Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Deceased Artiste filmmakers with unforgettable first names, part 3: Ulu Grosbard

Ulu Grosbard is quite different from the other filmmakers in this unofficial troika, who are bonded by the fact that they all died in 2012 and all had great monikers. Grosbard was a perfectionist whose career was split between the stage and the screen — he made only seven feature films and his theater directing became more and more sporadic as of the Seventies, but it was noted in one of his obits that he was willing to pay the price to get the right cast and the right production (that price, he honestly confessed, was “not working”).

Grosbard received a three-second acknowledgment in the necrology that aired on the Oscars this past Sunday, but I think he’s deserving of far more than that. I never saw any of his stage productions, but four of his seven films have stuck with me for many years, thanks to their emotional honesty (he was quoted as saying the theme he sought in the works he directed was “human behavior in crisis”) and absolutely superb acting by his stars.

Born Israel Grosbard in Belgium (Ulu was a nickname his brother gave him), he moved with his family to Havana in 1942 to flee the Nazis. He worked as a diamond cutter (!) in Cuba, after which his family moved to America, where he studied at the University of Chicago and the Yale School of Drama, before joining the U.S. Army (he became a U.S. citizen in ’54).

He did his first professional work as a theater director in the early Sixties, with a play called The Days and Nights of BeeBee Fenstermaker. Working on that 1962 play he met his wife Rose Gregorio (seen right, with Dustin Hoffman), who had small parts in his films, but has had a great career as a character actress in film and on television.

Grosbard’s first film credits were as an uncredited assistant director on a trio of early Sixties classic dramas, The Hustler, Splendor in the Grass, and The Miracle Worker.

His resume as a Broadway director is very impressive: the mid-Sixties off-Broadway production of View from the Bridge starring Robert Duvall, The Subject Was Roses (right), and Miller’s The Price on Broadway, and on to the original production of American Buffalo (1977) starring Duvall and Woody Allen’s The Floating Light Bulb, as well as lesser-known works by Beth Henley and Paddy Chayefsky. Mamet said about him, he was “one of three or four people I’ve ever met who has any idea how to direct a play.”

But his most accessible legacy for most of us are his films. His debut, The Subject Was Roses (1968) is a gorgeous piece that, although it is primarily a filmed play, is a marvelous reflection on father-son difficulties that features three perfect performances by Jack Albertson, Patricia Neal, and a young Martin Sheen.

His next four films all featured brilliant lead work by top-notch actors in their prime — two with Dustin Hoffman (Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971) and Straight Time (1978)) and two with Robert De Niro (True Confessions (1981) and Falling in Love (1984)).

Straight Time has acquired quite a cult reputation over the years, and it is a fine, grim little crime film, but the works by Grosbard that impressed me the most were Roses, Kellerman, Falling in Love (this for the simple fact that he was successful in getting those master chameleons, De Niro and Streep, seen above with Ulu, to simply play “normal people”), and Georgia (1995).

Georgia came during a very long run of absolutely exemplary performances by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and it is definitely one of her finest moments onscreen. The films was scripted by her mother, Barbara Turner, and reworks a classic dilemma — the “good” sibling vs. the “bad” one — in a very intelligent way, focusing on the fact that the wholesome sib (Mare Winningham) has a beautiful singing voice but seems to have little passion for her music, whereas her drug-addicted sister (JJL) feels music to her very core, but is not a very tuneful singer.

The Oscars are incredibly bad arbiters of what is really good in American cinema, but if there had been any justice in 1996, Leigh would’ve won Best Actress for Georgia, if only for the moment in which she sings an agonized version of Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back” onstage, crystallizing her character’s pain, her love of music, and her complete divergence from her sister’s pitch-perfect singing. (For some reason, the scene is available on YT in two parts, here and here, thereby spoiling its cumulative squirm-worthy effect; I recommend you check out the film in its entirety.)

And then there is Harry Kellerman…, a wildly underrated masterwork from the early Seventies that was out briefly on VHS, but is now “MIA” in the U.S. The film boasted the only original screenplay by the great Herb Gardner (whose other scripts were adaptations of his plays), its source being a Gardner short story that was anthologized in 1968.

The plot concerns Georgie Soloway, a reclusive wunderkind of rock (half Phil Spector, half Dylan), played by Dustin Hoffman at the very peak of his excellence. The women he dates start receiving nasty phone calls from a certain “Harry Kellerman” denouncing Georgie; in the meantime he tries to keep his sanity while meeting up with employees (his accountant, played by Dom DeLuise), friends (Gabe Dell), and his therapist (the terrific Jack Warden).

