Thursday, July 29, 2021

On the centenary of Chris Marker

I have documented many times both here and on the Funhouse TV series my fascination with, and love for, the work of Chris Marker. On this day, the 100th anniversary of his birth, I can only say once again that the discovery of the short sci-fi romance (one of the greatest love stories ever) “La Jetée” (1962) when I was in college changed my life. Everything that came after that — seeing Marker’s brilliant documentaries, his film “essay” meditations on cultures, war, the passage of time and memory, and even his cute and silly videos about animals — made me respect and love the man and his work even more.

Currently, we are lucky to have his work readily available on disc and streaming. Icarus Films has made a practice of putting out all of his major features, there’s a Criterion release of his two most famous films (“La Jetée” and Sans Soleil), and his shorts and “lost” features (including two he suppressed because he fell out of love with countries he formerly celebrated, thanks to their oppressive policies) are tucked away on YouTube, for those who have the curiosity and want to see how this master storyteller and cameraman “framed” the world around him. 

To become acquainted with his work, one must first see “La Jetée.” Everyone should see “La Jetée” — it is a perfect work, a curio in that it is a fiction film by an artist who produced scant fiction, a superb montage of photographs by a master filmmaker, and a sublime work on the strength and importance of memory by a man who now himself is a memory (but a strong one). 

Here is the film with English subtitles:

 

What should one see after “La Jetée”? It’s hard to say which direction to go in — since Marker went in several before and after his signature work. (Arguably the most important being a series of “engaged” Left-wing political film essays.) The best intro used to be paging through his amazing photography on his Gorgomancy site, through the corridors and closets of his CD-ROM collection of his photographic work, “Immemory.”

But the death of Flash has killed that glorious interactive experience – just as Apple screwed the original CD-ROM incarnation of Marker’s digitized “museum” by making all of its updated OS systems incompatible with earlier systems. The Gorgomancy site still exists, but lacking the seminal labyrinth of “Immemory,” it is primarily for those who already know Marker’s work and are looking for a deeper dive. I explored the other works on the site (and “Immemory”) in this 2011 blog post about Marker.

What we have left now (unless some master-animator can recreate the “museum” in another format that won’t die like Flash did) is a video that shows what the experience USED to be like. It was like rummaging through Marker’s mind, the memories of his past, and a deep, deep trove of his exquisite photography.

 

The Net archive that is most useful for one who is curious about Marker as an artist and a person is the remarkable chrismarker.org, which has articles on many aspects of Marker’s work and life. I would also toot my own horn for a second and point you to my Deceased Artiste tribute to Marker

The only problem with my piece? Many of the embeds went down — but the photos and text are still there, and they still reflect my ongoing Marker obsession. This problem of films being uploaded and then being taken down led me to go strictly for the photos when I wrote about the 2018 exhibit at the Cinematheque Francaise of Marker artifacts and films. I’m quite proud of that piece as well, and here it is.

What I can offer on this, the centenary of Marker’s birth, is another “survey” of what is available online. Icarus Films has, again, the full-length features available on disc and in streaming form. Good intros from their trove are Marker’s film/video “essays” The Last Bolshevik and The Case of the Grinning Cat. If one is interested in history, you can’t do better than his Grin Without a Cat, his superb account of what tore the world apart in 1968.

 

As for the many other items — the shorts, “lost” films, and the videos he made in his final years (which range from glorious to very slight, but the last ones were made when he was sick with cancer) — they are still gloriously online (and most with subtitles, even!). 

If one is looking for “another ‘La Jetée,’’’ the immediate answer is Marker’s only other straightforward (although that is hardly the right word) sci-fi scenario, “Les Astronautes,” a collage-animation short made with Walerian Borowczyk in 1959. It follows the adventures of a man with a home-made rocket ship.

 

The other film that recaptures the genius of Marker for “making photography into film” was his short “If I Had Four Camels” (1966), which is comprised of nothing but photographs and spins a tale of a photographer and his friends.

 

The other film besides “La Jetée” that received the biggest distribution in this country is Sans Soleil (1983), which is one of his most engrossing “essays.” It purports to be a collection of letters from a cameraman (with a pseudonym, Sandor Krasna, that Marker himself often used — as he also composed the music in the film under a pseudonym). 

The entire film is on YT but can’t be embedded — not because Janus/Criterion has taken umbrage at it being offered for free online, but because one Japanese company that owns the Japanese TV footage we see go by in the film wants to receive hard cash from YouTube! Check the entire film out here. 

Marker's earliest films are beautiful visually, but his play with the notion of what images represent was first introduced in “Letters from Siberia” (1958). Here he presents the same footage with three different narrations: a Soviet aggrandizing one, an American put-down, and the truth, which is firmly located in between those two poles.

 

As mentioned above, Marker pulled two of his features from distribution. In both cases he was initially infatuated with the governments of countries that then turned out to be oppressive in their own special ways. The first was Israel, in “Description of a Struggle” (1960). 

The whole film can be found in Hebrew here. But this is a nice minute from the version of the film with English narration:

 

The other government he fell out of love with was Cuba. Here is an English-subtitled (turn on the Closed Captions) version of his missing “Cuba Si!” (1961).

  

Certain countries Marker remained in love with until the end of his days. One of those was Japan — where he was honored with a bar with a “La Jetée” theme! Here is The Mystery of Koumiko (1965), his beautiful meditation on the country and on a certain Japanese girl. (Marker was in love with women the world over, and his camera captured them in beautiful and unforgettable ways.)

 

One of his most curious shorts is “The Embassy” (1973). It’s shot like a documentary, but in fact is a work of fiction — by saying this I blow the surprise ending, but the film itself is still a marvel, given how authentic it looks and sounds. This is the version with a (muffled, but that’s the way it always sounds) English soundtrack.

