall the shock when it was revealed that Jim Carrey or Arnold Schwartznegger were going to be getting 20 million for their next movie. Previously stars had made a fraction of that per film. Killer agents had come in and changed the financial schemes. Also, like a hospital charging 8 dollars for each aspirin knowing that insurance will pay for it, the technicians in Hollywood and rental companies and cities themselves starting charging enormous amounts of money for their services knowing Hollywood, now in the throes of blockbuster bonanzas and massive star egos, would pay it. In the early to mid nineties budgets spiked, costing upwards of five times the amount of a comparable movie made just five years before, and they haven't looked back.

If we go back to Changeling we find that Jolie and Eastwood comprise almost forty million dollars of the 55 million dollar budget. The movie made 98 million worldwide. The profit would have nearly doubled if Jolie and Eastwood hadn't toppled the budget with their salaries but that's neither here nor there. The main point is that movies remain the same. There are great ones, good ones, mediocre ones and awful ones no matter what the cost. So why go crazy spending so much on them when you can get the same results for so much less?

Ed Wood of course didn't spend much but surprisingly, spent more, much more than some of the low-budget wonders we know today. Plan 9 from Outer Space had an EB of $60,000. That comes to $296,930 in today's dollars or roughly, 300,000. Once on the other hand cost $150,000 in 2007 which translates back to $33,000 in 1959. So Once, a movie praised and awarded the world over, was made for about half of what Plan 9 cost. Primer was also praised though received no Oscar noms or awards like Once. It was made for a mere $7,000 or about $1,500 in 1959 dollars.

Ed Wood would have been shocked by the budgets of today's Hollywood, a business that has figured out a way to make computer imagery, something that literally doesn't exist in the real world like an animation cel or a model, cost a fortune. Yes, CGI promised to provide movies with extraordinary special effects at a fraction of the costs since there would be no more stunts, miniatures or time consuming animation and yet Hollywood figured out a way to make it cost more. Ed would have been horrified.

So in these days of penny-pinching and thrifting and desperately trying to save every nickel for that next rainy day I salute those filmmakers currently working, or having done so in the past, on the Ed Wood model of low budget moviemaking. To John Carney, Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová, Shane Carruth, Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, Robert Townsend, Sam Raimi, Robert Rodriguez, George Romero, Herk Harvey, Marc Price and everyone else who's ever made a movie on financial fumes, thank you. Thank you for proving it can be done for less than the annual national budget of a small country. The range in quality isn't that much different than the range in quality for the bigger budget stuff but it pays off in hope at a much higher return because it gives hope to aspiring filmmakers, like me, that one day, maybe, we can do it too. Thanks Ed.

Monday, July 6, 2009

In Defense of Ed Wood

I feel it necessary to kick off this blogathon, this Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon, by first and foremost defending the man whose name it bears. Not only have I seen several Ed Wood films, and recently watched some of them again, but I have come to the conclusion that to call Ed Wood the worst director of all time is not only wrong but confused as well. Watching Ed Wood's films closely in the last two weeks I have noticed the obvious, that they're not very good, and noticed this has little to do with his direction and almost everything to do with his writing. Ed Wood the director could have used a little more patience for re-shoots, a little more money and a much, much better feel for coaching actors, especially given that he worked with some truly horrible actors, but as a technician he kept the action going and wasn't awful with his choices of camera setups and movements. So why the reputation? It's all in the writing.

Edward D. Wood, Jr quite simply had no ear whatsoever for how people spoke or sounded. In fact, had Wood written the previous sentence he would have written "for how humans spoke" because he did strange things like substitute the word "human" when a person would say a line that screamed for the word "person" or "man" as in this line from Glen or Glenda:

"Doctor, I'm hoping to learn something from you, and with that knowledge maybe save some human from the fate which I have just witnessed a few days ago."

He's referring to a suicide of a transvestite. He doesn't say "save some other person" or "save another man from the fate..." No, he says "human." Nothing grammatically wrong with that of course, it's just awkward. And it turns out, that's a good way to describe Wood's dialogue most of the time: Awkward. It's as if Wood wants to sound studied, formal but that formality sounds stilted, wrong. Also, he really likes the word "human." Later lines in Glen or Glenda include, "All those cars. All going someplace. All carrying humans..." and "Modern man is a hard-working human..."

As for examples of Wood dialogue gone bad there are so many it's almost pointless to quote them here. Look up any Wood movie on IMDB, click on "Memorable Quotes" and enjoy the show. It's the best part of any Wood movie listing on IMDB, the quotes page. That's because that's where Wood's infamy comes from, his barely written word. His direction was no great shakes, but it was his writing, his god-awful painfully awkward dialogue that did him in. Nothing can redeem the dialogue of Edward D Wood Jr. Had someone else written his films they still would have been fairly low-brow, low-budget films I suspect but they wouldn't be infamous.

As for his magnum opus, Plan 9 from Outer Space, it contains enough downright wretched special effects that most people think that's the secret to its badness but again it's the dialogue. The poorly made flying saucers are hilarious to look at and the sadly pathetic attempts at constructing a realistic cockpit set or a flying saucer interior gives one fits of belly laughter but it's the lines - "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" - that keep humans laughing long after the movie's over. The thing is with Plan 9, like most Wood movies, it requires no clever commentary to make it entertaining.

In the nineties Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a popular show on Comedy Central in which the characters ridiculed bad movies that, without constant commentary, might be unbearable to watch. Case in point: Manos, The Hands of Fate. This is probably the most famous episode of the show and if you've ever seen Manos, The Hands of Fate you know it desperately needs commentary. It's not entertaining on its own. It's not "so bad it's good." It's bad, period. In fact, It. Is. Horrendous. It is a monumentally bad movie. It is incompetent from beginning to end. It is, finally, completely, utterly and absolutely atrocious. It truly is one of the worst, if not the worst, films ever made. Plan 9 is not.

Plan 9 is entertaining even if you're not laughing at it. For one thing Dudley Manlove, as extraterrestrial Eros, actually keeps you interested with the velvety rich intonations he gives each and every line. Gregory Walcott's stoicism as Jeff Trent is right in line with most low-budget sci-fi of the era and the recycled theme is just that, recycled. Starting with The Day the Earth Stood Still science fiction has loved to warn us humans that we're becoming too destructive for our own good. Make fun of Wood all you want but he was just using the same cliche that other directors had used and gotten praise for. Plus, his added plot point of raising the dead made it horror/sci-fi and actually moved it beyond plain old cliche but he squanders this opportunity. Instead of having the aliens raise the dead en masse, which may have really been effective, he has them raise only three, a giant man who can't walk straight, a very skinny woman and an hobbling old man. Not exactly menacing.

But that was Ed. That's how he rolled. He had ideas that others ran with while he stumbled. Ideas that beat others to the punch only to have him blow it. And no matter what the idea, the dialogue was wretched, simply wretched. But his movies weren't the worst and never will be. Neil Sarver said in the comment section here recently, concerning the claim that Wood is the worst director ever, that he was pretty sure the worst director ever, whoever that may be, made films that no one could watch. Like Manos, the Hands of Fate. You can't watch that movie on it's own without running commentary, either your own or someone elses. It's garbage. Wood's movies aren't gems but they're not worthless. They have honest entertainment value on their own. Without any snark. Given a bigger budget and a screenwriter Wood might have amounted to something more but would have most likely been forgotten. I'm glad he didn't have the bigger budget or the screenwriter because now he will be remembered always. As he should. Ed Wood: NOT the worst director of all time. And a pretty good human too.

Let the blogathon begin.