These days the film is best remembered (if at all) for its Shel Silverstein soundtrack, written for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. What makes it so unforgettable, though — besides its slips from reality to fantasy and back again — is its magnificent dialogue by Gardner. No scene better encapsulates that than the showcase moment for the absolutely perfect Barbara Harris.

I am a major fan of Ms. Harris’s work (read this tribute) and, just as Jennifer Jason Leigh deserved an Oscar for Georgia, Barbara (seen at right with Grosbard) deserved a Supporting Actress award for this tour de force scene. When I saw Herb Gardner speak before the film in the early Nineties at the Film Forum here in NYC, he noted that there were only two pristine prints of it in existence at that time — the one belonging to him and the one that Hoffman owns.

He also spoke with great fondness of the sequence below, noting that much of it is a first take for Harris — the fact that Hoffman’s head is in frame in certain shots is not an “artistic effect,” but rather Grosbard making use of her first, gorgeous rendition of the material.

Harry Kellerman… was thought of as bewildering and self-indulgent. It certainly isn’t linear, but with Gardner, Grosbard, Silverstein, and an absolutely sterling cast, it remains a must-see picture that is pretty hard to see. Thus, I offer Harris’s absolutely moving and beguiling sequence in its entirety (she appears in a few more short scenes, but is then called by “Kellerman” and her relationship with Georgie is ended):

Monday, February 25, 2013

Deceased Artiste filmmakers with unforgettable first names, part 2: Zalman King

We move from one indie filmmaker who produced exploitation pictures to another who favored sexploitation. Zalman King basically turned into a franchise as the years went on, creating slickly produced “couples” softcore fare for cable for more than two decades. His work was so overwrought it was often amusing — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not — but at its most melodramatic it became quite memorable.

King was born Zalman King Lefkowitz in N.J. and worked as a commercial scuba diver (!) before he became an actor in the Fifties. As a performer he appeared on a lot of classic series: from The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Munsters, Bonanza, and Man from U.N.C.L.E. to Adam-12 and Charlie’s Angels. He starred in two films with Richard Pryor, Some Call it Loving (1973) and the now totally lost You’ve Got To Walk It Like You Talk It Or You’ll Lose That Beat (1971).

As a leading actor in film his finest moments are considered to be The Passover Plot (which I’ve never seen) and the mighty weird and very entertaining drug/horror pic Blue Sunshine (1978). He first produced and co-scripted films in the early Eighties (Alan Rudolph’s Roadie and Endangered Species), but his “erotic” rep appeared in earnest when he scripted and produced Nine 1/2 Weeks in 1986.

King made very soft softcore that attempted to appeal to female viewers as well as male. His theatrical and made-for-cable work is remarkably demure, but definitely satisfied those viewers looking for a context (ANY context) for their sex scenes. The inherent problem was that as the years went on, the campy aspect of King’s work, which I really enjoyed, gave way to a slicker approach that looked great but fit the Playboy Channel model of gorgeous-looking-but-mostly-tedious sex sequences. The result wasn’t lively, wasn’t campy, and wasn’t all that sexy.

In a short period of time (1988-1992) King went from (ahem) “controversial” theatrical films like Wild Orchid (1989) (although I far prefer its wonderfully insane sequel Wild Orchid 2: Two Shades of Blue) to The Red Shoe Diaries, the Showtime franchise with David Duchovny that set King off on a two-decade path producing “late-night” cable softcore.

But let’s return to better days: King’s directorial debut, Two Moon Junction (1988), remains one of his most gonzo creations, although it isn’t quite as amusing now as it was when I first saw it as an impressionable youth. The movie tells the story of a Southern debutante (Sherilyn Fenn, in a Madonna-blonde rinse) who falls in lust with a carnival handyman (Richard Tyson). Along the way we meet an oddball cast of characters played by Burl Ives (wise Southern sheriff), Herve Villechaize (cursing carnival owner), and Kristy McNichol (horny female trucker).

