Sunday, December 25, 2011


The kids are fast asleep, the stockings are hung round the chimney with glee and Santa's snacks are in position. It's time for Dad to go to bed, because the dawn arrives way too soon, and there are many things still left to do, believe it or not, before the festivities around here can get under way. But I'm gonna try to make the day less a chore this year and more about remembering the things that are important to me. Let's each of us make it a merry and peaceful Christmas day for everyone around us, give ourselves a chance to relax and reflect and rejoice in the company of friends, neighbors and loved ones, and set the concerns of the everyday aside, even for just a few hours.

And now a quickie gallery of some lovely Santa's helpers from Hollywood's past to help better decorate your day.

Carole Lombard (top right, circa 1929) and two of Santa's sauciest sirens make sure the holidays are merry and bright, and distracting and cold sweat-inducing. Then, Carole enacts a Christmas morning ritual-- the sober existential contemplation of an armload of strangely decorated boxes.

Loretta Young (also circa 1929) gives Santa's claws pause and perhaps makes Old Saint Nick wish she was the holly jolly missus... (And if that outfit isn't pre-Code, I'll roast my chestnuts.)

Barbara Stanwyck considers dropping a heavy ornament on Dennis Morgan's head, anything to stop yet another drunken rendition of "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime."

Merry Christmas, baby, and to all a good night and a great day.


Thursday, December 22, 2011


It’s been a long time coming—since May of this year, in fact—but the extensive report on my adventures at the second annual Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, which took place in nearby Hollywood, is finally up and running. It’s called "My Favorite Film Festival of 2011: Alive and Well, in Love and War, at the TCM Classic Film Festival” and it can be found at the online culture magazine Slant, published there under the auspices of Keith Uhlich and The House Next Door, which has been a longtime force in the film blogosphere and is now the official blog of Slant magazine.

The title may be slightly deceptive, however— counting the various special programs at the New Beverly Cinema curated by special guests, the only festival I actually attended other than TCM were brief visits to the AFI Fest here in November and the Los Angeles Film Festival near the beginning of the summer. (As you may have ascertained, geography plays a huge role in my festival fun, as I am not very much part of even the intercontinental jet set.) But then again, when one has as many options in terms of the availability of classic movies on big screens as we continue to enjoy here in Los Angeles, despite the dire future projected for 35mm archival prints, it sometimes feels like every week brings with it its own festival, along with the hope that more people will avail themselves of the bounty and not take for granted its presence. (There are no guarantees, even—especially—regarding the permanence of film and the venues in which you can see it.)

So, apart from the attempt to set the piece’s content apart from matters of timeliness by billing it as an end-of-the-year report on my “favorite” film festival, it seems to me that it does work as an attempt to keep engaged the subject of seeing and appreciating classic films on the big screen, something that I think is always worth mentioning in one way or another. In that spirit I offer it to you now, with a qualification and some acknowledgments. The qualification takes the form of an apology, particularly to Keith Uhlich and Ed Gonzalez, chief editor at Slant, for my complete and utter tardiness which necessitated all the year-end positioning in the first place. As readers of SLIFR will have no doubt already observed, this past year has been the least prolific in the history of this blog (more on this in a post reserved for next week), and as with the writing here circumstances in life—the outside world, and the interior world of my creative brainscape-- made it a bit more difficult than usual to find the time, not to mention the words, to fulfill my pleasant obligation as regards reporting on the festival. I’m exceedingly glad, therefore, that I managed to wrestle it into some shape which seems to have pleased my editors, and I vow a much more prompt turnaround should they be so generous as to sponsor me again next year.

As for acknowledgments, in addition to Keith and Ed and their bright minds and friendly, encouraging demeanors, I wanted to give a shout-out to a few folks (some of which are mentioned in the piece as well) who really helped me have a joyous experience at the festival and, in the aftermath, really get it together vis-à-vis the whole writing thing. My sincere thanks to:

Ariel Schudson, student of film preservation and blogger extraordinaire at her site Sinamatic Salve-ation;

freelance writer, blogger and good pal Bob Westal;

Richard Harland Smith, fellow Horror Dad and resident genius at TCM’s Movie Morlocks;

classic film expert and all-around good guy Michael Schlesinger;

Carrie Specht, writer, director and headmaster at the Classic Film School;

Michael Torgan and Julia Marchese at the New Beverly Cinema;

and, whether or not she thinks she deserves it, Farran Smith Nehme, who I’m so happy to have gotten to know via our concurrent introduction into the blogosphere six years ago. As I said at the conclusion of the piece published at Slant, her continued influence and passion sets a shining example for all us lowly bloggers toiling in the shadow of paid professionalism; her singular wit, good humor, and genuine love and respect for the film classics of a bygone era provide me and so many others with the inspiration to truly appreciate and attempt to preserve, each in our own way, the treasures of our collective movie past.

And last but most certainly not least, thanks to my wife, Patty Yokoe Cozzalio, who put up with my absence during the days of the festival, continues to put up with even more absence during the rest of the year as I pursue the enjoyment of classic and contemporary film, and of course the time to write about it, and who lent her eagle eyes to the editing and proofing of this piece before I finally submitted it. I appreciate your effort and concern more than you’ll know, and I love you.

Now please go read the piece and even leave a comment if you care to—here or there. You might kill a tree in the process, but if you print it out you’ll have bathroom reading guaranteed to hold you over the span of several sit-downs, if you like the piece, and some extra TP if you don’t!

And if I don’t get a chance to say so between now and then, merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!


Wednesday, December 07, 2011


"The Wright Stuff III: Movies Edgar Has Never Seen” is Edgar Wright’s third season of programming at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, which commences this coming Friday with a double feature of Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It and Allan Arkush’s Get Crazy (a triple, if you include the midnight screening of Wright’s own Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and concludes the following Friday night with Robert Culp’s Hickey and Boggs, Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way and a midnight encounter with W.D. Richter’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. I had the pleasure of a phone conversation with Wright this past week to talk about this latest gathering of cinematic goodies, the plight of 35mm, and even the recent passing of a titan of iconoclastic British cinema. Here’s what that conversation sounded like.


DC: Congratulations on the new series of films coming up at the New Beverly this week. Whenever a series like this is announced, you hear things like, “Damn, I’m on the wrong coast!” Or in your case often I’ll see someone say something like, “When are you gonna do one of these in the U.K.?”

EW: I get that all the time. It always happens to me with the Scott Pilgrim midnight shows. Every time I tweet about there being a midnight show, people say, “Why can’t you bring it to New York? Why can’t you bring it to Oklahoma?” And I have to say, “Guys, I don’t arrange these screenings.” I just retweet them if I’ve seen them, and if I’m in town maybe I’ll stop by.

DC: It’s not Edgar Wright’s traveling Scott Pilgrim tent revival, with you taking the movie from town to town.

