Friday, April 17, 2015

The Playground Gets Ponderous: The End of the Weird?

In Search of the “Weird” 

I’ve often bemoaned about how I got hooked on the “strange” side of the cinematic street when I was just a babe. 

The obvious consequence is that I didn’t see much of the classics, spent time and money chasing after “holy grails,” and landed in my thirties without tasting the “good stuff.”  I wanted “strange,” “bizarre,” ‘disconcerting,” and whatever adjective you blurt out.  There was at least one thing I never contemplated: What happens when you get worn out?  What happens when “the strangest movie you will ever see” doesn’t cut it?  

I didn’t stop to contemplate that until recently.  The last couple of days or so, in fact, when I finally polished off Timothy Carey’s The World’s Greatest Sinner.  The watching of this movie had been one of my dire cinematic needs for years.  The occasion had finally arrived to (legally, of course) to watch this film. 

What happened?  I felt absolutely nothing; but I’m not going to get there quite yet. 

Here’s a bit of a template for this entry:
  • ·      We are first going to take a stop in “Tiny Town.”  (Those of us familiar with “bad movie” legends will know what I am talking about.  If you don’t, stick around and all will be revealed.) 
  • ·      We will get to my nagging problems with Mr. Carey’s magnum opus. 
  • ·      I will tie everything up with a common thread. 

What?  That doesn’t sound thrilling enough for you.  Nuts to you, then!

The Train to “Tiny Town” Only Leads One Way

The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) is a legendary film in its own right.  I would say that it is so legendary that many more movie geeks have heard of it than actually witnessed the oater.  

For the uninitiated: This is a B-movie western that features an entire cast of little people in standard roles.  You have The Hero, the Girl, and the Townspeople all accounted for but with a basic size difference.   I am treading on dangerous ground, but the only “surreal” quality this movie has is its “all midget cast.”  (I use the quotation marks because that is what the movie calls its cast members.  That is the gimmick that is a bit left over from the days of the sideshows).  

I can’t even remember how or why I heard of this movie…but of course my interest would be peaked.  The movie was largely unavailable until falling into the public domain in the past few years.  (You can go to Youtube find it right away.  You are probably doing that right now.  Goodbye).  

I finally had the opportunity to watch it recently.  What did I discover? 

It’s excruciatingly boring.  I mean deeply, painfully dull in the sense that the hour running time feels like it is about twice that.  (I kept taking breaks for coffee and frozen pancakes). 

This is nothing remotely “strange” about the film, other than the aforementioned little people.   That’s the thing, though, quantifying the actors as just being “little people” doesn’t do them justice.  The movie reveals a boatload of capable, talented performers that were most likely just happy to have the work.  The lead little person, Billy Curtis, has a very distinctive screen presence and genuine talent.  He went on to work with both Alfred Hitchcock and Clint Eastwood.  (Remember the little guy from High Plains Drifter?)

What about the “weird” factor?  I didn’t see it as being there so much.  The shock of the new wears off in about a minute and a half; what is left after that is a relatively average movie.  There is nothing distinctive about the script or the direction.  I can at least give it points for using differently bodied actors and not being (too) exploitative.  I just can’t call it all that satisfyingly trippy.  

This is my first case of failing to find “the weird.”

Is It Strange Or Does it Just Suck?    

I had heard of The World’s Greatest Sinner long before I ever had a chance to see it.  This was another case of the shadow of “the weird” being cast over a relatively obscure movie.  Remember the old trick a lot of gas stations/souvenir shops use?  “Five more miles until THE BLACK HOLE…etc.”  You can very easily drive by and then end up wondering: “What the hell was THE BLACK HOLE?” 

I had seen one solitary film clip with Timothy Carey doing a weird dance backed by a cheap garage band.  This would be a perfect Youtube highlight clip, but this was the days before the existence of such a site.  This was enough to hook my interest and fire up the needed synapses for a memory. 

I knew that Frank Zappa scored the flick; which doesn’t do much for me because I’m not a fan.  (Let the hate mail hit the fan.  I tried, and I just can’t do it.)  I didn’t know who Timothy Carey was, but time took care of that. 

I will include a bit for the uninitiated (as I did for “Tiny Town.”)  Timothy Carey was perhaps one of the oddest and most distinctive talents that ever graced the screen.  I would hesitate to call what he did “acting.”  This was more a case of channeling a deep eccentricity and making it case specific.  Remember the maniac from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing who has to shoot the horse? 

That was Timothy Carey, and he was making The World’s Greatest Sinner in between acting gigs. 

The internet strange-o who posted the video I watched all those years ago was not the film’s only fan.  John Cassavetes somehow saw this movie and ended up casting Carey in all of his later films.  Martin Scorsese has said it is “one of the best Rock and Roll movies ever made.”  (Really, what does that even mean, Marty?)  I even had a Facebook friend who said this was the “weirdest movie” he had even seen in his life. 

This movie has an established and rabid cult, and I am about to enrage them. 

