Category Archives: Director Retrospective

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO EDWARD D. WOOD. JR: THE NEW TESTAMENT

This is the second half of a two-part overview of the career of Ed Wood, Jr. You can read the first part here.

Before the terms Art Brut, Outsider Art, and Naïve Art were bandied about freely, Ed Wood, Jr. personified those concepts. Of course, Wood himself had to die first before being canonized as one of outsider art’s patron saints. Predictably, with that canonization came an institutional sheen of sorts, and Wood became the proverbial yardstick of “so bad it’s good” filmmaking.

Orgy Of The Dead (1965) was written by Wood and directed by Stephen C. Apostolof (AKA A.C. Stevens). This was Wood’s first of many collaborations with the soft-core porn director. Orgy stars TV-psychic Criswell in what has to be his biggest role. Our lounge lizard clairvoyant serves as a bloated and clearly inebriated host called “the Emperor.” He eccentrically delivers dialogue recycled from Night of the Ghouls (1959) straight off of cue cards: “Once human, now monsters! Monsters to be pitied! Monsters to be despised!” William Bates is horror writer Bob. Bob’s girlfriend, Shirley (Pat Barrington) just has to ask “Why Bob? Why those horror stories?” We’ll never forgive her for asking that after being made to suffer through Bob’s response: “My monsters have done well for me. You think I’d give that up so I could write about trees or dogs or daisies? That’s it! I will write about my creatures pushing up the daises!” Shirley plants a kiss on him. “Your puritan upbringing sure doesn’t hurt your art of kissing.” “My kisses are alive!” (she sure told him!) “Who’s to say my monsters aren’t alive?” Bob and Shirley are looking for an old cemetery so Bob can get inspired when, lo and behold… a car crash! “Aah!”

Still from Orgy of the Dead (1965)As our victims lie unconscious, in the very cemetery they were looking for, Criswell intones: “Time seems to stand still. Not so the ghouls!” Bob and Shirley wake up to the sound of music. But, no, Julie Andrews is not on hand and as Shirley perceptively says, “I can’t believe anything dead is playing that music.” On their way to find the source of the music, they spy a nubile lass doing a lethargic striptease. Bob can’t Continue reading THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO EDWARD D. WOOD. JR: THE NEW TESTAMENT

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO EDWARD D. WOOD, JR!

*This is the first testament in our Ed Wood Gospel. The second, New Testament, will cover Wood’s late films, including his collaborations with A.C. Stephens.

This month, Ed Wood‘s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) sees its Blu-ray release; posthumously, Ed is thoroughly enjoying his last laugh. He can thank those smug, condescending, hopelessly unimaginative thugs posing as establishment critics, the Medveds, for resurrecting him from the dead and catapulting him into a cult Valhalla. As everyone knows by now, the Medveds infamously awarded Wood the honor of  “Worst Director of All Time” in their infamous Golden Turkey Awards. Today, of course, we know that award could go to someone far more deserving, such as Mel Gibson, Tony Scott, or Mark Steven Johnson. Why pick on the genuine tranny auteur of outsider art?  But, thank , the Medveds saw fit to bestow their award on Ed! There is a sense of divine justice after all, because we have rightly canonized him.

Still from Plan 9 from Outer Space (colorized)Plan 9 was already colorized for DVD a few years ago, and there wasn’t a single complaint about a legendary film being subjected to this much-maligned process. Probably because we all realized Ed simply would have loved the extra attention it gave his magnum opus. According to his biographer, Ed Wood said that while Glen or Glenda? (1953) was his most personal film, Plan 9 was his proudest accomplishment!

Wood’s appeal and fame continues unabated. Yes, he was a trash filmmaker, but he was a trash filmmaker delightfully of his time, simultaneously encased in and fighting against the naiveté of the 1950s. Naturally, that phenomenon is something that cannot be repeated, despite the countless attempts to do so by Continue reading THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO EDWARD D. WOOD, JR!

