As a youngster I quickly realized I wasn’t anything like the other children. Instead of playing outdoors with Barbie dolls, I preferred to sit inside a dark living room and watch the weekly “horror movie matinee” on channel 21. In my spare time I poured over books with crisp black and white photos of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Sr. & Jr. I even got my Dad’s flashlight and tried to do “monster lighting” on myself in the mirror. I put my cousin’s Cabbage Patch Kid in a wooden toy box and informed my cousins that we were going to play “funeral” and that we all had to file past the box for the viewing. Yes I was certainly different all right. Sufficed to say it was only a matter of time before I discovered the films of Vincent Price. He quickly joined my sacred pantheon of horror heroes. I have always found myself enthralled not only by his austere and elegant screen presence, but by THAT VOICE. You can literally close your eyes during his films and just hear him talk—and that alone is enough to send chills up the spine. He had such style, grace and menace all at the same time. That’s a rare thing. Even in films where that divine voice isn’t used very much, his body posture and movements alone do the trick.
Last night I went to the Aero Theatre and saw a double feature of THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973) and THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971).
I grabbed some popcorn and settled in for an evening of sheer cinematic bliss!
Both films are “revenge films.” In both films there are several things that you can count on:
#1 Vincent Price’s character will fake his own death
#2 That Vincent Price WILL KILL you for your real or imagined sins against him
#3 He will have a beautiful woman (be it a daughter or girlfriend or assistant) helping him accomplish his evil deeds
#4 Not only will he kill you, but he will do it in the most grisly, creative and theatrical way possible (involving either Shakespeare or Biblical plagues)
#5 He will dwell in a lavish setting (either a glorious yet run down theatre or a art deco home/scientific lab)
#6 He will be chased by authorities
#7 He will escape the law by destroying himself in the end
On ALL of these things you may rely.
In THEATRE OF BLOOD he plays an actor who has been savaged in the press by every critic in London. When he is denied the celebrated Critic’s Award, he fakes his own death and vows to avenge those who robbed him of his glory. He uses his theatre company’s final season of Shakespeare plays as the template which he will use to orchestrate the killings. Each critic is killed in a re-created scene from one of the plays. It keeps getting better and more creative with each murder. The film also has this very dry dark humor running through that is really fun to watch. This may have been regarded at the time as a low budget horror film—but the sheer wit involved elevates it far beyond that! It is plain to see that Vincent Price is having a field day with the character. It shows!
I have seen THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES on VHS but it was a far different experience seeing it on the big screen. Vincent Price plays a famed organist whose wife is killed in a car accident. Once again he fakes his own death to seek revenge on the 8 doctors and one nurse who he is convinced failed to save her life. He kills them all with Biblical plagues in really innovative ways. For example he boils vegetables and pours the residue over the nurse’s head while she is sleeping then via a secret tube he unleashes a swarm of locusts that eat her flesh. The PHIBES character can’t speak much due to the accident which he used to fake his death, so he talks mainly through an artificial box routed through a phonograph. The effect is creepy and works well. The beautiful assistant “Vulnavia” drifts through the film like a zombie who never really springs to life. She bears a striking resemblance to the wife that Phibes lost. This adds yet another creepy dimension to the already creepy proceedings. In the end this time Vincent/Phibes inserts a tube that drains all his blood and replaces it with embalming fluid. Brilliant!
The screenwriter of Phibes was on hand to talk briefly before the film. He described it as a popcorn horror love story. I understood that. In a strange and weird way the best love stories are never the ones that are obvious. They are hiding out in other genres disguised as other films. Maybe they are better off that way….only waiting to be recognized as love stories by the people who seek out something well…different.
I decided to add some diversity to my movie-going week by checking out the “Paranoia Films of the 70s” series at LACMA.
THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR is the rare film that is both timely and also very much of it’s time. From the bad haircuts, clothing, set design and music it is VERY much a product of the 1970s. Then again the themes of fear, violence, terror and corrupt government forces is very much in tune with what is happening in our world right now—in 2005. Robert Redford is a CIA researcher who returns from lunch one day to find all of his co-workers murdered. He quickly gets wrapped up in a conspiracy that he can’t easily escape. He also recruits (via kidnapping) Faye Dunaway to help him. There were several shots of the World Trade Center in the film and people in the audience gasped when they saw it. Towards the end of the film it also comes to light that oil is at the root of why all of these people were hunted down and killed. The film was prophetic.