As noted, I watched the film again recently to assemble scenes for this blog entry and was disappointed to find it has not held up very well in the camp department; as a softcore flick, its appeal lies entirely with the idyllic good looks of Fenn and Tyson (the former can dole out the melodrama with the best of them; the latter looks like a character from a romance novel cover struggling to come to life). As camp, we are left with some really overripe dialogue, but far too little is done with wonderfully “melo” performers like Ives and Villechaize.

Of course, as I’ve learned from 19 years of doing the Funhouse TV show, the overwrought always seems that much stranger and more amusing when cut down to a shorter length, and thus I present a less than 10 minute assemblage of the more “torrid” aspects of the movie (sorry, no Burl or Kristy in here):

RIP Mr. King by moreclipsplease

Deceased Artiste filmmakers with unforgettable first names, part 1: Jamaa Fanaka

I started to assemble these three blog entries last night while watching the orgy of self-congratulation that is the Oscars. I knew that the first two of these gentlemen — who all died in 2012 — would not be included in the show’s necrology, and that the third would be in there (he got the customary three-four seconds). I wanted to celebrate them because their work is memorable, entertaining, (in the first two cases) “incredibly strange,” and (in the last) extremely touching. And, besides that, all three gents had very unusual first names.

Born Walter Gordon, the awesomely-monikered Jamaa Fanaka moved from Jackson, Mississippi to L.A. as a kid. After serving in the Air Force, he attended the University of California film school where he became part of “the L.A. Rebellion,” a group of young African-American film-school grads who rejected blaxploitation. Other members of the group included Julie Dash and the sublimely talented Charles Burnett.

He made a much-heralded short (“A Day in the Life of Willie Faust”) and three feature films while still in school: Emma Mae (aka "Black Sister's Revenge," 1974), Welcome Home, Brother Charles (1975), and his giant hit Penitentiary (1979) with Leon Isaac Kennedy. The last-mentioned was indeed a major success and is deemed a turning point in African-American independent cinema. It also fulfilled a lot of the functions of exploitation cinema — violence, sex, and a macho star who goes through a grueling journey in the film’s plot line (participating in boxing matches to get out of a maximum security prison).

Fanaka’s filmography is quite brief (six features), a phenomenon he blamed on the Director’s Guild of America, against whom he brought class-action lawsuits in the early ‘90s, alleging that the group was discriminatory. According to his obits, the lawsuits became a “mission” of sorts for Fanaka, whose career did ultimately suffer, but who drew attention to an important problem in the process.

I haven’t seen Penitentiary in many years now, and never saw Penitentiary II, but the third film in the series, Penitentiary III (1987) is the one I’ve paid tribute to on in print, on the Funhouse TV show, and now here. It is definitely an exploitation feature and is quite a strange one: it finds Leon Isaac back in prison, being persuaded to box again by a sneering drag-queen ganglord, played by soap-opera king Tony Geary.

The movies continues to stun as it moves on, as we find that Geary has a cellmate/servant/lover named Cleopatra, played by drag queen Jim Bailey. The piece de resistance comes when we are introduced to the device by which Geary intends to “humble” Leon Isaac, someone called “the Midnight Thud.” The Thud is a grunting, mohawk-sporting midget (wrestler the Haiti Kid) who “takes the manhood” of people that have infuriated Geary.

The fact that the Midnight Thud goes on to become Kennedy’s manager in the final fight (we learn that the Thud talks pretty late in the picture), and that Fanaka includes some jaw-dropping Christ imagery in said no-rules brawl only serve to make the pot sweeter. Below is a short montage of a few clips from the film that I put together for the show back in late ’97. Feast, or the Thud will come get ya!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Ratz leaving a sinking ship: the pope resigns

I am an ex-Catholic who takes great delight in making fun of the church because... well, it is so certain it is right, and it isn't. It also pretends to be moral and isn't, and is often about as far away from the teachings of Christ as it's possible to be and not be a Nazi. Oh wait...
I'll get back to the Nazi aspect of this latest pope below (“he didn't want to be – everyone had to join the party back then....”). I'll also get around to the fact that the guy knows more about sex abuse in the church than any other pontiff ever has and did nothing to stop it or to punish (or even just excommunicate) the guilty. That stuff just ain't funny, and this is supposed to be a humorous blog post.

So I'll start with the light stuff and then bring on the heavy material toward the end. First and foremost, the media attention given to the abdication... er, resignation of this high-hatted fool has fascinated me, in that it's always fascinating to watch the news media fawn over a leader who literally exists in a dimension where the past is always present and what “we” say is always right (and everyone else? Why they're ALL going to hell....). The coverage has died down, but is sure to be ratcheted up again when the cardinals do their arcane wizardry (puff of smoke, my ass).