There are two central things that The World’s Greatest Sinner really has going for it.
  • ·      Timothy Carey’s premise is a very intriguing one.  A common insurance salesman attempts to start his own religion in which man is supreme.  He drops his given name of Clarence and starts going by “God.”  His medium for reaching the kids becomes the holy world of Rock and Roll.  (Hence the strange dance that I spoke of at the top of this piece).  All the while, the Devil is tracking his progress and waiting to snatch his soul.  (At least, I believe that is what happens anyway).  Carey’s point seems to be that no man can ever believe himself to be a deity.  That sort of egotism leads to both interpersonal chaos and the crumbling of any establishment that is established.  (That’s not a bad sentence, kids.  That’s word play!)  This is actually a very classical structured idea. 
  • ·      The Carey performance is completely uninhibited and “crazy.”  As Carey’s character continually buys into his power, he grows increasingly unhinged.  There is nothing the man won’t do in front of a camera…and that at least pays some dividends.  (I would especially point to his make out scene with a woman who has to be at least eighty.  She has agreed to be his first follower, and weirdness follows.) 

Okay, I talked about what I liked.  So what’s the problem? 

It’s excruciatingly boring.  We are talking about something that is just a little over seventy minutes long.  Every one of those minutes feels like a slow poke in the eye. 

Timothy Carey’s performance, inherent strangeness, and smart satirical sense are at the service of a bad film.  The “weird” is sacrificed to some truly inept filmmaking.  The other actors have no sense of how to play off Carey.  The dialogue is painfully on the nose (and would fit in well with a typical high school play).  The editing is clunky and scenes never begin or end. 

Perhaps the tackiest offence is the lighting.  I know that sounds like a minor complaint.  However, it becomes a serious concern when you can’t see anything that is going on. 
This is both a home movie and a vanity project. 

Carey might have gotten a crack acting reel from the experience.  Did he really push any cinematic envelopes?  Sadly, not from my perspective.  I just see a half-baked, mediocre end product that has curiosity value.

Look, I am Wiling to Play Devil’s Advocate with Myself Here

I had a moment during my long slog through “Tiny Town” when I really started to question myself. 

Maybe this is the “weirdest movie” ever made, but I just can’t see it.  I have spent hours of my life subjecting myself to garbage.  I can’t recognize that elusive “weird” anymore.  “Weird” has become my “normal,” and there’s no going back. 

But that can’t be, can it? 

That, my friends, is a rhetorical question that is meant to keep you hanging.  That is what happens when I can’t come up with a more conclusive final thought. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Interview: Kelly Hughes from Heart Attack! Theater

Oh, the golden days of Public Access Television….

For the kids in the audience, Public Access provided a forum (before Youtube) for people who wanted to use video to express unique artistic sensibilities.  Anyone could put together a show and have it broadcast problem free. 

One of those people was Kelly Hughes, a Seattle based filmmaker who was inspired by John Waters, David Lynch, and a new thing called VHS. 

Kelly provided me with a screener of his documentary Heart Attack!  The Early Pulse Pounding Cinema of Kelly Hughes.  This work details both his process (through interviews with his regular actors) and provides a juicy sampling of Heart Attack! related films. 

The documentary succeeds on all fronts; the interviews are candid without being overly sentimental.  And then there are the movies themselves.  The most disarming aspect of what Kelly shares in his video clips is the personal vision.  A woman can give birth to a plushy stuffed snake and the actors sell the reality of it.  (This is far less cheesy than it sounds).  Kelly also manages to be inspired by David Lynch, but provides a genuine sincerity that Lynch sometimes misses.  This is not just: “Weird for the sake of Weird.”  

Kelly has also been kind enough to answer a few questions for us (interview below). 

1. Let’s start at the very beginning.  What were some of your most influential film experiences?  What provided you with the “a-ha” moment to start making your own films? 

As a child, it was Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Which was basically an LSD experience for children. And I’m not talking about the Johnny Depp remake. Although Depp and I were born in the same year. The year JFK was shot.

When I was 19, I saw John Waters’ Female Trouble. And it scarred me. But then it inspired me.

Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was a big influence. And I also really like his earlier movie Labyrinth of Passion.

Waters and Almodovar probably seem tame to today’s generation. But back then, they seemed a bit sleazy and dangerous. But in a safe Disney sort of way.

As for horror movies, I used to be a real lightweight. Even at 11 or 12, I was too afraid to watch original episodes of Twilight Zone. And when I saw Jaws in the theater when it first came out in 1975, I spent most of the time hiding behind my box of popcorn.

But I started toughening up after seeing movies like Dawn of the Dead (the original), Lamberto Bava’s Demons, and the original Nightmare on Elm Street. (And isn’t it something I have to keep specifying whether I’m talking about the original. I can’t believe how many movies have been remade in the past ten years or so.)

Evil Dead (original, of course) was probably the most inspirational because it had so much ingenuity. And showed what you could do on a very low budget. And because it had humor, but not at the expense of the horror.

I also have a soft spot for Child’s Play. For all of the Chuckie movies. And for possessed doll movies in general.

My big “aha” moment was when I realized I could pick up a home video camera and just start shooting movies on video. No film to buy or develop. You could just have that instant gratification. And start experimenting. So this would have been the late 1980s when I shot my first videos. You couldn’t do any decent editing, of course. But that wasn’t a concern. At the time, it just seemed magical to record something on video.

2. How did you initially find your cast of regulars for “Heart Attack Theatre?” 

Heart Attack Theatre debuted in May of 1991. And before that, I had made a handful of videos. Including an experimental short called Reverberations. And then a feature called Trish Must Kill. They both starred my friend Cathy. And it was just assumed she would be part of Heart Attack Theatre. But when I went into production, she was in another state going to law school.

So I put a notice in the Auditions section of our local paper. And the day it came out, when I came home from work, I had over 80 messages on my answering machine.

So I called everyone back, and set up auditions in my apartment. They probably all thought I was some pervert. But I took it seriously. And tried to act as professionally as possible. And hide all my dirty clothes before they came over.