 

Marker moved ahead with the times — he was enraptured by the Internet, dove right in when it came to CD-ROMs, and had at the time of his death at the age of 91 both an active Instagram account and a YouTube channel. A few of the YT videos seems quite slight, but that, it must be revealed (and it finally was, in the book that accompanied the Cinematheque exhibition), was because Marker was battling cancer and was forced to stay in Paris for treatment at that time. (He was a world traveller who shot photos, if not film/video, on most of the continents.) 

I will spotlight four of these videos, put up on YT on the Kosinki account. One of the most important aspects of Marker’s work was how it ranged from playful to deeply moving, as his work betrayed his love for the arts (and people). The first lovely/bizarre creation is “Pictures From an Exhibition,” his display of his own digital-collage creations:

 

His last major photography exhibit was comprised of photos he took in the Paris Metro. Again, Marker’s love of women came to the surface, as he showed us the faces of women traveling on the Metro. In the book that came from the exhibit, he contrasted the faces of his “passengers” with women from classic paintings:

 

Here we see the art of his editing at its finest. This time the photos are not his, but those of others (taken from news publications) depicting the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

 

And finally, a playful, very short piece (that doesn’t involve animals!). A meditation on cinematic masters (two American, two French) that ends with a silly but amusing riff on a very famous photo that appeared after a specific terrorist leader was killed. (The image of Godard with “Karina glasses” alone is miraculous to those of us who revere Uncle Jean.)

 

There are currently several hundred Marker uploads on YouTube. The ones on the Kosinki account were put up by him, but there is also a tribute account (seemingly with access to some very “inside” footage), which contains clips from his films, shorts, extremely rare items, and Marker-esque videos of a current vintage. (Some of these work well; others not as well…) The account is named for Marker’s beloved cat (and alter-ego) Guillaume-en- Égypte. 

The most miraculous thing to greet Marker fans is the sight of Chris himself (he had hidden from cameras for years)  born Christian Bouche-Villeneuve on, of course, July 29, 1921. Here, the camera is turned on the photographer, as we see Marker riding the Metro wearing his camera-sunglasses (yes, he was an inventor as well as an artist).

 

And finally, in his most common mode, video recorder in hand on May Day, 2009. To quote the man himself (on the subject of the filmmaker finding connections in his own work that he hadn’t suspected were there), “You never know what you might be filming.”

Monday, July 19, 2021

The “two eras” of Deceased Artiste Robert Downey Sr. (a prince)

The death of Robert Downey Sr. has brought to mind that unasked question that pertains to so many filmmakers of the Sixties and early Seventies. Namely, what the hell happened to their work after the “maverick” period came to a close when Jaws and Star Wars pointed the way to future Hollywood mega-releases aimed at younger viewers?

In the case of Downey’s work, it was essential “underground” filmmaking that began to be sadly unwatchable even before the advent of the “tent-pole” movie. There are a few clear reasons why his early films are so eminently rewatchable, and every fiction feature after Greaser’s Palace is an incredible misfire. (There was a final, really good documentary by Downey that showed us what we’d been missing in the three decades that preceded it; see below.)

The elements that made Downey’s low-/no-budget films from 1961 to 1973 so imaginative and entertaining are the obvious ones. He worked on threadbare features with scripts filled with absurdist comic situations, with the narration and dialogue being dubbed in afterward. By the time of his best-known film, Putney Swope (1969), he was using direct sound and had actual production value in the images.

Downey acting in his first short
"Balls Bluff" (1961; later incorporated into 
No More Excuses)
The Downey features of this period play with genre and moviegoers’ expectations. He blurred the lines between different movie genres from scene to scene and wasn't averse to throwing in something completely out of left field, as if he was creating a live-action version of a Mad magazine movie parody. (Then, of course, he directed the first Mad movie, but that’s a story for another piece, about his unwatchable later comedies.)

The keynote for the great Downey films was always the cast. He used comic actors from the NYC pool of seasoned vets and had them play bizarre “types.” He regularly used the bald comedian Lawrence Wolf, the raccoon-eyed character actor Don Calfa, the boyish but seedy George Morgan, and he assigned many female roles (all of them, in certain films) to his wife Elsie, who was fearless in terms of playing both sex objects and toothless hags.

Lawrence Wolf (left) in
Putney Swope.
So the half-dozen features made in this period — not including a truly grim and brilliant telefilm and a lost sexploitation film — are all worth your time. But, oh, the films that came after Greaser’s Palace were dismal in new and depressing ways. It’s not difficult to diagnose the key factors that made them so awful:

1. The time period. The energy that infused filmmaking in the Sixties and early Seventies was truly radical and as pioneering as what had taken place in the silent era. Taboos were broken and movies were made that appealed to intelligent, engaged viewers. The blockbusters of the mid-Seventies led the majors to realize they could return to creating “package” pictures.

Downey directs Pound (1970).
At that point filmmakers needed the brazen ballsiness of Robert Altman or the natural gifts of that era’s Martin Scorsese to continue to make personal, adult films funded by the studios. Downey was a “comedy-maker,” so he was lost in the “package” world of Hollywood (where comedies were conceived of as either pictures with high-concept plots or as vehicles for SNL alumni).

2. Drugs. The obits for Downey stressed, naturally enough, his son, whose performances have run the gamut from snarky teen characters (or hammy out-of-control ones), to snarky young adults (or hammy out-of-control ones), to a surprisingly good Chaplin, to snarky middle-aged adults. Part of the oft-told tale of the younger, drug-addled Downey Jr. was that his father introduced him to drug culture as a child.

Drugs seem to have played a role as well in Downey Sr. losing his footing as a filmmaker and going from being an innovator and an iconoclast to a really pedestrian comedy-maker. As for his son, Downey Sr. did one other thing that was detrimental to his son’s growth as a performer — he let him ham it up in his films.

Robert Downeys, Sr. and Jr.
Downey Jr. has run amok in so many films, but the “ad-lib anything — your funny faces and weird comic tics are great!” indulgence went the farthest in his father’s films (and led to high-key-in-every-scene performances, like his intolerable turn in Two Girls and a Guy and in Downey Jr.’s own doc, The Last Party).

