Wednesday, November 26, 2014

We're Thankful for A/V Geeks: Here are 5 Reasons Why

I saw my first A/V Geeks show in the rec room of a Durham church in 1992 or so. Skip Elsheimer had two projectors and was overlaying the two images on one screen as I recall. It was an interesting experiment and Skip was even more interesting to talk to. It turned out that the 16mm projectors and films he was using were being discarded by school systems as obsolete now that VCRs had come to stay.

He kept at this for years, decades even, and by now Skip has rescued many, many of those films, not only from school systems but from other state agencies, basements, private collectors - pretty much anyplace where they could be found. Had it not been for Skip, a lot of these films, which were generally produced in tiny runs, would have been lost forever, consigned to dumpsters throughout the country.

Nowadays that collection is enormous, over 24,000 films strong. But this isn't just a hoard of films, it's a resource. Skip is also a terrific programmer and his packages of short films, which he introduces in his own sly, funny way, are tremendously educational and entertaining. His film packages play to libraries full of school kids as well as rock nightclubs full of tattooed degenerate scum. He also manages to maintain a profitable line in stock footage - and good for him. Here's a short doc about Skip's operation.

Many of Skip's films have been scanned by him and are available on his YouTube channel. I have chosen 5 short films to demonstrate the breadth and wonder of this collection. There are many more where these come from and you can buy DVDs of some of Skip's collections on the A/V Geeks site here.

1. BLUES MAKER - a short educational film that shows the beyond-legendary guitarist/singer Mississippi Fred McDowell in his element. McDowell plays, sings, talks about his music and there are shots of the Mississippi cotton country near his home.

2. BAD DOG - A short comic film from the POV of a disobedient dog as his owner takes him for a walk through the park. I'm on the dog's side all the way. The music is crazy '70s breakbeat synthi-jazz and the actor is the familiar Paul Benedict.

3. THE STORY - This short features young Matt Groening and his younger sisters Lisa and little Maggie. It was made by their father Homer, who does not seem like a dolt at all. Matt tells the story of some zoo animals. It's very sweet.

4. A CAR IS BORN - Very '70s "assembly-line porn" showing the construction of a car in an auto-production plant. Some of the music cues and the NFL Films style narration clue you in that this is very, very serious stuff.

5. CALCIUM - As it turns out, calcium is important for your health. Who knew? Here's a little film that extols the virtues of calcium in the most '80s way imaginable. I do want that pizza-slice costume if anybody finds it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Selected Shorts: Louis Black Presents THE SUNSHINE MAKERS

Austin Chronicle editor (and AFS founding board member) Louis Black contributed a pretty special Selected Short a few weeks back, so we asked him for another and he obliged with this jaunty little number.

Here's Louis:

This 1935 commercial for Borden's Milk is the only really interesting film I've ever seen from Van Beuren Animation Studios but it is a keeper. I see it as a conflict between Anglo Saxons and Eastern European Jews but suspect that is a minority opinion. It is about sadness and happiness with milk making all the difference.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Cool Movie Resource: The Spaghetti Western Database

For those who have an interest in the seemingly boundless subject of European Westerns, the Spaghetti Western Database is an invaluable resource. Spaghetti Westerns (or Euro-westerns or Westerns All'Italiana) are among the most interesting subjects of genre film study. The sociological and artistic climate which produced these often violent, often poetic films is mirrored in the content of the films.

In the years after WWII, American westerns flooded into European cinemas. Europe, and particularly Italy, was an eager market for American westerns. But as television took off in the states, Hollywood decreased its output of westerns and the slack was taken up by western TV series. Italy was forced to manufacture its own supply of westerns. These westerns were often as much grand opera as horse opera, with music taking on greater prominence than in American oaters, and with psychological conflicts that built on the American Freudian westerns of Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray.

