Columns, Holiday Specials

CHRISTMAS COLUMN 2015

By , • Dec 20th, 2015 •

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As always, around this time of the year, there are some sumptuous films to be found, as well as some film-related books, for the special gift that asks a bit more of your wallet. Uncharacteristically, I’m starting with the books.


THE CHAPLIN ARCHIVES (Taschen Press)
Edited by Paul Duncan. Weight: 13.8 lbs. Dimensions: 16” wide X 12 ½” high. 560 pages. 900 Illustrations. Book smell: intoxicating. Price: $200. Supplementals:the first 10,000 numbered editions include a strip of film from a 35mm print of CITY LIGHTS.

I was so excited when this volume arrived that I foolishly tried to pick it up by myself. Now, with a muscle spasm in my back, I feel like Chaplin might have felt in his wheelchair trying to direct his last, unfinished film, THE FREAK. And using that as a segue, there’s a whole section here on THE FREAK, including stunning photos! I remember, back in the day, filmmakers wanting to fly over to Switzerland just to offer their services so that he could finish that final film. His wife, Oona, nixed production on it (devotedly so) because she felt the special effects work, with their endless necessitated retakes, would be the death of him. Instead he did a coffee table book – my life in pictures, a nice book, but somehow slight, and certainly nowhere near as phenomenal as THE CHAPLIN ARCHIVES.

This coffee table volume may be heavier than the coffee table, but it’s a thrilling compilation of photographs, documents, and interview excerpts that provide great insight into Chaplin’s life and art. Tilt the B&W photographs and they shimmer as if the whites were replaced with silver, a wonderful old-world effect (this is not so of the earliest chapters, which appear mildly, intentionally sepia-toned.) The large, horizontal pages allow for some powerful reproductions of close-up photographs that feel eerily as if Chaplin is staring out of the book at us.

Some of the most euphoric delights are its ample coverage of Chaplin’s lost or unproduced films – THE FREAK of course, with voluptuous storyboards included, NAPOLEAN, with its connection to his mother’s description of the father he barely knew, and A WOMAN OF THE SEA, the Von Sternberg feature whose negative Chaplin burned toward the end of his life. Also A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG, which was completed and released in 1966, but feels like a stand-alone oddity in his cinematic autobiography. A budget top sheet for COUNTESS, amusingly, indicates that Chaplin received $306. for his story and screenplay.

There are wardrobe photos of plain Jane Joan Barry, who caused him no end of trouble in the 40s, a mosaic of quotes that comprise robust insights into the films’ creations, and several of the family Xmas card images which are always a delight, seeing the copious amount of Chaplin children lined up according to height.

There are no shots of Hetty Kelly to be found within, she being the 14-year-old he was infatuated with as his career was evolving, though she is mentioned. He came back looking for her in 1921 when he was a super-star, only to learn that she had died three years earlier during the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918. But the melancholy of their few meetings was to play a significant part in the formation of his complex notions of beauty, which he would pursue for the rest of his long, creative life. Nonetheless, the omission of a picture of her was, I assume, a deliberate choice, and, I believe, pointed and sensible. Oona is the woman we want to remember as being his life’s companion.


PETER O’TOOLE – HELLRAISER*SEXUAL OUTLAW*IRISH REBEL
BloodMoonProductions.com. Writers: Darwin Porter & Danforth Prince. 620+ pages. Book Smell: subtle.

It has to be a reflection of modern technological advances, it can’t be anything else: all the Blood Moon books, most of them several hundred pages in length, are written by the same two people – Porter & Prince. I mean, how is that possible? Each book should have taken two years. Well, it must be something to do with the ease of writing with WORD, combined with the extraordinarily easy access to information on the internet. I’ve never seen a more thorough use of these modern breakthroughs than here.

And while the book has the feeling, at times, of collage, it’s never any less than fun, and it’s infinitely more substantial than a mere gossip tome. I mean, I loved Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon books (I had the pleasure of putting him up at my apt for a few days once, and that was fun, too), but they (and this, at first glance) are nothing more than gossip. However in their cumulative, lurid glow, like Weejee’s LA photos, the O’Toole bio becomes something more than what is on the surface – much, more, certainly than what Anger gave us. O’TOOLE takes itself a level more seriously than gossip, and its text is informative, both about the British stage and the American screen.

