Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Check out Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property on YouTube!

It's a docudrama exploring the ethical and social implication of Nat Turner's slave rebellion and the creative work it inspired, and one of very few films about that most divisive event in American history. It's so prickly to this day that Burnett's original concept - make a film about how the rebellion is remembered in the county it happened in - was scrapped because nobody was willing to talk about it on camera.

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property was directed by Charles Burnett of Killer of Sheep fame. He's one of our most valuable and insightful filmmakers and this is as good a reason as any. It makes a good double-feature with his made-for-TV slavery picture Nightjohn, a film Jonathan Rosenbaum called a masterpiece (Nightjohn has a really striking scene when a cabin full of slaves reads about the rebellion in the newspaper).

As Lincoln and Django Unchained reminded us, films about this era still flare tempers, so it was a brave move on PBS's part to back this one. After you watch it, check out their website which includes some good interview bits with the filmmakers. Where would we be without PBS?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

To all y'all emailing me convinced my point here is to "call out" what movies "stole," calm down and:

Read. The. Fucking. Title.

and then read my little mission statement.

The Radar

Message from Space (1978)
dir. Kinji Fukasaku

Alien (1979)
dir. Ridley Scott

"Dallas encounters the alien in the air shafts just as the computer depicted "sperm" and "egg" merge in the motion tracker, at which point we hear the baby-like Alien screech. The alien reaches out as if about to grab Dallas by the face."

The Briefing

The X from Outer Space (1967)
dir. Kazui Nihonmatsu

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
dir. Stanley Kubrick
Demon Lover Diary is on Vimeo. You should watch it. Ultra-rare documentary about the making of a cheap horror film which is at least as harrowing as Burden of Dreams and Hearts of Darkness but with the added tragicomedy of the fact that nobody even liked the movie they made (though honestly it's not that bad).

Watch out for the specter of Ted Nugent at his craziest.

Demon Lover Diary (1980) from Film Ape on Vimeo.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Post in Which I Fix Things:

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Ehle, Zero Dark Thirty

Best Supporting Actor
Michael Fassbender, Prometheus

Best Leading Actress
Sally Field, Lincoln

Best Leading Actor
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

Best Picture

Also pretend instead of McFarlane it's the Muppets giving the statues out. There. That's better.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

"Bizarre? Not at all, at least it now seems to me as natural as my general interest in and liking of things American. I've loved Ford from way, way back - this is long before I went to the States - and I remain an ardent admirer of his works: pictures like How Green Was My Valley, or The Searchers, or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are wonderful, full of cinematic wonders. And then I came to like the unmistakable Irish element in him, a good combination with Western flair. In America I discovered that he was famous more for films like The Grapes of Wrath, which to me aren't nearly so impressive as some of his Western work.

But you know I love the Western. Now, there weren't too many Hollywood directors then who would have agreed, and even less critics. I remember when Ford made his famous pronouncement: 'My name's John Ford. I make Westerns,' this caused perplexity in Hollywood. It was the first time people there started to think about the Western as a medium worthy of great attention, except as a solid, ever-saleable piece of merchandise. There was no understanding of the place of the Western in the American cinema, or of the place of pictures in American culture. Ford's remark set off a big discussion: people were so surprised that the great John Ford had chosen to categorize himself like that. They couldn't understand it. They would have rather expected him to step forward as the creator of The Grapes of Wrath. But any appreciation of the American cinema, I think, involves an appreciation of the Western and also of the melodrama, and you can achieve this via a specifically cinema criticism. As someone who started out as a theatre man, and a director of mostly highly literary plays, I'd like to go emphatically on the record with that."

- Douglas Sirk on John Ford

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

I have this theory

Here is my theory:

I believe that because exorbitant licensing fees has made the music of The Beatles virtually unrepresented in film and TV, their songs retain a corporeal presence that most big hits of the era have lost.

The Rolling Stones's "Satisfaction," for example, doesn't quite feel like it's of this world anymore, does it? It belongs to movies, it's the Apocalypse Now song, a song that has a narrative meaning outside of our lives. The same with "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Layla" and "Run Through the Jungle." They're songs that aren't defined by our relationship with them, but the relationship fictional characters and some vague sense of Popular Culture have with them.

Just look at "All Along the Watchtower." It's as strong as song as any ever written, but there's hardly anyone who hears it in any setting without immediately feeling like they're in the codified television version of the 1960s, or, depending on your version, outer space. It doesn't belong to this world, it belongs to The Culture. Nobody hears it on its own terms anymore.