Now Downey Jr. is a Hollywood institution who recently played a snarky superhero, a kooky Dr. Dolittle, and countless other wacky roles. He has been off of drugs for a few decades now, but his dad’s indulgence lives on every time he delivers a line in a hipster cadence or veers into a tic that does nothing to define a character (only to establish them as “another figure played by Downey Jr.”).

3. Moving to L.A. Downey Sr. clearly moved to L.A. to enter the mainstream of show business. This meant: the aforementioned bad Mad magazine movie, a script for The Gong Show Movie, and a few package comedies that had terrific performers (Dick Shawn and Martin Mull in Rented Lips; Eric Idle and Andrea Martin in Too Much Sun) but were just plain awful.

The energy and absurdity that bristled through Downey’s NYC films was gone, and so were  the supporting casts of great character people. Like Neil Simon and many others, Downey flourished in NYC and became a mere [favorite current phrase] “producer of content” in L.A. The “micro-budgets” he had in NYC gave him complete control over what he was making, whereas the Hollywood producers who funded his work dictated what the films would ultimately be like. Thus, the difference in tone, look, and casting.

And the films couldn’t be made better with talented performers. Martin Mull and Dick Shawn star in the straight-to-video title Rented Lips (1987). The film is just dreadful with a lame script by Mull — who wrote a great “sit-down” comedy act, wrote several albums of great comedy songs, and later wrote great scripts for his History of White People cable shows, but apparently couldn’t write a great comedy movie script.

The cast is a gathering of superb comic talent, including Shelley Berman, Kenneth Mars, Eileen Brennan, Jack Riley, Pat McCormick, Jennifer Tilly, and Edy Williams (plus a lethally hammy Downey Jr.). And the film is still a waste of everyone’s time (and someone’s money). If you'd still care to see it, it can be found here on Rarefilmm.com.

It’s interesting to hear Downey reflect on how bad the later films were, at the end of this interview about Putney Swope. He, of course, knew how bad they were. The only obvious corollary question is: Why didn’t he go back to making truly independent work? Downey’s last film, a mellow little documentary (see below), proved he could have, at any time, gone back to indie filmmaking. But once one has sucked at what Bertolucci called “the Big Nipple” of Hollywood, one can hardly stop sucking…. 

*****

Now to the films that should be seen and are all thankfully in distribution — as noted above, only one film, Sweet Smell of Sex is currently “lost.” A Criterion/Eclipse box called Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr. contains four of his entertaining early works, plus one misfire that should’ve either been issued as a short or kept as a Downey family home movie. (As of this writing I’ve been informed that the contents of that box set and Greaser’s Palace are on the Criterion Channel, which I neither pay for, nor get for free.)

Babo 73.
Babo 73 (1964, in the Eclipse box) is a political spoof starring Greenwich Village icon Taylor Mead. It’s fun and extremely goofy, with Downey finding his footing in zero-budget filmmaking.

Chafed Elbows (1965, in the Eclipse box) was the breakthrough. The film, which was reportedly made for $25,000, is a clever and very silly comedy that goes from film to posed photographs, like Harvey Kurtzman’s Help! magazine photo-funnies meeting Marker’s “La Jetée” (1962). 

George Morgan, looking suitably
innocent, in Chafed Elbows.
The film follows a loser (Downey regular George Morgan) who loves his mother too much — so much so that he thinks he’s made her pregnant — and acquires various jobs as he wanders along. Downey talked about Elbows on the CBC in this 1967 interview:

 

On a casting level, Downey hit on the masterstroke of having his wife Elsie play all the female roles.

Elsie Downey as the mother in
Chafed Elbows.
He also utilized one of his regulars, Lawrence Wolf, onscreen and as the dozens of characters — the film was post-synched and constantly communicates its threadbare nature, with surprises thrown in (like color sequences shot in great NYC locations).

 

No More Excuses (1968) is an odd creation — a “feature” of 46 minutes that is basically five short projects slammed together. In the mix is Downey’s first short “Balls Bluff,” about a Civil War soldier (played by Downey himself) waking up in contemporary NYC.

The other four threads are: a recreation of the assassination of President Garfield (played by Lawrence Wolf); a speech about clothing animals by notorious prankster Alan Abel; a mini-documentary about the singles bar scene on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (proving Downey threw nothing out!); and a thriller/”romance” narrative about a rapist (Don Calfa), which has a comic punchline.

No More Excuses.
Excuses has some great moments and some not-so-great ones, but at 46 minutes, who can quibble? The restoration on the film was done at the Anthology Film Archives, but the funding for the restoration was provided by The Film Foundation (Scorsese’s film restoration org) clearly went for lots of music clearances. Downey included on the soundtrack then-current songs by the Hollies, Cream, the Who, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Monkees (as well as the theme from A Man and a Woman for the rapist plotline). In other words, Excuses is a thoroughly Sixties creation.

Downey directs Putney Swope.
Putney Swope (1969, in the Eclipse box) is Downey’s most famous film, and rightly so. It’s a radically weird creation that spoofs the advertising industry, the business world, the U.S. government, TV commercials, the “sexual revolution,” and, of course, race relations.

It was in Swope that Downey found the perfect balance for his “Borscht Belt meets Absurdist Theater” approach — the ad satires alone have kept the film relevant (because even today’s “woke” advertising is as ridiculous as the hard-sells of yesteryear). And the cast is filled with great comic performers, from Downey ensemble members Wolf and Stan Gottlieb to Allen Garfield and, in a showcase, role, Funhouse interview subject Antonio Fargas.

Putney Swope.
The film’s oddest touch is that Downey himself dubbed the (black) lead actor Arnold Johnson, because Johnson supposedly couldn’t remember his lines (although he later worked in other movies and TV series). It’s a ballsy and bizarre move (that most surely wouldn’t be tolerated today).