I also got a post office box where actors could send me resumes and headshots. And this talent agency that specialized in children kept sending me headshots of all these kids. And I thought, Did they even read the casting notice? The parents of these children would flip if they knew some of our storylines.

And there was another agency that sent me headshots. And all of their “actresses” looked the same. Bleached blonds in bikinis and high heels. Some of them posing on hoods of sports cars. So I assumed the agency was a front for a prostitution ring. Although I would have felt much more comfortable casting these Heather Locklear wannabes than the children. But they were represented by an agency. So I assumed they wanted to be paid. So I never called them in for an interview. I can only hope one or two of them ended up in a Whitesnake video.

By summer, Cathy was back in Seattle on break from school. So I started putting her in episodes almost immediately. And she pretty much worked on the show for the rest of the summer until she had to go back to school.

And one of the actresses in my documentary, Betty Marshall, was discovered through one of these open casting calls. We’ve known and worked with each other for almost 25 years now. So when I find someone I like, I do tend to work with them, basically, for life. Loyalty is everything to me.

3. What was the importance of having Public Access to show your films on? 

It was all-important. We had no YouTube back then. The World Wide Web was just starting out that year. Indie film festivals were few and far between. So unless you put your low budget video out on a homemade VHS home video, and advertised it in the back of an indie film magazine (or maybe a ‘zine?), there weren’t too many options.

4. And did this help you achieve a wider audience than other means?

My show was only shown within the Seattle area. But to me, it was a big deal. I was on cable TV! Local, yes. But it felt somewhat prestigious to have a series on TV.

It was all non-profit. I didn’t make any money from it. But having a weekly show forced me to discipline myself. Without the Public Access deadline, there’s no way I would have cranked out so many shows. I made 33 episodes total. And during the first five month, I made a new episode every week. And I only achieved that because I was afraid if I didn’t turn in a new show every week that the Public Access station would cancel my show. And that was not an option.

5. What was your day job during the “Heart Attack Theater” days? 

I did office work at a law firm. Answered phones. And on my lunch breaks wrote scripts.

One time we shot an episode of Heart Attack Theatre in front of the office building where I worked downtown. It was a Saturday. And there was this waterfall and fountain installation. And one of my actresses was in the fountain. And she emerges. I guess she was supposed to be a ghost. And she was drenched. And grabbing at another character sitting at the fountain. And during one of the takes, one of the lawyers who worked in my office walked by and saw us. But he just seemed amused. He didn’t snitch on us. Or call security. Deep down, I’m sure he was jealous. And wished that he was making movies rather than practicing environmental law.

6. I think from what I have seen, the answer is “No.” But; Was there ever any kind of content restriction on the channel?  Or could you just go for it? 

There was no censorship from the station. And since it was non-commercial, there was no censorship from sponsors.

Trouble came from the public. If someone watched your show, and thought it was obscene, they could complain to the station. But that didn’t necessarily mean they would remove your show off. It was a gray area.

But some viewers contacted their politicians. And that’s when it got interesting. At one point, one of our state senators was on a rampage, trying to censor public access. My program wasn’t singled out. Although it could have. I had some nudity on my show. But I think I was protected because it was in the context of a dramatic show.

But I was nervous about what I showed at first. It was a big deal when I had people use profanity. And a big deal the first time an actor bared his butt. But after that, I relaxed. And reminded myself that Showtime and HBO showed stuff like that.

I think the lower the budget, the sleazier the content looks. You could see the exact same thing in a Hollywood movie, and no one would give it a second thought. But on my show, the near-VHS quality of the footage made everything look like a snuff film. And caused people to scrutinize it more.

And you have to remember, half the shows on this channel were religious programming. So when the televangelism viewers accidentally watched my show, the contrast must have put them over the edge.

You can learn more about the censorship issue in an upcoming documentary I’ll be appearing in. It’s called Channeling Yourself. It’s all about the unique shows on Public Access TV in Seattle in the 90’s and early 2000s. And my show was just the tip of the iceberg. There were other shows that really pushed the boundaries. And in this documentary you’ll be able to see interviews with these people. And clips from their shows. I’m really looking forward to seeing it all when it’s finished.

7. What was the technical aspect of your shoots?  What sort of camera did you use?  How did you edit? 

I shot on a Panasonic Super VHS camera. It was considered “prosumer” back then. But pretty primitive by today’s standards.

I edited on a separate Panasonic deck. Using my camera as the playback deck. Putting a lot of extra wear on it. But the two innovations that made all this work were the sync cable between the camera and deck, and the flying erase head. Especially the flying erase head. Because it let you edit footage without jarring glitches.

This was still all analog. No digital editing here. No computers involved. Just re-recording one clip after another on your final tape. No transitions. No fancy titling. And once you made an edit, you had to commit to it. There really wasn’t a way to go back and change things once you had made that editing decision. And it was very time consuming rewinding and fast-forwarding through your tapes to find the footage.

8. You wrote a new script every single week.  What is your process as a screenwriter? 

Once I had a stable of regular actors on Heart Attack Theatre, I wrote characters especially for them. Which I enjoy doing. There’s something great about seeing that actor, and hearing their voice in your mind while you write.

And with the character in place, you think of a fun situation to throw them into. And then you start writing the script.

I always considered the logistics. If you only have one or two days to shoot an episode, you can’t waste time driving to a dozen different locations. So I would decide on the location before I came up with the story. And half the time it would be in my apartment.