The Beatles don't really have this problem. "A Hard Day's Night," maybe, immediately conjures up black and white swinging London, and "Yellow Submarine"'ll put you in the headspace of a stoned cartoon, and the Joe Cocker version of "With a Little Help from My Friends" is nostalgia incarnate, but other than those, the works of The Beatles are a blank slate that we interact with on our terms and on the terms of the music itself.

"Hey Jude," "Taxman," "Dig A Pony," and so forth are inescapable radio fixtures that we've all heard a buhjillion times, but because they're almost completely absent in our narrative entertainment, they're still ours.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Divine

St. Francis of Assisi
origins of pose unknown

Commando (1985)
dir. Mark L. Lester

The Denim Prince Valiant

Charlie's Angels "Charlie's Angels" (1976)
dir. John Llewellyn Moxey

No Country for Old Men (2007)
dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

from Steve McCoy. And just so we're clear here, that's Tommy Lee Jones wearing the haircut that would become famous in No Country, which he starred in, in a TV episode directed by a man named Llewellyn, the unusual name of the protagonist from No Country.

The Grieving Mother

Lemminkäinen's Mother (1897)
Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005)
dir. George Lucas

another painterly one from Roni Lücke, who provides some context:

Lemminkäisen Äiti, or Lemminkäinen's Mother by Akseli Gallen-Kallela portrays a scene from the finnish mythological epic Kalevala. During a quest for the hand of the beautiful, magical daughter of the land of Pohjola, the womanizing war-hero Lemminkäinen hubristically kills a holy swan and thus in retribution has been cut apart at sword-point and cast in the black river of Tuonela (the underworld). Lemminkäinen's mother arrives to the scene and rakes her son up from the river piece by piece, until she can put him together.

Does this make the Emperor a wicked witch/bad mother instead of a wizard?

The Figure of Worship

Christ Carrying the Cross (1577 - 1587)
El Greco

Commando (1985)
dir. Mark L. Lester

a great one from Roni Lücke

The Villain's Demise

Duel (1971)
dir. Steven Spielberg

Jaws (1975)
dir. Steven Spielberg

from Neal Johnson

The Folk Singer

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)
Bob Dylan

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) (trailer)
dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

from Kurt McCallister

The Projectionist

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
dir. Victor Erice

Be Kind Rewind (2008)
dir. Michel Gondry

from Cody Clarke

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Sessions

Songs About Fucking (1987)
Big Black

The Sessions (2012)
dir. Ben Lewin

The Fanatic in Space

Star Trek "Balance of Terror" (1966)
dir. Vincent McEveety

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
dir. Nicholas Meyer

we remember Khan as a remake of "Space Seed," but watching "Balance of Terror" again reveals a lot - from the sneak attack to the submarine-style warfare within an anomaly in space, to the fiery no quarter resolution.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The King

"Come at the king, you best not miss."
The Wire "Lessons" (2002)
written by David Simon & Ed Burns

"You take a shot at the king, make sure you kill him, son."
Line of Duty unknown episode (2012)
created by Jed Mercurio

I try not to editorialize, but it takes brass to grab the most recognizable line from a show that nobody ever shuts up about.

The Attic

The Night of the Hunter (1955)
dir. Charles Laughton

Insidious (2011)
dir. James Wan

Thursday, February 14, 2013

People of Earth.

Hulu's wilin out and has made their whole Criterion Collection archive free until the end of this weekend.

Now many of y'alls instinct is probably to check out the Truffauts and the Bergmans and suchlike, but resist that impulse. You can check any of those out at your local library, they're all on physical disc.

The real coup here is the dozens of films Criterion has online that they do not have in print. Here are a few I really like:

Le Main du Diable (1943)
Yotsuya Kaidan (1949)
I Was a Teenage Zombie (1987)
Snow Trail (1947)
The Plough and the Stars (1936)
City Lights (1931)

City Lights is destined to get a release in the near future, but even so if you haven't seen it just get out of my damn face.

The Camera Eye

Man With A Movie Camera (1929)
dir. Dziga Vertov

Real Life (1979)
dir. Albert Brooks

from Honk Honk Punch a million years ago

The Trustworthy Pants

"But I'd never be so stupid as to lie to a man who wears both belt and suspenders."
Ace in the Hole (1951)
written by Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels, & Billy Wilder

"How can you trust a man who wears a belt and suspenders? Man can't even trust his own pants."
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
written by Sergio Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Donati, & Dario Argento

from Dr. Puppykicker. Check out those writers on OUATITW

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Monday, February 11, 2013

Batman "The Zodiac Crimes" (1967)
dir. Oscar Rudolph

The Joker unleashes a wave of crimes for each sign of the Zodiac, two years before the real-life Zodiac killings began.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Great Collaborations #1: Hold for Gloria Christmas

Basically, Naked City is incredible.