I find it very hard to laugh about the cruel realities of the church, but I can enjoy those who speak about its rampant hypocrisy and its backward-looking mindset – and yes, I do think that the other key religions have their backward-looking, we-are-completely-right-on-everything sects, and I have as little regard for them. I was brought up Catholic, however, so I can personally attest to the stupidity and tunnel vision of that faith.

So what is there to laugh about? Well, there is one humorist who always mocked the Catholic clergy in a pretty friendly way. I'm talking of course about Don Novello, whose “Father Guido Sarducci” character I first encountered on a Smothers Brothers comeback variety series in the mid-Seventies (I believe Fr. Guido first appeared on a David Steinberg LP called “Goodbye to the '70s”).

Father Guido is a priest who talks common sense, a gent who will never be promoted to archbishop or cardinal (that stripe “gets you the good veal in restaurants”), most likely because he's been the “gossip columnist” for the Vatican newspaper for the past 35 years. Novello infused the character with brilliant bits like this one, explaining how we all do literally “pay for our sins”:

He also came up with a foolproof way to learn only the stuff that you're left with after a regular education is over. Novello's routines as Fr. Guido have always been impeccable (that sadly misguided bit at the what-was-all-that-about “Rally to Restore Sanity” excepted); Novello's other work, on the Laszlo Letters book and as a comedy writer, has always been spot-on.

With all the affection I have for the Fr. Guido character, I should be doing a whole mock campaign here to get Signore Sarducci to be elected pope. He reported on the selection of Pope Benedict for the Al Franken radio show on Air America; the segment heard here is actually the weaker of two appearances I heard – his explanation of how the pope was chosen was far funnier (as I remember it, the process included being hit in the head with a hammer), but that particular appearance on Franken's show has not been preserved online.

There you have it – there's one guy in a priest's garb that I do love and have loved for over a third of a century. As for my evolving religious beliefs – that went from agnosticism (a discovery made in Catholic high school, mind you) to atheism – I tend to side more with the angry ex-Catholics who know how to sum up the situation in a pithy way. Guys like George Carlin, who pretty much was the poster boy for an evolving consciousness (evolving away from the church).

George inspired many standups over the years, and one who has professed his devotion and debt to Carlin is Louis CK, currently helming the best comedy series being produced in the U.S. Louis has been directing short films for a few decades now, but one of his finest hours (well, four minutes) is this little item from 2007 about the true “point” of the Catholic church:

Yeah, Louis' contention that the church “exists solely for the purpose of boy rape” may seem like a comic exaggeration – but only a little. I personally never was never raped by a priest, but was taught religion in grammar school by a priest who was arrested on child pornography charges (he was arrested in an alley off Times Square, no shit).

He was not excommunicated, merely shuffled off to another parish. My parish was abuzz for a few days with this “outrage,” but all the crazy people who believed kept believing that the church needed our collection-plate dough and all was soon forgotten. (By the way, he had also been running the parish branch of the Brownies.) A small handful of the priests and nuns I was taught by in twelve years of Catholic school were exemplary individuals; the majority, though, were afflicted with alcoholism, sadism, or flat-out insanity.

Thus we arrive back at the soon-to-be ex-Benedict, a man who served in the Hitler Youth and who, according to many, was “complicit in child sex abuse scandals.” To quote a Guardian article from last week, Pope Benedict (according to David Clohessy, the executive director of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests) “read thousands of pages of reports of the abuse cases from across the world. He knows more about clergy sex crimes and cover-ups than anyone else in the church yet he has done precious little to protect children."

Back when he was just Cardinal Ratso Ratzinger, the Pope was put in charge of investigating sexual abuse problems in different countries (among them Ireland and the U.S.; as Pope he also ignored major cases in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Austria). In each case, the perpetrators pretty much got off scot-free. To quote the Guardian one last time, I cite Jakob Purkarthofer, of Austria's Platform for Victims of Church Violence, who says that "Ratzinger was part of the system and co-responsible for these crimes."

So this pope is not a good, moral human being, he's a bureaucrat and administrator. And therefore I felt that the monologue and sketch about him from the first season of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle needed to be online. The series in its entirety was up on YT at one point, but now exists only as small shards.