DAVID LYNCH IS DEAD

This article was originally published at Raging Bull Movie Reviews.

Art College in the early 1980’s was gloriously anti-academia. It was the type of atmosphere where even a hint of succumbing to systematic, structured, aesthetic thinking could lead to excommunication. You learned what you had to learn, or rather you learned what you were exposed to, and got the hell out to face the mercenary art scene while you worked random piss jobs. This was the calling and nature of your priesthood.

Although nothing, no one, was sacred, we did have artists, those prophetic voices, we intensely identified with. David Lynch was one of the new, exciting, unrelenting voices. He was one of our two Davidic prophets, the other being David Byrne, who ignited our excitement when he appeared in oversized suit, singing to a swaying lamp in front of projected poetry in Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense.

Jack Nance as EraserheadWhen we saw Eraserhead (1977), we had braced ourselves beforehand. Of course, we had heard the rumors even before someone obtained a print for screening at The John Herron School of Art. Naturally, some of the VC (visual communications) students showed up, long enough to tear themselves away from their whipped cream dreams of illustrating X-Men comic books and listening to Duran Duran, to launch their all too predictable assaults. It would have been disappointing if they hadn’t. It only took a few moments for those monotonous, robotic voices belonging to the religious cult of linear thinking to spew their dull bitching. As always, they did it obnoxiously loud when their fragile, conformability zone had been threatened. It was slightly disappointing that there were no punches thrown, but it Continue reading DAVID LYNCH IS DEAD

RUSTAM KHAMDAMOV: IMPOSSIBLE TO BE GREAT…

Ed. note:  The movies of Rustam Khamdamov are impossible to find in the West, and for the most part in his native Russia as well. Read this article (to our knowledge the most extensive retrospective of Khamdamov to be found on the Internet in English) to discover how this legendary, and very weird, director has managed to fall through the cracks in world culture.

By Irina Goncharova, edited and additional material by Greg Smalley.  Original research and Russian translations by Irina Goncharova.

Rustam Khamdamov– What is your father’s occupation?

– My father writes poetry. That’s all he does. He is one of the greatest unknown poets of the world.

– And when does he get money?

– Never. It’s impossible to be great and be paid for it.

The quote above is an exchange from Rustam Khamdamov’s V gorakh moyo serdtse [My Heart’s in the Highlands] (1967).  When he was a third year student of the All-Union Institute for Cinematography (VGIK in Moscow, USSR) Khamdamov shot this movie that was called “the work of a master” and was included in lists of the best Soviet movies. The film swept the VGIK internal festivals. Although Khamdamov is mentioned in the credits only once, along with other students, everybody knew he was the one and only author of the movie—not just its director, but the one who wrote the original screenplay (after William Saroyan’s play), who penned the absurd dialogue, who made all streamers and costumes with his own hands, who selected the best actors when doing the casting. The response to the film was polarized and conflicting. The VGIK Communist Party Committee—just imagine, at that time the Communists decided the destiny of everything and everyone in the country—introduced ideological censorship on the works of the VGIK students straight away.

Really, it’s not easy to write for an American audience about a director such as Rustam Khamdamov.  I believe there are very few people in the USA who have ever heard his name, although it may be found by Googling or searching the Internet Movie Database.  Still, this search would hardly clarify the situation.  The list of his movies is incredibly short, and practically each one has a very sad production history, but those critics who mention his name do so with much respect and even a kind of devotion, often calling him “legendary.”

What makes this director so legendary?

Rustam Khamdamov is of Uzbek descent and took his film production course from the renown Russian film director Grigori Chukhrai.[1]  As mentioned above, his first movie was the student work (some critics say it was his graduate project) My Heart’s in the Highlands (1967), a short, approximately 30 minute black and white film. This was the first film where viewers saw the beautiful Elena Solovey, a future Soviet movie star.