EW: Right! It’s not me organizing them. It’s up to the rep cinemas to decide to screen it. I did one at the New Beverly and then one up at the Castro. But for me, whether it’s Scott Pilgrim or any of the film series I’ve done, it’s kind of a hobby, the kind of thing I would do in the evening anyway—go and watch films at rep houses! The idea with this season, because I’d done two already comprised of my favorite films, it seemed right that I should do a kind of hostile takeover and program only ones that I’ve always wanted to see.

DC: I actually put my own list together of movies I’d never seen, and as I was doing it the first thing I thought about was inviting the chorus of disbelief—“What, you’ve never seen Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!?”

EW: Well, I don’t claim to be an encyclopedia of all cinema. I’m 37, and I’m still learning. When I was a kid, a teenager, I was trying to watch as much stuff as I could. And even when I started working in TV and then in film, I’d keep up with the current releases more than watching old classics. But the main thing was, there were a lot of films in the back of my mind that I’d thought to myself, “I’d like to see that on the big screen first.” And as such, a lot of the classic movies, especially westerns or big epics, whether it’s John Ford or Kurosawa, some of them I’d see on a small TV with classmates or friends and afterward I sometimes felt like I still hadn’t really seen them. I have a vivid memory of seeing My Darling Clementine on an 18-inch TV in art college and by the time the movie was finished the entire class had fallen asleep. Probably not the best way to be introduced to these types of films.

DC: So let’s take a look at the upcoming schedule. When I looked at it, it felt like it was a two-week program packed into one week.

EW: Well, I actually convinced the New Beverly to let me do one double feature a night . I released what my window of availability was, and their window as well, which was eight nights, four double bills, and I said, “Can we do eight nights, eight double bills?” (Laughs) I don’t know when I’m gonna do this again. It’s probably gonna be my last one for a while, so I was thinking, “I want to pack in as many movies as possible!” I thank the New Beverly for kind of changing their normal M.O.

DC: Again, this is a series built around movies that you have never seen. Your personal directing style, the way you use the camera with such agility to tell jokes visually, suggests a certain familiarity and affinity with the sort of visually oriented slapstick of early silent comedy as well as the inventive verbiage of screwball comedy. Yet there are three major comedies of these eras-- Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr., Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and the great W.C. Fields vehicle The Bank Dick-- in your lineup. Is silent or screwball comedy any more of a gap in your experience than the Ozu you cited on your blog?

EW: I have seen Tokyo Story! (Laughs) But that was one of those I remember being ruined when I watched it at art college. It was just the worst possible way to watch it. But what’s interesting is that I find, with a lot of classic silent comedy, I remember seeing it on TV when I was very young, but it was usually in the form of a compilation. I remember seeing lots of documentaries and compilations—classic Chaplin and Keaton clips, but never necessarily the whole movie. When I watched The Gold Rush, for example, I hadn’t seen the whole feature, but I’d certainly seen the most familiar excerpts. Same with Buster Keaton. I know I’ve seen that famous shot from Steamboat Bill, Jr., but I haven’t seen the whole feature. Very rarely have I seen any of them on the big screen. With each of those performers, I’ve seen other classic titles but not these particular ones. Growing up, the black-and-white comedy stars I was very familiar with were Harold Lloyd, who used to get shown a lot in the U.K., the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. The Music Box is one of my earliest memories of watching any film.

But the same thing goes for Frank Tashlin, who is somebody who has been mentioned in reviews of my own films—I always thought, “Gosh, I have to see some of his movies!” And that influence gets into me regardless, probably because the people that I’ve been inspired by are fans of his, be it Joe Dante, Sam Raimi or Allan Arkush. Allan Arkush told me he was very pleased that The Girl Can’t Help It and Get Crazy were showing together, because he said The Girl Can’t Help It is one of his favorite movies. And I grew up, as we all did, with Woody Allen, and Woody Allen refers back to Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. So, really, I was inspired by the people who were inspired by the classic comedy pioneers.

DC: The Girl Can’t Help It and Get Crazy, followed by Scott Pilgrim, is in some ways a pretty zippy trip through the essence of rock and roll.

EW: Allan Arkush told me Scott Pilgrim reminded him of Get Crazy, so that seems like a perfect triple to me. Any hardened film geek is gonna watch all three in a row.

DC: One of the things that’s fun about anticipating a series like this is recognizing the connections that you make between movies that we might never have thought about. I looked at The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T and Kwaidan and at first I didn’t get it. Then I started thinking about the fact that both movies have a deliberately nightmarish quality to them that makes them an unlikely but inspired combination. Did it take you a while to come up with the best pairings? And how long did it take you to cull down your possible selections to eight double features?

EW: How it started was, at first I e-mailed a bunch of directors, actors and writers, told them what I was doing and said, give me your top-10 must-sees. Some of those people gave me lists that were enormous. Bill Hader’s list and Daniel Waters’ list were in the hundreds. Quentin Tarantino and Judd Apatow and Joss Whedon all gave me top 10s. So did John Landis and Joe Dante—actually, Joe’s was longer than 10. Then I threw it open to people on my blog, and that produced another thousand suggestions. Then I started looking for little links between films. I had to leave so many out. There were some that were so close to being scheduled that didn’t make it, which was disappointing, but some were left off because they do play a lot. I wanted to go for films that don’t get as much exposure.

DC: Did the availability of prints play a part in the way the program ultimately shaped up?

EW: Yeah, it did. It’s definitely getting to be a kind of dark time. I was surprised to discover that some films didn’t even have a decent print to be found, which is alarming. Julia Marchese at the New Beverly is circulating that online “Save 35mm” petition because what’s happening is-- Obviously digital projection is going to become the norm, but I for one, and I know Quentin Tarantino agrees, feel that 35mm should never go away. It’s historically important. But some of the studios are actually shutting down their 35mm archival departments. I think Warner Brothers, beginning next year, are planning on not sending out any more 35mm prints of their films.

DC: Yeah. Fox has announced similar plans.

EW: It’s a very bittersweet thing to discover that your chances to see some of these films on 35mm are kind of dwindling very fast. It’s one of the main reasons I like doing these seasons at the New Beverly—sharing the experience. There is nothing better than watching the movies with a crowd. As home theater gets better, people don’t necessarily think about going out to see them. When I first announced the schedule, one person on my blog commented, “But a lot of these are on DVD or Netflix Instant!” And I had to think, yeah, you kind of missed the point. I know that. I own a lot of them myself. But that’s not necessarily the way I want to see them, especially for the first time.

DC: And maybe some people who wouldn’t necessarily come out for a revival program will get reminded about the difference between seeing them in a theater and making the movies something more than a commodity to store on a bookshelf.

EW: Absolutely. People sing the praises of Netflix Instant, but at the moment the quality of some of the copies of some older films they have available is really bad. There are some noir films in public domain that are just unwatchable. I can watch Detour or D.O.A., but I’m not exactly watching them in anything approximating a decent version. That’s why labels like Criterion are to be applauded. In many cases they’re not just restoring these films, they’re actually saving them. Thanks to them there’s now a definitive version of Blast of Silence out there, a movie which many people may not have even known about before.

