Friday, February 27, 2009

New Yorker Films unspools its last

Arthouse film fans with long memories were depressed this week by the announcement of the closing of New Yorker Films, a firm that has been one of the key U.S. distributors of some of the greatest European filmmakers of the Sixties through the Eighties. I have very mixed feelings about this. Firstly, of course New Yorker owner Dan Talbot and company did an invaluable service to all of us in getting the work of these filmmakers (including Godard, Straub and Huillet, Fassbinder, Herzog) to the public when it counted. However, as VHS/DVD purveyors, New Yorker has not exactly been a fan-friendly label. It's not the lack of supplements on their discs — I can't fault a company for not having the dough (or the Criterion-like reputation) to acquire the rights to extras.

However, as a VHS label, New Yorker was the first company to introduce the dreaded MacroVision copyguard process that not only prevented copying of the tape, but also made the viewing experience pretty dreadful (the picture "breathed" if you had a lower-cost VCR). They also had a practice of putting out quite little of their back-catalogue on tape and DVD, concentrating primarily on their latest releases. I’d be surprised every time MOMA or another rep house would do festivals with extremely rare European films of a certain vintage, seeing a “New Yorker Films Presents” logo right before the “lost” picture began. The question “why the hell has this been kept on the shelf?” constantly came to mind — with individual titles, like Agnes Varda’s Les Creatures, as well as entire filmographies, like that of Jean-Marie Straub (two of his films have been released on disc by New Yorker, none on VHS, despite the fact the company had seemingly acquired almost all of his output).

As DVD became the medium of choice, I think that one of the central factors to New Yorker-distributed films “disappearing” was the issue of print condition. DVD is a format that has touted “perfection” since it first appeared, and as one looks back at some New Yorker VHS releases, it becomes apparent that, for a DVD release to have materialized, the company would have had to have acquired a pristine copy of the film from its country of origin, restored it if wasn’t already restored, and then re-subtitled it. Thus an essential title like Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (seen at right) just disappeared in the transition from medium to medium. The company would return to its back-catalogue sporadically (as with the latter-day releases of Herzog’s shorts, Godard’s Week-end and Straub’s Moses and Aaron), but mostly the label seemed to be staying away from the older titles, even as DVD was offering a new life for classic foreign films.

It also came to light when the Fassbinder films were eventually put out in pristine prints by other labels, that New Yorker’s video label had *re-framed* the films for their VHS releases to turn them from 1:33 "square" films to 1:66 "letterboxed" titles — presumably in an effort to make them look less than “television shows” and more like “art movies.”

But back to the efforts of Talbot and co. back in the Sixties, which are indeed worthy of gratitude from American cinema buffs (Talbot's purchases seemed like a "wish list" of items lauded by the great Susan Sontag in her essays and reviews). As for the theater that gave the company its name, I only went there when it was in its final years of existence (when this picture of it was presumably snapped), but it was a grand theater when it was around. The 88th and Broadway movie palace (below) is now best-remembered as the place where Woody introduces Marshall McLuhan to the know-it-all in Annie Hall.

A list of some of the filmmakers whose works were distributed by New Yorker (besides those named above) would include Ozu, Bertolucci, Losey, Bresson, Rohmer, De Antonio, Pereira dos Santos, Tanner, Sembene, Rocha, Diegues, Oshima, Wenders, Schlondorff, Fellini, Wajda, Rossellini, Kieslowski, Pialat, Handke, Malle, Chabrol, Kurys, and Skolimowski. From the high-water marks set by these releases, we come to the point where stories circulated about the poor quality of New Yorker prints that were leased to local film festivals, and arguments over money required for the rentals of certain key films in a director’s oeuvre. They were not pretty stories, and not worthy of a company considered the “best friend” in America of these same filmmakers.

It will be interesting to see who acquires the company’s catalogue; it doesn’t say in this New York Times article about the company biting the dust. Perhaps we do stand a chance of finally seeing new prints of New Yorker’s key European films (like Jean Eustache's amazing The Mother and the Whore, right) on DVD — or whatever medium rules in the years to come.