Elena Solovey

Elena Solovey in Raba Lyubvi, 1975.

My Heart’s In The Highlands (1939), initially a play by William Saroyan, was a comedy Continue reading RUSTAM KHAMDAMOV: IMPOSSIBLE TO BE GREAT…

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grigori_Chukhrai, best known in the West for such his movies as Sorok pervyy (1956) [The Forty-first] and Ballada o soldate (1959) [Ballad of a Soldier]. []

IN A WORD, “CHAPLIN”

Any hip, against-the-grain aficionado with an appreciation for the surreal, the avant-garde, and the experimental will tell you flat out that there’s no comparison: it’s Keaton over Chaplin.   You simply have to concede Keaton’s superiority because Chaplin was too accepted, too famous, too popular, too sentimental, too rich, too pedestrian in directorial style, too populist, too egotistical, too narcissistic, and nowhere near as prone to risk-taking as Keaton.

That was THE prevailing thought from the 60’s until quite recently and accurate only in theory because, like Beethoven, Chaplin really can’t be overrated, while Keaton certainly is (i.e., The General).

That doesn’t mean the above comparison has no truth and, naturally, it would be preposterous to say that Chaplin did not make some truly terrible films (King of New York and A Day’s Pleasure are people’s exhibit A).

However, Keaton’s  experimentalist stature is grossly exaggerated.  He was certainly the most innovative of the “A” list silent clowns, but was nowhere near as much so as either  the recently re-discovered Charlie Bowers or Harry Langdon, who, as blasphemous as it may sound, really had more memorably etched, modern characterizations (Chaplin did say he only felt threatened by Langdon).

In hindsight, Keaton’s innovation, which  surfaced  only  sporadically, seems suspiciously unintentional, even if his best films are indeed brilliant and highly innovative—The Playhouse and Sherlock Jr.

Years later, when working with Samuel Beckett on Film, Keaton revealed his  impatience with experimentation by loudly grumbling.

One walks away from Keaton’s best films feeling impressed.  One walks away from Chaplin’s best film unforgettably  moved.

Chaplin in City LightsThere is hardly a more profoundly artistic, emotionally overwhelming ending than that of City Lights .  It remains the most memorable ending in screen history.  Montgomery Clift declared it the  greatest screen acting he had  seen (that’s saying quite a bit from an actor of Clift’s caliber, but perhaps he had not seen Falconetti in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, which is hardly acting in the gauged sense).

City Lights deserves all the acclaim it has received.  It is Chaplin at his most spiritual and at his most expertly balanced (the pathos does not draw attention to itself, as in many of Continue reading IN A WORD, “CHAPLIN”

REQUIEM FOR TIM BURTON & JOHNNY DEPP

Apparently Pee Wee’s Playhouse: The Movie is actually in production and is slated for a 2011 release.

There has always been an uneasy relationship between avant-garde and outsider art. In 1985, Tim Burton and Pee-Wee Herman brilliantly thumbed their noses at any pretense of tension between the two with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Herman and Burton seemed refreshing fresh air to a relatively young medium that was dangerously growing stale with mass manufacturePee Wee's Big Adventured Hollywood product.

Of course, Herman went on to produce what was possibly the best television program in the last twenty years with Pee Wee’s Playhouse, that is until some uptight Florida cops busted him when they caught him pleasuring himself in an adult theater (which is bit like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500, one would think). This was during the heyday of the now practically extinct video store. Panic ensued and everyone from the Blue and Yellow Giant down to drug stores yanked every Pee Wee video from the shelves. Oddly enough, not too long after O.J. Simpson was accused of decapitating two people, those same video chains were in a panic trying to get every O.J video into their stores, which is quite a commentary on American mores: Hmmm, let’s see, it’s much worse to masturbate than to kill people. Now would I rather my child grow up to have a healthy sex life, or be a mass murderer?  (PS: On September 12th, 2001 those same corporate video chains were hustling to get all the Nostradamus videos in, feeding off American paranoia).