Kind of funny how art can immitate life.
When he first heard about the possibility of “talking pictures” taking over the industry, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. dismissed it. He claimed it was nothing for him to be concerned about. That said, he spent around $3 million (a huge sum in 1929) to make THE IRON MASK which proved to be his final silent film. When he realized that the talkies were indeed here to stay, he reportedly looked around the soundstage he was standing in and said, “The romance of the motion picture ends here.”
I couldn’t agree with him more. I passionately love silent films simply because they capture a sense of romance and poetry and beauty that even the most skillfully made talkie can never replicate. I always jump at the chance to see a silent film—even more so when there is live music. THE BIG PARADE is one of those silent films that I’ve longed to see for ages. I’m so glad that the film has been preserved!
THE BIG PARADE is about a young carefree irresponsible man who winds up fighting in WWI and falls in love with a French girl. John Gilbert is wonderful in the lead role. He has such a natural style that never feels forced or false. This film is so great because it has so many little moments that really count and make an impact. There is one scene where Gilbert teaches the French girl (the lovely Renee Adoree) how to chew gum. It is touching in its simplicity…and it works. There is also a scene where Gilbert leans up against a cart and starts to think about his girlfriend back home. You can literally see the guilt feelings and conflict in his eyes. You can literally see him thinking—now THAT’S great acting! (No dialogue necessary!) Karl Dane is also great as the big lumbering best friend. The cinematography is beautiful and sweeping as it lovingly captures both the tenderness of the romantic scenes and the horror of war.
I’ve always greatly admired the work of director King Vidor and this film certainly added to my appreciation. He was so diverse! His film THE CROWD is one of the most powerful and heartbreaking silents you’ll ever see. That same year he directed Marion Davies in the comedy gem SHOW PEOPLE. Having seen both of those films-it is amazing to think they were made by the same director. He had such a gift with comedy AND drama! Actors seem to flourish under his direction. No wonder he had such a long career.
The music was provided by a 22 piece orchestra led by Robert Israel. Listing to a live orchestra with the film adds so much to the overall experience! In big cities such as LA and NY this was routine in the silent era!
Since so much work has gone into the restoration, I really hope that this films gets screened in other cities and even gets a DVD release.
This film reminded me once again why I love silents so much and why the minute talkies debuted things were never ever the same.
I went to see an advance screening of KUNG FU HUSTLE on the Sony lot. It was a fun movie. Set in China in the 1940s, the story is about a hapless wannabe gangster (Stephen Chow) who aspires to become a member of the brutally notorious “Axe Gang.” Other characters include an obnoxious landlady (complete with ever present hair curlers and a cigarette dangling from her lips) and her frail husband who surprisingly exhibit extraordinary powers in defending their turf—kung fu style. The film is fast, furious and colorful to watch. The fight sequences are amazingly well orchestrated. The violence is very much like something you would see in a Wile E. Coyote & Roadrunner cartoon. All in all it was an entertaining and fun ride.
Tonight I had a FILMRADAR private screening at Mark Vieira’s studio in downtown LA. He has a ton of film prints so we took a vote on what to watch. We settled on WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Our main reason for doing was the fact that this film is so obscure. It never shows up on TCM and is not available on VHS or DVD. We all decided for that reason alone it was worth taking a look at…well that and the fact that the film’s advertising said “Beware the Stalking Being - Half-Human - Half-Beast!” You gotta love that advertising!
The plot is about a scientist who is on a botanical expedition and gets attacked by a wolf. He returns home to discover that he is now a werewolf who transforms nightly to kill the residents of London. He tries to cure himself with the aid of a rare Asian flower. With the whole mad scientist locked away kind of plot line, this film felt more like THE INVISIBLE MAN than the 1941 version of THE WOLFMAN. Jack Pierce (who created the make up for Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr.) did the make up here. It looks fantastic!