Dead End Kid: Deceased Artiste Robert Mulligan

Robert Mulligan’s career is a bit of an enigma. A director who is best known for one film that occurred rather early in his career, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Mulligan evidenced a Bronx Irishman’s melancholy in his best pictures.

His career began in the fertile field of television drama in the 1950s. He made his directing debut with a film starring everyone’s favorite nervous actor, the late, great Anthony Perkins, Fear Strikes Out (1957). After he scored a genuine Oscar-certified hit with Mockingbird, he continued through the Sixties making films with the most charming male and female movie stars of the decade, Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood, and even cast them in a somewhat unlikely but still winning NYC romance, Love with the Proper Stranger (1963).

My own favorite from this period is the atmospheric and, yes, melancholy ode to teaching in the inner-city school system, Up the Down Staircase (1967) with another of the greatest “edgy” (in several senses of that word) actresses of the period, Sandy Dennis.

In the Seventies, Mulligan scored a major box-office hit with a rather sentimental bit of smarm, The Summer of ’42 (1972) and his career began to go off the rails a bit afterward. The films appeared sporadically, and by the final years he was essentially making Mockingbird-esque “lonely kids” movies like Clara’s Heart and his final pic, The Man in the Moon with the young Reese Witherspoon.

In the midst of the Seventies, though, Mulligan directed a film that has the tone of the time as it looks back to the classic film noir. The Nickel Ride (1975) features Jason Miller as a connected “key man” who runs various institutions owed by the mob in the sleazier portion of Los Angeles. Miller was a talented, forgotten performer (best known for, natch, The Exorcist) who wrote the play That Championship Season, and who seems to be one of Mulligan’s best alter-egos on screen. Miller was another Irishman who looked as if time had weighed heavily on him (he was only 35 when Nickel was shot, but looks much older), and who seemed as if, yes, the Irish scourge of “havin’ a few” had had some part in his life.

The film was never released on VHS, and has never shown up on DVD. I offer these two scenes to provide a bit of its flavor. I’m going to ignore the fact that the screenwriter who wrote this wonderful forgotten gem later on turned into a mainstream Hollywood scribe who gave us two “concept” pieces that were very popular and hold no interest at all for me….

In the first, we learn that our antihero had a past on the carny circuit:

And in the second, we see him confronted in his get-away mountain cabin by the man brought in by the mob to replace him, a cowboy hotshot played by the always wonderfully sleazy Bo Hopkins. The scene has the same tone as many in the work of Funhouse favorite Robert Altman, who took his cues from the greatest melancholic filmmaker of all, Ingmar Bergman:

Friday, February 20, 2009

Jerry, meet Oscar...

We've been following the minutiae of Jerry Lewis's career -- the great, the very bad, and the nasty -- on the Funhouse since the show started and now, finally, there is some big news while the Jer is still inhabiting this mortal coil. He's slated to receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award this Sunday at the Oscars, and already there is controversy. It was of course brought up that Jerry liberally comes out with the "f-word" (fag) out of the blue, but it won't be a gay group that is planning on protesting him before the Oscars begin -- the organization known as "Jerry's Orphans" has once again surfaced, to address the notion that Jerry raises funds for those with muscular dystrophy primarily through the use of pity.

There are arguments to be made on both sides here, but I thought it would be best to let Jerry speak for himself -- that usually does lead to him saying things that can be diplomatically described as "unscripted." The MDA has occasionally had to distance itself from his statements -- if I remember correctly, they issued a statement disapproving of him having said on a Sunday morning news program, “You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!” Jer's attitude and approach will be protested by folks outside the Oscars, and you can actually follow the action on the website called The Trouble With Jerry. (Thanks to Rich Brown for keeping me apprised of that event.)

In this interview, conducted for a primetime news magazine, he's very pissed off at the "Orphans" and does come up with some odd lines (as with the bit about "running down the hall"). All we can say is that Jerry is never dull. We wish him well on Sunday and, yes, I must do it: Salut l'artiste! (Those Tashlin movies and the first seven years of his solo work are pretty terrific....)