In terms of glorious gossip, however, wait till you get (just as an example) to page 126. O’Toole is invited by Jules Buck, his friend and business partner, to join him for drinks with two other friends, who turn out to be Ava Gardner (they meet in her suite at the London Savoy Hilton) and Burt Lancaster, neither of whom O’Toole had previously met, and both of whom had acted together in Robert Siodmak’s THE KILLERS. Their unexpurgated stories that evening are absolute jaw-droppers. Lancaster’s bi-sexuality and Gardner’s sexual appetites are tossed away like everyday, casual knowledge. Their fast-flowing repartee and awareness of each other’s sexual adventures pile on, paragraph after paragraph, story after story, and it’s heady stuff. Add in some bizarre here-say out of nowhere about Evita Peron, and it’s a kinetic, wonderfully written chapter. And there are plenty more to follow.

I mentioned this book to FIR’s quirky film critic, Victoria Alexander, and after reading it she ordered the one on Elizabeth Taylor and said it was just as good. Blood Moon has found a winning formula.

And now for some DVD’S & BluRays:

THE QUAY BROTHERS COLLECTED SHORT FILMS.
(Zeitgeist Films) BluRay. 15 short films + a short by Christopher Nolan. 28-Page booklet.

Basically, these are the collected shorts of the gifted twin stop-motion animators which have previously been released by Zeitgeist on DVD, but a few fun extras have been included. Christopher Nolan created a short film in appreciation of them.

I interviewed the brothers in the Fall of 1993 for an animation-themed issue of THE PERFECT VISION magazine, which I was editing at the time, and was fascinated to hear how concerned they were about how their work was being delivered to audiences. “We knew nothing about the Criterion laser disc. So we don’t know what material they’re coming off. 16mm? That’s like a photocopy of a photocopy… In principle, it’s a disaster. We’re trying to find out if it’s coming off one-inch tape. We were at a festival in Norway recently, and the British Film Institute sent prints, and they were really disgraceful prints and we were so embarrassed. We wrote back to the BFI immediately and they’re striking new ones. So it can get really sloppy. And somebody from Los Angeles once said, “Have you ever seen the prints in America?” And we said, “How would we?” And they said, “You’d really be ashamed.” Only two or three films were shot on 16mm. The rest are 35mm. STREET OF CROCODILES was 35mm. But that’s only seen in 16, and the reduction print is off a lousy internegative. We’ve seen some 16mm prints here that are appalling, so I’m only guessing it’s even worse. I remember we read an article once where Dovzhenko, who did EARTH (1930 – Russia), said that never in all his life did he see a good print of one of his films in good projection. He said he was always shattered by what he saw. I mean, if your work goes to a film festival, you have to be there to say, “Mama mia, what’s happened here?”

That was then, and this is now. The Zeitgeist BluRays are exquisite, and the transfers were made under the personal supervision of the Quay Brothers, at least one of whom sounds like Werner Herzog, particularly when he utters the word ‘zone.’.

Nolan’s 8-minute film consists of a visit to the brothers’ studio where we watch them prepare to work. Nothing herein in any way exposes the mystery of their films, but it sure was interesting to learn that they dab virgin olive oil on the puppets’ eyes to make them feel ‘inhabited.’ A few of the shorts have accompanying commentaries, and these are great companion pieces to the pestilent, Kafkaesque images. For instance, they explain that there was so much dust on the miniature sets of STREET OF CROCODILES that they had to hold their breath when going in to animate.

STATIONS OF THE ELEVATED
(Oscilloscope) 1981. 45 minutes. Double-disc set. AR: 1.33:1.
New HD transfers. Directed, photographed (16mm reversal film) and edited by Manfred Kirschheimer.

I used to beg Manny to find me a copy of this film. It seems like I periodically brought the subject up for at least twenty years. In that I’m still alive, it was worth the wait. There aren’t many films left that I still long to get my hands on as much as this. Some few still remain elusive: William Cameron Menzies’ THE MAZE (in 3D). Max Ophuls’ THE EXILE. Michael Powell’s HONEYMOON. Ludmilla Tcherina’s THE LOVERS OF TERUEL. Steve Reeves’ THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD. George Plimpton’s SHOOTOUT AT RIO LOBO. Those and a very few others.