But I do enjoy location shoots. So if we had the time and energy, I would write something that could give us some interesting production value in a different location. Maybe a public park. Or the home of one of the actors. Just something other than my living room or kitchen.

9. How did you approach the material without irony? 

From the start, I wanted my actors to take their roles seriously. Even though I enjoy camp, and outrageous situations, I never wanted my actors to do anything tongue-in-cheek. I never wanted them to act as if they were superior to the material. I wanted them to be in the moment.

That being said, many of my storylines were over-the-top. And that’s what motivated certain acting choices. But I didn’t want my actors to be hysterical just for the sake of creating drama. I wanted intensity. But not campiness. I’m sure we crossed the line occasionally. But personally, I don’t like to see actors who act superior to the material.

It’s like when you see a low budget movie, and the actor gives a performance that seems to be saying, “I know I’m in shit, but I’m so clever, I’ll let you know with every line reading that I know I’m in shit. But I’m so clever for letting you know. Don’t you just love me?” I hate shit like that.

When in doubt, have your actors play it straight. Keep the focus razor sharp. Give them peaks and valleys. And in each episode, give them a cathartic release. Give them a climax. Shock the viewer out of their complacency. But still do it somewhat tastefully.

10. Do you have a personal favorite from all of your films?  If so, why? 

I go back and forth. I love the episode Sisters because I think I pulled off the technical challenge of having one actress play twin sisters in scenes with each other. And because one of the sisters was a psychic nun.

I like my episode Miserably a lot. And even won a screenwriting award for it. I thought I did a good job building tension with a husband and wife arguing. Leading to the wife’s accidental fall. And the claustrophobic tension that follows.

And from my movie La Cage aux Zombies, I love the nightclub scene. For that, I wrote a performance art piece for the drag queen to perform. Which was inspired by Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. The interrogation scene where she crosses and uncrosses her legs. The piece I wrote is almost Beat Poetry. And I also composed and played the music in the background for it.

In my art film Twin Cheeks, I loved when we shot on location up in the mountains. And enjoyed all the revealing conversations with my actors on the drives there and back.

So as much as I love the TV shows and film work, these are also home movies to me, reminding me of the people I worked with, and the adventures we had.

11. What was the inspiration to want to go back and make a documentary about your early days as a movie maker? 

It was when I started digitizing old episodes of Heart Attack Theatre to post on YouTube. I think that was around 2008 or 2009. And that got me to start watching YouTube a lot more. To get caught up with the whole YouTube revolution.

And I was really amazed at some of the original programming on there. A lot of young people producing their own shows. And a lot of them were really good.

So it made me realize that the new generation takes a lot of this for granted. That you can make your own show, upload it to YouTube, and have the potential for a lot of people to watch it. And this was unthinkable when I was making Heart Attack Theatre.

So I wanted to make this documentary as a reminder of the pre-YouTube era. Which really wasn’t that long ago. To show what we did with analog equipment. And to be a time capsule for a certain place and time.

This was Seattle in 1991. This was the era of Grunge Rock. When the whole world took notice of the Pacific Northwest. And I wasn’t famous like Nirvana. I didn’t have a show like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. But in some ways I was a Grunge artist. Being born and raised in Seattle, I experienced some of the same influences that inspired this breakout of artistic expression back then. But I wasn’t a media darling. I was largely ignored in my hometown. So now, I want to create a time capsule. To show what one filmmaker quietly created in his apartment while seemingly everyone else in town was being celebrated as the next big thing.

12. How do you reflect on your work now? 

I’m proud of it.

I see all the flaws and technical shortcomings, of course. But I also appreciate how I built my scenes. And I still enjoy the performances. Enjoy the story ideas we tried. It was an incubator of creativity. And we took full advantage of it.

What I like most is the full conviction we all had. And I hope they know it, but I’ve always been thrilled and grateful to my actors for throwing themselves into their roles, and doing all the crazy things I asked them to. Back then, I was just so happy when everyone actually showed up for the shoot. And that they stayed till the end.

What I especially reflect on is how tame this old work looks. Back then, I was so nervous about some of the subject matter. About the sex, violence, and profanity. But now, I have seriously seen more adult subject matter on the ABC Family channel. And everywhere else. There is so much shock value on TV and films and in the entire media now. Which makes it almost impossible to shock people anymore.

But there will always be new and interesting characters you can create. And unique actors to bring them to life. So I remind myself that the characters matter most. And I hope I’ve created a few good ones. And that we can craft suspenseful stories without totally relying on shock value. I mean, sneak it in wherever you can: blood, gore, a hammer to the kneecap. But make sure your audience cares about the person attached to the kneecap before you crush it. 

13. What are your plans for the documentary? 

I’m thrilled that it has already screened at five film festivals (including two in London. The English just seem to get me.) I will appear with Heart Attack! for a Q&A at Crypticon Seattle in May. And then at a screening at the California Institute of AbnormalArts in June. And I just signed with a distributor. And we’re adding some new interview footage of me to the documentary. And that expanded version will be out on DVD and in streaming outlets this year.

14. This is the “Kelly Hughes: Where is he now?” question.  What are you currently working on? 

I’ve been working on a memoir. Reminiscing not only about the Heart Attack Theatre days, but also the stage work I did during that time (including writing and staging two musicals), plus other creative projects and adventures with some of my regular actors.