One would think the Comedy Vehicle sketch about Pope Ratz would be up online, though, since it interestingly enough links the Pope to Jimmy Savile. Lee and his producers are not accusing the Pope of pedophilia at all – the gag is that Il Papa wanted his strikingly garish red shoes and received them thanks to Jimmy Savile on his “Jim'll Fix It” TV series. But yeah, it seems like a fascinating link to make anyway, between a man who made a habit of molesting young folk and another gent who did nothing to stop the abuse he heard about.

Savile is played by the master Scottish comedian-provocateur Jerry Sadowitz, who did material on Savile being a pedo way back in the late Eighties – that material (less than two minutes worth) got his CD “Gobshite” completely pulled from distribution.

Lee also devises a commercial use for a likeness of Benedict's horrifyingly mean-looking face. (Those racoon eyes, man, those eyes....). Please enjoy:

Note: some of the illustrations in this piece came from http://www.gospelaccordingtohate.com/

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Can’t Control Himself: Deceased Artiste Reg Presley

I wanted to do a tribute to Reg Presley upon his death, but the single best paean to his band the Troggs, and to Reg’s own sexy growling vocals, was already written by Lester Bangs in 1971 — it can be found in the book Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung from Vintage, which I urge you *go out and buy* right now.

Lester starts the piece by “calling out” his readers: “…You can talk about yer MC5 and yer Stooges and even yer Grand Funk Railroad and Led Zep, yep, all them badasses’ve carved out a hunka turf in this town, but I tell you there was once a gang that was so bitchin’ bad that they woulda cut them dudes down to snotnose crybabies and in less than three minutes too… They not only kicked ass with unparalleled style when the time came, they even had the class to pick one of the most righteous handles of all time: The Troggs.”

Lester’s article runs a mammoth twenty-seven fucking pages in the book (it originally appeared in a mag called Who Put the Bomp), and it is quite possibly one of the best-ever rambles by a rock critic about one of his fave underrated bands (oh, except for every other blissfully indulgent piece by Lester about yet another one of his favorite criminally underrated bands). The title of said piece? Why, “James Taylor marked for death” (with a short but effective plan to off “sweet baby” JT).

Lester left us three decades ago, but his writing is just as vibrant and enthusiastic now as it was then — and please don’t blame him for the thousands of pop-culture critics who’ve attempted his style without having consulted his sources (the Beats and innumerable poets) and without having a millionth of his talent. Reg Presley was equally unique, although he at least got 71 years to share his rare talents (and singular preoccupations) with us.

Presley died a week back in the same town he was born in, Andover, Hampshire. Lung cancer claimed him, after a series of strokes had only slowed him down (he was still on tour in Dec. 2011 when he got the cancer verdict). Here he is singing one of the Troggs’ best slow numbers “Love Is All Around” in 2009.

Reg (original last name Ball) came from a working class background and worked as a bricklayer until he was SURE that Troggs were actually taking off (i.e. had entered the charts). He had only one wife and remained married for half a century with two kids — a very normal life for one of the nastiest-sounding dudes to wield a mic in the mid-Sixties.

What Bangs taps into in his tribute to the band is the raw tone that the Troggs had. Their best songs have a provocative “garage” sound that set them apart from a lot of the other British invasion bands — the Stones probably were the only British group that bested them in terms of sounding over-modulated and legitimately nasty while selling lots of records (the Kinks and Who were far too well-produced acts with terrific lyrics front and center).

Reg developed other interests as the years went on. He patented an automatic fog-warning device (!), but it was only after his patent expired that it was used at Heathrow. He also became obsessed with UFOs, crop circles, lost civilizations, and alchemy. His 2002 book on these topics was called Wild Things They Don’t Tell Us. (I imagine Lester would’ve been pleased and amused by all this.)

“Wild Thing” was obviously the single biggest Troggs hit, but Presley didn’t write that one (Chip Taylor did). He did, however, write the very memorable “Love Is All Around” and “With a Girl Like You.” The line “your slacks are low/and your hips are showing” from “I Can’t Control Myself” got the song banned from BBC Radio.

