Sunday, August 16, 2015

Unseen photos from the “maverick” era in Hollywood: The Edit Room Floor blog

It’d be impossible to count the number of movie-related websites that are currently in existence. On the Funhouse TV show, I frequently liken the Internet to that wood where trees are falling and no one is hearing the sound. The sound in this instance is that of historians, experts, and super-fans sharing their knowledge and personal collections for free.

Such is the case with the Edit Room Floor blog, run by Jordan Krug, an editor who lives in Toronto. Krug collects contact sheets of photos taken on the sets of his favorite movies. Lucky for us, he has excellent taste.

Although the films from which he provides unseen images range chronologically from The Hustler (1961) to Blade Runner (1982), my fascination with his blog is that the lion’s share of his rarities are from the “maverick” era of American film — borrowing a phrase from the comic book world, one could easily deem it “the Silver Age” of American filmmaking.

The specific purpose of Krug’s blog is to present on-set photos and explore deleted scenes from these films. He offers up images from the lost sequences and supplements those with the appropriate pages from the original scripts and anecdotes from biographies and autobiographies of those involved. In a few cases he even “animated” shots from lost scenes to provide the best possible approximation of what the lost scene looked like in motion.

Jordan has so far put up 61 entries on his blog, starting in 2012 and ending in 2014. I hope he has more rarities hiding up his sleeve, but as it stands the blog is still a wonderful source of new information about films that many of us have seen several times (and/or memorized, depending on our level of devotion).

Given the fact that so many restorations are being done at the moment, Krug refers to many of the images on his blog as “rarely seen” photos. In some cases it’s evident that, aside from the filmmakers themselves and other massive fans of the films (who are not wanting to share, as Jordan is doing), these images truly have gone unseen.

Thus we are treated to some wonderful on-set shots from a variety of cult favorites. The first category comprises films that fit handily into the “macho hero” category: Cool Hand Luke (1967), Prime Cut (1972), and The Cowboys (also ’72).

The second category of titles that Jordan provides rare images from are box office blockbusters. He spotlights Rocky (1976) (which was a terrific film — ignoring the crap sequels that it inspired) and the juggernaut Star Wars (1977). I have no interest in the latter but any rare images of Peter Cushing are fine by me.

The third category — mind you, these are my designations, not Jordan’s — are the films that are not only star-driven but are terrific auteurist works. These include The Hustler, The Train (1964), Help! (1965), Dirty Harry (1971), The Getaway (1972), Bound for Glory (1976), The Road Warrior (1981).

The final group of films that Jordan dotes on are unmitigated masterpieces, in mine ‘umble opinion. The first is Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Jordan shares with us rare shots of the final shootout in the cemetery.

With Blade Runner, we are treated to shots from the last night of shooting, in which Deckard hangs from the ledge in the rain.

One of the linchpins of modern American cinema (from an era that now seems like it was a million years ago, not only in terms of the quality of filmmaking but as for the emotional attachment of its maker), Taxi Driver (1976) is represented through rarely seen shots from the famous mirror sequence and the “Scar scene” (labelled as such by Scorsese and Schrader, who felt that The Searchers lacked a scene in which Natalie Wood's allegiance to her Indian captor was explained), in which we see Iris and Sport (Harvey Keitel) as a couple in love. Also, Iris initially walking down the street with Travis.

Polanski’s masterwork Chinatown (1974) is represented by a wonderful array of color on-set photos. Included are moments from the sequence in which Jake has his nose cut by a mean little gangster (Polanski himself), as well an intimate moment between Jake and Evelyn. Also, images from a scene entirely cut from the film in which Jake drives by a “rainmaker” who is plying his trade.

The two films that receive the most in-depth treatment on the Edit Room Floor blog are John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) and Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). Boorman’s film is represented by nine (!) separate blog entries in which Krug offers unseen images from the set and scenes that were trimmed or cut from the film.

Included are Walker walking in LAX, the sequences in Alcatraz, the death of Reese (John Vernon) and Walker being beaten up by Chris (Angie Dickinson). Not only that, but we are offered groovy pics of the wrap party, in which we see Lee Marvin palling around with Steve McQueen, Warren Oates, Charles Bronson, Burt Reynolds and other Hollywood tough-guys.