Carol Lynley on her stays on Fantasy Island and her friend Roddy McDowall

Veteran performers usually have a raft full of stories about the people they've worked with, but most of them save 'em for their autobiographies (and even then, some of them never come out with the good stuff). I did a delightful interview a few years back with veteran actress Carol Lynley, who was more than willing to share her honest opinions about her experiences in show business. In addition to discussing her work with Otto Preminger (with whom she made one of the finest thrillers of the Sixties, Bunny Lake is Missing, and one of the campiest mellers, The Cardinal), she also talked about her work as a teen actress, and her starring role as a damsel in distress in Radley Metzger's The Cat and the Canary.

Two of my favorite portions of the chat were about her friend Roddy McDowall:

and her many visits to Fantasy Island:

Friday, February 13, 2009

My favorite Satan: Roddy McDowall

Since it is currently not being rerun anywhere on cable, and because they stopped after one damned DVD box set, I offer up the following short segments from one of my all-time favorite Fantasy Island episodes, to honor the memory of god... er, Ricardo Montalban. Feast on this bit of classic camp TV, played entirely straight by the participants. Roddy McDowall is Lucifer (looking like a roadshow Sky Masterson), Carol Lynley is the wife who has made a deal with him (unbeknownst to her hubby, played by the ever-hesitant Mr. Adam West), and Ricardo is, well, he's Mr. Roarke taking on the mantle of Daniel Webster. This show may have been patently ridiculous, but it damned well knew it was patently ridiculous!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Wally Cox and his friend "Dufo"

This week on the show I'm doing a review of the new Mr. Peepers box set, and so I present my fave bit of Wally Cox's stand-up comedy (in fact the only bit of Wally's stand-up that I've heard). It's a terrific single called "Dufo (What a Crazy Guy)" that clearly demonstrates that Marlon Brando's one-time roommate and childhood chum could play things other than a milquetoast, buttoned-down egghead (although that's what brought the dough in, at various times). I wish he had pursued his stand-up a bit more, as Tony Randall, Steve Allen, and other friends of his said his initial routines were very funny. Take a listen -- the visual is just the cover of a Wally-related book, as I have no "Dufo" imagery to go with this audio.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

How Far Can Too Far Go?: Deceased Artiste Lux Interior of the Cramps

It’s a magical sound, the sound of the Cramps. The band has been written off for some time as punk legends who got stale, but they never were as simple as punk (all the best punk acts were never as simple as that label implied). The Cramps have been the foremost purveyors of garage and rockabilly and psychedelia and surf and wonderfully overdone stage theatrics and unforgettably brilliant bad B-pictures and Bettie Page-like chix shimmying in revealing outfits, while the guitar twang was produced by an equally alluring woman sporting a revealing outfit. The lead singer and man who put the brain into the monster died yesterday, one Lux Interior, a guy who was never afraid to look utterly ridiculous on stage, and who exuded his love for this pretty much lost music every single time he sang a cover tune, or an original that seemed like it had already been written….

The Cramps have been one of the best “gateway” acts to discovering the lost world of garage music, which is now in the process of being celebrated and codified by Little Steven in the Underground Garage. I am a listener of that show (and the Sirius network when I have a “free pass”) and love what he’s doing in the UG, but I’ve noticed since I started listening that the Cramps have been played a sum total of once on his syndicated radio show, and have only shown up on the Sirius channel when someone else (Billy Kelly, Handsome Dick Manitoba) plays them (one spin of "Bikini Girls" does not a tribute make). This has been a big gap in the "garage” handbook, as it’s pretty evident that Lenny Kaye may have indeed kickstarted the entire garage phenomenon with his sacred 2-LP Nuggets compilation, but for many of us, the Cramps were a lifeline to this music, playing it, riffing off it, and collecting it, with Lux all the time pointing his bony finger backward at the guys who originally wrote and sang the tunes.

I first heard about the Sonics, Hasil Adkins, and many others through Cramps covers of their work (and once you’ve heard “She Said” or “Strychnine” you do not forget them), and perhaps the single best compilations of cool garage and raucous rock ‘n’ roll besides the Nuggets collections are the bootlegs titled Songs the Cramps Taught Us. The Songs... are three long CDs that contain all the orginals the group covered. The range is there, from Charlie Feathers and Slim Harpo to Roy Orbison and Rick Nelson to the Count Five and the Third Bardo. The 45s loved and performed by Lux and his wife/guitarist “Poison Ivy” Rorschach were, indeed, to borrow a term from Little Steven’s playbook, “the coolest songs in the world.” (The original Cramps-inspired rock classix collections Born Bad are also great, but not as thorough as Songs....)