Here the Troggs perform “With a Girl Like You” (a lipsynch) on French TV, standing in front of posters of James Brown, Elvis, Brando, and Dean:

The Troggs singles were very well-produced and grungy as fuck, but their vintage live performances were also pretty damned garage. Here they perform “I Can Only Give You Everything” for a live, screaming crowd:

In his epic Troggs tribute, Bangs goes off on these lyrical rambles about what the Troggs’ most carnal-sounding songs were really about. He imagines “I Just Sing” as a come-on sung by a depressed teenage boy on a date, “Give It to Me” as pre-feminism ode to giving pleasure to one’s partner, and “66-5-4-3-2-1” as being a nasty countdown to orgasm.

Those are Lester’s own discursive takes on these tunes (prob composed under the influence of Romilar, or an upper, or a particularly bright moon), but the Troggs’ best singles did seem particularly “possessed” of a kinky fervor:

The Troggs fit snugly into the category of “garage rock,” but they did also take excursions into psychedelia, despite the fact that Reg and his mates weren’t drug-oriented (they drank — and Reg once noted he smoked up to 80 cigs a day at his worst). Here is their trippiest hit, “Night of the Long Grass”:

The Troggs performed together on and off for four and a half decades, but their time in the limelight was waning by the end of the Sixties. At that point, they had an argument in a recording studio that became the infamous “Troggs tapes” (the plural is incorrect but it’s always used).

Presley later said that they were kidding when they were having that “fuck”-filled discussion, but the tape was heavily circulated in the Seventies, becoming a favorite among rockers and fans alike, to the extent that it is said to have “inspired” This Is Spinal Tap. I’ve never found the recording all that funny (it’s just an interesting chronicle of guys who liked to curse cursing), but there is one line that remains: drummer Ronnie Bond declaring that for a song to be good, you’ve got to “put a little fairy dust over the bastard.”

One of the hands-down best latter-day Troggs song was this nasty little item written by Reg — which does perfectly reflect Bangs’ views on the band being a bunch of sex-crazed muthas. It’s a killer and is very rarely heard:

Given my cinematic preoccupations in the Funhouse, the only way I could end this piece clip-wise is with a moment that makes me deliriously happy every time I see it. Two of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s three early shorts exist, and I am very glad he (or his mother?) preserved “Das kleine chaos” from 1966.

The film shows RWF’s debt to Godard and also to American gangster cinema. Its plot concerns three bored young people who decide to rob a rich woman. At the end when they discuss what they’ll do with the cash, Fassbinder devilishly smiles and says “I’m going to the movies” and then the Troggs absolute-killer “I Can’t Control Myself” plays as they run out to their car and ride away.

Music was always an integral part of Fassbinder’s cinema — I’d argue that the composer Peer Raben was perhaps his most seminal crew member, next to his cinematographers. He also used pop-rock from many countries, from Elvis and Janis to Kraftwerk. This sudden, unexpected use of the Troggs is the first example of his perfect use of music in his films, and I can’t recommend the short highly enough as a result — esp. if you like watching people who act like they’ve seen a lot of old movies, as with Godard or Mean Streets. The bit in question kicks in at 8:13:

I can only close out with Lester’s words about Reg’s voice (which he said was linked to “groin thunder” – Bangs was nothing if not a coiner of brilliantly picturesque terminology). Again, this comes from Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, published by Vintage:

“Reg Presley didn’t have the Tasmanian-devil glottal scope of an Iggy, but he did have one of the most leering, sneering punk snarls of all time, an approach to singing that was comprised of equal parts thoroughly digested early Elvis, Gene Vincent and Jagger… the best way to describe it would be to say that he sounded raspy and cocky and loose and lewd.” Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Man Who Put his Art on Film: Deceased Artiste Nagisa Oshima

One of the modern masters of Japanese cinema, Nagisa Oshima left behind a legacy of great films. I will be spotlighting what has to be the strangest – and, yes, silliest – of his works in this blog entry, but I want to first sing the praises of this brilliant renegade filmmaker.

Oshima's passing didn't receive the attention it should have because, sadly, he hadn't made a film in the last 13 years and because his reputation these days tends to rest on one film, In the Realm of the Senses (1976), that wasn't reflective of most of his work. He was a political director first and foremost, but Realm was such a giant arthouse hit (and remains such a potent work) that his legacy became that of an “erotic” artist rather than a socially conscious one.