I’ve also written a feature screenplay. A horror thriller called Lazy Susan. And have three Hollywood actors attached. Which means it will have to be a SAG union production. Which is a big leap for a one-man show like me. So I should probably start looking for a cinematographer. And do a crowd fund. Or whatever it is those young people do to raise money nowadays.

Rent or Buy a Copy of the Heart Attack! Documentary here!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Movies I Actually Enjoy: Diving Into "Anger" (Part One?)

A Few Questions Rattling Around in the Old Noggin

I am embarking on the journey of writing about one of the great and most indecipherable mad men in the annals of cinema.  That would be the enigma that is known as Kenneth Anger. 

This is an arduous task, but here are a few questions to guide me through. 
  • ·      What is “narrative?”  Where is the blurry line between story and connected abstract images? 
  • ·      What is happening on screen at the moment and what is going on beneath it? 
  • ·      When does a film exist out of the buffer of its time? 
  • ·      What can even comfortably be called a “movie?”  (This is especially true in an era when everyone is a filmmaker…but also applies to a so-called “underground” auteur.) 
These are questions that I don’t have the answer for, but it’s not bad to have guideposts to nod my head at.  (That sentence sounded better in my head.) 

Now on to Kenneth Anger…

“A Film by Anger” 

This is the first title (in dark black and angry yellow) in frame one of Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). 
I know precious little about who Kenneth Anger actually was.  Sure, there are the absolute basics; one of the original (and true) underground filmmakers, openly gay at a time that was dangerous, a believer in alchemy and dark magic, and (perhaps) an influence on many household names.  (The two I would like to point out in this piece are specifically Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch.  I will make it clear at the get go that this is purely through my own conjecture.  I have no actual proof of what two “great” men thought about one “obscure” one’s movies).  

You can draw connections (flimsy ones) to the various biographical details that I listed above about Anger.  Sometimes I love to play “film school psychologist” and try to examine a certain filmmaker’s works in that way. 

I don’t that with Anger to any extent at all.  Why? 

These are slightly “reaching” reasons, but here goes:
  • ·      Anger’s movies exist in a space that is entirely their own.  I would go as far as to say they exist outside of culture, history, and even filmic common sense.   (I would point you to the questions at the first part of this entry).  
  • ·      Okay, if that is true…then what exactly do with have on our hands with “A Film by Anger.”  That’s a slippery slope, but here is what I personally think I am looking at.  One part silent film, one part bad dream, and one part recycling of the darker part of human fantasies.  (I would also add a dash of commentary on our collective mythology…or at least our own perceptions of it.  This is part of what I am so compelled by Anger’s most ambitious film Lucifer Rising.  What else is there to make about a movie that includes both Egyptian Pharaohs and UFOs?) 
  • ·      I said the Anger movies exist outside of “history,” but more specifically they exist outside of concrete time.  I can’t locate them in any one place in time, even by looking at the dates they came out in.  (The one exception to this is Anger’s Scorpio Rising…the style of the bikers in that movie has dated.  I have decided not to tackle that movie in this series of reviews).   Because they are truly timeless, I can only imagine that people watching them fifty years from now will be as affected by them as I have in the last five or six.) 

I have frontloaded this entry with praise, so maybe I should move onto to more criticism.

Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954)

Using my questions at the top as a loose template:

  • ·      I have no idea what the actual “story” of Pleasure Dome is.  We are not going to concern ourselves with that at all.  I am much more interested in tracking a few isolated images (especially the one at the front end). 
  • ·      That said, the most discernable character in the movie is a somewhat aged looking man who wakes up at the beginning.  I am interested in him, but mostly his situation is what fascinates me.  He is dressed (as far as I can tell) as some kind of royalty, and he has the strange ability to eat jewelry whole.  I promised you a Stanley Kubrick allusion, and this is it.  I am suspiciously reminded of the older version of Dr. Dave Bowman in 2001.  There are moderate differences, of course, the principal one being that we don’t encounter Anger’s “Old Man” at the end of an astral tunnel.  In this case, evolution works in the exact opposite from Kubrick.  The film de-evolves into a wild assortment of somewhat threatening, mythological characters.  There are too many to list, and they are all the “coming attractions” for the “main event.”  
  • ·      What is that?  That would be the character known as the Scarlet Woman (played by artist Marjorie Cameron).  How the hell do I even describe this?  She is essentially a woman in red, with a love struck expression, whose head in enclosed in a very fancy birdcage.  She is completely isolated (away from the circus we have just witnessed).  We don’t know who she is looking at so alluringly, but we might as well presume it is us (the audience).  Are you ready for “great filmmaker allusion two?”  I see The Scarlet Woman as the direct ancestor of David Lynch’s Lady in the Radiator from Eraserhead.  She is secluded until we are filtered through the “reality” of the rest of the Pleasure Dome.  Just as the Lady is, she is trapped (caged) in the state of unrequited love. 
  • ·      As I said before, at barely twenty movies this hardly clocks in as a “movie.”  In modern times, this kind of work has been incorporated into installation pieces.  Would this be better off hanging on the wall as a piece of art?  Another question I have: How exactly do I interact with this as a viewer?  What are the pieces that I can subconsciously put together safely?   This is not so much of a movie as it is, to me, a filmed nightmare.  (Yes, I do find this frightening…)

That was stop number one on this particular voyage.  Where is the train going next? 

Lucifer Rising (1972-80)

Kids, I just pulled a bit of a fast one by looking at the plot synopsis for this flick on IMDB.  (This is the “What Is This Really About” factor again).  Some unknown scribe has informed me that this movie is about: “Egyptian gods invoking the angel Lucifer to usher in a new Occult Age.” 