Disc One, in addition to the main attraction, contains a discussion between graffiti artist Lee (Lee) Quinones and artist/historian David (Chino) Villorente. As artifacts of a bygone time, they are a most compelling adjunct. And the film itself, once a poetic reverie, with its jazz/gospel score, now is an invaluable time-piece, as the glory days of the graffiti artist is decades past.

Included are Manny’s New York films – COLOSSUS ON THE RIVER (1965), CLAW (1968), SHORT CIRCUIT (1973) and BRIDGE HIGH (1975). Manny himself provides a new interview, shot by students from The School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

LA GRANDE BOUFFE
(Arrow Video & MVD) BluRay. 1973. 130 minutes. AR: 1.85:1.
Directed by Marco Ferreri. Written by Ferreri and Rafael Azcona. Cinematography by Mario Vulpiani. Production Designed by Michel de Broin. Dishes created by Fauchon of Paris. Gastronomic Consultant – Giuseppe Maffioli. Music by Philippe Sarde.
With: Marcello Mastroianni, Philippe Noiret, Michel Piccoli, Ugo Tognazzi, Andrea Ferreol.
Restorationist: James White

A box of 8 Ferreris came out on DVD several years back, and it was a lovely collectable ensemble. Of the batch, of course, LA GRANDE BOUFFE was the prize item. One of the several extraordinary films held back from release by producer/distributor Allen Klein in the 70s (Jodorowsky’s work was hard to see for decades due to Klein’s obdurate attitude), it finally escaped into the world, and none of its wild reputation was diminished once it was seen again by eager audiences.

Nor had its elusive meaning become any easier to pin down. In one of Arrow’s supplementals, a half-hour TV show with Ferreri as its sole guest, he dances around the concept of BOUFFE being farce, rather he chooses to find kindred cinematic spirits in Tod Browning’s FREAKS and Luis Bunuel’s NAZARIN, and says that finally the movie isn’t about comedy so much as it’s about friendship. I guess that’s as close an approximation of what one can hang onto when watching this one-of-a-kind slice of…life too fully lived? Better to think of Ferreri as a determined provocateur, and then settle back for the capricious story, the gross-out scenes, the star power, and the accruing, malingering mood of melancholy.

I caught an extremely rare screening of the film at Lincoln Center in 1983 as part of a Ferreri retrospective. They were pushing his latest production at the time – TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS. I spotted the director, being as invisible as possible, lurking on a stairway near some curtains, and went over to congratulate him. He actually seemed startled and bewildered (and even momentarily terrified), possibly that I had recognized him, but more likely because I had my 11-year-old son with me, who was not of an age, under normal circumstances, to be allowed into an X-rated film like LA GRANDE BOUFFE. But we got his autograph anyway.

Some critical revisitations opine that the film is dated, that its comingling of death by gourmet excesses, prostitutes, and explosions of fecal matter so uncontained that it drips through the ceiling, have lost their 70s ability to shock. Well, I showed the film two years ago to an International Cinema class comprised of students from many nations, with educational leanings toward many different arts – film, graphic design, illustration, animation, photography, etc., and it still makes me smile to recall their shocked, baffled reactions, sitting there in the screening room desperate for an explanation. These were 20-somethings, and they were predominantly speechless…and if vocal, then they were pretty strident. And of course there were some who loved it. What they couldn’t deny was the film’s artistry and is impact.

Some of them were still bringing it up in conversation with me two years later!

FESSENDEN X 4
THE LARRY FESSENDEN COLLECTION (SCREAM FACTORY!) NO TELLING (1985). HABIT (1995). WENDIGO (2001). THE LAST WINTER (2006)

He writes ‘em, he directs ‘em, and sometimes he acts in ‘em. And if he doesn’t, then Ron Perlman tends to.

Larry Fessenden is a fairly inscrutable character on celluloid. The four representative films in this collection will make that abundantly clear. Other young filmmakers like Ti West owe him a debt. And each of these films have Fessenden on the commentary track shedding a welcome degree of light on his ambiguous tales.