DC: What’s the double feature in the Wright Stuff III you’re looking forward to the most?

EW: All of them, Dennis! Come on! (Laughs)

DC: (Laughs) I’m not gonna pin you down on just one? I mean, I could pick one!

EW: No, I’m looking forward to all of them. One thing I want people to do is come out for the older movies.

DC: Yeah, I think it’s important to encourage people who might be all in for some of the more recent pictures to take a chance on some of the stuff that might not necessarily be in their wheelhouse of nostalgia or whatever. If you like stuff from the ‘80s, don’t be afraid of movies from the ‘30s or the ‘20s!

EW: Yeah, in a lot of rep houses you’ll get full houses for stuff from the ‘80s, but it’s important for people to come and see the black and white comedies as well. I’ve got good guests every night too. (A complete rundown can be found at Edgar Wright Here-- DC.) Unlike my previous seasons, where I had people who made the movies coming along, for this one it’s just for the most part other directors and writers and comedians to do it with me, so it’s more like an intervention. My first question to them will be, “Why haven’t I seen this movie before?” (Laughs)

DC: And sometimes the people who actually made the movies are not as articulate about the actual thing as the movie’s fans are.

EW: My proudest achievements with the two seasons I’ve done before has been the couple of times I’ve got filmmakers to come out, sometimes reluctantly, because maybe the film I’m showing of theirs was not a success, and get them to end up feeling differently about a movie they’ve made, and for them to see it with a packed house, or at least an appreciative audience. David Zucker and Jim Abrahams thought they might not even come to our screening of Top Secret. He said, “Top Secret was a disaster and I haven’t seen it since 1984.” And I convinced him to come out by saying, “This is gonna be the most partisan Top Secret crowd you’re ever gonna see!” (Laughs) The first thing he said after it was finished was, “Yeah, that’s a good movie! It’s a funny movie!” But Walter Hill was reluctant as well to come out for The Driver, which staggered me, because that’s probably my favorite film of his. So when he came out and saw the crowd he actually said, “This is the first time I’ve ever seen a full house for The Driver.” He was genuinely touched by the response. I told him, “You realize this is a really influential film, for me and for other people.”

DC: Did he believe you?

EW: Yeah, I think so. The Q&A was so enthusiastic that I think he had to realize that there was a lot of love for The Driver. Especially in the year that Drive comes out, it’s important that more eyes see Hill’s film on the big screen. The D.N.A. of that film is definitely in Drive.

DC: That was the one screening last year that I missed, and it still pains me to think about it.

EW: Well, what can I say, Dennis? It was great!

DC: Thanks a lot!

EW: Every time I do one of these screenings, someone always says, “Why don’t you record the Q&As or upload the video of it?” And my answer is always that I don’t because I’m a big believer in the importance of actually being there. That’s one of the things that creates excitement about it.

DC: Yep. You can’t get this stuff anywhere else.

EW: If you were there, it’s something you’ll remember. That’s what I like about the New Beverly—it’s relaxed and people tend to get a lot more candid in the Q&As there because it feels like you’re just kind of hanging out in somebody’s living room.

DC: The one double feature I’ll be very interested to hear your reaction to, as the director of Hot Fuzz, is Hickey and Boggs and Cutter’s Way. That’s a very interesting combination of movies about male bonding through a specifically anti-establishment prism.

EW: Hickey and Boggs is actually quite a difficult movie to track down. I’ve always wanted to see that.

DC: Again, it’s at the root of what’s at the root of a movie like Hot Fuzz.

EW: Yeah, and as far as Cutter’s Way-- One of the things that helped inspire the series is Danny Peary’s Cult Movies book. I never actually had a copy of it, and recently Larry Karaszewski gave me a copy. I started looking through the book and thinking, “Wow! Still, 20 years later there’s a bunch of these I haven’t seen! I gotta get on this!” So much of this season is straight from Danny Peary. Cutter’s Way is in Cult Movies and so is The Girl Can’t Help it and Ride the High Country.

DC: Right after your series ends, the New Beverly has programmed a double feature of Women in Love and The Music Lovers in honor of the late, great Ken Russell. In America, especially for filmmakers of your generation, Ken Russell’s influence is probably more secondhand, more felt as ripples through the sensibilities of other filmmakers than by much direct contact. But as a young Brit, how aware were you of his legacy growing up? Was he an influence on you? Or do you think young directors were thinking about other filmmakers at that point?

EW: When I was growing up a lot of his films would be on TV, so I saw a lot of them—even some of the craziest ones. I was definitely aware of him, and I was a big fan of his composer biopics, which were unique and idiosyncratic. I remember watching The Music Lovers and Mahler when I was 12 or 13. And Tommy, of course, is a huge film in the U.K. Only very recently I saw Lisztomania for the first time. (Both laugh) It completely bowled me over. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I immediately went out and bought the soundtrack! Russell was also a larger-than-life personality, so he was very visible in the British press and on talk shows—an amazing character. I don’t know how much of an influence he was on me because I think he’s such a unique voice. You know what’s really sad, though? About four weeks ago I was talking with a fellow British director, Ben Wheatley, about people like Nicolas Roeg, John Boorman, Richard Lester and, in particular, Ken Russell, and we were saying how some of these people don’t get the contemporary love that they should in terms of their status as masters and their amazing bodies of work. We were talking about the fact that somebody should do a podcast series with these directors before they’re no longer with us. You know, somebody should sit down and talk to Ken Russell about his work. And then just a few days ago I e-mailed Ben and said, “Well, I guess we should have done that Ken Russell podcast, eh?”

DC: I’m reminded of an appearance Russell made here in Los Angeles a couple of years ago for the digital restoration of Tommy. He got on stage with the documentarian Murray Lerner, and no matter how hard Lerner tried to get him to talk about the movie and his process of working, Russell played the dotty imp who would not give Lerner what he wanted at all.

EW: Yeah, I don’t know how much of that was an act! (Laughs) He was genuinely one of the great British eccentrics, and I say that as a compliment, not as a negative.

DC: Well, he never toed the line in his movies, so if you’re familiar at all with his personality it shouldn’t be too unexpected that he wouldn’t do it in public either.

EW: There’s a particular breed of directors who all began working around the same time, like many of the ones I just mentioned, who all have a specific vision but also are, in some respects, similar. So many of those films had sort of avant-garde tendencies that were then filtered into studio films, and that they could manage that is fascinating. Completely coincidental to his death, the BFI announced that they would be re-releasing The Devils next year. I had a copy of the film on VHS, and when DVDs came in I think I gave it to a charity shop—one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done—thinking surely it’ll turn up on DVD soon, and of course it never did! That film is a juggernaut. It’s my favorite of his.

DC: There is some controversy over the fact that the re-release is of the X-rated theatrical version and not the uncut version Russell made, which includes the famous “Rape of Christ” sequence.