Swope is, of course, a white man’s view of several black characters — the interesting thing throughout, though, is that Downey makes it clear that Swope is trying not to sell out, and all the white characters are entirely profit-driven hypocrites. (Or just cartoons, like the memorably cheery little-man U.S. President and his Nazi-esque sidekick, played by Lawrence Wolf.)

The next film, Pound (1970), is the strangest, most original Downey film and this reviewer’s favorite. Structured like a Theater of the Absurd play, it did first see life as an off-Broadway theatrical production written by Downey; because of the success of Swope, the film was distributed by United Artists and had an X-rating for its theatrical run.

The action revolves around a group of dogs in a pound, awaiting the gas that will kill them. Each breed of dog is played by an actor, and the whole cast hailed from the great pool of character people in NYC. Included among them are (again) Elsie Downey, Lawrence Wolf, and Don Calfa, as well as Antonio Fargas, Charles Dierkop, and Funhouse favorite Marshall Efron.

There are outdoor scenes and a second plotline concerning “the Honky Killer,” but the focus of the film are the scenes set in the pound. There is a definite theatrical feel to these scenes, but that is shattered (at 47:05) by a major musical number written by Charley Cuva, in which all the people-as-dogs dance to a funky, obscene, and very catchy song. (Sample lyric: “"Bow-wow/you're an ugly cocksucker/standin' in the men's room/waiting for a pucker.”)


Some helpful soul has posted the soundtrack “album,” which he admits is a bootleg, but it’s the only opportunity to hear the very catchy score by Charley Cuva without having to rewatch the film and just hear snippets. The poster notes that the lyrics for the songs were written by Downey himself — thus, more evidence of just how creative he really was in his “golden” period. It’s available on YT here

The whole film can be seen here. It has never been officially released in any medium in the U.S., so the best-looking copy anyone has found is one that aired on the Israeli MGM channel (!):

 

The last great Downey theatrical film is Greaser’s Palace (1972), which is available on DVD and had the biggest budget of anything Downey made during the “golden” period of his work; it is also unquestionably his best-looking film. It is as wonderfully weird as Pound, but this time the weirdness takes place mostly outdoors, as we encounter a Western town that is run by a villain.

Western movies since the beginning of cinema would lead the audience to expect a gunfighter to come and “clean house” in the town, but instead — a man in a zoot suit (Allan Arbus) parachutes into the town and brings a dead man back to life. He claims, “I’m on my way to Jerusalem to be an actor-singer. It is written that the agent Morris awaits me...” He then walks on water and seals the deal — he’s the messiah.

Greaser's Palace.
The film is a wonderfully freaky creation that is carried off beautifully by its ensemble cast, including old standbys and new names like Luana Anders (as the villain’s daughter, a showgirl named Cholera), Toni Basil (as a bare-breasted Indian maiden), and Hervé Villechaize (as a flirtatious, bisexual cowboy). It’s a very quiet movie, featuring nonsense of a higher order. One wishes Downey could have kept the momentum going, but, sadly, Greaser’s Palace was his last truly imaginative fiction film. The whole film can be seen here:

 

Curiously enough, Downey made a superb TV movie the year after Greaser’s. It’s a very serious piece that could’ve pointed the way to another type of career, but there was never another drama in his filmography after Sticks and Bones (1973).

After being “lost” to the public for several decades (for unspecified reasons), finally a copy of Sticks has materialized. It was last seen on television in the Eighties when it was rerun on a cable arts channel.

Sticks and Bones.
It’s hard to reconcile the fact that this radical play by David Rabe — which both openly condemned America’s presence in Vietnam and satirized the “don’t wanna hear about it” attitude of many middle Americans — aired on a major network (CBS) in prime time. [NOTE: It’s mentioned in the notes to the Criterion/Eclipse box that, after a delay of several months, the show finally aired only “late at night” on certain CBS affiliates; NYC-area editions of TV Guide for the week in question (August 11-17, 1973) show that it aired in its intended prime time slot of 9:00 p.m. on a Friday night, opposite “Room 222.”] The play was certainly fodder for PBS but not a network that was still airing variety shows and wacky sitcoms.

However, this was after the emergence of “All in the Family,” and American television was free (for a short time, at least) to present truly challenging fare. The telefilm was most certainly that, with its plot about an “average American family” (named Ozzie, Harriet, Ricky, and David in the play as performed theatrically) who are confronted with the horrors of Vietnam when the eldest son comes home from the war, blind and shell-shocked. (The best-known cast members are Anne Jackson as the mother and Cliff De Young as the Viet-vet brother.)

Some CBS affiliates refused to air the film — which was shot on video, to make it look more like a sitcom — and one can see why. Not only is Rabe’s play (here adapted by the playwright) an incredibly in-your-face piece, but Downey added to the claustrophobia and the flagrantly theatrical aspect of the play by shooting it with a fish-eye lens that makes the action seem more immediate and assaultive.

Al Hirschfeld's illustration 
of the stars of the telefilm
Sticks and Bones.
Downey clearly drew on his experience shooting Pound, but he also went back to No More Excuses by utilizing popular songs in Sticks. We hear a surprisingly rockin’ Randy Newman song (“Gone Dead Train” from the Performance soundtrack), “Monkey Man” by The Rolling Stones, and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” (used beautifully to underscore scenes with the blind son trying to re-integrate into his family). As he had in Greaser’s, Downey also utilized electronic music, which serves as another distancing technique.

It’s a bit too long and is structured around a very obvious metaphor (the son may be blind, but his family’s apathy toward the war is the true “blind spot”). The telefilm still packs a punch, though, because it unflinchingly presents the all-American family’s resolute racism toward the Vietnamese. (Racial epithets abound but are utterly essential to conveying this very real aspect of the American character.) Its finale is unforgettably grim, reinforced by a final bucolic image with a very ugly detail.

The film can be found on the Rarefilmm site, here. 

Watching Sticks, one laments that it was Downey’s only foray into drama. Watching his next film, Moment to Moment (1975), one is further saddened — but in this case because the film is a complete mess.