He died a few weeks back at the age of 80 from pneumonia. He had had several strokes that had debilitated him and kept him from working. He was born to a wealthy family (obits noted his father ran a “fisheries research unit” and died when Nagisa was very young). His political conscience was formed when he was at Kyoto University. There he became ardently leftwing and chose film as his vehicle of expression.
His first professional job was at the Shochiku studio, where he was an assistant director; around the same time he also wrote film criticism, like his French counterparts in the nouvelle vague. His first films showed the influence of Godard and company, as well as Nicholas Ray – my fondest memories of his Cruel Story of Youth (1960) are the ways in which it resembled Rebel Without a Cause. Here is a fascinating relic from that era, a 1959 short called "Tomorrow's Sun," which functions as a trailer for an imaginary film. The short has no subtitles, but seems to betray Oshima's fascination with, and need to mock, the accepted "codes" of storytelling in mainstream moviemaking.

As the Sixties moved on, his films became more and more political and militantly stylized (a la Godard and his colleagues in the Japanese cinema). The political message of his Night and Fog in Japan (1960) got him fired from Shochiku; he composed the film in only 43 shots, constructing a new kind of tour de force.

I need to catch up with a lot of the Oshima films from this period, but I really enjoyed one of his more radical works, a seeming step past Uncle Jean's La Chinoise, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969). The fact that a couple have sex during a political riot would seem to have impressed Bertolucci (who has a similar scene in his Dreamers). It is a brilliantly disjunctive film that is available in its entirety on YouTube:

Other very important works from Oshima in the Sixties included Violence at Noon (1966) (which counterpointed the 43 shots of Night and Fog... with 2,000 shots), Death by Hanging (1968), The Man Who Put His Will on Film (right, 1970), and The Ceremony (1971), which is available in its entirety with English subs here.

Oshima's career changed decisively when, the story goes, the great French producer Anatole Dauman said to him, “Let’s make a porn flick!” The result was In the Realm of the Senses, which still is a remarkable, strong, erotic, and disturbing film, close to 40 years after it was made.

The film, about a geisha and a married man becoming involved in an obsessively sexual relationship, could not be developed in Japan because of its graphic content, and thus was sent to France to be developed. Most of Oshima's obits rightly quoted the statement he made at a trial over whether the film was obscene or not: “Nothing that is expressed is obscene. What is obscene is what is hidden.”

He won the Best Director award at Cannes for his next feature Empire of Passion (aka, “In the Realm of Passion,” 1978), a very good film but one that paled in comparison to In the Realm... (a notion that was true of most of his later works).

It was often speculated as to why he made so few movies after Empire – only six films in twenty years, two of them telefilms. After 1996, it was health issues, but between '78 and '96, it was clear that not only had he “said the unsayable” in terms of In the Realm, but he publicly went on the record decrying Japanese cinema (his most famous quote being “My hatred for Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it” – although he had a very polite interview with Kurosawa in 1993, the hero of his youth whose films he later rebelled against).

He maintained his films were made “to force the Japanese to look in the mirror,” and with the uneven but still underrated Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) he made both Japan and England look in the mirror. As noted, his health declined when he had his first stroke in 1996, and he had several more after that.

While in retirement from film he reportedly became a talk show host on Japanese TV (no clips from this exist on YouTube, though). It was also noted that he translated books, including John Gray's pop psychology tome Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus! His final triumph was indeed Taboo, his last fiction feature made in 1999, about gay desire in a samurai school.

If you want to experience the best of Oshima, please check out the many great films cited above. However, if you have, like me, an incurable fascination with camp, kitsch, and general weirdness, watch the embed below and see Oshima's weirdest project ever, his next-to-last fiction feature Max, Mon Amour (1986).

The film primarily carries the stamp of its screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carriere, the sublime scripter who worked with Bunuel and Polanski and wrote The Tin Drum and The Return of Martin Guerre. Max is not one of his strongest works, since it is an absurdist satire about a diplomat's wife (the always elegant and sexy Charlotte Rampling) falling in lust with a monkey (a guy in a gorilla costume, who was “advised” by makeup expert Rick Baker).

The film is intended to be amusing and starts out to be blithely odd, but gradually descends into being plain silly (with a car chase that's straight out of a Seventies live-action Disney flick). I think the film slowly falls apart as it continues, but no less than Charlotte Rampling – in the documentary Charlotte Rampling: the Look – considers it one of the best scripts she ever read.

I have uploaded my short review of the film from the Funhouse TV show before the clips below. Please drink in the weirdness and enjoy. But remember – Oshima was a master-filmmaker who was not evidently trying to get something made when he made Max, Mon Amour....


