Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Hunter Thompson Goes to Hollywood 1978

"I don't see how you could possibly make a true film. Because by bringing all this machinery in, you create a situation that's unnatural anyway. It's not you. It's, I think, one of the problems with film." - Hunter S. Thompson

There have been a number of interesting films about gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and inspired by his work. For those who don't know, Thompson was a freelance journalist who stumbled onto a method of covering stories by becoming involved and enmeshed in them, covering the story itself only glancingly, focusing on the externals and his own first-person experiences with drugs.

Most white American young men who read books go through a Hunter S. Thompson phase, kind of like the equivalent of an Ayn Rand phase but with more mescaline and Wild Turkey. But Thompson's work has lasting journalistic and literary value. It is a helpful aid for understanding an era when men went to the moon, the best leaders in the world were assassinated, and a president was driven from office for reasons of his own greed and stupidity.

The BBC doc, FEAR & LOATHING ON THE ROAD TO HOLLYWOOD is one of the best documents of Thompson's persona and aesthetic. Thompson hijacks the very medium of the road documentary by being an unwilling subject and soon the whole crew is in on the joke - albeit with an appropriate shaky wariness. There are guest appearances by artist Ralph Steadman and Bill Murray, along with his brother Brian Doyle-Murray and Nixon's General Counsel and Watergate star witness John Dean.

Thompson and the filmmakers make some pretty interesting points about the reality of a person versus the legend that grows up around him. It's not facile. It's not rock-star, catch-phrase Thompson. It's good stuff.

Plus, it's nice hearing a BBC voice as warm and familiar as a piping cup of Earl Grey saying things like:

"Day three. Las Vegas. 12 o'clock noon. We should have left for Hollywood at 9 but Thompson has locked himself in his hotel room. When he finally lets us in his face is covered in white makeup."

Here's that film:

Monday, December 29, 2014

Barbara Stanwyck: Behind The Scenes

Every time a movie was made during the classical Hollywood period, a large number of test photography was done. Sometimes there were filmed screen tests to look at different make-up, hair-styles and costumes, but more frequently this was done with still photographs. The star would get into the test makeup or the proposed costumes and the resultant stills could be used to compare the different effects in preparation for filming the scenes.

Barbara Stanwyck made an awful lot of movies for an awful lot of studios. Here are some test shots as well as some behind-the-scenes and publicity photos of Stanwyck. These pictures show something of the diversity of looks this outstanding actress could portray.  In real life she was the outdoors type, an accomplished horse rider who was most comfortable in unpretentious outfits, but onscreen she could wear clothes with the best of them. Enjoy this assortment of Stanwyck's looks.

One Hundred Years Ago: LES VAMPIRES strike Paris

By 1915, the French writer/director Louis Feuillade had been making films for 9 whole years, in the earliest stages of the art form. His shorts had done well enough and satisfied audience demands for light comedies, but his 1913-14 FANTOMAS series had been a major sensation. At the same time, American serials, multi-part films extending over 10 or more episodes, were landing on French shores. Feuillade was engaged to make another serial, and the result was Feuillade's great achievement, LES VAMPIRES. To watch LES VAMPIRES now is to be struck by its pre-Griffith film grammar (though Griffith was a contemporary) and its amazingly convoluted plot and padded storyline.

The convolutions and reverses in the plot make it difficult to follow, to say the least. Like the pulp novels and magazine serializations it grew out of, LES VAMPIRES has some of the logic of a fever dream. It seems to come from the same steadily-encroaching dementia that intrudes upon a penny-a-word pulp author as he falls under the rhythmic spell of his own typewriter keys at 4 in the morning and lets his dreams take over for a page or two. The surrealists have always been attracted to pulp art, perhaps because it seems to grow and flower from the pre-symbolic unconscious. Surrealist poets Andre Breton and Louis Aragon called LES VAMPIRES "the reality of this century. Beyond fashion. Beyond taste."

I can't recommend a straight-through viewing of LES VAMPIRES. You may sprain your brain if you try it. But if you watch the episodes one-by-one with ample recovery time between each you will get a sense of a different cinema, one that did not, as it turned out, provide the prevailing commercial signposts for future movies, as Griffith's did, and was too lowbrow to influence the mainstream of high art film.