It's been a hard show to find until this month when finally 50 episodes came back into print on DVD. Could've used a Blu-Ray, but hey, it's a start.

Naked City was a 1958-1963 crime drama shot live on the streets of New York. It's a kinda-sorta adaptation of The Naked City, Jules Dassin's lovely-looking (if a bit dull) 1948 film about one criminal case in New York City. This film is the source of that famous line: "there are 8 million stories in the naked city, this is one of them." Dassin's film was itself kinda-sorta inspired by Weegee's earth-shattering 1945 true crime photo book Naked City.

Weegee's book was bigtime because it was one of the first unflinching photographic studies of the underbelly of the American city. His photographs went from the newspaper to the MoMA, legitimizing depictions of the poor and the helpless. Dassin's film didn't get into this territory, but it did revel in the same alleys and docks Weegee explored.

TV producer Stirling Silliphant had big shoes to fill when he created his television show,  following a legacy of hard-nosed semi-documentary New York independence.

He did not disappoint. Naked City the series is true to the spirit of Dassin and Weegee's naked cities. Death is very present in this show and always horrifying. Cement, dirt, crowds, and the dizzying verticality and layering of this singular city are present in each and every moment, downright inescapable because there are virtually no studio sets - and in fact the few locations that are sets are the old Biograph lot up in the Bronx.

I love this show. I love how smart it is, how open-hearted, how historically valuable... I can go on and on, so I'll cut this line of thought off with this:

Naked City (1945)

Naked City "Hold for Gloria Christmas" (1962)
dir. Walter Grauman

But there is this one episode in particular that I want to discuss in a bit more depth. It's the episode those images above came from, the season 4 opener "Hold for Gloria Christmas."

"Hold for Gloria Christmas" opens with the death of a poet.

The poet is a sweaty old drunk who starts a fight with a seemingly reasonable, long-suffering bald man. This fight ends quickly and decisively - the old poet's face beat in with a rock on the corner of West 4th on a drizzly gray day. As the life leaves this man, a bassy narrator assures us of two things:

1. This man, Duncan Kleist, is not a good poet.
2. The police will, of course, find his killer.

It's a weird opening, idn't it? Seems calculated to suck the drama out of the events. There's no fancy lighting, no bombast. Just a poor pathetic guy, dead on the street and we already know who did it. AND we know he'll get caught. See that's the cool thing about Naked City, it was never really interested in the procedure of police work. Like its descendants Homicide and NYPD Blue, Naked City is really about the toll death takes on the human spirit. This is best expressed in "Prime of Life," in which the criminal is caught before the episode begins and we simply spend an hour waiting for his execution to begin.

Well, after that dark beginning, "Hold for Gloria Christmas" re-introduces us to the show's main cast. Detective Adam Flint, played by Paul Burke (Ashley Shawcat of Arrested Development's grandfather); Lt. Mike Parker, played by Horace McMahon; Det. Frank Arcaro, played by Harry Bellaver; and Libby Kingston, played by Nancy Malone. They get to work detecting and crack the case, just like we were promised. Along the way, Kane-esque flashbacks fill in the sad, touching life of Duncan Kleist, a man maybe not as pathetic as we first thought. So ends another story in the naked city.

That's our framework and frankly it's not the best - it's not even in my top ten or twenty of the series. It's a bit dated and a bit inconsequential so it doesn't have the gravity of the show's best. However, it's one of the most important episodes of the show, and of the era at large, because it's pretty much as unique and exceptional a set of actors as has ever been assembled.

Duncan Kleist, that old drunk poet, is played by Burgess Meredith, who headlines this episode.

Burgess was an interesting kind of an actor - probably best known for Rocky, he was really born for television. Between his four classic Twilight Zone roles and his indelible turn as The Penguin in Batman, he possessed a clever largeness that classed up the many television productions he guest-starred in.

Meredith dies like a champ, delivering poetry to the empty sky. The detectives hit the scene and track down one of the last people to see him alive, Dr. Hennickson, played by Henderson Forsythe, who was even more of a TV fixture than Meredith. Forsythe, here in the white coat, played a doctor on As the World Turns for 32 years. I don't know if that's a record, but it's gotta be close. He had a hell of a Broadway career also, playing George in the original run of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Petey in the original run of Pinter's The Birthday Party, and the Sheriff in the original run of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. He's also an extra in Species II, so there's that.