Meanwhile, Burton showed much promise.  The flawed Beetlejuice and Batman lived up to that early promise. Despite the absurd Hollywood fight ending, Edward Scissorhands was a Continue reading REQUIEM FOR TIM BURTON & JOHNNY DEPP

THE EXQUISITE CHAMBER WESTERNS OF BUDD BOETTICHER, PART ONE: SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956)

In a brief span of four years, from 1956 to 1960, Director Budd Boetticher, writer Burt Kennedy and actor Randolph Scott collaborated on a series of seven “chamber westerns” which rank as one of the most rewarding achievements in the art of American Cinema.

Seven Men from NowWhile a number of prominent film critics, historians and luminaries have rightly praised the “Ranown” series (named after Boetticher’s production company), attention is often paid to the fact that Boetticher produced the series on a shoestring budget.  Thus, despite praise, the series and Boetticher himself are relegated to a second tier, “B” level, as if the monies poured into these films somehow affect and dictate their intrinsic value.

To the contrary, the Boetticher/Kennedy/Scott westerns are in every way equal to the larger budgeted collaborations of Ford and Wayne, Daves and Ford, Leone and Eastwood.

With these sparse, psychologically complex works, Boetticher did as much for the American western as Val Lewton did for the American Horror film in the 40’s.

The breakthrough Seven Men From Now (1956) was a long way from Ken Maynard’s white hat and bottle of milk atop a horse named Tarzan. It’s also far more aesthetically modernist, more taut, more complexly developed in character than the later, ultra-stylish westerns of Peckinpah and Leone (the exception being Peckinpah’s slightly overrated Ride the High Country, also starring Randolph Scott with Joel McCrea). Very few films in the genre can boast as richly developed characterizations. The Delmer Daves/Glenn Ford films along with the Anthony Mann/James Stewart cannon can arguably be mentioned in the same breath.

Seven Men From Now establishes Boetticher’s Ranown canvas. Randolph Scott was an actor of beautiful limitations and the director utilized Scott’s mere presence to compositional advantage.  The actor’s weathered face parallels the expressionistic, Cezanne-like rocky terrains.  Boetticher takes equal advantage of his hero’s range to etch a morally ambiguous personification.

Scott, out for revenge, seems, at first, to personify the mythological old west code of right and wrong.  He is ancient, laconic, sips coffee, and projects a virtuous nobility with a mere shifting of the eyes.  That is until his foil, Lee Marvin (superb here) astutely recalls how Scott had no qualms about stealing a friend’s wife.  Even Walter Reed, as Gail Russell’s weak, cowardly husband, surprises in an act of redemption. The power in the Boetticher films lies in the riveting conversations and in a shrewd slicing of viewer expectations.  There is a disconcerting, hushed quality throughout the film, even in those conversations, which project a tense, quiescent air of revelation.

Next week: perhaps the bleakest film of the cycle, The Tall T (1957).

STANLEY KUBRICK, CULTURAL OMNIVORE

This guest essay is by Alfred Eaker, director of Jesus and Her Gospel of Yes!, which was voted Best Experimental Film in the 2004 New York International Film and Video Festival, and the feature W the Movie.

“We must be cultural omnivores and raid all the art forms to enhance our own art”– Pierre Boulez; Modernist French composer.

Although, the meaning of postmodernism is replete with vagaries, one prominent characteristic of the so-called movement is that it abounds in eclecticism.  Pierre Boulez’s advice for artists to mantle a mental state of being cultural omnivores seems tailor made for much that is pronounced in postmodernism.  In that light, the movement had one of it’s most well-known, brilliantly driven, unofficial spokespersons in the late Stanley Kubrick.kubrick1

Kubrick, of course, patterned his body of film work after a Beethoven aesthetic.  Each of Beethoven’s nine symphonies had an individual theme.  The Eroica was Beethoven’s initial support, later renounced, bio-portrait of Napoleon.  The 4th, according to Robert Schumann, was a Greek maiden between two Norse gods.  The immortal fifth was THE anti-war statement.  The 6th , a pastorale; the 7th, a series of  rhythmic movements; the 8th, more abstract, is a favorite among modernist conductors; and, of course, the mighty Ode to Joy.