Decades later, Georges Franju made films that honored Feuillade's aesthetic legacy. His EYES WITHOUT A FACE is the most famous of these, but he also made a beautiful adaptation of Feuillade's JUDEX (1963) and a very nice Feuillade-inflected film called NUITS ROUGE (SHADOWMAN) (1974) which shows us the basic spiritual similarities between Feuillade's primitivism and the quick-and-dirty exploitation movies of the '70s.


The films of Jean Rollin are also in the Feuillade tradition. Think of 1970's THE NUDE VAMPIRE's secret societies, masked initiations, hidden panels and animal headdresses. Rollin was also ostracized by the high culture gatekeepers because his sex and crime-filled films were loved by students and the working class. But the influence persists, it's a little like a secret society in itself.

Masked initiation from Jean Rollin's THE NUDE VAMPIRE

Olivier Assayas' 1996 film IRMA VEP is a poetic essay about this cinematic strain and the madness and beauty that shadow it. It's one of the best films of our time and it says more about Feuillade-ism than I can hope to here with words. You should see it. It is readily available.

Maggie Cheung takes to the rooftops in IRMA VEP

Here is chapter one of LES VAMPIRES. I recommend turning the sound off and watching it dead silent, but do what you like:

Monday, December 22, 2014

This Homemade '60s El Paso Christmas Film Is Madness

This weird, manic, and actually really funny 7 minute film from El Paso is designed to promote a thing called a Provisional Bash. Not sure what that means, but the actors really get into it. Everybody looks like they got a Christmas stocking full of diet pills from Santa.

Thanks to the non-profit Texas Archive Of The Moving Image for preserving this film for future generations.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Watch this! Marlene Dietrich's BLUE ANGEL Screen Test

Star quality is a mysterious thing. We can't produce it, can't really measure it, can't really define it either. Some of the most beautiful people can't exude a watt of star power, while a potato-faced troll may be a virtual nuclear reactor of the stuff.

Marlene Dietrich has so much of it that she threatens to burst out of the screen in this 1930 screen test cut by Josef von Sternberg for DER BLAUE ENGEL (THE BLUE ANGEL). She smokes a cigarette in the toughest/most seductive way imaginable, sings a bit, upbraids her pianist, sings some more, then climbs atop the piano to show off her legs. It's magnificent.

Can't embed it here, but you can click here and watch it.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Selected Shorts: The Alamo Drafthouse's Preshow Curator Laird Jimenez Presents 'One Minute Movies'

The Alamo Drafthouse theater chain is known for a lot of things - the food and drink service during films, the no-talking policy, the eclectic programming mix... but the thing that those among us who go to a LOT of movies appreciate most is the preshows - the not-so-random assortment of videos that play before the trailers start. The guy in charge of these is named Laird Jimenez and I knew that when I asked Laird to select a short film for this feature he would not disappoint.

Here's Laird:

My parents were either too lazy or too indifferent to censor what I saw as a child, so I got my first glimpses of decidedly not-for-kids things like BLUE VELVET and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD by wandering into the room when my parents were watching TV. When I was about six years-old my dad acquired a promotional Ralph Records VHS that contained, among other videos, The Residents "One-Minute Movies," I was transfixed by the sing-song melodies, the outrageous costumes, the puppets. I was terrified by the slightly "off" quality to the melodies and the vocals, the warped analog synth sounds, the bizarre imagery, the puppets. It was the first thing I ever saw that felt appealingly "dangerous" to be viewing: I wanted to watch, but I knew it would give me nightmares. 

As an adult, I'm only a little bit less creeped out by The Residents. For those that haven't heard their story: They are a group of Bay area artists (originally from Louisiana) who formed in the late 60s and have, for the most part, remained entirely anonymous to this day. As legend goes, their very name comes from a Warner Bros. rejection letter addressed simply to "The Residents," because they deliberately left their names off of their demo tape. To preserve the anonymity, they have always performed live in various costumes, more recently using fabricated names and personalities.