Additionally, as the sixties wore on, many of the young filmmakers who got their first chances to make movies thanks to the tremendous demand for westerns, were smuggling in ideological and sociopolitical readings among the gunfights and stage robberies. Leftists like Sergio Sollima and Damiano Damiani were able to present scenarios that were virtual Marxist historical constructs to huge and diverse audiences around the world.

We probably all know the Leone westerns, but the field rewards deeper study as well, which is where the SWDB can really come in handy. Unsure about where to turn after Leone and Corbucci? Been burned by a few too many Django movies with no Django to be found? Want to find out which Giuliano Gemma movies are best? This is a good place to start.

Also be sure to check out some of the top 20 lists from people like Quentin Tarantino, Alex Cox and Spaghetti scholar Howard Hughes (no relation). I made my own top 20 a few months back too. If you do decide to embark upon a course of Spaghetti Western study it helps to develop a love for the omnipresent tropes and ambience of the spaghetti western. Sometimes, especially with some of the less well known films, you may need to mine a lot of ore to find the gold. The SWDB can help make it a pleasant labor.

Friday, November 21, 2014

AFS Viewfinders Podcast Episode 1: Jerry Lewis: Total Filmmaker with Special Guest Bryan Connolly

This week we sat down with "Destroy All Movies" author and Jerry Lewis Club founder Bryan Connolly to talk about the phenomenon of Jerry Lewis, the many modes of Jerry (Malfunctioning Jerry, anyone?) and the peculiar directorial style of Jerry Lewis. Then we get into who the present and future hope for screen comedy might be.

An excerpt, on the subject of long, painfully extended gags:


"Not a lot of comedians do that. When you see a Marx Brothers movie, you'll have a scene that's a 10 minute scene like in NIGHT AT THE OPERA when they're all cramming into that one little room but it's something happening for 10 minutes. There's a lot of action, a lot of moving around, a lot of running around, a lot of stuff. Or it will be a long scene of dialogue between Groucho and Chico. And the Three Stooges are like that too and Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello. You can have the joke go on - like "who's on first" can go on for 10 minutes, but they're talking the whole time. It's a back and forth. It's quick.

But the Jerry Lewis thing, and I guess it's most comparable to me to a Jacques Tati thing, where you just let it go with the one thing. It could be totally silent. Blake Edwards was really good at that too, where you just let that one joke kind of go a bit and it's funny, and then it's not funny, because you're like "this is still going", and then it's still going and it's like "ok, this is getting weird and a little uncomfortable" and it just keeps going and that's when it's funniest. It's once you reach that 2 minute mark and you say "this is STILL going, this is amazing."

If you are lucky enough to live in Austin, there will be a Jerry Lewis: Total Filmmaker series in December, starting December 5.

Here is the podcast in iTunes.

Here it is if you don't use iTunes.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Humor & Humanity of Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols has died and all the news services are headlining that Nichols directed THE GRADUATE. That would seem to be a bit of an undersell job - considering Nichols also made WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, CATCH 22, CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, SILKWOOD, HEARTBURN, WORKING GIRL, POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE, THE BIRDCAGE and many others.

Nichols' sense of humor and humanity became a building block of who we American moviegoers are. He and his (very often female) collaborators could wound with satire and heal with conscience.

On the subject of wounding and healing, here is a bit from the comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. It's still very funny, though I am afraid that over the years cold reality has caught up to their satire about a patient trying to get his broken arm looked at in a hospital.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Happy Birthday Dick Cavett

Today is Dick Cavett's 78th birthday. From 1968 through 1982, with a brief hiatus for changing networks, Dick Cavett was the best talk show host on TV. He started as a comic and a comedy writer for other talk show hosts, and eventually got his own show. The other talk show hosts of the day could be funnier (Johnny Carson) or have a wider demographic range of appeal, but Cavett represented the cosmopolitan norm - ironic, because he grew up in Nebraska. Much like an old issue of the New Yorker, Cavett's repartee with his guests can make us long for a time when mainstream cultural literacy encompassed books and art and old movies. He was the best at conducting an interview and could roll with the punches if he had to.