Monday, February 4, 2013

Scream for Help!: Deceased Artiste Michael Winner

Before the Oscars get around to their three-seconds-per-dead-legend necrology, I'd like to move through some of the notable filmmakers who departed in recent weeks and months (technology permitting, see below). I love the work of most folks I salute unabashedly, and for the reasons they intended. With Michael Winner, I can openly confess that his films were, for the most part, pretty dreadful – audience-pleasing on occasion, but lacking in any kind of artistry, vision, or even coherence. HOWEVER, he did make one piece of celluloid insanity that needs its place in the sun.

First, the usual historical overview: Winner died at 77 after a bumpy career as a director. He was the son of a successful businessman and graduated from Cambridge. He made a number of hip, swinging movies in the Sixties with hip, swinging titles – among them Play It Cool (1962), The Girl Getters (1964), You Must Be Joking! (1965), and I'll Never Forget What's 'Is Name (1967). Perhaps the height of Winner weirdness was The Cool Mikado (1963), a bizarre G&S update with Frankie Howerd and Stubby Kaye.

The one Winner film I legitimately like is the strange and moody The Nightcomers (1971), the prequel to Turn of the Screw that featured an inventive performance by Brando during the pre-Godfather period when he was otherwise sleepwalking through his films.

Winner's biggest successes were, hands down, the quintet of films he made with Charlie Bronson: The Mechanic (1972), The Stone Killer (1973), Death Wish (1974) and its first two sequels. Unlike Eastwood, Bronson mostly appeared in films that were pure shitkickers, and Winner was one of his best directors (along with fellow Brit J. Lee Thompson) for that kind of thing.

A possible epitaph for Winner's ability to make insanely weird and often entertaining (but, again, not for the intended reasons) crap was the startling Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976). Winner was no Mel Brooks (witness the reteaming of Young Frankenstein costars Madeline Kahn and Teri Garr) – the film is crammed to capacity with cameos by old Hollywood stars, but it is a stunner in terms of its goofiness and inability to capture what made Twenties comedies funny, or at the very least charming.

The one Winner movie I want to draw to your attention, though, is the startlingly tongue-in-cheek (?) thriller Scream for Help (1984). Upon first viewing, the film just seems wonderfully moronic – an overwrought version of the classic daughter-thinks-her-stepdad-is-a-killer plot (best executed in the Eighties in The Stepfather).

I devoted an entire episode of the Funhouse TV show to the film back in 1995 and haven't aired anything from it in the years since, but it is QUITE a special bad movie. Set in New Rochelle, NY, but shot in London (!), the film was directed with a sledgehammer by Winner and is best known in trivia circles for having a melodramatic (read: often ridiculously melodramatic – on purpose, who knows?) score by John Paul Jones of that wildly overpraised shrieking Zep band.

The script was written by Tom Holland, after he had written Class of 1984 and Psycho II (but before Fright Night), so it would seem that the film was conceived of as a tongue-in-cheek exercise. However, Winner being the kind of director he was, it's often very hard to tell, since Winner's overkill approach didn't alter from comic to tragic subject matter.

One of my favorite reviews of the film came from Philip Strick in the late, lamented Monthly Film Bulletin, who assumed the film was a parody but a “clumsy and vulgar” parody: “It's apparent that the only novelty Winner has to offer is a variation on the American splatter genre, in which film technique itself rather than the cast is dismembered, as we watch in horrified disbelief.... He puts his camera any old where, in a spirit either of gleeful misconception or uninspired taste.”

I can hardly top that, except to say that two posters have put the entire film up on YT (copyright be damned – YT is wildly arbitrary in regard to its copyright enforcement). However, I recommend you check out the two small slices of the film I put up on YT myself. First, part of the concluding segment of the film, in which both rich mom and her intrepid, would-be Nancy Drew daughter are tormented by the evil stepdad and his cronies:

And one of my all-time fave insane scenes. Watch this and understand why both critics and viewers weren't sure whether Scream for Help was meant as a straightforward thriller or a spoof one. In either case, this is pretty damned amusing:

Note: on the tech front, I should point out that the slightly “unhooked” sound and image in the clips above is the result of using a Diamond Video Capture device for Mac OS. Quicktime is one of the most difficulty-plagued computer-clip applications, and that is definitely true when you're attempting to create clips using the cursed QT, a capture device, and a (surprisingly in good shape) old video cassette.