EW: Yeah, I’ve heard about that. But the fact of the matter is, the one that got released is still pretty strong! (Laughs) I don’t think people will be disappointed that it’s only the theatrical version! Ultimately it’s better to have a version rather than no version.

DC: Any final thoughts about the Wright Stuff III?

EW: Oh, yeah, there’s gonna be a whole bunch of vintage trailers as well that Marc Heuck from the Nuart has put together. Usually I pick them myself, but he’s come up with an amazing selection of stuff to see that I think will surprise and delight everyone who comes out. I do this for fun, really. I don’t get paid to do it. I don’t get a cut of the box office. It’s literally just about that I like watching movies and I like to share that with audiences. Especially now more than ever it’s important to keep rep cinemas going, to be able to do stuff at the New Bev to remind people what it means to see these kinds of classic and cult movies with an audience. On 35mm.


Saturday, December 03, 2011


(Artwork created by Russell Walks)

A few months ago one of those Facebook memes started circulating around—- the kind built around an irresistible premise designed to illuminate something or other, but no matter the subject to commandeer your free time (as well as some of your work time) until its special demands are met. The title was “Ten Movies I Am Horrifyingly Embarrassed to Say I Have Never Seen,” and to say this particular subject was a conversation starter is putting it beyond mildly— anything I post on Facebook usually tops out at around 20 comments if I’m lucky, but this one didn’t stop until we hit 209.

The level of “embarrassment” was a point of contention for some who submitted their own lists or responded to the one I revealed—it’s kind of like the “guilt” in a guilty pleasure, that is to say unwarranted. But for some, especially those of us who tend to write obsessively (or otherwise) about the movies, it’s hard not to be slightly embarrassed to admit you haven’t seen a major milestone or two in cinema history. Writer-director Matthew David Wilder, from whom I received the invitation to participate, qualified the ground rules in his introduction. This was not to be one of those exercises meant for scraping around the periphery of obscure art cinema:

“This is the worst thing you can fess up to...what you HAVE NOT seen! And it's gotta be the kind of movies that would make a reasonable person go, ‘Oh, my God, are you kidding me? You've never seen that?" Don't try to be cool and name ten incredibly obscure-o things you just happen not to have caught. They have to be glaring, awful, unforgivable admissions.”

My own list, though by no means complete in its potential humiliation (I will e-mail you a private list of some much more embarrassing cinematic shortcomings, if you really want to know), went a little something like this:

NOW, VOYAGER (Irving Rapper, 1942)
MADAME BOVARY (Vincente Minnelli, 1949)
HORROR EXPRESS (Eugenio Martin, 1972)
I CONFESS (Alfred Hitchcock, 1953)
CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (Jacques Rivette, 1974)
L'ECLISSE (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)
MASCULIN FEMININ (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)
THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK (1969, Robert Altman)
FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (1965, Russ Meyer)
ON THE TOWN (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1949)

Since composing this list almost two months ago, I have seen I Confess, which I found utterly compelling, somewhat unexpectedly so—I figured it would be a dud, which was probably why it had gone unseen by me for so long. (During this same period I caught up with another Hitchcockian oversight, The Wrong Man, which was far more tedious and misjudged than I would have ever guessed.) I have also made tentative plans with a close friend for a mind-bending double bill of Masculin Feminin and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, though so far those plans have been thwarted twice. And this past Tuesday Horror Express made its long-awaited debut on Blu-ray. Which doesn’t mean anything as far as my seeing it, unfortunately—I’ve had DVDs of Celine and Julie Go Boating and On The Town in my house for years, and movies like Now, Voyager, Madame Bovary, even L’Eclisse, are not exactly lost classics, being readily available on DVD or on streaming formats. So really, if there is any genuine embarrassment, it comes from the fact that there’s really no reason to have still missed these pictures, other than the old bugaboo of there being less free time to catch up than there are multitudes of movies to add to the experience bucket.

This, as it turns out, is not a phenomenon limited to those cinephiles with limited time or money. Those who make their livelihood, and their mark on pop culture, by making movies are by no means immune to falling victim to missing some of the great (and not so great), important (and not so important) landmarks along the movie timeline. And one of these famous film fans has now made public the parts of his voluminous film knowledge that are incomplete, wanting, perforated like the most sincerely intended Swiss cheese. Edgar Wright, cinephile, cult hero and affable director of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, as well as coscenarist of the upcoming The Adventures of Tintin, is ready to commence his third visit to the New Beverly Cinema with a slate of programming united by a simple theme: “Movies Edgar Has Never Seen.” Writing on his blog Edgar Wright Here, he offers his motivation for coming back to program the New Beverly for the third time:

“Everyone has gaps in their film knowledge and I am no exception. I have seen God knows how many movies, but sometimes your programming is done for you, based on your location, your income, your age, your proximity to decent cinemas, access to technology etc. I can thank the BBC in Merry Old England for giving me the gift of seeing every single Hammer Horror growing up, but conversely still need to brush up on my Ozu…"

The schedule Wright serves up beginning this coming Friday, December 9, is loaded with movies that will provide serious temptation to throw the old “I can’t believe you haven’t seen that!” in Wright’s cheerful face. (Just remember, ye without sin...) “You might boggle at some of the films that I’ve yet to see,” Wright admits. But the key for this director is the opportunity to present them in 35mm with an attentive, appreciative audience. “Most of (the movies scheduled) are ones I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to see on a silver screen,” says Wright. “I even own about a third of them on DVD.”

The double bills sometimes seem to be unconnected by anything but the thinnest of threads, but look closer. There are thematic tendrils with which Wright intends to wrap up his pre-Christmas big-screen presents. Take a look at what’s coming up, and before you express disbelief that such a cinematically saturated talent as Wright could have missed all of these treasures ask yourself how many of them are on your own to-see list, especially if you’ve never seen them projected theatrically.

December 9: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL ALL NITE!
The Girl Can’t Help It (1956; Frank Tashlin; 7:30 p.m.) and Get Crazy (1983; Allan Arkush; 9:40 p.m.), followed by Wright’s 2010 version of the graphic novel Scott Pilgrim vs. the World at midnight.

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928; Buster Keaton; 7:00 p.m.)
Modern Times (1936; Charles Chaplin; 8:40 p.m.)
The Bank Dick (1940; Edward F. Cline; 10:40 p.m.)

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953; Roy Rowland; 7:00 p.m.)
Kwaidan (1964; Masaki Kobayashi; 9:00 p.m.)

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964; Jacques Demy; 7:30 p.m.)
Chungking Express (1994; Wong Kar-Wai; 9:30 p.m.)

White Heat (1949; Raoul Walsh; 7:30 p.m.)
Throne of Blood (1957; Akira Kurosawa; 9:55 p.m.)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1964; John Ford; 7:30 p.m.)
Ride the High Country (1964; Sam Peckinpah; 10:00 p.m.)