A number of Cavett's shows are available on DVD - and you should watch all of them right away. I am particularly fond of his interview with super-cool, well-spoken and apparently somewhat drunk Robert Mitchum.

Cavett has also been writing columns for the New York Times for the past few years. These have been collected in a couple of books, and many are available to read online for free here.

Also, listen to the fascinating Dick Cavett interview with Gilbert Gottfried here. He gets into some of the blue material.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Selected Shorts: Experimental Response Cinema's Ekrem Serdar Presents the Omnipotent Voice

We asked Ekrem Serdar of Austin's own Experimental Response Cinema to share one of his favorite short films with us. Here it is:

Featuring a "director" of such omnipotent powers that Kubrick would seethe in jealousy, John Smith's THE GIRL CHEWING GUM(1976) is a classic and comedic* crowd-pleaser that I return to whenever I feel my senses are dulled. The joy of the film is not only in Smith's commandeering voice, but also in how he pinpoints our attention on this busy East London street, the eyes directed by the word, as Smith wittily upends any illusion of control. A cold glass of water in the desert of "mastery". You can find out more about John Smith on his website.

Watch the movie HERE.

*Insert requisite line on how the avant-garde isn't known to have a sense of humor.

By the way, Experimental Response Cinema screenings feature historical and contemporary artist-focused works that span a number of histories, genres, and scenes, including experimental film and video, artists film, underground film, video art, installation art, the poetic film, the essay film, avant-garde cinema, and many others. Keep track of their current season of screenings here.

Monday, November 17, 2014

John Boorman on Lee Marvin - "A Spiritual Warrior"

John Boorman on Lee Marvin:

"For me somehow he was the essence of America - big, wild & dangerous."

"It was an intense and inspiring collaboration. And scary. He taught me a lot about film acting and indeed, filmmaking. Scary because he was always pressing for the truth, the essence of a scene. And he could sniff out anything slack or false or second-rate. And the word with Lee was always in riddles. He posed questions. He hinted. He spoke in parables. He lived his life in that. He was always searching for a gesture that would replace a line of dialogue, the perfect move to express an emotion."

"I always felt he was kind of a spiritual warrior. He was engaged in a kind of very personal quest and somehow the expression of violence he did on the screen so well - I always felt that it was kind of a burden that he had to carry."

Every Lee Marvin story I hear makes him a more fascinating figure, both in his onscreen artistry and his life offscreen. It sounds a little odd to call him a great actor for some reason (possibly because of his own humility - after all he gave half the credit for his Oscar-winning CAT BALLOU performance to his horse) but he was one of the greatest ever in any context. You can put his work against that of any other great screen lead and he does not suffer by comparison.

Director John Boorman knew Lee Marvin about as well as anyone - having directed a pair of his best performances and been a lifelong friend thereafter. Back in 1998 Boorman made a documentary portrait of his friend for the BBC. Here it is, in awful YouTube quality that could really use an upgrade.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Selected Shorts: Janus Films' Brian Belovarac Presents a Pepsi-Sponsored Body-slam of Consumerism

Brian Belovarac of Janus Films is a consistently reliable source of obscure recommendations. He has impeccable taste and a far-ranging curiosity. So naturally we asked him to choose a Selected Short for us.

Writer/director Jeff Lieberman is well-known to fans of quality horror movies as someone who loves to smuggle subversive cultural commentary into his films. His best films, BLUE SUNSHINE, SQUIRM and JUST BEFORE DAWN are intense and rewarding - among the smartest horrors out there. But it's hard to imagine anything much more subversive than this early Lieberman short, about a consumer product called "the ringer" and the machinations behind its engineered popularity.