The film itself is campy and is obviously a studio confection designed to sell popcorn and scare teenagers. That’s ok though. Someone once said to me, “Why bother saving some films…maybe some of them deserve to be lost.” I told them that was a really narrow and foolish way to approach it. Not every film is a masterpiece and many of them were never intended to be. That’s beside the point. Films are our modern day equivalent to ancient pieces of broken pottery thousands of years ago. Films take the temperature of our culture. They reflect how we dress, act, walk, talk, think, feel and love. They reflect our society, values and the core of our human emotions. ALL of it matters. Even campy werewolf movies matter.
Ok, I’ll jump off my soapbox now.
I have always LOVED sharks. There is just something so majestic and graceful about them. Yesterday I found out that SHARKS 3D Imax would only be playing in the LA area one more day, so I rushed from work to go see it. I was very disappointed. First off the poster and website for this film show a big great white shark which lead me to believe that would be a big part of the film. Apparently I was wrong. The great white is only in the film for 2 minutes at the most. The film is narrated by a sea turtle which made me cringe. I hate cutesy stuff like that. My theory is that there must have been some sea turtle that kept getting in the way while they were filming so they just decided to make a “creative decision” to make it the narrator. Perhaps this is just my dark sense of humor at work, but if you are going to get all creative like that why not have the bloody chum narrate the film. I can just imagine it….“Hello. I’m “Fred” the bloody chum. I’m made up of horse meat and scraps from your local butcher shop. In just a moment I’ll be tossed in the water and used as bait to lure sharks. It should be exciting. When I’m devoured I will take you on an amazing journey into the shark’s jaws, teeth and stomach. It will be fun and educational. Let’s watch!”
At any rate, the film looked nice but there was nothing unique or interesting about any of the shots. Everything started to look alike after about 5 minutes. The sea turtle guides the viewer on a tour of the ocean floor and briefly introduces the audience to several different kinds of sharks. Each type of shark gets about 2 minutes of screen time and you never really get much information that way. It mentions that many sharks have been greatly endangered in the past 10 years due to commercial fishing, but in my opinion just mentioning that is not enough. If people SAW sharks being slaughtered and had a more visually arresting look at the problem then that might make much more of an impact than just paying it lip service. It also would have been nice if there had been some sort of information about a foundation or organization people could join to help save sharks and make people aware of their plight. Action speaks much louder than words. The film says that sharks are misunderstood and feared but it doesn’t really explain the history behind this fear or why it persists to this day. They also didn’t explain how low shark attack statistics are and how slim the chances are of being attacked by one. The film said that sharks are at the top of the food chain but it didn’t delve into what would happen if they ceased to exist. They also spent time talking about manta rays, dolphins, fish and other ocean dwellers. That would have been fine if the film was called OCEAN 3D, but it wasn’t.
This film may have been about sharks and the ocean, but it had very little depth. The only part of the film that really grabbed me was at the end when they showed photos of the sharks and listed their status as either “Endangered” or “Critically Endangered.”
This film didn’t really do the sharks justice and it didn’t reflect any of the awesome beauty of these creatures that has captivated me since childhood.
My appreciation of experimental/avant-garde films has admittedly been one that evolved with time. When I was first exposed to them during my freshman year at college my first reaction was one of confusion. I remember thinking, “There’s no story here, no dialogue, no characters—-I don’t get it!” Then I later came to regard these films as something of a novelty. They were trippy and something that would be cool to have playing during a party. As time marched on and as my film studies progressed, I began to see these films in an entirely different light. I no longer wondered where the stories were. It was up to me to figure that out. I started looking at the films the way I’d look at a painting in a museum and just let my imagination and emotions guide me to a conclusion about what I was seeing. That is actually far more of an intellectual challenge than being spoon fed the meaning of something in any case. I now appreciate these films and I think that exposure to them should be a part of everyone’s cinematic diet.
Fortunately here in LA we have several venues to see these types of films in…..the LA Film Forum, Red Cat, the Echo Park Film Center and even the 7 Dudley Cinema in Venice.