By the mid-1970s The Residents were experimenting with film and video in a way that made them a decade ahead of their time. Their "Third Reich and Roll" video (from the album of the same name) featured their fractured take on golden oldies mashed up into a primal stew that is at once reverent and irreverent. "One-Minute Movies" was made for 1980's Commercial Album, 40 one-minute "pop" songs numerically significant in referencing the "Top 40" format, and the idea that most pop songs have no more than one-minute of unique musical ideas in them. In "One-Minute Movies" we see alien arms probing a mannequin a gauze covered mannequin, a sad old man who loses track of gravity, a Lord-of-the-Flies-esque tribal dance, hand puppets, The Residents' iconic tuxedo-wearing eyeball costumes, and the most polite music video of all time (Unless there's another that ends by saying "THANK YOU!" to the audience). The imagery is great, some of it downright gallery worthy, and it has a homemade look that is very inspiring. The late 70s, early 80s seemed to be such a fertile period for "weird" and for DIY. Grab a mannequin and some gauze, some road flares and a pig, and you can make yourself a darn music video! The music video was still such a novelty that the nascent MTV, who today wouldn't give The Residents a milisecond of airtime, were running their videos around the clock. That's okay, though, The Museum of Modern* Art has The Residents early music videos in their permanent collection, which is probably a better place for them anyway.

*"Randy" of The Residents had this to say: "You know why they call it 'The Museum of Modern Art?' Cuz they got  mo' dern art in that building than you can shake a stick at!"

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Watch This! The Pink Panther in 'Psychedelic Pink'

For 30 years beginning in 1933, Warner Bros. Cartoons, Inc. set the gold standard for creativity and technical excellence in animated shorts. But by the '60s the operation was no longer sustainable and the division folded. Two of the leading figures of the WB operation weren't ready to hang up their brushes yet though and DePatie-Freleng Enterprises (DFE) was born. Longtime producer/director Friz Freleng and producer David H. DePatie set up shop in the former Warner Bros. Cartoons shop and began turning out commercials and other work for hire.

When writer/producer/director Blake Edwards contracted them to create an animated title treatment for his caper movie THE PINK PANTHER, their design was so successful that they joined forces with the Mirisch brothers and spun it off into a series of theatrical shorts. Thus the golden age of animation was prolonged for a few more years. These have the wit and technical wizardry of the WB cartoons along with the cool, somewhat socially transgressive spirit of the age.

These were all over television for 25 years, but it's rare to see them anymore. That's too bad because they're a lot of fun. Henry Mancini's music is to these cartoons as Carl Stalling's music was to the old WB classics. These shorts are like a lavender expressway to the mid '60s zeitgeist.

Here's one of the best and weirdest Pink Panther cartoons, and a socio-historical time-capsule of the period if there ever was one.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Happy Birthday to the "Greatest Living Screen Actor"

A while back, after Eli Wallach died, I was having a discussion about the greatest living screen actor and who that might be. While he lived, Wallach was my nominee. But there are a lot of really great ones still with us. Think Duvall, Streep, Pacino, Hackman, Rowlands, Moreau.

A few weeks later, it occurred to me that I had forgotten one, and the more I thought about it I realized that I would consider Liv Ullmann our greatest living film actor. Of course she was fortunate to work with Ingmar Bergman. He was also very fortunate to find Ullmann. Their collaborative work is the best, or very nearly the best the art of film has ever seen. No other actor has played so many deeply intense parts, but she helped to create those very parts as Bergman's close collaborator. He would not have written those parts had she not existed to play them, just as no composer would write a piece that could never be performed.

Think of her work in SHAME, THE PASSION OF ANNA, CRIES AND WHISPERS, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, PERSONA... (this list can go much longer). Now try and replace her with anyone. To call her a powerful, open, giving actor is a little like saying Shakespeare had a flair for words. She is a great artist of the screen as a performer (and a very fine director as well). 

Liv Ullmann is 76 years old today. Happy birthday. Have many more and make many more films please.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Jaw-Dropping Archive of Austin's Moviegoing Heritage

All around the world Austin is known to be one of the filmgoing (and filmmaking) capitals. We have a long history of critical viewing and adventurous film programming. Now a resource has become available that sheds light on some of the formative years of Austin's film scene.

It's the CinemaTexas Notes Archive. CinemaTexas was a 16mm film exhibition program that ran throughout the '70s and into the '80s. The tireless faculty, grad students & volunteers of CinemaTexas presented world class film culture to not only University Of Texas but to the public at large, four times a week. In addition to the screenings, comprehensive program notes were offered in mimeographed "zines." 

This archive is nothing less than the DNA of Austin's film culture. It paints a fascinating picture of the attitudes and tastes that formed the beginning of Austin's very idiosyncratic film scene. For instance, Austin's film scene is known for taking the lowbrow with the highbrow and accepting the values of each on their own terms. Surely this is a recent development right? Nope, the CinemaTexas notes are full of monster movies and women-in-prison movies, considered alongside highly regarded foreign films and Hollywood auteur classics. There is 2000 MANIACS alongside IL BIDONE & GOING MY WAY, for instance - and that's a fairly typical juxtaposition.