I wasn’t even aware that he’d done a feature before HABIT, but here, four years earlier, is NO TELLING. This creepy character study plays it very carefully in the end credits, not only stating that no animals were injured, but building on that claim, postulating that perhaps animals shouldn’t appear in films under any circumstances. Presciently, or through test screenings, he must have gotten a whiff of the anti-vivisectionists lurking out there, and damned if they weren’t right. The viewer comment at the bottom of the film’s IMDB pages rips the filmmakers a new rectum.

Bypassing the fact that the film’s most upsetting image was done similarly in 1973‘s O LUCKY MAN! (with no negative feedback that I can recall), it seems like the great and fearful PC-brain was alive and well in 1991. Frederick Wiseman did one of his verite films on the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center at Emory University, and it was insightful to see the technicians exposing and working on live monkeys’ brains while joking casually among themselves. To ease the pressure, natch, but still…

The wendigo was a legendary backwoods creature that fascinated me as a kid. I read Algernon Blackwood’s evocative story about the wind demon, sucking a guide named Defago out of the safety of his tent and whisking him off into the dark forest, where his scream of, “My burning feet of fire!” could be heard dying off in the distance within a matter of seconds. Later he returns, only he’s not Defago any more…

Always wanted to do a film about it, but never could crack the subject in a script that suited me. Here’s Fessenden’s attempt, and while the weakest thing in his film is the creature itself, there’s much dread floating about between the frames, and in the negative spaces between human interactions and the carefully chosen (and storyboarded) camera set-ups. Here is where the commentary track fits the second viewing like a glove. So much of the deliberately paced story is based on his memories and dreams of his childhood. So many interactions between the three leads fulfill his feelings about the little things that go unsaid. “Mythologies” is a key word as he defines how the young boy experiences what descends on his parents, and how he adopts a native American wendigo talisman as his fantasy trigger in the face of horror. As Fessenden sees it, Horror is an element that intrudes itself into lives that have been just moseying along. This calls for a narrative that Michelangelo Antonioni would have admired. Fessenden feels that the meaning of the film is most clearly expressed in a long shot 53 minutes in. Rather late in the day for a second act. But he has his stylistic commitments, and these four films display variations on them. The commentaries clarify what we’ve just watched, particularly if you’re hooked but need a bit more than what you were able to glean from a viewing.

Also, there’s a nice making-of doc: “Searching for the Wendigo,” which shows the various stages of production in much the way that Frederic Wiseman might have approached it. A little jazzier, but letting the production unfold without narration and speaking for itself. Nice.

I like the B&W box cover art. At the bottom of the image, Fessenden stares out at us dramatically, a curl of sadistic amusement about his mouth, while above the collection title his head seems to have exploded, and images from the four films emerge in a partial blur. He seems to be giving us a CLOCKWORK ORANGE–Malcolm McDowall-Stanley Kubrick patented stare, head tilted slightly forward, expression slightly malevolent. It makes you remember that he’s acted in four times as many films as he’s directed. I appeared in one earlier this year with him. We didn’t have any scenes together, though we were on location at the same time. It’s called NO WAY TO LIVE, and he’s extremely good in it.

DVD review by Ben Peeples

TWICE UPON A TIME
(Warner Home Video – Warner Archive). 1983. 74 minutes. Directed by John Korty and Chales Swenson. Screenplay by John Korty, Charles Swenson, Suella Kennedy, and Bill Couturie. A Korty Films/Lucasfilm Ltd. Presentation in Lumage Animation. Includes both the theatrically released version and John Korty’s director’s cut audio. Supplements include audio commentary by director John Korty with collaborators John Baker, Harley Jessup, Brian Narelle, Will Noble, Henry Selick, and Carl Wilat, and the original theatrical trailer. Stereo. 1.78:1. $21.99.

It had been a long time coming, but this September it finally happened, the release of TWICE UPON A TIME on DVD from Warner Archive. It seems impossible for me to overstate how much this movie meant to the people who grew up watching it, and there’s a sense of catharsis that not only has it been given a great home video release, but also that it’s simply available again.