Okay, then…

This is Anger’s most ambitious canvas, and he fills it up with…well, what exactly? 

I am doing a neat trick right now by propping my Ipad up on my desk as I watch this. 

The images are here again: Volcanoes Erupting, Pharaohs, Marianne Faithful as some kind of Goddess…and the final sequence in which a UFO flies over the Pyramids.  (I should say that this is Marianne in her “Sister Morphine” days; the most attractive heroin addict you will ever see.)  

This is another relatively brief film, but one that moves at the very deliberate pace of a snail.  I might not understand everything, but there is no single frame that I can avoid seeing.  (Translation; I never succumb to boredom and pick up the Iphone). 

We are also in the realm of something that is clearly not a “movie.”  Such contrivances as dialogue, context, or even an attempt an explanation do not distract from the power of the pictures. 

Does it still have some kind of cumulative affect?  I can’t deny that it does for a moment that it doesn’t.  Every time I sat down to watch Lucifer Rising I have felt mysteriously “clear.”  This is moving image as ceremony, with the viewer complicit in the final result. 

As I write this, I do see a bit of a sideline emerging on “film and ceremony.”  (This is at least one book I have seen on this, so it is not a new idea by any means.  That said, I still haven’t read the book myself so it is original for me).  At their absolute best, I do genuinely believe that movies can be ceremonial experiences.  The ones that go deeper than the usual 24 Frames Per Second and $10 per ticket. 

I feel like trying to articulate anymore would be taking away from the quality of the experience. 

Rabbit’s Moon (1950)

(An aside: there are various versions of Rabbit’s Moon floating around in the ether.  Apparently, Kenneth Anger was known for tweaking his movies fanatically.  The one I particularly like is from 1971, is fifteen minutes long, and features a bevy of vintage ‘50s pop songs).  

Rabbit’s Moon varies from the two above “Films by Anger” in notable ways:

  • ·      This is the one that I indentify as my “favorite.”  That suspiciously has to do with the fact that it resembles films that I have tried to make on my own.  My own movies haven’t come out as well, but I love the bizarre “fragmented fairy tale” that this one has. 
  • ·      I mentioned that this is a “fairy tale,” and by that definition we are dealing with elements that are far outside the “Anger” realm.  This does have a narrative, and can (for the most part) feel like an abbreviated movie.  There are stock characters, tragic consequences, and unanticipated discoveries.  We have a Harlequin, a “Moon Girl,” and the Devil that takes the girl away from our hero.  Okay, that is a story with a rise and fall. 
  • ·      Is that all that is really going on?  No, not completely.  There is at least one aspect about this effort that I haven’t addressed.  Anger never finished it to his full satisfaction, and that give the movie an “unfinished” feel.  That means I need to move beyond the narrative, and take a hard look at what is on the screen.  What is here in the room as I watch this? 
  • ·      Since we are deviating from the story, here is what I am looking at.  Rabbit’s Moon is shot on what is very obviously a meticulously decorated sound stage.  The intention was to create a magical, fairy tale forest and have the audience accept it as “real.”  This gradually does happen, because our attentions to the actions of the cast breathe life into it.  What is “real,” anyway? 
  • ·      Another difference; this movie is shot is ostensibly in black and white, but also has a subtle blue glow.  I don’t know what happened in post to create this look, or even how intentional it was.  The faces on the actors (who wear heavy pancake make up) really pop, and you can track every facial expression made.  This is a silent film, and thus we have silent film acting.  The thing that I would like to express is that this is quality “silent film acting.”  Take a look at some of the early silent movies sometime (the ones that are relegated to “classic.”)  You will see more “mugging” and overly expressive gestures than you do in a shitty high school play. 
  • ·      More than anything, this is the “Film by Anger” that stays with me.  I can close my eyes and see very distinctly the Moon Girl, the Clown, and the Harlequin.  I don’t need big emotional cues like certain songs or film clips.  (Although Anger’s choice of fifties pop is oddly appropriate and indelible).   Every since I saw this movie the first time about five years ago, it has carved a nice little niche inside my memory.  How many movies can you say that about? 

Movies Out of Time (Again)

The sad reality is that Kenneth Anger never got to make a feature film.  (He claimed he had no interest in doing that, but I cry “Bullshit!”  I would have loved to have seen a full “Film by Anger,” even it if was total train wreck).  His work was seen, but I don’t how well received he was in his own time.  The movies haven’t dated; but perhaps the medium they are delivered in has changed.  Every one of the pieces I have written about are available (for the time being) on Youtube.  In a strange way, despite their age, they seem right at home on that flotsam and jetsam site.  They are specifically designed to grab your attention, hold it, and then spit your psyche out on the other side.  (I can’t say the same thing for “David at the Dentist.”)

I feel excited for the fact that someone unsuspecting Youtuber might stubble on these things and have a head explosion.  (A gentle one, of course…)

That means the time to start watching and learning from these things is now.  Via the simultaneously beautiful and ugly World Wide Web, to which we are all enslaved. 

My First Dive Into “Anger”

More knowledgeable readers will notice certain things missing.  I didn’t even tackle Anger’s (perhaps) most known work Scorpio Rising.  I didn’t touch his “deeply researched” book of scandal called Hollywood Babylon.  Or what about the bizarre “WTF” that is his short Puce Moment?

That, dear readers (all one of you…hey Roger), means that there is room for a second installment. 

