Tag Archives: Filmmaking

GIMME SHELTER (1970): AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN SEMPER

Gimme Shelter (1970) is a documentary film about the last ten days of the 1969 Rolling Stones tour. The film was directed by brother documentarians Albert and David Maysles. It is best known today for having captured footage of the murder of a black man by a Hells Angels security guard at the Altamont Speedway near San Francisco. Gimme Shelter recently received the Criterion treatment on DVD. This is an interview with John Semper, Jr., who worked for Albert and David Maysles while they were editing that film.

John Semper Jr’s experience with Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers, documentary filmmaking, the film industry, and film as art and commerce.

“What happened was in high school I knew this guy named Gregor Shapiro. In fact, we’re still friends even though he lives in Sweden these days. Somehow Gregor had a connection to the Maysles: Albert and David. I already knew who they were because I was a budding young filmmaker back in the days when nobody under twenty saw any future in being a budding young filmmaker. It was a completely different time. We were not as drenched in media as we are today. For most of my peers being in the media was not a viable career option. That’s how long ago that was, but for me it was, and I was paying a lot of attention to the documentary filmmaking that was going on.

The Maysles were unique because they had created a custom-built,16mm hand-held camera. This was cutting edge technology. They had designed this camera. I think David had designed it. It was balanced so they could have it on their shoulder for a long period of time and it would not cause them a great deal of fatigue. The idea of something hand-held that would not cause you a great deal of physical discomfort was a huge breakthrough.

The other thing about their equipment was that the camera ran silently. 16 mm cameras in those days were extraordinarily noisy and blimps that you would put on them to make them quiet were huge. You couldn’t really do documentary filmmaking without being very visible and very loud. Not only could the Maysles carry their equipment unobtrusively, without causing them physical pain, but it was silent so after a while people forgot that they were there.

They did this one documentary that got a lot of attention called Salesman [also a Criterion release] where they followed around a bible salesman in New England, following him from door to door. The fact that they could get this candid footage was unheard of. Also, the fact that you could record sound on the fly. Remember sound had to be recorded separately from pictures. There were no cameras really that recorded sound while you were recording picture. That was all very new and exciting. The footage that they got, which today we would call “reality” footage, in those days it was very much “documentary” footage. The Maysles ability to capture people in their regular lives was unrivaled and amazing

Still from Gimme Shelter (1970)This was the late 1960s. I knew the Maysles’ work because I had seen Salesman and I was heavily into watching and studying documentaries. Gregor went and worked for the Maysles during one Christmas vacation. Gregor came back to school afterwards, and he had somehow got hold of a duplicate of the footage from Gimme Shelter where the guy gets killed: the one guy that the Hells Angel is knifing, a poor black guy who is wearing a lime green suit. Gregor had this footage and he showed it to us. We were all just mesmerized that this had happened and that Gregor had the footage.

As I recall, Gregor was not as interested in film as much as I was. He had just kind of stumbled onto this job. Gregor was more interested in still photography. He turned to me and said: “I know you are really interested in film. Why don’t you come to New York with me next summer, I will introduce you to the Maysles. Let’s see if we can work there again.”

That summer Gregor and I went to New York and stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. The first night we walked in who was in the lobby, drunk out of her mind, but Janis Joplin! We were checking in and Janis Joplin comes walking Continue reading GIMME SHELTER (1970): AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN SEMPER

SATURDAY SHORT: THE MAKING OF GODARD & OTHERS (2010)

In recent years, “making of” clips have been primarily about the intricate details of scenes involving a surplus of special effects. The Making of Godard & Others, however, focuses on the dreariness of being involved in a low-budget film.  And it’s fairly strange on its own…

Preview: The Making of Godard & Others from Owen on Vimeo.

366 UNDERGROUND: THE GRUESOME DEATH OF TOMMY PISTOL (2011)

366 Underground is an occasional feature that looks at the weird world of contemporary low- and micro-budget cinema, the underbelly of independent film.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Aramis Sartorio, , Vincent Cusimano, Kimberly Kane, Camilla Lim, Karen Sartorio, Gia Paloma

PLOT:  Struggling actor Tommy Pistol isn’t much of a success, but he doesn’t let that hinder

Still from The Gruesome Death of Tommy Pistol

his dream of becoming a star, even when his wife and child leave him.  Left alone with hot dogs, porn and a penis pump, Tommy dreams his dreams of success and stardom, but even in dreams, things don’t turn out as he hopes.  And his reality is just about to get even worse…

COMMENTS:  It’s not inaccurate to call TGDOTP a Troma-esque grossout horror-comedy anthology, but that description leaves out quite a lot. It’s also a cautionary tale about obsession, fame and filmmaking in Los Angeles with autobiographical elements.