The Cramps also constantly pointed the way back to some of the most enjoyably strange and silly movies ever made, from Russ Meyer’s brilliantly twisted sex comedies to the Ed Wood films, Herschell Gordon Lewis’ gorefests and biker-babe pics to (again) Irving Klaw’s Bettie Page loops to totally forgotten softcore pics (you don’t think Lux came up with the title “Hot Pearl Snatch” on his own, didja?).

I was turned on to Lux and Ivy’s crazed genius by my college friend Dave, who recommended the 1983 compilation Off the Bone as a good place to dip into the band. It’s an excellent collection that I’ve played way, way too many times, which mixes tracks from their first two LPs, debut EP, and a live song. Lux and Ivy were a married couple who shared a love for vintage vinyl (check out the Incredibly Strange Film Book for a delicious view of their collection), and their initial albums contained delectable covers (in fact whenever Ivy graced them, the albums had delectable covers) peppered with new songs written by the “Interiors.” As time went on, the band turned mostly to their own tunes, which indeed did sound like the older tunes. Thus the charge went that the act “had lost its steam.” Besides the fact that even their meagerest albums (and remember, friends, every band’s got ’em) were still imminently playable, it’s a fact that their stage show was always pure distilled madness by the now late Lux.

The set-up was simple: a tight group of three musicians, led by the terrifically attractive (and truly ageless) Ivy — who also happens to be a top-notch musician — behind a tall thin madman sporting an androgynous/movie-monster/pre-goth look. As the show progressed (and particularly as they reached the older tunes), Lux would move into Iggy territory, but with a twist. Instead of simply hurling himself into the audience like the Ig, Lux would ascend the speakers, usually to the balcony, clad only in skin-tight pants (usually vinyl) and high-heels. He would swig from a liquor bottle (that obviously contained something non-alcoholic) and would perform a song or two to the balcony or the rafters, or whoever the hell was in the uppermost reaches of the club. As Lux did all this, Ivy and the other two musicians would hold down their end, her looking as bored as she could be (while still keeping to the Link Wray model of crisp perfection). It seems weird to me to be putting all this text into the past tense, as I have looked forward to the Cramps’ gigs in NYC for about 25 years now, and can’t quite conceive of the fact that the lecherous, slightly mad gent in the heels was actually, the last times I saw him on stage, a man in his 50s with a heart condition. There was no way to know that, but you always thought he'd slip in those damned shoes....

The band remained a killer act on stage not because of Lux’s shtick, but because of the songs they performed and their love of them. The first half of the show would of necessity be a big plug for the new album (the audience in the club were all marks like myself who would, of course, acquire it on vinyl, long into the CD era). The second half would be things from the band’s first five immortal albums and covers that lent new life to those Songs the Cramps Taught Us.

It’s best to always hear vinyl-crazy performers on the medium they so loved, but MP3s will work if you’re just interested in encountering the band for the first time. Here is the discography, as it is available online. The first five are indispensable:

Songs the Lord Taught Us
Psychedelic Jungle
Smell of Female
Off the Bone
A Date with Elvis
Stay Sick
Look Mom No Head
Big Beat from Badsville
Fiends of Dope Island—not online
Confessions of a Psychocat
Rockin ’n’ Reelin’ in Auckland New Zealand
The official rarity comp How To Make a Monster
Live at CBGBs

And the most interesting find of all: an upload of a one-shot radio special that Lux did where he played his fave wax. It's a very groovy (and influential -- I can i.d. one local radio host here in NYC who might've heard it) program called, in honor of the late Ernie Anderson's "Ghoulardi" character, The Purple Knif. Download it here.

And here are the compilations that will make life a hell of a lot more entertaining, and give you a fucking AMAZING crash course in rockabilly, garage, "psychobilly," novelty records, and truly the coolest records on this spinnin' orb!