There are many familiar Austin names here, Louis Black and Nick Barbaro (Austin Chronicle & SXSW founders) are all over this. Same with Ed Lowry, namesake of AFS' current program that offers free films for students. There are current UT professors and mysterious correspondents who are really very good. It's a very interesting walk through the Austin time tunnel and an important cultural and historical resource that is being continually updated.

Wait - Robert Altman Directed Music Videos?

Back during the '60s in the US and Europe, you might have walked into a bar and come face to face with a video jukebox. The most well-known of these brands was the Scopitone. Just as a standard jukebox is loaded with records of current hits, these video jukeboxes were loaded with 16mm (or 8mm) film loops specially created for the machines. These were often lip-synch clips, though sometimes there were more adventurous scenarios - and almost always a lot of sex appeal.

Scopitone's main stateside competitor was the Color-Sonic unit, whose clips were created by the non-theatrical Hollywood distributor Official Films. The films contracted by Official are many of the best of the proto-music video clips we now generically call Scopitones.

Robert Altman was a jobbing director at the time, making TV shows and picking up gigs where possible. He made a few Color-Sonic shorts and - while we won't put them with his best work - they're pretty interesting.

These 16mm and 8mm films have never been preserved so the extant (highly faded) versions are all we have to judge them by. They are further degraded by bad transfers and compression, but check them out and you'll get an idea of what Robert Altman's world looked like in 1966.

This one is fairly typical of a Scopitone-type scenario. The (alarmingly sedate-sounding) actor/singer Bobby Troupe is surrounded by women eager to model outfits for him.

Here the legendary stripper Lili St. Cyr (aged 48 or so) rolls around in diaphanous clothes in a tent on the beach at Big Sur while a guitar-heavy version of "Ebb Tide" plays.

This is the cleverest one. It's a whole party scenario set to Herb Alpert's "Bittersweet Samba." Hopefully a better quality version of this can be found. It's very funny and very Altman.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Orson Welles: The Most Interesting Man in the Universe?

In 1955, the BBC invited Orson Welles to create a series of 15 minute monologues for broadcast. He is a fascinating speaker, of course, and his life experience, even at the relatively tender age of 40, was prodigious. The format of the series is very basic, Welles shows sketches he has made over the years and talks about the subjects of the pictures, with many fascinating detours.

Here he is, talking about cue cards, Houdini, how all women hate magic tricks, and telling John Barrymore stories:

Hopefully everyone knows about Welles' famous WAR OF THE WORLDS radio broadcast, which was staged as a series of news reports and which caused a huge panic as people believed an alien invasion was occurring. Here's Welles' (very funny) side of the story, with another appearance by John Barrymore, who literally released the hounds when he heard the broadcast:

Here he tells a very funny story about being detained by the police abroad and offers opinions about the police and their role - and the limits of that role - that could practically be ripped from today's editorial pages. "The free citizen is always more of a nuisance to the policeman than the criminal. He knows what to do about the criminal."

Here he actually uses this sentence: "The only other member of the coven who had any English was a dwarf with gold teeth by the name of Jazzbo." He also tells of a disastrous performance of HENRY V, in which his archers accidentally fired into the audience, scoring a direct hit on a feared critic. He also talks about his legendary all-black cast production of MACBETH, and the death (by magic?) of a racially intolerant critic:

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"Where's the Horizon?!!!" When 15-year-old Steven Spielberg Met John Ford

It's a story with something of the complexity (and wit) of a Zen koan. Listen to Steven Spielberg recount his childhood meeting with his lifelong hero John Ford. It's one of the best stories of any kind you'll ever hear, and if you love Ford, you'll cherish this story. It's a moment of tremendous film-historical import. Ever since, Spielberg has watched a Ford film (or two) before starting a film of his own.

Ever since I first heard this story, I have thought about Ford's "Where's the horizon!?" anytime I've watched a Ford film - or a Spielberg film - or anybody's film.

"All of a sudden a man comes into the office, dressed like a big game hunter. Like, safari clothes. Floppy hat. He had a patch over his eye. He was chewing on a handkerchief and he had a cigar in his other hand. And he had lipstick kisses all over his face, but the kind that are put there for fun, you know. Not smears but complete shapes of lips on his forehead, his cheeks, one on his nose. And he goes into his office without saying a word to his secretary. She grabs a box of Kleenex and she runs after him."