Alternately titled Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight, the film can be found in a shorter version in the Eclipse box. It was assembled by Downey as a sort of Valentine/farewell to his wife Elsie (whom he was already separated from). The credits feature the folks who gave him money to complete the project; names on the LONG list include Hal Ashby, Norman Lear, Bud Yorkin, Shep Gordon, Joseph Papp, Haskell Wexler, and Jack Nicholson.

It’s comprised of many shards, which contain many different characters in many different situations. The shards were reportedly shot over two years, but Elsie (who plays every female role, again) looks like she ages or regresses a decade from scene to scene. Cast members — including regulars Wolf and Stan Gottlieb, and a briefly seen Seymour Cassel — show up and then disappear. Some reappear later in the picture; many do not. (And random shots of Downey Jr and his sister Allyson reinforce the idea that the film is basically a protracted home movie, whether it’s an hour or 85 minutes.)

The film does show Elsie’s range as a performer but, since there’s not ever a semblance of continuity, Moment begins the hard-to-watch phase of Downey’s career. The musical score by Jack Nitzsche, David Sanborn, and Arica is the one salvageable aspect of the film, and one wishes it was used for a better picture.

The version found on the Rarefilmm site is the longer cut of the film with the title Moment to Moment. At the 1:04:00 mark, there is a scene where Elsie and Gottlieb snort cocaine. The enthusiasm and eagerness with which Elsie performs this scene is like a visual confirmation that drugs were killing off the brilliance of certain members of the Downey clan (although Robert Jr. noted in his memorial note about his mother that alcohol was her particular demon).

It’s a jarring scene to watch because — like everything else in Moment — it serves no purpose at all, but plays like a harbinger of all of the Downey Sr. misfire films that followed. 

Moment to Moment can be seen on Rarefilmm.com, here.

*****

There is a happy ending to all this, besides the fact that we now can easily access pristine copies of Downey’s best work. That happy conclusion is the well-made and quietly touching documentary Rittenhouse Square (2005), about a Philadelphia park. Someone uploaded the complete film to YouTube after Downey’s death and we can all be grateful, as it demonstrates that Downey never lost his filmmaking prowess — he just should’ve abandoned comedy after Greaser’s.

At 82 minutes, Rittenhouse could have withstood a little pruning, but gone are the days when one could make an hour-long feature and get it booked into arthouses. And while there are a few scenes that could easily have been cut (as with a charity benefit held for Philly’s upper crust to fund the park), some of the best sequences would have been left out of a straighter PBS-style doc — moments where we see local musicians performing in the park (the Curtis Institute of Music adjoins the park), and Downey simply shows us the musicians, their audience of stragglers, and those sitting nearby on the benches.

So while we do get some Rittenhouse history and other socially acceptable sequences (including a day to devoted to children’s amusements), the documentary is most effective when it explores the two themes with which Downey infused it (besides the obvious one — the joy of music in open spaces).

The first is a gloriously un-p.c. tribute to girl-watching. In this case those indulging in this practice are men over 65, so it isn’t as un-“woke” as it may sound. On-camera (as “the questioner”) Downey informally speaks to men in his age bracket, and they honestly note that one of the principal joys of sitting for a time in Rittenhouse is to watch beautiful young women go by. We even hear that one old gent used to harangue his son to get out of the way of his wheelchair when a particularly pretty young woman strolled by.

The other theme — which was inevitable, given that Downey made the film when he was round about 69 — is aging (and its unavoidable sidekick, death). Downey’s discussions with old men and women form a lovely counterpoint to the scenes of the young talented musicians performing in the park. The musicians have clearly got everything in front of them, while the seniors reflect on what is behind them — with some of them being uncommonly honest (one painter regretting a long-ago divorce; a woman noting how deeply she loved her boyfriend but what a misogynist he was).

In this regard Downey gives us two “protagonists” — an elegant older gent who dressed up to stroll through the park (and died during the production of the doc) and a young girl whom we never hear speak, but we watch her go to and from her music classes and see her playing her violin at various points.

Rittenhouse Square forms a great “bookend” to Downey’s career, as one of his first films was “A Touch of Greatness” (1964), a totally serious doc about a beloved teacher who used unconventional methods to interest kids in literature and thought. Clips from that film can be seen in this more recent salute to the teacher. (This clip is apparently about a third of the recent doc.)

 

So, ultimately, if one watches Downey’s two docs, his best over-the-top creations (Pound, Greaser’s Palace) and, most especially, Sticks and Bones, one laments the “road never taken” by the filmmaker. There never was another drama or a really innovative comedy, but at least Downey’s last feature reaffirmed his talent. Even though Rittenhouse Square was barely seen in the mid-2000s — it mostly played festivals and arthouses — it’s heartening that he went out on a high note.

   

Thanks to Jon Whitehead of Rarefilmm.com and Robert Nedelkoff for referring me to the rarest films discussed in this piece.

Friday, June 4, 2021

'Lost' films found 5: Absurdist comedy on network TV — “Barney Kempinski” with Alan Arkin and Deceased Artiste Arlene Golonka

Arlene Golonka on
the set of 
HANG 'EM HIGH.
The death of the actress Arlene Golonka on Monday of this week — who radiated a cheerful, adorable, and slyly sexy presence and was ubiquitous on TV in my kidhood — led me to this particular discovery. While it might not be as laugh-out-loud funny as I had remembered it, it’s still a wonderful slice of Sixties absurdist comedy that boasts a great cast and some terrific NYC locations as its “sets.”

The first time I encountered this telefilm was with a friend at the then-Museum of Broadcasting (now the Paley Center) around the corner from the Doubleday bookstore on 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue (a store I worked in for a few months and which features in the Streisand-Segal Owl and the Pussycat).