Songs the Cramps Taught Us, Vol. 1
Songs the Cramps Taught Us, Vol. 2
The whole damn Born Bad series!
And for those in search of a really thorough trip through the backwoods, the garage, and the insane asylum, check out the most exhaustive compilations, the series compiled by rabid fans on the Net (which I just discovered and will be sifting through for weeks to come!) called "Lux and Ivy's Favorites". The rest of the volumes can be found here. The compiler of these awesome collections goes by the nick "Kogar the Swinging Ape" (what a Rat Pfink!), and I offer him my undying admiration.

HERE is a link to a piece of memorabilia I remember I didn't have the dough to purchase back in the Eighties: a really fine tour booklet that has some nice pics, the story of visiting Ed Gein's home by Lux Interior, and Ivy's list of her fave movie quotes. The way the booklet is uploaded, you'd need some kinda Photoshop technology to zoom into the pages but what the heck, it's free! UPDATE: Here it is again, this time as a download, thanks to Ride Your Pony

ANOTHER UPDATE: There is an entire blog containing great pics and rarities called Brain-Steak Bikini, maintained by a Belgian fan. It reveals, among other things, that books on the Cramps are available overseas. Makes perfect sense to me as, again, America never really recognizes its finer talent until it goes away. Lux's death made the Yahoo! front page, and was prominently featured on and, but most folks you talk to have never even heard of the Cramps. The group's act did have a solid amount of campy humor, but they were never cute like the B-52s or cuddly-grungy like the Ramones. Perhaps their logo will now become a popular item on T-shirts worn by poseurs who barely know of their music (I can't tell ya how many Ramones shirts I see now on the streets of NYC).

But, we need to get back to the music. Here are the clips that rate as the best Cramps material on YouTube (I’m not including the Urgh! A Music War performance of “Human Fly” because that is everywhere on that site and others):

Super-rare Super-8 of the group in the early days. This YouTube poster deserves a major thank-you from the afflicted fans:

The band’s seminal publicity film, “Garbageman” (every single goth band in the universe has stolen this look and mood):

The band at CBGBs, shot for a Japanese punk documentary, a great raw performance of “Human Fly” and “I was a Teenage Werewolf”:

One of their finest covers, “Goo Goo Muck”:

Lux celebrates Halloween with bad gag items. Lovely Ms. Ivy wisely remains in the background:

There aren’t many interviews on YT, but this one is probably the most intriguing, as they both talk about their interest in the seedy side of L.A., where they moved to after living in NYC during (yes) the punk era.

A song I’d like to call a personal anthem, “People Ain’t No Good.”

The band’s “answer song,” another bit of well-worn wisdom, “All Women are Bad.” Here's a dancing babe shimmying to the tune:

Lux and Ivy’s compositions would spell out the sexuality that was hinted at in the songs they covered. One of the band’s finest albums, A Date with Elvis, featured plenty of tunes devoted to worship of the vagina. One of the snappiest is “Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?”:

The band reached its biggest-ever audience, in the U.S. at least (they have a giant following overseas, as always happens with genuine American talent), when they appeared on a Halloween episode of Beverly Hills 90210:

The uncensored (yes, there breasts in here, but don’t tell YT) version of “Ultra-Twist”:

On the topic of covers, only Lux and Ivy could rock the fuck out of “Muleskinner Blues”:

And they gave many of us our first glimpse at the twisted brilliance of Hasil Adkins. Here is the Haz performing his original tune (covered by the Cramps), “She Said.” Haz likens the woman whom he wakes up to a “dyin’ can of commodity meat” — pure country poetry.

The Cramps cover Dwight Pullen’s “Sunglasses After Dark” with a riff blissfully stolen from Link Wray’s “Fatback”:

And since Ivy deserves infinite appreciation, too, let us see the husband pay tribute to his wife. The video for “Like a Bad Girl Should.” Yes, Ms. Rorschach is in her 50s here (and I think the glass table is a reference to the lovely rumor that persists about Otto Preminger):

The toughest questions are always the best. ”How Far Can Too Far Go?”

Thanks much for all those years of wild, unforgettable entertainment, Lux. My sympathies to his collaborator and life partner, Ivy.