For me, there are several must-see blog entries on the Edit Room Floor, but Krug's many posts on The Conversation are his most valuable contribution to the online appreciation of the “maverick” era. He provides all available materials on the many deleted scenes he has images from, noting at the outset that Coppola left the film in the hands of his editor Walter Murch when he (Coppola) began to work on The Godfather Part II. Thus Murch had to cut a four-and-a-half hour film down to the two-hour mark.

The missing sequences covered by Krug include Harry Caul's visit to the apartment vacated by his mistress, more of the convention sequence, and several scenes that were easily cut because they provided Caul with friends and relatives, which would've mitigated the intensely lonely aspect of the finished film.

It turns out that the sequences that were shot but taken out of the film (and then sadly lost, meaning that these on-set photos and the original script are the only traces of these moments) included Harry receiving birthday wishes (and a cake!) from his neighbors, a subplot in which the neighbors were furious at their landlord (who we learn is Harry himself), and a subsequent visit Harry makes to his lawyer's office. 

The latter was initially so important to Coppola that he shot it twice, with Abe Vigoda playing the lawyer in the first version, and a young Mackenzie Phillips showing up as Harry's parochial school student niece (who winds up awkwardly telling him about her first time with a boy).

Point Blank wrap party: Marvin, Boorman, and Michelle Triola.
As I noted above, I hope Jordan has time to share more with us on the Edit Room Floor blog. In the meantime, he has already shared quite a lot and put some cult classics into a new light by providing a look at missing scenes and the on-set environment of the films. From one “tree falling in the forest” to another, I salute his efforts....

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

He changed all the questions: Deceased Artiste Rowdy Roddy Piper

I have wondrous plans and rough drafts intended for this blog but have needed the time to execute the planned paeans to long-time faves and new discoveries. In the meantime, I have to acknowledge one of the celebs who passed last week, who curiously formed the requisite “celebrity death troika” with two pop queens, Lynn Anderson and Cilla Black.

Much was written about “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, most of it centering around the three or so years in the mid-Eighties when he was the premier villain in the WWF. As such, he was a part of many viewers' childhood and adolescence, including mine. He was one of those wrestlers whose accomplishments in the ring were secondary to his mic work; he also functioned much better as a “heel” than he did as a “face.”

I will close this piece out with a celebration of Roddy's insanely funny (and sometimes just insane) mic work, but I wanted to examine two things first. The first is the ridiculousness of the “one-stop shop” for movie buffs that is the IMDB. The site most certainly serves a valuable purpose (to solve trivia arguments and bar-bets). It also tangles up filmographies like you've never seen before – multiple entries for the same item (usually a TV episode), incorrect titles in different languages, confusion of illustrations (a poster for a movie with a given name is appended to the listing for another movie with the same name).

Like Wikipedia (another website that is too heavily relied upon), IMDB accepts information from the public, which is a massive problem for those of us who value accuracy. Fans generally know more about works of art than their creators do, but any database open to public submissions is bound to wind up a mess. As I remember it, the IMDB initially just had films in filmographies (features and shorts), and then began to add TV series and episodes, voice-talent jobs in cartoons, then music videos and video games, then TV specials, PPV events, and DVD “featurettes.”

And so you wind up with the mess of a “filmography” that IMDB offers for performers like Roddy Piper. There are 121 listings for him as an actor, more than a third of which are wrestling series, TV specials, PPVs, and “featurettes.” Out of the 121 listings, I counted (on the day of Piper's death) a good 46 or so that were clearly WWE items in which he was wrestling and, as IMDB puts it, “playing” the “Rowdy Roddy Piper” character, which is just nuts. Thus anyone who has a comedic alter-ego that they appear in quite often would have credits as an “actor” even if they just come on a talk show in that persona.

When I realized I wanted to write a Deceased Artiste tribute to Piper (real name: Roderick Toombs), I did of course look at his IMDB listing and then realized how ridiculous the situation is. Formerly when you wanted a list of “the films of...” some book would have a list of the features they starred in, plus some of the shorts and, if they were a voice talent, the applicable cartoons they worked on.

For TV stars, you had lists of series and guest appearances — before it was open season on the Net to include every single piece of data (talk show appearances, walk-ons, game-show stints, etc), one needed to acquire those exhaustive, independently published books that would list every appearance a performer had made in films, on TV and radio, with the work in each medium in separate lists (as shorts should be separated from feature films in filmographies).