Here's Brian Belovorac on THE RINGER:

Your assignment: make an anti-drug film. Your guidelines: none. Taking advantage of the liberties granted him by King Features, future BLUE SUNSHINE director (and then-Janus Films employee) Jeff Lieberman went all-out and created what remains my favorite educational/institutional film, a hilarious and surprising satire of the marketing machine then manipulating the bubblegum generation. Street drugs, faddish toys, and bullshit supergroups - like a good gangster flick might ask, what’s the difference? Keep your eyes wide open at the end for a brilliant and unintentional kicker that proves the film’s point.

The New Documentary About Richard Linklater, 21 YEARS, is Now Available for Download

There's a new documentary about AFS Founder and Artistic Director Richard Linklater. The film features interviews with the Linklater collaborators such as Matthew McConaughey, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Jack Black and many others. Through it all you get a sense of the way that Linklater has brought his special vision of filmmaking and film appreciation to life.

If you've ever wondered how a man who seems so laid back can get so many movies made, both big-budget crowd-pleasers and smaller independent films, this film will give you a clue. He has a rare ability to draw the best out of his collaborators and make something even better than the sum of the parts.

The film is available exclusively through through November 30. Every rental or purchase of the film benefits AFS artistic programs.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

From Indiewire: Nick Toti on the Non-Profit Model for Commercially Hopeless Filmmakers

"For the first time in the history of this still young medium, we have the potential to reach wide audiences with the most personal, idiosyncratic, boundary-pushing, formally audacious, exploratory, gonzo, batshit, soul-destroying cinema that has ever been made—exactly the kind of cinema that makes no financial sense." - Nick Toti, Interesting Productions

Nick Toti and Matt Latham seem like omnipresent figures in the Austin film scene. You will frequently see them watching films at the Marchesa and discussing them with other film lovers after the show, making disturbing shorts around town and screening them in demented post-Savage Gold sessions, and screening their disquieting new feature YOU ARE YOUR BODY/YOU ARE NOT YOUR BODY for hundreds at the Alamo Drafthouse.

Now Nick has spelled out their philosophy of making films that have zero commercial value - and surviving - in this Indiewire article. This is a thought-provoking article, particularly for filmmakers who aren't exactly looking to break out, but rather to keep making films for a likely limited-sized but growing audience.

Selected Shorts: Todd Rohal Presents the Astonishing SMASHIN' IT UP!

We have asked a bunch of our favorite filmmakers and others to share some of their favorite short films with us. The submissions have been really varied, but there has been nothing so far as wild and loose as this one sent to us by writer/director Todd Rohal. It's hard to convey True Mayhem, but here it is: lightning in a Thunderbird bottle. 

Todd Rohal introduces SMASHIN' IT UP:

Skizz Cyzyk ran a film festival of oddities called MicroCineFest in Baltimore, Maryland for years and he dug up this gem of a movie from Georgia. I think the less we know about the film or the people that made it, the better. This is like the Jandek of short films. If I were to put two items in a time capsule in the hopes of shattering the brains of our future generations, it would be this film and the theme song from this film.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Inside Baseball: The Good News & Bad News About 35mm & Digital

AFS Programmer Lars Nilsen speaking here, from the heart, with a rousing brass band accompaniment:

We've been living in the "death of film" era for a while now - maybe around 15 years. So much so that I will confess to becoming a little weary of the discussion. I have been a film programmer for most of that time and an advisor for an archive so I have found myself in these discussions again and again. I'm sure I am not alone in my weariness but every time the subject comes up I feel that there are points that are left obscure and I get agitated again by the things that aren't said.

It's been my feeling recently that the backlash against celluloid-only militants has gained a lot of steam. I suspect that the majority of audience members, even of art houses and repertory theaters, are largely indifferent to format and those who might be induced to care are likely turned off by some of the militance - especially since most people in most cities don't have access to film at all anymore. And in the cases where most of these folks can see film at all it is in pretty rough shape - as is probably the case by now with most of those INTERSTELLAR prints which were run by part-time, inexperienced projectionists - and which is the case with a lot of the repertory prints which are living out the remainder of their natural lives getting platter-scratched and mishandled by projectionists who have become button-pushers for the majority of their shifts and lack the fine touch and timing that characterizes the best pros.