Last night I went to the LA Film Forum to see the films of avant-garde filmmaker Ernie Gehr. The first film was called REVERBERATION and was made in 1969. For some reason I have a terrible time describing things. I’ll try though….. This film was raw, gritty and showed people in the streets in NY in various stages of movement. The sound was a static reverberation. The film made me think about how every moment in our lives has a ripple effect….like when you throw a rock in a pond. The film also seemed to me to capture these people right before something devastating was about to happen…like the moment RIGHT before you get into a car accident….not the accident itself mind you….just that moment.
The next film was called THE ASTRONOMER’S DREAM from 2004. This film put me in a sort of catatonic state. It was a homage in some ways to early filmmaker Georges Melies. It was a mixture of footage, bars and ambient sound from a variety of sources. It was interesting and had an almost ghostly otherworldly quality to it.
The final film of the evening was PRECARIOUS GARDEN also from 2004. This film was filled with canted angles and images of a sunny colorful garden. The film had a haunting quality to it and it made me think about how fragile and fleeting our lives are. I started to cry. Right as I was walking out the door to leave for Film Forum, my Mom called to tell me that a family friend had suddenly died. It was tragic and completely unexpected. I felt shocked and saddened and overwhelmed. I started crying during the film and then I couldn’t even breathe. Not wanting to draw any attention to myself, I struggled to maintain my composure so that no one could tell.
At the Q&A after the film Ernie Gehr said that he had a tumor in his ear that had to be removed. He said that afterward he had trouble seeing and problems with balance. He said that the film was about his feelings in the aftermath of being so sick. I completely understood that.
I’ve heard many people say that you should just judge a film based on it’s merit alone and not incorporate personal feelings or history into your opinion. That is a perfectly valid way to approach it, but I don’t know if I’m capable of doing that all the time. Where I’m at in my life often times creeps into my opinions for better or worse. For me that is unavoidable. In the case of last night, I think that is actually a good thing. If I had left for the screening and missed my Mom’s call….I don’t think I would have been as moved by the films. Sure I would have appreciated them and gotten something out of it, BUT not quite on the same level.
I got invited to dinner after the films, but I’m afraid I would have been a dreadful dinner guest given my emotional state. I went home that night and thought about our family friend that died…and those who are left behind…and what is going to happen now…...All the while the images of Ernie Gehr were echoing around in my head.
CARMEN JONES (1954)
Directed by Otto Preminger
There were numerous things I wanted to see tonight. It was a tough decision, but I finally decided to see CARMEN JONES. I’ve always wanted to see this film so I’m glad the big screen opportunity came my way. I had never seen a Dorothy Dandridge film before and I am just absolutely amazed! She radiates heat, sexuality, energy and passion in every frame of the film. She owns it 100%. I was bowled over. I did have a few problems overall with the film however. The first problem is the the singing. Harry Belafonte (the male lead-“Joe”) and Dorothy Dandridge were known to have incredible singing voices, but instead their singing was dubbed by white opera singers. It makes no sense whatsoever. When they open their mouths to sing the voices that come out don’t fit at all! Besides that, the dubbed voices just drain the soul right out of the music. I’m really curious as to who was behind this decision. I may look up some information on the production history so I can find out why this was done. It is really distracting. The other problem have with the film is that some of the musical numbers just don’t fit. Instead of enhancing the action, they halt it right in it’s tracks. There are some musical numbers involving the supporting actors and anytime Dorothy wasn’t on screen—I found myself missing her and wishing she was there. I was also shocked at how sexy the film was for 1954. The scene where Carmen takes off Joe’s belt and puts it back on was teaming with lust and longing—which is something you really didn’t see in films at that time. There was also a pretty steamy scene where Carmen is in a tiny silk robe and Joe blows her toe nails dry. I can’t recall seeing any sort of cinematic lust that blatant since the days of pre-code in the early 1930s. I was also a bit surprised at the scene where Carmen is in her bra and panties getting dressed. Again that was not a common site. I mean this was the era where Luci & Desi had separate beds on TV even though they were married! CARMEN was brazen, predatory, self destructive and throughly unapologetic. I always find these types of characters to be much more fun to watch than the “good girl” types.