Even more “Anger,” and why not? 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Why Remember Anything?: The Great IMDB Top 250 Debacle.

Stating the Subtext Up Front (Or a Refreshing Break with Convention) 

Today I would like to dwell on a particular subject matter that will attract readers to a film blog in droves.  What could that possibly be?  Death!

No, I’m not taking about “amusing kills” in the form of a hatchet to the forehead.

Perhaps using the word “Death:” is a bit too attention grabby.  Should we settle on the more highfalutin term “Mortality?”  Did I just hear a mass exodus in the form of a sea of mouse clicks?  What’s wrong with talking about how much precious time we have on dear old Spaceship Earth?  Why is it such a taboo to openly acknowledge the fact that we all waste our hours on trivial crap? 

How about climbing up on top of a mountain and screaming: “What’s it all about?”

Why not dig Peggy Lee up and have her sing a rousing chorus of “Is That All There Is?’

That’s not going to keep you here? 

Oh, all right…Disembowelment!  Decapitation!  Dismemberment by Hacksaw! 

(Or as ee cummings so articulately put it: “Ashes and So Longs.”)

Would you like another subheading under “Mortality?”  How about “regret?’ 

Oh, sorry…Chinese Water Torture, will that get you to stay? 

The Story of How I Began Wasting Time in a Vain Attempt to Reclaim It (Or How The Great “IMDB Ratings Project” Began in Earnest) 

This all had such an innocuous beginning that I almost hesitate to tell an audience about it.  There’s the standard details: Everyone that uses the Internet Movie Database is no doubt familiar with the Top 250 list.  The supposedly “best” and “highest user rated” films of all time that has a dual purpose as a deep shaming device. 

Why exactly is that?   There is a particular conundrum in my life when it comes to consuming film.  I took a rebellious stance against the “good” when I was young.  You could rant to me all day about the supposed excellence of any classic…doesn’t matter which one.  I sat in film classes where Citizen Kane was served to us on a golden platter.  (“You mean I sat through this entire film just to find out the dude was crying over a fucking sled?”)  These so-called gems just didn’t hold the same panache as the forgotten Hammer horror flick on the tube at 2 a.m.  

(This is a particularly important point that I will return to later as I continue to dig into my film watching mania.) 

The “younger” me (or perhaps “little me”) came to believe that there was a conspiracy that existed.  This was a “taste making as brainwashing” ploy that touched every aspect of what was supposed to be a well-rounded education. 

There were other issues at play that yours truly couldn’t see at the time.  What about life experience?   There are certain stories that you are just not ready to understand as a scrawny eighteen year old.  There are also the factors of film history or the crucial question of “influence.”  I know enough now to recognize that something as fabulously odd as The Warriors is just a classic western in urban drag.  This is a bit like the argument for why everyone should read Shakespeare.  He created the formal confines of storytelling that every writer can learn from.  (That is not to say that I understand Shakespeare all that well either.)

The real hook in this story appeared when I began to age.  I found myself jobless, over thirty, and living with my parents.  I have heard that hardened prisoners look at their time on the inside as a chance to reflect.  Hospice patients (or anyone near death) will tell you the same exact thing about “shuffling off that mortal coil.”  It’s time to take an unfortunate, hard look at your life. 

How exactly did I spend my time on Earth?  Did I truly live life to the hilt and accomplish everything I possibly could have? 

There were choices I had made which lead me inevitably to my parents’ guesthouse.  The life pursuit of a “career in creativity.”  (Kids, listen to your uncle Dusty; chasing after film projects royally fucks up your resume.  You constantly have to explain the gaps in your employment history and tell a potential employer why you don’t have practical skills.  Trust me, people who can unplug a toilet get work over people who can have philosophical conversations.)   The steadfast unwillingness to do something else…and frankly, the lack of acknowledgment that I would one day pass away. 

We’re back to what I so cleverly attempted to cover in my introduction.  My time on this planet is terrifyingly finite…

That said; there’s always a bit of time for a brief digression.  Let’s talk about the happenstance and the mania that led to what I would jokingly refer to as “the ratings project.” 

I began to study the Top 250, and give the movies I had seen a certain rating (between 1 to 10).  Out of the 250 films listed, I had seen just a little over half of them.  This begged the question: What the hell had I watched instead? 

That began the epic search to determine just how many films I had watched in my lifetime that weren’t “the right ones.”  I started to scale through every writer, director, and actors’ filmography that I could possibly think of at the moment.  I would make a quick acknowledgement and then assign a title I recognized with a rating.  (Side note: I find “rating films based on quality of one to ten” to be a frustratingly arbitrary experience.  There are movies that only rate a 5 in quality that I would give a 10 based on enjoyment level.  There are other movies, such as the aforementioned classics, that earn an IMDB scale of 9 that I would a 5 for because I found them boring).  

My journey led me far, far away the mythical promised land of the IMDB Top 250. 

The IMDB automatically starts to build a “list” based on the ratings you pile up.  I watched my own personal list grow from a mere hundred to a few thousand.  (The list currently rests comfortably at a little over 2500, but that is subject to change.)  I began to do simple mathematic equations (“If each of these movies were two hours long, how many hours of my life did they totally kill?”)  The ticking number on “my list” kept bursting through the ceiling, and I kept pushing it there. 

What was so profoundly bothersome about this? 