Kubrick wanted to create a work in each of the genres and it’s unfortunate he never got to make his western (Marlon Brando foolishly took over directing One Eyed Jacks, after having Kubrick sacked).  Regardless of genre, each Kubrick film is filtered through his own unique sensibilities (i.e., the dehumanization of man), thus rendering the idea of applying something as superfluous as a genre akin to hopelessly trivial labeling.  When it comes to Kubrick, the genre/subject is almost incidental.  Kubrick defiantly stamped his personal vision onto everything he approached (as author Stephen King would discover, to his complete dismay, when Kubrick took on The Shining.  Kubrick was no assignment director).

Volumes have been written about Kubrick’s body of work with wildly varying and opposing opinions, but the almost unanimous conclusion that can be drawn is that Kubrick’s films are not designed for casual viewing.

Indeed, upon repeated absorption, Kubrick’s films reveal the degree to which Kubrick was a cultural omnivore.

Kubrick’s rep as being a “supremely controlled” artist is a misnomer.  He was just as apt for experimentation, improvisation, and utilizing ideas from actors, etc.  Hence, Kubrick’s reason for disallowing the publishing of his scripts (which he often deviated from) and ordering the destruction of all unused footage.  In it’s rough cut, Clockwork Orange was originally a four hour film.

One of Kubrick’s most compelling scenes in Clockwork Orange was, by turns, supremely controlled and experimental, yet gives compelling insight into Kubrick’s multi-hued layering and eclectic aesthetics.

Alex and the droogs appear at an ultra modernist home, which welcomes visitors with a lit sign, marked simply “Home.” Kubrick’s customary symbolic red and white design work is as heavy laden here as it is throughout the rest of the film.

Husband Patrick Magee types away at his typewrite when the doorbell rings.  The doorbell sounds of the overly familiar first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth: Fate knocking at the door.  However, those four notes sound deceptively innocuous here, almost tinkling.

The camera pans across the room revealing Magee’s redhead wife, Adrienne Corri, dressed in red pajamas, sitting comfortably in a white, plastic chair in the next room.  Husband and wife are detached from one another, echoing the barrenness of the house.  Corri answers the door to hear Alex proclaim “there has been an accident outside” and his request to use the telephone.  Corri is reluctant, but Magee instructs her to let the visitors in.  With the unlocking of door, Fate enters in like a Beethovenian storm.

The “Singing in the Rain” beating/dance was not scripted and was improvised, worked, and re-worked until Kubrick was satisfied with the flowing tone.  Adding this element was a brilliant instinct on Kubrick’s part.  Without it, the breaking-in would have felt more like a tempest than a storm.

After Magee is tied up and beaten, Alex and the droogs turn to Corri.  They take her in front of painting on the wall and begin to rape her.  The visuals in this vignette reveal a homage narrative, akin to developing patterns in an unfolding puzzle.  The design of the painting on the wall has a pronounced familiarity.  In it’s colors and forms, it is a homage to Gustav Klimt and bears striking resemblance to Klimt works like “Farmhouse with Birch Trees”.  Corri appears as a Klimt model personified.  She is Klimt’s mysterious red head, pale and thin (i.e., “Hope 1”).  She and the scene call to mind imagery from Klimt’s “The Beethoven Frieze” (especially in the sections, “The Longing for Happiness Finds Repose in Poetryand “Hostile Powers”).  In essence, Kubrick is paying homage to Klimt paying homage to Beethoven.

Continue reading STANLEY KUBRICK, CULTURAL OMNIVORE