At that point, early in the museum’s history, you sat in a cubicle and a staff member came over to put your chosen tape (not sure if it was Beta or VHS at this point) in a deck. You were allowed to rewind and fast-forward it at your leisure. For some reason I remember the Museum’s version as being in b&w, but the YouTube upload is in very faded color. (Although it contains the original ads, all for Burlington.)

“The Love Song of Barney Kempinski,” the debut episode of the series ABC Stage 67, looked intriguing from an entry in the mass-market paperback The Television Years by Shulman and Youman (yes, we’re talking heavy pre-Internet geekdom here). The names of Alan Arkin, Arlene Golonka, and Murray Schisgal were already known to me, so I was eager to see it when I visited the TV museum. (Everyone has always called the institution that, no matter which of its three names was in use at the time.)

Arlene Golonka.
It’s been more than four decades since that initial viewing and while the sum of its often-great parts does not make a perfect whole, it’s still very much worth watching.

First, some words about Schisgal, who died on Oct 1 of last year. Viewers of the Funhouse TV show will remember that I did a series of episodes saluting “Sixties comic playwrights who were not Neil Simon.” (The theme being that these folks were less gag-oriented than Simon and also wrote wonderfully poignant sequences.)

Among this number were Funhouse fave Herb Gardner, Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna, and Schisgal. Schisgal eventually became a “house-rewriter” for Dustin Hoffman, polishing scenes in movies Hoffman starred in, but in the Sixties Schisgal was a force to be reckoned with, writing tight, smart one-acts (“The Typists,” “The Tiger”) and one classic full-length play (Luv).

Arkin and Schisgal (and Gielgud)
 on the set of "Barney Kempinski."
More than any of the others cited above — and quite like Bruce Jay Friedman, whose comic plays Scuba Duba and Steambath were both weirdly and brilliantly dark — Schisgal was clearly aware of the work of the modern European playwrights, most prominently those in the Theater of the Absurd. “Barney Kempinski” heavily exhibits this influence.

One more detour before I discuss the show itself — a bit about the amazing experiment that was ABC Stage 67. The series, which lasted only one season, was most certainly a precursor to later PBS programs like The Great American Dream Machine. One unique connection was the fact that Elinor Bunin designed the titles for both ABC Stage 67 and Dream Machine and later was the creative director for WNET Channel 13. Stage 67 jumped from genre to genre with 26 episodes (which would’ve been 27, but Dylan’s Eat the Document was rejected because it was incoherent — a very solid judgment).

Arkin at City Hall.

21 of the episodes are available at the Paley Center, with the never-seen-again titles being very fascinating: A John Le Carré thriller with James Mason; documentaries on JFK and Marilyn (separate ones, spaced far apart); an Earl Hamner Jr. drama with a crazy cast (Pearl Bailey, Phil Harris, Lee Grant, Mort Sahl, and Jackie Robinson!); a Bacharach-David-scored musical with Ricky Nelson; docs about WWII and sex in American in the Sixties; a Rodgers and Hart songbook show; short films about teen boys; David Frost hosting “A Night Out in London”; a Comden-Green-Styne musical with Dick Shawn; and a “Look at Negro Humor in America” with Dick Gregory, Godfrey Cambridge, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, and Richard Pryor.

The four episodes that did become available on VHS and DVD are: Sam Peckinpah’s adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter’s “Noon Wine”; Ingrid Bergman in a production of “The Human Voice”; the Emmy-winning “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote, working with Eleanor and Frank Perry; and “Evening Primrose,” an original Stephen Sondheim musical about a poet (Tony Perkins) who lives in a department store at night!

Before any of those episodes aired, “The Love Song of Barney Kempinski” was the premiere episode of the series (air date: Sept. 14, 1966). It is a thoroughly odd, often charming absurdist comedy that follows drifter Barney Kempinski (Alan Arkin) on the day of his wedding, as he moves from job to job. He talks to the audience about the wonders of NYC, yelling all the while as he “appropriates” a cab (he’s basically an opportunist and thief but a charming and clever one), then an ice cream cart, a butcher’s delivery truck, and a helicopter, among other vehicles.

An ad for the
"Barney Kempinski"
single!
It’s performed at a high pitch — Barney is prone to shouting (even when he’s happy) and he often bursts into a song of his own invention (which we hear under the end credits in its entirety and was apparently released as a single at the time). He shows us pictures of old NYC, as he wanders through the locations as they appeared in 1966 (the year the show was filmed): the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Village, all the way up to Lincoln Center.

On the way, his various “jobs” find him blundering into various situations — into the middle of an argument between a rich couple (Lee Grant, Alan King); a couple having sex (demurely depicted, of course); an Indian man meditating, on whose person Barney searches for money (as a tip for the package he’s delivered).

Since the film is made up of vignettes, it follows the fashion of episodic creations, with some of the scenes being very funny and some falling flat. The only semblance of a plot is that Barney is hoping to marry his sweetheart at 3:00 p.m. at City Hall and, as she evades him (going to the movies at 9:30 a.m.!), he falls in love with her sister (Arlene Golonka).

The “tour guide” aspect of Barney’s character (another job he “appropriates”) makes the film a true time capsule. Surely Schisgal predicated his script on this idea, but one can be pretty certain that the late, great, Ralph Rosenblum had a lot to do with how beautifully it is carried off. Rosenblum edited and was co-director (with Herb Gardner) of the exterior shots in A Thousand Clowns, which “opened up” what was otherwise a filmed play. (He also, of course edited perfect NYC films like The Pawnbroker and The Producers.)

The cast sell “Kempinski” wonderfully. The supporting players are NYC performers who worked in theater and TV: Lee Grant (who remembered here a stunt she had to do on the show), Alan King, Charlotte Rae, David Doyle, Jose Perez, Leonardo Cimino. And Barney’s cab fare is a drunken businessman, played by John Gielgud.

Golonka and Arkin.
Arkin is wonderful, mostly because his character, as written, is a pretty annoying guy and he makes him tolerable and quite charming.