  • 1.     I already mentioned the proverbial hours I realized I had lost in my life.  Those weren’t coming back.
  • 2.     Personal Choice:  There was the little point of what exactly I had decided to watch.  Would you care for an example?  There was a crappy little ‘50s B-movie I found in a used record store when I was in grad school called Reform School Girl (1957).  This was clearly an example of “Sleaze…’50s Style” and it was so entertaining that I watched it twice.  Yes, so entertaining that I don’t remember a fucking thing about it.  What did I get from watching it?  Maybe a catfight?  Maybe obscure ‘50s actresses dressed in risqué pajamas?  Some pithy and unintentionally funny dialogue?  I gave the thing (what I could remember of it) a modest rating of 6/10.  Meanwhile, the legitimate classic Life is Beautiful sits on my list without any rating at all.  That is right, I have never seen that.  The Holocaust versus Primitive Women in Prison?  Really, what would you choose? 
  • 3.     The “Death Bed” Fantasy:  As previously stated, I can’t get out of dying and that deeply concerns me.  I have (at numerous times in my life) pictured myself lying on what might be my deathbed.  What am I going to look back on with pride?   Will I have a moment when I say: “I never saw Life is Beautiful?”  I can tell you why I never saw it; every dumb college kid I knew at the time was swooning over it.  This was one of my “Holden Caulfield” attacks of misanthropy.  

What I Have Really Been Talking About

This is all a big front for what has been obsessing me lately; mortality. 

Do you mind if I take another excursion into the shadowy realm of the autobiographical?  (This one is going to be really heavy.  You have my full permission to check all the way out now.)    

Shortly after my move back to Mom and Dad, my nine-year-old husky Dakota started to show too many signs of wear and tear.  She simply couldn’t get up, and that final heart-breaking trip to the vet had to be made. 

However, the cruel Beast Known as Fate decided that wasn’t quite enough.  Shortly after Dakota passed on, my poor Mother suffered a severe stroke.  (Don’t worry too much about this.  She’s had a remarkable recovery and would probably kill me if she knew about this entry.  So…um, no one tell her, okay?)  I had the sudden realization that my parents weren’t going to be here forever.  This couldn’t be; they couldn’t already be at the part of their lives when serious health issues crop up.  How old did this make me?    

As the commercial announcer would say: “but wait…there’s even more.”  I ended up finding out that an acquaintance of mine from college died from Stage IV Colon Cancer.  Why was his death such a blow to me personally?  (The tragedy was for his family and friends’, and it had nothing to do with me.)  This guy was only a year or two older than I was.  He was what could best be described as a contemporary of mine.  That said, I couldn’t help but think of all the things I was doing now that my acquaintance could no longer enjoy. 

(Including sitting around the house in my boxers with the remote, scratching myself and talking to the TV.  You know, life’s simple pleasures.) 

What was my real “take away?”  Life is shockingly, scarily finite and everything second maters. 

What does this mean for someone who has spent so much time watching movies?  I started having paranoid fantasies of traveling back in time.  I would burst into my college dorm room and yank the remote out of my younger self’s hand.  “You have an eighteen year old brain and body and you’re sitting here watching Reform School Girl?”

The issue might not be watching the “right movies,” but spending so much time watching movies at all.  Movies were just supposed to be simple entertainment, not the obsessive point that I have made them into.   What about spending time outside?  What about writing that novel I always wanted to finish?  What about that trip to Ireland I always wanted to take? 

What about the fact that I had missed half the IMDB Top 250?

The Bitter Addendum: Or Watching The Bicycle Thief

I woke up one Sunday morning in the middle of this bit of existentialism and found The Bicycle Thief on Netflix.  The thing had been disappearing from my queue for over two years now.  I, of course, knew all about it by reputation but had never seen the damn thing.  To hold my thread for this piece; the movie is currently ranked at number 87 on the almighty list. 

I understand that this is a piece of film history; you can Google “Italian Neo-Realism” for yourself. 

I just found it to be an unbelievable endurance test.  I want to clarify that I didn’t find it boring.  No, I just found the character of the father absolutely insufferable.  He treats both his son and his wife in a deplorable manner.  (You almost get the sense that he resents having to make money to support them.) 

Then there are the details of what happens in the story itself.  He finally gets a job, and then his new bicycle gets stolen.  The audience watches every heart breaking second as the “hero” and his son storm Rome looking for the bike. 

I’m not going to reveal the final ironic twist, but I have no moral qualms about revealing my feelings about it.  There is not one ray of hope on display in The Bicycle Thief.  There is, however, about the same level of sadism that might occupy the latest Hostel installment.  (There are no thumbscrews or nipple slashing, but I digress.) 

In short, I didn’t find it to be the magical and transformational movie going experience I wanted.  “Hey, I could have very easily died without having seen this movie…and that might have been all right.”

Instead, I kept thinking: “So this is The Bicycle Thief?  This is really it?” 

I had just spent another two hours of my life on a film, and it had fallen short.  Where did this leave me in my crisis?  How this helped me take charge of my own short, sweet time?  What the hell is this thing called life about? 

I didn’t have any answers, and the brutal story about a stolen bike hadn’t helped me at all. 

In case you are wondering, I only gave the movie a rating of 7 out of 10.  That niche for “number 87” on the list was filled up, and what of it? 

Mortality, my friends.  There is absolutely no sense to be made of it…our time here on Earth…the movies we watched…decisions we made.  Christ, I can just about hear the violin strings swelling in the background. 

And I have a feeling that I have completely lost my audience. 

Would you like a more satisfactory “final thought?”

Okay, fine…

Tits and blood!