To Be or Not to Be (1942; Ernst Lubitsch; 7:30 p.m.)
The Bad News Bears (1976; Michael Ritchie; 9:40 p.m.)

Hickey and Boggs (1972; Robert Culp; 7:30 p.m.)
Cutter’s Way (1981; Ivan Passer; 9:50 p.m.)

Okay, so here’s my scorecard: the only one I’ve never seen all the way through in any shape or form is The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, even though, to echo Wright’s refrain and my own, I’ve had it on DVD for years. But, if I count the movies listed above that I’ve never seen in 35mm, the list is much longer: The Girl Can’t Help It, Kwaidan, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, White Heat, Throne of Blood, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, To Be or Not to Be and Cutter’s Way are all movies that I’ve never seen in a darkened auditorium. It’s my goal to rectify this situation wholly, but you know how it goes—despite my best efforts I doubt I’ll get there for every night. Therefore, I’m focusing on December 11, 13 and 15, with special emphasis on the joy I’ll derive in bringing my eldest daughter out for the Lubitsch/Ritchie combo. She loves the Mel Brooks-Anne Bancroft remake of To Be or Not to Be and is very interested in seeing where it came from; and I can’t imagine she won’t find The Bad News Bears an intense hoot, especially when she sees Tatum O’Neal’s fastball.

Wright will be there every night to introduce each program, joined by a host of special guests, the identities of whom may be ever-evolving but in some cases perhaps discernible just by looking at the titles and imagining who might come out. I expect to interview Wright next week for SLIFR about this latest festival and other topics of interest, at which point he may know more about who is scheduled to come out and enjoy this week with him. And I’m sure he’ll be heartened to know that he won’t be the only one losing his virginity to this terrific lineup of films. “L.A. is a town where executives might have a vintage poster on their office wall for a classic film that they’ve never seen or where directors have clips of a movie on their mood reel which they haven’t watched in its entirety,” he wrote on his blog of the “Movies Edgar Has Never Seen” program. “All of these people are forgiven and more than welcome to join.”

Sign the ”Fight for 35mm” petition here and read more about it (especially in the comments thread) here.


Wednesday, November 30, 2011


The fight to keep 35mm print production from disappearing continues. On November 15 Julia Marchese, one of the faces you see every time you buy a ticket to see a movie (projected in 35mm) at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, posted an online petition in support of resistance to the apparently inexorable industry movement toward the elimination of traditional 35mm prints for theatrical exhibition. For Marchese, and for many who attend the theater regularly, the concern goes beyond a mere question of technology. “The human touch will be entirely taken away,” she writes in the petition’s statement, and then goes on:

“The New Beverly Cinema tries our hardest to be a timeless establishment that represents the best that the art of cinema has to offer. We want to remain a haven where true film lovers can watch a film as it was meant to be seen — in 35mm. Revival houses perform an undeniable service to movie watchers — a chance to watch films with an audience that would otherwise only be available for home viewing. Film is meant to be a communal experience, and nothing can surpass watching a film with a receptive audience, in a cinema, projected from a film print.”

So far, after not quite 15 days, the petition has gathered upward of 5,300 “signatures,” just over halfway to the intended goal of 10,000, at which point the petition would presumably find its way to the desks of Those It May Concern at the various studios, all of whom will be free to consider the passion behind it or disregard the petition as a blip of protest from a minority of selfish Luddites who refuse to understand and accede to the inevitable march of progress.

And that progress does indeed march on. As Jen Yamato reported in her piece for Movieline on the downshift in 35mm print production, studios like 20th Century Fox have already begun movement in some Asian markets to phase out distribution of 35mm prints to theaters in favor of an all-digital exhibition format. She quotes Fox International’s Sunder Kimatrai as having said, back in August of this year, that “the entire Asia-Pacific region has been rapidly deploying digital cinema systems” and that “over the next two years we expect to be announcing additional markets where supply of 35mm will be phased out.” And if that isn’t convincing enough, John Filian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, had this rather definitive statement to deliver in his annual state of the industry address to attendees of Cinecom, NATO’s inaugural convention gathering in Las Vegas back in March 2011:

“Based on our assessment of the roll-out schedule and our conversations with our distribution partners, I believe that film prints could be unavailable as early as the end of 2013. Simply put, if you don’t make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business.”

What else needs to be said, right? In the face of a digital tide like this one, the complaints of 10,000 folks who claim to care about the aesthetic difference between 35mm and digital projection are likely to have the cumulative amplification akin to the tiny residents of Whoville shouting at the top of their lungs from a speck of dust while dangling over a vat of boiling oil. The dire implications that the elimination of 35mm prints will have for the very concept of revival cinema, which is already withering in the face of the explosion of new media options for watching films, likely won’t amount to much more than a hill of beans to studios who, if history can be trusted, can’t be expected to be concerned about much more than their own financial solvency and the practical expediency of the digital conveyance of their product.

And the importance of that practical expediency extends not only to the owners of revival houses, who are faced with the very real possibility of the flow of available product for their specific programming needs being shut off at the spigot, but also to the owners of those small town movie houses in rural areas far outside the immediate dollar-sign-impeded gaze of the studios. I’ve spoken to several owners of theaters in rural areas of California and Oregon in the past year, many of whose theaters are operating at a near-zero profit margin on equipment that was outdated 30 years ago, who have all worried to me openly about the increasing cost of rentals as well as the specter of being put out of business by a industry-wide switch to digital that they can’t afford to make. Last Picture Show-like images of shuttered hometown movie theaters all across the country are already too prevalent, and a forced paradigm of digital conversion is likely to ensure that the rural landscape will be dotted with even more corpses of once-vital movie palaces that will have been abandoned not only by audiences in favor of the cozy confines of their home theater systems, but also by the very studios whose product they still sought to present to the few who still cared to buy a ticket.

Suppose it were desirous and within the budget of a theater like the New Beverly Cinema to proceed with the conversion to digital projection, even one in which the current 35mm film projection system could be maintained. The viability of a theater like this would still depend on the availability of 35mmand digital access to those vast film libraries, which, even if they continued to exist at their current volume, are likely to become even less available to small exhibitors as the economic viability of dealing in “niche” programming becomes increasingly devalued. Sure, it makes sense for studios to keep their claws on existing 35mm prints now, because there’s still a shekel or two to be squeezed from their existence in the marketplace. But once these geniuses, all foresight and no historical perspective, become convinced of the economic righteousness and solidarity of the move to digital that they initiated, it’s not hard to imagine the ascension of an even more cavalier attitude toward keeping those expensive underground vaults (and the staff required to maintain them) occupied with such an anachronistic duty as preserving film history on quaint, outdated chemical film stock.