And the lovely Golonka — yes, she who worked on dozens and dozens of TV shows and a select number of movies. She did indeed possess the ability to play both completely wholesome characters (as in Ernie Pintoff’s Harvey Middleman, Fireman) and also some “naughty” ladies. She will live on in reruns and will always seem just as cute. It’s no wonder that Barney Kempinski opts for her and not her absent sister, and the two ride off into the sunset (or at least mid-afternoon near Manhattan’s City Hall).

 

As an extra-special bonus, I offer up the super-obscure (but now “hidden in plain sight”) oddity that was Music for Rat Fink Lovers. The standup comedian Jackie Kannon, who performed slightly “blue” material, recorded several albums, had a best-selling book of naughty poems (Poems for the John), and also ran a nightclub called the “Rat Fink Room” in mid-Manhattan (located at 151 East 50th Street).

Kannon was stuck on the phrase “rat fink” and so he released a few albums with that phrase in the title. The oddest is Music for Rat Fink Lovers, an odd concoction that was comprised of regular Mantovani/Kostelanetz orchestral arrangements of then-popular tunes, with a sexy female coming on at the end of every track and saying the phrase “rat fink” in one mood or another (kittenish, delirious, angry, giddy, sexy). That voice was — Arlene Golonka!


It turns out that the entire album has been uploaded to YT and can be heard song by song or in a playlist that reverses the sides of the LP. For some inexplicable reason, someone took the album cover and identifies it in several separate uploads as a record by Dickie Goodman, but it definitely was a Kannon creation. (Although where he got the instrumental tracks from isn’t known — Arlene was lucky she got credited!)

The gimmick here is not only that Arlene says something sexy or “girly” at the end of every instrumental track, but that the record finishes up with Kannon’s own voice saying (in Yiddish-accented English) that he’s “the dirty rat fink.” First, a giggling delivery: 

 

Then a sexy, cooing Arlene:

Friday, May 21, 2021

“It was long ago/ and it was far away/ And it was so much better than it is today....”: Deceased Artiste Jim Steinman

I have been a big fan of Jim Steinman’s special brand of rock ’n’ roll melodrama for decades. I wrote about this fascination previously on the blog on the occasion of seeing the Toronto production of his life-long passion project, the dystopian teen sci-fi soap opera/Peter Pan mashup Bat Out of Hell. You can read my piece on Steinman and the show here, but I realized that my second blog post about Jim’s amazingly sincere yet overwhelmingly hammy (and I mean that in a complimentary way) Wagnerian pop-rock, focusing on his big European hit musical Tanz Der Vampires, had to be completely rewritten and updated. This was because the better of the two versions of the show that were on YouTube and had English subs was taken down. 

The one that was left up is derived from the same original video in German that the “departed” vids was generated from — only in this instance, the poster of the remaining videos decided for some inexplicable reason to change the ratio of the video from “flat” to “widescreen,” thus stretching the damned thing visually. The remaining version is incredibly ugly to watch, but it is the only way to see and understand the full original production if you’re not fluent in German.

In discussing the musical, I focus on an earlier production since it was not only recorded more professionally (when I first wrote this, there was also what looked like a fan-shot full-length video of the show on YT — now gone), but the earlier production was closer to the original vision of the show as personally directed by Roman Polanski, who co-wrote and directed the source material, the horror farce The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967). The show began in 1997 in Austria as directed by Polanski, but the subtitled video of it hails from Germany in the early 2000s.

I have mixed feelings about FVR. Polanski’s farces pale beside his brilliant darkly humored pictures (like Bitter Moon). The reworking of the film for Tanz, however, is fascinating in that the stage show takes its characters and situations a bit more seriously — the result, no doubt, of the show running over an hour longer than the film.


The other reason the show is a must-see is that it finds Polanski directing a stage musical scored by the king of pop-rock melodrama, Jim Steinman. As mentioned, I’ve rhapsodized about Steinman before (and noted his difficulties with writing librettos), so I will simply note that, since we never got to see the proposed “video album” for Steinman’s girl-group project “Pandora’s Box” that would’ve been directed by “Unkle Ken” Russell, we can only content ourselves with a Broadway/West End-style musical with Steinman music and Polanski visuals.

As for L’affaire Polanski and the fact that his last two films — Based on a True Story (2017), co-written with Olivier Assayas, and the award-winning (and excellent) J’Accuse (2019) — haven’t come out in the U.S. and won’t for the foreseeable future, it has to be said yet again that one *must* separate the art from the artist or one will only experience art from squeaky-clean hands — and who wants any more Spielberg-Ron Howard-Tom Hanks-Tyler Perry-Marvel movies?

Polanski, Michael
Kunze, Steinman.
As for his participation in this show, the piece was clearly undertaken with visions of Phantom box office receipts dancing in the producers’ heads. Thus, the budget was clearly large enough to indulge Polanski’s gothic impulses. (As for his stage credentials, he did take time out from the cinema to costar and direct productions of Amadeus in ’81 and ’99 in Warsaw, Paris, and Milan.)

The sets are large and the cast is filled with “background vampire” singers and dancers. The key ingredient, though, is Steinman’s music, which, true to form with Jim, consists of songs that he composed for earlier projects, both musicals and pop-rock albums.

The most-heard tune in the piece is “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which is the central vampire’s signature theme and is repeated over and over in the show. Steinman has been quoted as saying that he used the very well-known hit song as a kind of place holder for some other song to be written later. Given that the tune is the central piece of music, I doubt he threw the song in there provisionally.

There is certainly something amazing about hearing Steinman’s Wagnerian pop-rock in German. For decades now he has crafted songs that require singers with “big” voices and a solid vocal range (well… maybe not Air Supply), and his aim was always to write Broadway musicals. Hearing his music in German is a hand-in-glove fit.