The magic of film becomes harder to demonstrate when the prints that people see are in poorer and poorer condition and the great virtue of digital cinema (that it does not decay with multiple playings) may tend to make it more appealing to general audiences whose seminal moviegoing years are more and more likely every year to have been spent watching televisions or iPads - or iPhones.

Additionally, and we're getting a little "inside baseball" here, the cost of replacing film prints is greater and greater now that the remaining film labs have become specialty facilities with fewer and more demanding clients. The first problem that this creates is that new prints are made less often. Some films, LA STRADA comes to mind, simply fall out of circulation. Also, this additional lab cost (and the scarcity surcharge) is passed on the exhibitors but not to consumers. A print of a classic French film from a New York based distributor is now likely to cost as much as a $500 minimum per engagement, with shipping costs in the three figures. At current costs, which also include payment for projectionist hours, a one-off screening begins breaking even at about 90 attendees.

So far, this is all kind of bad news for those of us who really do perceive a special magic in the way film looks and feels. Economically, celluloid film is on the verge of making no sense at all and the magic is not quantifiable on anyone's spreadsheet. But there's a way.  Jazz music at one time was free in bars or there was a cover equivalent to the price of a drink or two. It was a very popular musical form and while it was widely appreciated people got used to having it cheap or for free. Fast forward 60 years and we can still attend jazz concerts occasionally. If we are to hear a master - say, Ornette Coleman - we will expect to pay a high price. If we are to hear a local group of enthusiasts gigging at a local art center, we are probably fine even then with paying for the privilege, even if they're not quite there yet, as a kind of tariff that keeps things moving in the right direction and keeps the kids practicing and learning their craft.

If we love 35mm film (and 16mm, and 70mm), we are like those jazz enthusiasts. Most people don't care, can't tell the difference, just want to hear the hits, but we're in the pocket, we know. The way to put our money where our mouth is is to support those organizations (gosh, AFS comes to mind) that regularly deliver that magic that we rely on. And screenings of scratchy, sometimes discolored, often original release prints may not look as clean as a Blu-Ray but if you perceive the magic and the hope and want to keep the flame alive, you'll drop a 5 or a 10 in the hat for those too. We're all stretched all the time and probably in debt, but we make our choices all the time, every day and for those who talk about how much they love film, this is the way to walk it.

Everyone should make their own choices about whether or not to support screenings of digital formats as well. Because I watch a lot of new films, I watch a lot of DCP and even in circumstances where a new DCP is created of an older film I am generally willing to program it if there is no 35mm. People may differ here, but I am pretty invested in the magic of the communal experience of watching movies regardless of format issues. When we have perfection: a large crowd watching a 35mm print and talking afterwards about how the medium itself gave them greater appreciation of the work; it's the very best. On the other hand when we have a large crowd watching an Orson Welles film that has been out of circulation on celluloid prints for years and being exposed to its majesty together, albeit in a digital format, we're still doing pretty well. We're still in it together.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Selected Shorts Bonus Round: Ruben Östlund's Favorite Nature Documentary

Going back through some of Swedish filmmaker (FORCE MAJEURE, PLAY) Ruben Östlund's past interviews, I found one where he references a nature documentary that has been very inspirational to him. It makes a lot of sense that a filmmaker so concerned with instinct and herd behavior should like this film.

Warning: predatory animal on animal violence. There's no shame at all if you don't want to see this kind of stuff. But if you've watched National Geographic-type documentaries it shouldn't shock you too much.

Selected Shorts: Emily Hagins Presents a Short Film About an Awful Man & a Dog

Emily Hagins, who just turned 22, has been making films for the past 12 years, including four features. Making films has been a part of her life for nearly as long as she can remember and she has the distinction of being the youngest ever recipient of an AFS Grant for film production.