Otto Preminger’s direction here is steady and masterful. He doesn’t use a lot of close ups. He mainly shoots in medium shots and doesn’t rely on lots of editing. This approach really works because it gives you the feeling like you are a fly on the wall…and that’s a VERY interesting wall to be on! The actors are all uniformly great and Preminger seems to always have a knack for drawing the best out of them. The print looked a little faded in a few places and the focus was soft in a few places as well. I can’t help but notice this stuff.
It makes me sad to think that this was one of the few great roles Dorothy Dandridge would ever have. She was so talented and so magnetic. There should have been more….many more.
I have lived in Los Angeles 4 1/2 years and I feel very fortunate to call this city home. There is a virtual “all you can eat” buffet of movie-going to be had here 7 days a week! I have taken full advantage of this every chance I’ve had. I frequent the Egyptian, LACMA, UCLA, the Nuart and many of the other specialty venues around town. I’m thinking that maybe I should just pack a toothbrush and sleeping bag and move into the lobby of the Aero. In the past several years I’ve seen some amazing stuff—rare silents at Cinecon, the 3-D film fest, UCLA’s Festival of Preservation, David Lean films at the Academy and so on. Being that I’ve seen some pretty rare and unique stuff, writing about it just makes sense. For the longest time, I just assumed that I’d remember everything. Then my friend asked me where I went for lunch today. I honestly could not recall. Point made. It’s time to write. The things I write in this blog won’t really be official essays or even full length reviews. It will just be my scattered and possibly rambling thoughts on the movies I see. I may look back on this years from now and cringe or it may serve to revive my memory at some point in the future (like tomorrow). Either way….here are my thoughts and opinions on my movie-going journeys across Los Angeles.
NAPOLEON (1927) Directed by Abel Gance
I have a theory that in Los Angeles if you wait long enough, you will get the chance to see just about any movie ever made somewhere on the big screen. I have heard about NAPOLEON for ages and wondered when I’d get my chance to see it. Fortunately in this case the wait wasn’t long. When I heard it would be playing at the Getty, I jumped at the chance. I wasn’t disappointed. It was a fascinating and epic film. In some ways Gance reminded me of Von Stroheim. Having just seen many Von Stroheim films in the LACMA series, his epic style is still very fresh in my mind. Gance employed just about every film technique under the sun (and available at that time) in the film. While the overall film was great, there are certain sequences that stand out in my mind more than the actual film as a whole. The snowball fight sequence in particular really stands out as a singular example of what Gance’s technique could achieve. The sequence is also important in that it lays the groundwork in the film for NAPOLEON’s future as a military leader. The montage is so hard for me to describe for some reason…tons of superimposition, clever camera work, extreme close ups of Napoleon’s face and eyes, reaction shots, snow flying, blood and all around bedlam filled the scene. It all had a very avant-garde feel to it much like the psycho dramatic trance films I saw in “Alternative Cinema” class in film school. Later in the film Napoleon meets Josephine at a wild party where the French are celebrating having survived the Revolution. Once again these same techniques are employed. Rapid shots of women’s bodies, booze and the overall decadent nature of the party create the mental effect of being a drunken and delirious guest there. The famous triptych finale in the film was interesting, but distracting at the same time. I found myself paying much more attention to the technical flaws (focus and the shots not quite syncing up) instead of being right there in the story. I also REALLY wish there would have been an intermission. I would have coughed up everything in my wallet for a cookie! The film ran almost 4 hours, but that didn’t bother me. There are some films that just need to breathe and need to take their time and that’s ok. We live in such an MTV era where most people have the attention span of a flea and can’t (or won’t) stomach anything that doesn’t move at an ultra rapid pace. Those people are just missing out.
This week as I was unpacking some books, I came across a copy of Kevin Brownlow’s book about the restoration of NAPOLEON. Perfect timing. Now having seen the film, I’m more curious than ever to read it. I also checked with Vidiots and they have a documentary on Gance and some of his other films as well. There are just so many films and filmmakers and things that I need to discover. If I live to be 100, I’ll never get to everything. There’s just no way, but I assure it will never be for lack of trying.