But we are now in the world of the Internet, where one has access to every detail about a performer's public life (and way too many about their private life). And so, when doing research, you have overstuffed lists that cram everything into one place, rather than neatly organized categories. It's an absolute mess, but it's “comprehensive” (and totally misleading).

Another topic was brought to mind by Piper's death — namely his acting and the fact that he never became a bigger action-movie star. All the best “sports entertainers” (another McMahon-sanctioned phrase) are basically comedians or deranged performance artists (see my pieces on wrestling fanatic Andy Kaufman) who like the notion of having thousands of audience members hate them as one.

Piper was a consummate heel, but when he got movie roles, he was primarily cast as a hero. His acting career was quite bumpy — I remember seeing a pretty meager rip-off of the Harry Potter series (The Mystical Adventures of Billy Owens) that he produced and starred in as a shop keeper who taught young kids how to use magic responsibly. I can vouch for the fact that the straight-to-video opus Hell Comes to Frogtown should be avoided at all costs, but will add my voice to the fan brigade for John Carpenter's They Live (1988).

The film is a perfect paranoid allegory in the mold of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and like that film it can be interpreted as a cautionary tale, a different one for the Left, the Right, and Libertarians. Carpenter himself has said it's a critique of Reagan-era America, and taken as such it is brilliant.

The focus on the homeless, yuppies and the wealthy run amok, and the shamelessly shitty pop culture that arises from an era in which one of the worst actors in Hollywood (the star of Bedtime for Bonzo) was president, makes They Live a fascinating time capsule that also speaks to our era — primarily because the Right remember the Eighties as a Utopian time in which America was at its best, when it really was the era when the rot set in for good....

Roddy was a great wrestling performer and yet not a top-notch actor. He's used beautifully in They Live, though, because Carpenter has him play a bewildered drifter whose only response to the confusing situation he finds himself in is to fight and shoot. The film was done on a lower budget (thus, the rather cut-rate look of the skull-faces on the alien invaders), but the paucity of means meant that Carpenter could dote on the ideas in the story and not have the action “explode” in a shower of CGI effects. It's also wonderful that the film wasn't that big a success and developed into a cult item in that way, we were not treated to the always-unnecessary sequels (and the TV shows remember the “Alien Nation” series?).

The film's basic notion that average everyday working people (and the homeless) don't see the “signs” in American culture that encourage mass consumption of crap and “staying asleep” is beautifully conveyed in the picture. Carpenter is a major Howard Hawks fan, though, so he's not worried about diversions from the plot thus, the insanely long fistfight between Roddy and Keith David that “bonds” them in a Hawksian fashion. There are also various weird continuity errors (like Roddy wearing a wedding ring that is never explained — it turns out he refused to take off his wedding band even when playing a drifter who has no ties of any kind....).

There is indeed a random quality to the film that has added to its allure for interpreters, who range from Slavoj Zizek (who perfectly explains the fistfight here) to conspiracy theorists Alex Jones and David Icke. The film reportedly did well in its first weekend or two and was then pulled from theaters. Was this because the theater chains had a better prospect for their houses, or was it pulled because of its controversial message about the Reaganomics phenomenon of “trickle-down” greed? No one quite knows....

And on to the wrestling. Piper wrestled actively (on and off, depending on which federation he was in) from 1973 to 2011, when he was 57 years old. The fact that he died of a cardiac arrest was not much of a surprise, though, since he, along with Ric Flair (who is still doing an occasional match at 66), screamed and hollered enough in his villainous moments to seem like a candidate for a heart attack.

Roddy survived drugs, booze, and cancer. In fact, I noticed that he looked amazing upon his return to WWE after beating Hodgkin's lymphoma because clearly his struggle with cancer resolved all of his other health problems and addictions. He didn't look as terrific in recent years, but that is more than likely the result of the fact that he had heart problems that he was hiding from the public.

He was a helluva TV personality, and the only way to salute his brand of insane mic work is to line up the best clips. First, a young Piper cracks himself on the head with a bottle to show what he will do to his opponent (when you start your career in this mode, there are few things to do besides become a larger-than-life “heel”):

His run in the WWF from 1983-'87 was his heyday as a wrestler. During that time he hosted a segment on WWF broadcasts called “Piper's Pit.” It was an unusual segment, since it consisted of Roddy “interviewing” one of his fellow wrestlers, whom he then beat the crap out of.