We asked her to choose a short that she especially likes. She chose CARPARK from a London collective that calls itself Birdbox Studio. She explains:

I love this short because it's a complete story in one and a half minutes. It doesn't need to use dialog, different angles, or even color (except for one crucial shot at the end). It's simple storytelling at it's best, with a universal sense of humor. It's not flashy, but uses it's cinematic techniques effectively to make every moment memorable. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Frederick Wiseman is Watching Us

If we are fortunate enough as a species to survive for another few thousand years, future generations who seek to understand who we really were will have an ally from our era. Frederick Wiseman has been making documentaries for nearly 50 years now. His films are acutely observed, seemingly fly-on-the-wall documents on subjects such as American public universities, police departments, juvenile courts, high schools, boxing gyms, mental health hospitals and more (many) more.

I am always surprised when I run into someone who has never entered the world of Frederick Wiseman, or worse, those who find the films boring. For me, these are the most interesting docs ever made. For example, we see and hear a beat cop speaking and through his inflections, his euphemisms, his Freudian slips, his body language and in a million other ways, we understand something about the class system, about race, about ethnicity and about humanity itself.

In this poignant clip from HIGH SCHOOL - (poignant is really the word for it) a young teacher in a Philadelphia high school introduces poetic concepts to her students using a heartbreakingly naive Simon & Garfunkel song. The dewy idealism of the era could not be better illustrated. This is Wiseman's art.

Zack McGhee's 'My Favorite Movie Podcast' Is On The Air

Zack McGhee is an AFS member who can frequently be seen at film events around town. He is a man of immaculate taste and one of our favorite people to talk movies with. He has started a podcast called 'My Favorite Movies' in which he interviews knowledgable parties, all of them from Austin so far, about their favorite films, their lives, their taste etc. It's surprisingly fascinating. The diversity of choices (THE NEVERENDING STORY, THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY, UHF) is a reflection of Austin's movie culture.

A couple of weeks back I spoke to Zack about my own life, my shadowy past, my road to a career in film programming and, naturally, my favorite movie TOUCH OF EVIL. It's available on the site. Enjoy.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Selected Shorts: Louis Black Presents Henry Griffin's TORTURED BY JOY

Our ongoing Selected Shorts series continues here with a choice from AFS Board Member, Austin Chronicle Editor and Austin film legend Louis Black:

The first time I was shown Henry Griffin's 2004 short film narrated by John Lurie was by the always brilliant Nicky Katt in one of the only 30 houses actually on the beach in LaJolla. As the waves crashed translucent, he had rearranged the house, lit an army of candles, re-wired the media center and defrosted all the food in my friend's refrigerator but all paled in comparrison to this stunning somewhat punk-romantic loose homage to Chris Marker's seminal La Jetee. All done with still photos with only a few seconds total of action I quickly sent Jonathan Demme a copy, he raved about it, and have subsequently shown my favorite short film of the last decade to everyone I can force to watch it, many of whom asked for a copy. When I finally met the wonderous and multi-talented Griffin I asked why he hadn't submitted his masterpiece to SXSW. He said that he had, it had been rejected. WATCH THIS FILM (except if you haven't seen La Jetee, because you should not allow any more of your life to pass without having seen it).


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Half an Hour of Pauline Kael Talking About Movies and Writing? Yes please!

A lot of today's cinephiles don't know the name Pauline Kael, or if they do, they have some mistaken impression of her. For everyone who is ooh-ing and aah-ing over the first couple of Tarantino-programmed New Beverly calendars, or about his work in general, you must look to Kael. She provided the intellectual basis of QT's critical thought and you can see it not only throughout all of his work but also in the way we have processed and understood (particularly Hollywood) films ever since. She wasn't perfect and to invoke her name is to draw fire from many quarters, but she was brilliant both as critic and writer.

Here's a nice long interview with her where she goes places she never did in her writing. Also, it's a joy to hear her speak extemporaneously in such recognizably Kaelian sentences and paragraphs.