Unfolding as a series of dreams, the first, “Snuff Said,” has a young Pistol fresh off the train, answering an ad on a web site to act in a movie.  It turns out to be a snuff film, but Pistol, not being the sharpest tool in the box (so to speak), thinks that it’s just extremely realistic special effects.

The second dream, “10 Minutes of Fame”, sees Pistol sneaking onto a location set of a major film and gradually worming his way to become the assistant of the star—Arnold Schwartzenegger!  He accidently kills Arnie and takes his skin, which gives him the ass-kicking skills to take out the rest of the crew.

In the last dream, “Attack of the Staph Spider”, Tommy is a porn director whose lead actress is bitten by a radioactive spider in the alley just prior to the shoot.  Things do not turn out like “Spiderman,” unfortunately—the actress develops boils and starts leaking addictive fluids, which end up infecting the crew.  Meanwhile, Tommy’s biggest problem is getting the makeup person to make her presentable so the shoot can go on.

The humor is pitch-black; as in most of the Troma-esque lot, the grossness factor is pushed pretty much past the hilt, then doubled.  All of the characters in the dreams are, at their best, amoral to immoral; but in a satire about fame and filmmaking, that’s probably an accurate portrayal.  It also helps that the movie’s pretty damn funny.

What raises TGDOTP a notch above most of its cousins is that the grossness isn’t merely for the sake of grossness—there’s actually some substance behind it.  “Tommy Pistol” is actually Sartorio’s nom de porn when he was acting in adult films such as Repenetrator, The XXXorcist and Neu Wave Hookers.  Deciding to branch out, he made “Staph Spider” as a short, then pursued other opportunities as a struggling actor in Hollywood.  Although his wife did not leave him, many other elements in the film—being late for auditions, getting fired from ‘real’ jobs and dodging creditors—Sartorio probably knows all too well, as well as the other side of Hollywood: sketchy characters willing to do anything to anyone; narcissistic actors; and the desperation and self-delusion of everyone in town, especially those attempting to find their big break.  It may be exaggerated, but there’s a definite sense that there’s some personal experience involved.  The best example is a scene in the first dream, which mocks the aside to camera in JCVD, but also functions in the very same fashion.  And surprisingly, the movie ends in a sad and strangely graceful place, something completely unexpected, and also appreciated.

The acting is strong—better than you would expect in films of this ilk; and tech is pretty good, especially in the effects.  The humor is not going to appeal to everyone, obviously, but those who ‘like it black’ will enjoy it, especially the segment about Schwarzenegger.

Ultimately, it’s not a weird film, despite the over-the-top humor.  Most reviewers have been calling this Troma-esque, and Troma, especially “balls-to-the-wall, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink grossout humor Troma” is just not “weird” anymore.

Even calling it a “horror-comedy’ isn’t quite correct, but a “horror-comedy” is a much easier sell than a “pitch-black Hollywood satire.”

The Gruesome Death of Tommy Pistol facebook page

DISCLAIMER: A copy of this film was provided by the production company for review.

CAPSULE: SMASH CUT (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Lee Demarbre

FEATURING: , Sasha Grey, Jesse Buck, Michael Berryman,

PLOT: An incompetent horror director discovers he can make realistic gore effects by killing

Still from Smash Cut (2009)

his critics and co-workers and using their severed body parts as special effects.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With Smash Cut, Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter auteur Lee Demarbre pulls back the weirdness and takes a step towards the conventional (to the extent that a comedic tribute to Herschel Gordon Lewis’ cheesy gore films, featuring a main character who considers a dead stripper in the trunk of his car to be his muse, can be considered mainstream).  The results are, frankly, a little boring, though camp gorehounds might find some entertainment here.

COMMENTS:  The one sentence plot synopsis tells you all you need to know; there are very few story surprises as Smash Cut unspools.  You can figure out that the diabolical director starts to enjoy killing as his megalomania grows, finds it increasingly difficult to cover his tracks as the bodies pile up, and is eventually thwarted by the clean-cut young heroes.  Since we know what’s coming, it’s crucial that Smash Cut deliver on the gags (especially the weird gags), and unfortunately this is where the movie falls down on the job.  The best parts are the two films-within-the-film, perhaps because they push their deranged style to its limits and stay true to their own madness.  The first is director and future serial killer Abel Whitman’s trashterpiece Terror Toy, featuring a ragdoll clown murdering a busty psychiatrist with an ink pen and one of the worst “dangling eyeball” scenes you’ll ever witness.  The second featurette is a silent art film created as a mousetrap to try to play on the felonious filmmaker’s sense of guilt.  In between those two highlights are some interesting, mildly absurd touches—for example, a “suicide” by harpoon and a minor character who sets army men on fire—and a lot of deliberately unconvincing, campy gore effects (though the scene where Abel extracts eyeballs with a box cutter delivers a significant cringe factor).  The acting is inconsistent, which is not necessarily a problem in the overall spoofy enterprise, but Continue reading CAPSULE: SMASH CUT (2009)