"When you can come to the conclusion that putting the horizon on the bottom of the frame or the top of the frame is a lot better than putting the horizon in the middle of the frame, then you may someday make a good picture-maker. Now get out of here!"

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Please Be Silent: Archival Photos of Silent Screen Performers & Directors

Recently we scanned some silent photos from our library here at the Austin Film Society. Here are some gems from the collection.

Clockwise from seated: Josef von Sternberg, Maximilian Fabian, Conrad Nagel, Matthew Betz, Renee Adoree

Lillian Gish, circa WAY DOWN EAST (1920)

Lillian & Dorothy Gish in ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921)

Clarence Brown "directs" Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in FLESH & THE DEVIL (1926)

Director Dorothy Arzner and Cameraman Al Gilks on the set of GET YOUR MAN (1927)

J. Barney Sherry and Clara Williams haul (hatless!) William S. Hart to safety in THE BARGAIN (1914)

James Murray and Joan Crawford in ROSE MARIE (1928)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

These Mysterious, Privately-Produced Diana Rigg Short Films Are Crazy

Dame Diana Rigg is a great actress who has been thrilling audiences for a long time, from her beginnings on the stage through her run on the silly but fun AVENGERS TV series and on through her many excellent performances and now on GAME OF THRONES. In THE AVENGERS she played no-nonsense genius secret agent Emma Peel who was also an unstoppable judo-flipping machine when the chips were down. It made a pretty strong impression at the time and after she hung up the elastic jumpsuit for the last time a lot of people were sad about it.

That may account for these mysterious films, which appear to have been shot on small gauge film by an amateur or semi-pro unit. The two movies, MINIKILLERS, and the stylistically similar THE DIADEM, were sold on 8mm film. These are mysterious items indeed. They show Rigg going about some very Emma Peel-style maneuvers in beautiful locales. and in a variety of outfits.

There has been some speculation that these films were shot for Emma Peel fetishists (and according to Psychotronic's Michael Weldon, Avengers episodes were sold in bondage boutiques on Times Square), that may explain it, but these are pretty tame films and I would expect more overt content if that were the case. Maybe the most surprising part is that a noted, big-deal star did these cheap 8mm films. Whatever the explanation, they are a lot of fun. They are a bit like moving fashion-shoots, with plot logic that borders on the abstract. And of course they star the beautiful Miss Rigg, which is good enough to make them watchable despite their quality.

Here's a short version of DIADEM. It is cut but in color and not-awful quality, which is good:

Here it is, longer but in black and white:

Here's the other one, MINIKILLERS, in the worst quality of anything ever on earth:

Friday, December 5, 2014

Selected Shorts: Todd Rohal Presents More Madness from Matthew Silver

Portrait of the artist as a madman

Last month, filmmaker Todd Rohal shared the impossible-to-mentally-or-spiritually-digest short SMASHIN' IT UP with us. As soon as we were out of traction and were peering cautiously out the front door, Rohal threw this at us - another masterpiece of "I no know" called MOTHER & SON, made by Matthew Silver.

Here's Todd Rohal to introduce:

If you have been to New York City recently, chances are you’ve seen Matthew Silver performing in a subway station or around Union Square Park. He wears a Speedo and preaches about love. After nearly a decade of enduring jeers from the public, he's just recently been embraced by NYC residents. He's been featured on greeting cards and TV shows and is now a fixture of New York street performance. He is a truly inspired madman and his brain is wired unlike any person or device yet invented. 

Matthew made this film, MOTHER AND SON when he was still in high school. It's a massive achievement in editing and consumer-grade videography and a true vision of a nightmarish world that I hope to never personally experience. It is based on true events from the lives of the film's stars, Uncle Andy and Grandma Ping.

Here it is, divided into 4 separate YouTube clips, for reasons we won't bother to explain:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Watch this Great Austin-made Horror Short From 1964

The Texas Archive Of The Moving Image was founded in 2002 by the University Of Texas Professor Dr. Caroline Frick with the intention of preserving, archive and educate the public about Texas film. TAMI has rescued hundreds of hours of film from basements, school warehouses & elsewhere.
Along the way they have uncovered some special treasures.

This horror movie was made in Hays County, Texas by Austin's Ramon Galindo (pictured above), using Austin residents as his cast and crew. It has a charm and innocence all its own. Films like this get better with age. Enjoy.