Dr. Hennickson sends the detectives off to Mildred Pepper, Kleist's only friend. Pepper fools around with her, what is that, a loom? while the detectives question her. She's played with heartbreaking anguish by Eileen Heckart, who played Paul Newman's mother in Someone Up There Likes Me, Marilyn Monroe's crony in Bus Stop, and Goldie Hawn's enemy in Butterflies Are Free, for which she won an Oscar. She puts in work here as good as any of those roles.

She reminisces and we flashback to her bitter clashes with Kleist. She's powerful here, wounded and desperate, and Burgess sinks his teeth into this scene, one of the least sympathetic of his long career. There are shades of Mickey in it.

My man Burgess was a fixture of television. His character's death next brings the detectives to an associate of his, Kip Harris, played by a man who was definitely not a television fixture: Sanford Meisner.

I spoke about Meisner a bit in my article about the Godfather series, one of the few other appearances he makes on film (Elaine May's masterpiece Mikey and Nicky is another. Go watch that.). Meisner was an acting teacher who helped popularize Method. His particular approach, the Meisner technique, promoted "truth in a fictional setting," a kind of acting from the inside out. It's still taught in acting schools to this day.

Meisner is a magnetic presence, playing a sleazy rich writer with verve and wit. Man like that's bound to have a wife, and that's where it starts to get fun.

A Meisner sighting is rare, but not half as rare as that lovely woman he has in tow. That's Candace Hilligoss, best known - ONLY known - for playing the lead in Carnival of Souls. It was her only successful film and her only leading role. She put in amazing work in that film; her dazed and mysterious blonde was a standard-setting and a strong inspiration on Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion and Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive.

She's mysterious and magnetic in this, too. It's a rare pleasure to see her at work again.

This is Hilligoss's acting debut, and it's far from the only debut in the episode. Check this out:

That shot right there is the first ever film or television appearance of Alan Alda. He's baby-faced! I love it. The woman next to him is Barbara Dana, Alan Arkin's wife who had a brief tenure in the early years of Sesame Street. Next to her, in the glasses, is John Lassell, a stalwart character actor with a long TV career including some time on Dark Shadows and a bit part in the best episode of Rod Serling's TZ follow-up Night Gallery.

These three flash us back to a low point in Kleist's life, when Alda's character calls him out on plagiarizing some poems. Burgess Meredith's Kleist stumbles into a seedy Greenwich Village poet's bar, desperate for a drink. The bald man we saw kill him glances over, sure trouble is coming. Behind him, for the briefest of moments, we get a glimpse of Richard S. Castellano, best known as Clemenza in The Godfather. Castellano's playing a bartender here, and that's him below behind the bar pouring a drink. This is his first TV appearance, and if you keep your eyes open you'll see him kicking around the background of many Naked City episodes.

Meredith tries to bum a drink off of the bald man. In the background, sharkish and scarecrow-tall, Alan Alda's rival poet approaches. Alda challenges Meredith to a slam-poetry contest in which he uses the same trick the Clovers used on the Toros to shame the old man, setting in motion the events that killed him.

But, wait, who's that woman in the shot? The one at Alda's right shoulder, in the striped shirt. Where have I seen that face before?


This is her debut, too, and she milks every second. She teases and snaps at Kleist, bringing to bear some of that great comic cruelty that would define her work as Lucille Bluth and Mallory Archer. Look at those pictures. That's Hawkeye Pierce and Mallory Archer making fun of the Penguin. This is the magical world we live in, each and every day. 

Like I said: a unique mix of talent in this episode. It caught a magic moment when all sorts of different actors were beginning or ending long careers in New York.

New York is a character as much as anyone else in this show. Naked City used real locations as often as possible, and maybe for simple reasons of economy, there was a rare unity of place. Kleist dies on W. 4th, and they stay true to that. Here, Detective Flint passes by Music Inn, a store still open on W. 4th today. It's a small thing, but it helps the show explore real and unique locations.

The episode opens at a news stand, obviously a real location full of real magazines from the show's August 1962 shoot, and, like I said, there are a lot of debuts in this episode. Look at what are hanging just behind the actors' heads. That is Amazing Fantasy #15, the first comic book to feature Spider-Man, and next to it is Journey into Mystery #83, the first comic book to feature Thor.

They just didn't know what they had.