After all, 35mm film decomposes, but digital is forever, right? Well, the answer to that ostensibly rhetorical question is, um, not quite. Arthur Wehrhahn, spokesman for the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, which recently participated with Turner Classic Movies in a festival presentation of 14 restored films, has felt the need to make crucial clarifications on the subject. In a piece written for the Museum of Modern Art’s Inside Out blog in March 2011, Wehrhahn expressed concern about the way digital is frequently perceived as a magical solution to issues surrounding film preservation:

“In this era of digital storage and viewing of moving image materials and films, I’m sometimes afraid that the public at large will think that the problems of preserving films have all been solved—or worse, rendered irrelevant. I feel this most acutely when I speak with younger people, from schoolchildren to 20-somethings, and they’re stunned when they realize that we have to preserve and protect film materials. I find myself explaining that, despite every new wonder of electronics or digital format that comes along, the best source material for older works is still the film itself.”

(See Wehrhahn’s video presentation by clicking here.)

Yet production of 35mm films, for archives and for rentals, remains an increasingly low priority for the studios. As I said in my own response to Yamato’s piece on Movieline, when we've finally done away with 35mm projection in revival houses that rely on these vaults for programming, is it so far-fetched to imagine those same penny-pinching studios citing economics as an excuse for not making available all but the most "popular" classic film titles? In the near future, in the name of short-sighted number-crunching, a double feature of 99 River Street and The Blue Dahlia at a place like the New Beverly will be a long-forgotten pleasure, with only Turner Classic Movies to remind us of the theaters and the programs we once took for granted.

Not everyone is convinced that going digital is necessarily all that bad an idea however. Friends and acquaintances of mine who live in small-to-medium-sized markets outside of major cities in California and New York, where the issue of revival cinema is moot, are pleased as punch to see the spiffy, bright, crud-free imagery that conversion to digital brings to their stadium-seating-style multiplexes, and to the crappy cracker-box cinemas that have limped along without much change since the ‘80s. (Whether they remain equally pleased by the same 10-15 movies that will be available at these mainstream movie houses is another question, one with which most moviegoers are well familiar.) But even some who have access to great revival programs like those available in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas are unconvinced that the potential loss of 35mm exhibition is all that significant. Yamato’s piece inspired several passionate comments, like this one from “Sunnydaze”:

“I love the New Beverly and have some great memories. One being when I saw Kubrick's The Killing and realized while watching with an audience that it is a comedy. But the experience would have been the same had it been digitally projected. The audience was what made the difference, not actual film.”

And this from a respondent named “Joshua”:

“Audiences aren't there to see how much money is being saved and if they can tell the difference between digital and print, they don't care.”

Finally, a reader going by the handle “Rainestorm” seemed to most calmly and tersely drive in the final, arguably inarguable point in the debate by leading off his response with this statement:

“Film exhibition is dead. It's been dead for years and people have been selfishly and cruelly keeping it on life support rather than letting it move on. Sentimentality for dead technology is fine as long as you're the one footing the bill. Asking someone else to keep it breathing just for you is ridiculous…. Seems as though this outcry is misplaced.”

Realistically, it does seem to be asking a bit too much of a corporate-owned studio to suddenly develop a sensitivity to concerns that are more convincingly couched in arguments based on sentiment than on dollars. Yamato herself admits in the piece that the plea for preservation of 35mm is largely sentimental and not practical. But she goes on to make an important point about film culture as it exists in the Internet age where metropolitan revival and repertory cinemas serve to provide support for studio catalog sales on home video and pay-per-view in markets that reach far beyond those urban epicenters. “If a curious neophyte without access to local revival houses downloads a classic film onto their iPod because they read a blog about a screening halfway across the country or the world,” Yamato asks, “hasn’t repertory cinema done its part?”

In fact, the most potent outcry is one that is based not on aesthetic preference but on preservation of cinema history, and there is no compelling reason why art and commerce need necessarily be at odds here. Reader Ant Timpson points out that there even seems to be little economic sense for studios to resist continuing to strike archival prints designated specifically for revival programming. “They'd make their money back within the first 20 bookings,” Timpson argues, not to mention holding cultural value in the cause for preservation. But it’s no comfort for film fans if it’s left up to almighty market demand instead of historical or artistic worth to determine which titles the studios deem worthy of preserving on 35mm, from where shall come further digital copies. Only the titles that have been determined to be the most commercially viable are likely to be available in digital formats, thus limiting what can be shown in cinemas and exposed to future generations. For these films to mean anything to anyone down the road, is it not crucial that people be able to at least have the option to see them in environments considerably more enveloping, and less distracting, than their living rooms or on airplanes? Comparing the dollars-and-cents cost of actual preservation to the cost of the loss of these films in terms of cultural heritage, it seems that one is (or ought to be) far more heavily weighted than the other.

Even so, one suspects that the point of view of Rainestorm, again expressing her/his thoughts in the comments thread beneath Yamato’s original piece, is not in the minority, certainly not from a studio perspective, and maybe not even from the audience’s. “This is the old art versus commerce argument and commerce will always win, as it should,” she/he writes, and then continues:

“Commerce is a reflection of artistic merit and popularity. After all, if only a small minority declare something to be art, does that make it so? That, too, is an old argument. Not every book that's been written, not every song that's been sung, not every piece of art that has ever been created or viewed has been preserved.... and that's how it should be. Too much variety has the undesired side-effect of diluting even the most meritorious work of art.”

Forgive me if I say that this rather strident pronouncement sounds a lot like the wolf of cultural elitism hidden under a populist sheepskin. In an art form where art and commerce have always coexisted uneasily, why exactly is it that it should be so that commerce wins the argument between the two? Because the concerns of those who stand to make money off of a work of art, or a work of simple entertainment, are so much more important than those who created it, who attempt to preserve it, who insist upon its original, intended form? Of course monetary concerns must be considered. But we live in an increasingly greedy world of Hollywood product, where a nonsensical business model has created a “Can you top this?” mentality of blockbuster filmmaking in which modest aims are often drowned amidst the crashing waves of bloated, attention-grabbing, lowest common denominator hubris. Why is it that the short-sighted financial aims of studios, in perpetual genuflection toward Mammon, have taken precedence over a movement to preserve a vital part of film history that would, in comparison, demand but a pittance? Surely these efforts comprise but a fraction of the budget of a studio holy grail like the digitally gratuitous Transformers franchise, each sequel costing more and demanding more in order to perpetuate the escalating model of excess, each sequel crowding out smaller, perhaps worthier films in the marketplace and now, apparently, crowding out the studio’s own history as well.

I would certainly agree that it is not enough to qualify a piece of work as art if only a small minority says it to be so. (The writer makes sure to point out that this too is an “old” argument, as if to imply that it having simply been expressed already is evidence of its invalidity.) On any visit to any museum in the country, or to any film festival you care to attend, you ought to find yourself surrounded with paintings and sculptures and films that do not, despite their endorsement by the museum or the programming staff, qualify as either masterpieces or even art. But as obvious as it may be that a simple minority proclamation toward art is not evidence of the actual thing, we must also hold in skepticism that proclamation’s opposite, that because a work or a movement has the ringing endorsement of the majority, as expressed in ticket sales or dollars spent to create and distribute it, we should automatically give it the benefit of the doubt in the argument over validation via commerce versus art any more than we would be quick to bestow the imprimatur of art upon an unworthy subject.