Tanz was his first big-budgeted musical to become a hit (it has run in various permutations in Germany over the past 20 years). That’s a chronological distinction, since an earlier collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Whistle Down the Wind, flopped in the U.S. in ’96 but ran for several years in the West End, starting in ’98, a year after Tanz opened in Austria. Steinman’s long-gestating dystopian sci-fi/Peter Pan musical, Bat Out of Hell (which I, yet again, reviewed here), toured around the UK (where it did very well) and North America and only played in NYC as a limited edition run (where that show was cut as well, but nothing new was inserted — the plot was streamlined and songs were removed).

One other individual should very definitely be highlighted here. Michael Kunze wrote the libretto adapting Polanski’s film to the stage. He also wrote the German lyrics, which confirm the show’s status as an “almost operetta,” since the dialogue is minimal and the songs drive the plot entirely. Kunze has written German lyrics for many British and American shows, has had a number of his own hit musicals in Germany, and wrote and produced the disco hit “Fly, Robin, Fly” by Silver Convention (!).

It should be noted that the very short-lived American version of the show starring Michael (“Phantom”!) Crawford had a troubled production and ultimately flopped big-time on Broadway. Steinman was initially hired as co-director, then fired, and he has never spoken well of the show, titled (rather obviously) Dance of the Vampires. By the time of the American failure, Polanski was long gone from the project.

Mr. Steinman and Mr. Loaf.
So here is all of Tanz from its German incarnation. The YT poster has broken it into six segments, each of which has its standout scenes and songs. Note: The English lyrics seen here are completely different from the other set of English lyrics that were posted in the “square” (correct-looking) version of the video. I have no grasp of German, so I can’t tell who did a better job of translation. (I did keep .mp4 copies of the other person’s better-looking videos.)

The first part has an amazing paean to garlic (tongue in cheek, of course) and the first appearance of “Total Eclipse” as the vampire’s signature song. It ends with a very Gilbert and Sullivan-esque song sung by the professor character (played in Fearless Vampire Killers by Jack MacGowran).

  

The second part has the first big duet between the youthful sidekick of the professor and the daughter of the innkeeper (played in the film by Polanski and Sharon Tate).

  

The third part leads up to the famed “Jewish vampire” scene, which explains why one character looks like he’s Fagin or a Semitic stereotype. The initial scenes are set in a shtetl, and Polanski and his original co-scipter Gerard Brach provided a nice comedic pay-off to go with that choice of location.

  

The fourth part, which begins Act Two, starts off with a full performance of “Total Eclipse” and the bravura vampiric nighttime fantasy “Seize the Night.” (A title so good I’d like to attribute it to Steinman, but it surely was Kunze’s contribution.)

 

The fifth part contains another big ensemble number — “Eternity,” performed by a host of vampires after they exit their coffins.

 

The sixth part is the finale (bows included), leading up to the big closing number, “Dance of the Vampires.” The song is really “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young,” an incredibly rousing Steinman song from the Walter Hill film Streets of Fire (1984). It’s a great way to end the show — kinda like Rocky Horror, but as if “Time Warp” was the finale.

 

So there you have it — the entirety of Steinman’s “lost” (in America at least) gothic vampire musical as scripted/with lyrics by Michael Kunze and directed by none other than Roman Polanski. It’s a shame that the YouTube poster did indeed alter the image so the video looks dreadful all the way through, but perhaps that was the only way to keep it from being taken down? (Since YT’s rules are arbitrary, whimsical, capricious, and absolutely without rhyme or reason. It’s a video-viewing site run by robots that pretends it’s the creation of people.)

*****

Jim and garlic.
As a closer I want to add some items that were not in the preceding posts about Steinman. Three are from his only album, Bad for Good (1981), which is an odd affair — made up of songs that would’ve been on the sequel to Bat Out of Hell that never materialized because of Meatloaf losing his voice (although he used these songs and other Steinman tunes for both Bats 2 and 3). Steinman also doesn’t sing on some of the tracks — the one hit from the album, “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through,” was sung by session singer Rory Dodd.

Here, Steinman delivers a Jim Morrison-esque spoken-word piece, “Love and Death and an American Guitar” (although Jim S. was kidding — or at least half-kidding). He had started doing this monologue at Meat Loaf live shows and later re-used it for the EPK of the Original Sin album he wrote and produced for his attempt at a prefab girl group, Pandora’s Box.

 

The album’s title song, “Bad for Good,” is a classic Steinman tune, with full-blown rock-drama in effect. (And quite corny interpretive dancing in the music-vid.)

 

The last video from his album is not found on YouTube (no reason why, really) but can be found on Vimeo. He often referred in interviews to the “boner moments” in his songs, where he indicated that the male narrator was getting crazy over his object of desire. Here, Jim not only sings (lip-synch of course) with the ever-lovely Karla De Vito (who took over for Ellen Foley and toured with Meat Loaf, performing back-up vocals and duets from the first Bat LP) — he also dances. (Or something resembling dancing.) This is his silliest epic song (and intended to be so):

I can’t resist closing another tribute to Steinman with the Holy Grail of the music-videos for his songs. No, not “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” This video for a song Jim wrote and produced in 1989 for his girl-group Pandora’s Box (but which became a giant hit for Celine Dion several years later) is directed by none other than Funhouse interview subject Ken Russell.

Steinman and
the Pandora's Box
ladies.
It is the union of a filmmaker who often went deliriously, deliciously over the top and a songwriter who stayed in that register all the time. (Jim’s oft-stated heroes were Richard Wagner and Little Richard, and clearly many tragic story-songs of the early Sixties.) The video finds “Unkle Ken” (as he liked to be called in his later years) repeating a plot he developed for his contribution to the anthology film Aria (1987), and in the process producing frenzied, stylized visuals that perfectly match Steinman’s words and music.

In a recently posted piece by Sylvie Simmons, Steinman is quoted as saying that Russell “'shot enough footage for a whole porno movie.... The record company,' he added with a grin, was 'horrified.' ” (Jim had a penchant for hyperbole that never failed him.)

The singer, for the record, is Elaine Caswell. And this is a mega-blast of Steinman (and Russell) grandiosity.