On occasions when he didn't beat up his guest, he stormed off and dropped the mic, or (on very rare occasions) a guest would knock him out. Here he encounters George the Animal Steele and his then-manager, the inimitable Capt. Lou Albano:

A few weeks back Hulk Hogan was “purged” by the WWE because he was heard using the word “nigger” over and over on his (totally embarrassing) sex tape. It's understandable that McMahon and company want to distance themselves from the Hulkster, but any fan with a decent memory can recall literally dozens of racist “plot lines” and utterances on WWE's programs over the years.

Several of the most memorable of those moments involved Piper, whose “heel” persona involved a *lot* of racism. Here he confronts the “old guard” of the WWF, Bruno Sammartino (who has often publicly decried the decision to move wrestling from matches into storylines) and incites him to madness by calling him a “stupid wop”:

One of the events that sealed Roddy's rep as a bad guy was his beating of “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka in a “Piper's Pit” segment. He cracked a coconut on Snuka's head and whipped him with a belt while telling the Fijian wrestler he should be climbing a tree and eating bananas (as a young person watching this, I was kinda stunned — equally so when Roddy and his sidekick "Cowboy Bob" Orton forcibly shaved the head of the midget wrestler the Haiti Kid to mock his allegiance to Mr. T). When he played the villain role he took it to the limit, something that couldn't be done today.

As the years went by Roddy went from heel to face and back again. At one point when he was a fan favorite he had one of the oddest angles ever — to comment on his opponent Bad News Brown being a black man and he, Roddy, being a little bit of everything (he even referred to his kilt as a “skirt” for this occasion), Piper wore blackface makeup on half of his face. He proceeded to do this for an entire match and a very confusing but entertaining interview:

To illustrate how feeble Piper could be as a face, here's a segment where he asks his “friend” Hogan why their pal Andre the Giant has turned heel. Roddy was not a very interesting good-guy (making him the Richard Widmark of the wrestling world).

At the point when Piper was a major figure in the WWF he was part of the “Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection,” which basically consisted of one rocker (Cyndi Lauper) and a quintet of wrestlers (Hogan, Piper, Capt. Lou, Wendi Richter, the Fabulous Moolah).

One of the odder and most stunningly cheesy artifacts of this era is “The Rock and Wrestling Saturday Spectacular” in which host Herve Villechaize (!) has his job stolen by Piper. The guest roster includes Pee-Wee Herman, Gary Owens, Capt. Lou, Patti Labelle, New Edition, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hulk Hogan, and a walk-on by Cyndi Lauper (who produced, along with Sid and Marty Krofft!). It’s a lulu (yes, I’ve watched it all, except for the cartoon clips) and can be found here.

As I noted above, Piper worked as both an actor and a wrestler until 2011 — after that he continued as an in-ring presence, but only as an interviewer/manager-type, until a few months before his death. He remained a strong icon for those who were in the field of sports entertainment and real sports.

To underscore his influence on the current generation of (real) fighters, Women’s MMA superstar Ronda Rousey got his official OK to use the “Rowdy” nickname and later guested on Roddy’s podcast. That show, incidentally, ran aground just a few weeks back when Piper had comedian Will Sasso on doing a great impression of Stone Cold Steve Austin. Austin apparently has no sense of humor and had the episode taken down — shortly thereafter Piper was booted by the syndicator of the show.

In any case, Ronda was a great guest, showing her “lighter side.” A self-professed pro-wrestling fan, she certainly learned a thing or two about playing the heel in front of a giant audience from icons like Piper and Flair:

One of the more disturbing videos given Piper's premature passing at 61 is this segment on deaths in wrestling from HBO's “Real Sports,” in which Piper talks about having to wait for his pension to kick in but knowing he'll never get to collect it. “I'm not gonna make 65, let's face facts, guys...”

But let's end on a happy note, two in fact. First, a music video Roddy that is as corny as hell —and, despite its showcasing him as a ladies man, seems to reflect the homoerotic imagery that surrounded "Hot Rod" and many of his fellow wrestlers.

And to close out, I can think of no finer combination than Piper and his yelling cohort Ric Flair (a decade and a half after they first tangled). Here the two go to town, to celebrate Roddy's return to WCW. They praise each other to the skies (of course, they turned on each other shortly thereafter) and the whole segment winds up being an invitation from Flair to Piper to go out and have a good time after the matches. I'm betting they did.