Rainestorm then goes on to suggest a sort of law of natural selection as it might unreasonably apply to the stewardship of film culture. It sounds pretty self-assured to proclaim on behalf of everyone that “not every book that's been written, not every song that's been sung, not every piece of art that has ever been created or viewed has been preserved.... and that's how it should be.” Such a cavalier response to the vagaries of the history of all arts again smacks of an elitism that suggests that only certain works of art are even worth the effort of preservation. Are we to leave preservation to the whims of chance? Of ambition (or lack thereof)? And if the effort to preserve is to be undertaken, who is it that decides which works are art and whether or not they should be well kept or simply discarded? These are questions that are best left unconsidered if you’re rushing to make a statement like, “Too much variety has the undesired side-effect of diluting even the most meritorious work of art.” Isn’t this attitude precisely the opposite of the one taken by most film preservationist movements?

The attitude of film preservation has at its core the notion that every bit of film that can be saved from any era has its worth, its value, its important historical context. I was lucky enough to see a largely forgotten Warner Brothers-Vitaphone picture from 1932 the other night, an ensemble comedy-drama from 1932 called Central Park. No one has fallen all over themselves rushing to make great claims for this John G. Adolfi–directed picture as a work of art. But it has got a lot of the fizz and pop one expects from early Warner Brothers talkies, as well as some anthropologically appealing footage of Central Park and New York City as it existed during filming, the kind of footage probably once thought of as disposable, without value, and of increasing interest the further we pull away from that period of history. And it also has plenty of evidence of the seductive star power of Joan Blondell, who never carried her Photoplay popularity to the great heights one might have reasonably expected, given the effortless charm she displays in this movie. Are we to blindly accept the queasy proposition that it’s okay if a movie like Central Park falls to the wayside and gets trampled into silver nitrate dust by history just because to have it out there makes it more difficult for the masses and the historians and critics to discern art for all the multitude of choices diluting our sensibilities?

Thank you very much, but I’d at least like to have all the historical evidence before me in order to be able to decide for myself. That’s why film preservation, and the continued availability on 35mm of even the most marginal films from any era, studio or country, is important, for the sake of film history and encouraging further generations to appreciate that history, as well as the continued survival and health of venues like the New Beverly Cinema, the Cinefamily, the American Cinematheque, the Alamo Drafthouse, the Film Forum and all the other houses dedicated to presenting the full spectrum of cinematic art and entertainment. The effort to preserve 35mm as at least a viable option in the increasingly digital 21st century may be a sentimental, selfish impulse, but it is also one that places value on something other than the instant gratification of profit, a goal of greed that is even more fleeting than the chemical composition of that precious celluloid. It’s one that believes wholeheartedly, simply, in the audience’s sensitivity and receptivity to the movies as an art form.

Pauline Kael, in her 1974 essay “On the Future of Movies,” wrote the following, and it’s worth considering in light of the possible future of 35mm film distribution:

“Perhaps no work of art is possible without belief in the audience—the kind of belief that has nothing to do with the facts and figures about what people actually buy or enjoy but comes out of the individual artist’s absolute conviction that only the best he can do is fit to be offered to others… An artist’s sense of honor is founded on the honor due others. Honor in the arts—and in show business too—is giving of one’s utmost, even if the audience does not appear to know the difference , even if the audience shows every sign of preferring something easy, cheap and synthetic. The audience one must believe in is the great audience; the audience one was part of as a child, when one first began to respond to great work—the audience one is still part of.”

You can keep the momentum going by signing Julia Marchese’s “Fight for 35mm” petition right here.


Thursday, November 24, 2011


All things considered, objectively and subjectively, 2011 hasn’t been the best of years for me and my family, and I have it on good authority that many on this planet might be feeling the same. Humanity has been flushed of a couple of fairly significant faces on the international terrorism scene-- for that we should all be thankful, even though their deaths are far from comforting simply because the hydra has many heads. And it wouldn’t be wrong to hold out hope for some kind of economic recovery even as the shape and function of the world changes faster than a desert sandscape, but a cursory glance at the spiteful deadlock of the two-party system and the Republican presidential campaign so far doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in the health of independent political thought on the grand stage in this country.

Those things being said, I still find myself heartened by the things in my life I have to be thankful for on this day, which is dedicated to the expression of such sentiments and, of course, rampant overeating. If I may, in the short amount of time I have before the turkey carving and before the general post-meal torpor takes away any ambition toward writing and tucks it away until tomorrow, I’d like to just mention a few of the things that have made life worth living for me this year. Beyond number one, there is no ranking order, just unbridled appreciation.

1) My immediate family, including my parents and parents-in-law. But most especially my daughters, who are growing so fast that I can barely stand to look at pictures of them when they were smaller, much more like babies than growing girls and, in Emma’s case, a young woman. I marvel at their beauty, at their humor and their resilience, and the way they challenge me to look at the world not necessarily through their eyes but with eyes that can accommodate their own visions. And I live for the unexpected hug or kiss or touch of the hand that seems directed by a very acute interior knowledge of just when Dad needs it. My wife is the source of that beauty, and it is humbling to see just how much of herself she gives to these children and to me every day. I often don’t appreciate that sacrifice the way I should, and my greatest understanding of her interior struggles comes when I recognize that I can’t really understand them at all. I can only offer my shoulder and my heart, and she does in return, and that’s all we can really hope or ask from each other. I’m so thankful to have her to lean on, and it should go without saying, but I’ll say anyway that I love them all beyond reason. I can only hope to be the man they need and deserve in their lives.

2) My life as a would-be teacher. Two years after I completed my graduate program, I’m still holding out hope that somewhere, hopefully in Oregon, and sometime soon there will a teaching job for me. I still substitute teach here in Glendale, and each time I do I come home exhausted. But the connection the kids and I have made since I started subbing five years ago is strong, and it gets renewed every time I see them make a connection in class or burst out laughing, and there’s nothing like seeing a group of them streak across the playground just to say hi or give me a hug.

3) The movies. In any shape or form, truth be told, but especially being in the dark with a house full of like-minded souls who come not to show off their own knowledge or superiority to what’s on screen but to revel in the special love between an eager audience and a movie rich with treasures ready to be reaped. To my mind, there is still no better place to experience a movie at than a theater, but especially at the New Beverly Cinema, where so many wonderful moments in my movie world have happened. I’ve been there far less frequently this year thanks to the many tangles of everyday life, but I still treasure the little corner of heaven Michael Torgan and company have reserved for us all like no other place in Los Angeles.

4) Getting older. It’s a very underrated experience, even given the practical realities of diminished health and increasing irrelevance in a youth-oriented society. But I wouldn’t trade the wisdom I’ve gained over time (such as it is) for a clean slate and 30 years wiped off the clock under any circumstances.