TWICE takes place in a world split between Din, the real world depicted in black and white live-action photography, Frivoli, the makers of our dreams, and the Murkworks, the creators of our nightmares, the latter two depicted in an animation style dubbed Lumage. Synonymous Botch (Marshall Efron), the mad leader of the Murkworks has discovered a way to stop time in Din. His goal is to place ‘nightmare bombs’, start time back up, and have the ‘rushers’ of Din experience non-stop nightmares. The only people standing in his way are a group of wannabe heroes from Frivoli; Ralph the All-Purpose Animal (Lorenzo Music), his silent sidekick Mumford, a caustic fairy godmother (Judith Kahan), aspiring actress Flora Fauna (Julie Payne), and dumb-as-a-rock superhero Rod Rescueman (James Cranna). The film has rapid-fire dialogue and is sometimes a little hard to follow due to its quick pace, but is absolutely filled with inventive production design and sharp humor.

Director John Korty hired an assortment of improvisational comedians to depict his characters, then turned to an animation and design team (working out of his house!) that included Harley Jessup, Henry Sellick, and Carl Willat. The animation process dubbed ‘Lumage’, uses semi-transparent paper for all the parts of the character, giving it a strange stained-glass-like quality. Production took several years, and the film’s initially planned spring 1982 release was repeatedly pushed back as the film went through recuts to tighten the story, eventually settling on a late summer 1983 release.

The film’s test screenings went badly, especially those taking place at college campuses, where the audience walked out shortly into the film assuming it was a strictly for kids animated film. When these screenings were occurring, John Korty was in New York setting up another project. Producer/co-writer Bill Couturie decided to reassemble some of the cast to record more vulgar versions of several scenes, in an attempt to keep a teenager or adult’s interest in the film up. Many on the crew, including Korty, didn’t know about these changes until the premiere of the film, and were outraged by the changes, even more so when they found out this was going to be the theatrical release version of the film.

The film’s theatrical run was limited to a few barely-publicized screenings on the west coast (the movie never screened in New York) that went badly as parents walked out with their kids in tow when Botch started his now profanity-laced opening monologue. It re-emerged on HBO in 1984, then Showtime (in a Korty-approved version) shortly thereafter, then disappeared again.

In 1991, Warner Home Video released the Korty-approved version of the film on VHS and LaserDisc. For some reason, about 30 seconds of footage was missing from this release. In 1995, Cartoon Network showed this version of the film on a program called “Mr. Spim’s Cartoon Theater”, which is how I first saw it. At this point in time, information on TWICE was virtually non-existent (it did make it into Leonard Maltin’s yearly books, and is in the ‘Sleeper’ section of “The Entertainment Weekly Guide to the Greatest Films Ever Made”. It wasn’t until 2006 that Taylor Jessen made a comprehensive article detailing the film’s production, which gave people their first real glimpse into how the film was made. By the time this article came out, the movie was completely out of circulation; no home video release was in print, it wasn’t available on any streaming services, and there were no theatrical showings of it anywhere. In 2012, the Cinefamily theater in Los Angeles hosted a sold-out 35mm screening with a John Korty in person for a Q&A. Earlier in 2015, this 35mm print surfaced again at a Korty retrospective at the BAM Cinematek in Brooklyn, and again the screening was sold out. It was at the BAM screening that this Warner Archive release was announced.

This DVD gives you the option of watching either the theatrically released version, or Korty’s original cut via different audio tracks. Now that I know the history of the film, I prefer Korty’s version (listed as ‘Director’s Original Version’ on the main menu). The transfer is outstanding, showing a level of detail far beyond the laserdisc and VHS releases that have been available in the past, and a more vivid color palette. The stereo audio is also quite good, as this was a film that had a lot of creative use of sound and foley work.

Included as extras are a theatrical trailer that is brimming with footage that isn’t in the film, and a fantastic audio commentary featuring Korty, John Baker, Harley Jessup, Brian Narelle, Will Noble, Henry Selick, and Carl Wilat. Whenever there’s a lull in the group commentary, John Korty, in a solo interview, comes in and gives more background on the production. I’m hopeful that some time in the future Warner can revisit this title and add more extras, but what’s included is very welcome.

Finally after years of waiting, TWICE UPON A TIME is widely available again, and with the option to watch either version of the film, purchasing this is a no-brainer for fans.
(Bear in mind that this title is Manufactured on Demand (MOD), and to obtain it, you should visit The Warner Archive Collection (www.wbshop.com)

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