5) The rain. (Thanks, Lauren Kessler.)

6) My DVR. I finally got one this year, and it’s been a real joy, especially since it’s been more difficult for me to afford going out to the movies in 2011. Hand in hand with the gratitude for the DVR goes an equal appreciation for the bounty with which I fill its hard drive, plundered from the wondrous vaults of Turner Class Movies, of course (The only essential TV channel), and also the MLB Network and the various high-definition movie channels provided by my satellite subscription. As Slim Pickens said in Blazing Saddles, I am impressed!

7) My bike.

8) The Oregon Coast (and several points eastward too).

9) Good beer.
And just about the time in my life when I probably shouldn’t be drinking it too much.

10) All the people I’ve met exclusively on the Internet, with whom I interact largely through e-mails or on those modern marvels of social networking, Facebook and Twitter. Writers, thinkers, lovers of life and all genuinely smart as a closet full of whips (Shh!), you have filled my life with so many new perspectives and joined me in confirmation of some many shared interests, and I look forward to (and am perhaps addicted to) touching base with you every day. I genuinely feel as though you have all expanded my world in the best possible way.

11) The Scrabble app on my new Android phone.

12) The ability to read and to write
, and also the precious little time I have to actually indulge in either or both. This year productivity on the blog has taken a real hit, but I am heartened by my small sliver of readership and their apparent acceptance of this decline as not a signal of my lessening desire to write but instead of my lessening desire to write about things I don’t feel a strong compulsion to write about. Not that I ever much felt the need to crank out stuff that I didn’t feel strongly about, but these days when you see something on SLIFR, whether you like the piece or not, you can at least be assured that it’s meant something to me to write it, to grapple with it, to get it out there. Such are, I suppose, the joys and the latitude of writing with only your own editorial guidance, and with no monetary compensation. I’m eternally grateful that when I do write what I want, there seems to be some few readers out there, my kind of readers, who are there to appreciate it.

I’m also grateful for having had the opportunity this past summer to read Vincent Bugliosi’s book Divinity of Doubt. It’s a book that I can fairly say has changed my life, helped lift a very heavy, lingering shroud of Catholic and fundamentalist Christian-inspired guilt from over my hunched shoulders, guided me to see through the many fallacies inspired by extremist thought on the part of believers and nonbelievers, helped me embrace agnosticism and, strangely enough, made me less fearful of the possible truth of the abyss. If you’re interested at all in examining the history and belief system of religion in general, Christianity in particular, from a logical perspective, I recommend this book without reservation.

13) Being part of the Horror Dads, the Muriels Association and the SLIFR Tree House.

14) The loyalty and love of my best friend and those friends closest to me… You know who you are. Your creative energies, boundless enthusiasm, intelligence and capacity for love and understanding and generosity boggle my tiny little mind every day. I shudder to think where I’d be without you all.

15) …and for the recent reconnecting (via Facebook, usually) with several old friends and classmates who I never knew as well as I could have/should have in the past. We are getting the chance to get to know each other again, as adults, not dumb, clique-bound kids, and the experience has been a real blast.

For all these things and so much more, I am sincerely grateful. On those days when I’m trudging through the valley it’s easy to feel defeated. But during those low times whenever I conjure thoughts of any of the above I am heartened and lifted up. Who could complain of such a life?

Happy Thanksgiving!


Wednesday, November 09, 2011


The sleazy, claustrophobic, catch-as-catch-can transience of the carnival world, with its ever-changing roster of freaks, geeks, disappointed con men and women with few options, clinging to shreds of dignity and eyeing a better life while digging themselves deeper into the one from which they want to flee, seems a naturally cinematic subject. Yet there are surprisingly few movies that have ever captured the symbiotic push-pull of vibrant show-biz fakery and dark personal obsessions that lurk behind the curtain, beyond the barker’s call. Somewhere between the boy’s wish-fulfillment of Toby Tyler and the mind-wrenching funhouse mirror reflections of Tod Browning, Tobe Hooper and Rob Zombie, Edmund Goulding’s film of W.L. Greshman’s Nightmare Alley (1947), from a script by Jules Furthman (reportedly quite faithful to the novel), captures the attraction of the fairway for the suckers and the sham artists running the games, as well as the desperation to trade the sawdust floors of tented arenas for brighter, shinier halls where the sheep waiting to be fleeced have thicker wool and far deeper pockets.

Watching Nightmare Alley today, it’s plain to see that while the divide between the carnies and the upper classes awash in dough is as marked as ever (maybe more so), the desperation for recognition, for reward, is no longer a simple symptom of poverty. But in 1947 it must have been quite a shock to see a handsome star like Tyrone Power give himself over to a role for which audiences wouldn’t have been expected to have much empathy. Power’s opportunistic Stan Carlisle is so thoroughly at home amongst the shadows and hidden compartments of the carnival setting that it’s almost a surprise to hear that he has aspirations beyond it. However, his eagerness to expand his talents to more sophisticated scams for more sophisticated targets soon sucks in both the essentially good-natured Zeena (Joan Blondell) and the relatively innocent Molly (Colleen Gray) into a world where the lies get bigger, thornier, more perverse, and the inevitable fall back to earth is all the more devastating.

Cinematographer Lee Garmes brilliantly conjures the film’s first half in chiaroscuro patterns and recesses formed by the impermanent tents and wagons, all of which coexist almost subconsciously with the ballrooms and theaters of the slightly less compelling second half. But Nightmare Alley’s central power lies in the faces of its actors, the carnival life lived as painted in creases on their faces, in smiles and banter meant to hide the truth, in haunted looks and, conversely, averted eyes. Joan Blondell is smashing as Zeena, accidentally widowed by Stan’s (subconscious?) enabling of her alcoholic husband. She carries the weight of an entire disappointed life in her big, beautiful, forlorn eyes.

As for Power, he couldn’t have been, and probably never was better than he was in this movie. Critic Charles Taylor observes about Power’s towering performance that the actor conjures Stan’s essence in that “he manages always to look away from anyone declaring any tenderness for him… His gaze is always fixed on where he’s going.” The commitment which Power, Goulding and Furthman show toward Gresham’s concept of Stan’s corruption is that which Hitchcock could not follow through on in flirting with villainy for Cary Grant in Suspicion. The blasphemous blackness in Stan’s heart is given near full reign down the darkest nightmare-fueled alleys in the film; it sticks its chilling effect in our hearts like a stake pounded into soft ground, a stake meant to anchor a carnival tent in place long enough to provide cover while the movie takes us for all we’re worth.

(Nightmare Alley screens Wednesday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. at the Lloyd Rigler Auditorium at the Egyptian Theater as one of AFI Fest 2011 Artistic Director Pedro Almodovar's personal selections for the general program. Information on the entirety of offerings at this year's AFI Fest, as well as information on how to obtain free tickets to screenings throughout the festival run, can be found by clicking here.)