Monday, April 7, 2014

Interview: Galia Barkol


Gaila Barkol might very well represent the image that we all have of a “renaissance person.”  What would lead one to draw that conclusion?  Take a look at the list of diverse interests covered in the interview questions below.  There’s classical music, the French language, acting, and (finally) film production; all skills that Galia has at her disposal.  She spent some time talking about both her past and upcoming projects with us recently.

Dusty:  Your first passion appears to be acting. Can you tell us your history with the craft? What first hooked your interest? What kind of training have you had?

Galia:  It is indeed my first passion, but it took me about a decade to admit it. I used to be the shy girl, with a rigid classical piano training and undeniable urge to move in space. Film and acting came later, when I began to realize the immense potential in those art forms. Briefly, I went to Paris to study Film at the Paris-Diderot University. My French education was beyond what I could have hoped for. So rich, profound and insightful. I am very grateful for that gift. But life in Paris was challenging for me as a very young foreigner alone, and when I got just enough of the existential suffering to feed my romantic fantasies, I was ready to move on. I applied for a Franco-American student exchange program (despite being neither), and got in. I was sent to New York and graduated there. Needless to say, the American education system is as different as can be to the French. The great thing was that I was allowed to take acting courses, which I did, and got to do more hands on work, both behind and in front of the camera. When we had the end of year screenings at school, my Production teacher took me aside and said there was something intriguing and unique about my relationship with the camera and that I should think about going deeper into acting. After a year or so of exploration of various approaches and teachers, I finally went to HB Studio for a 2-year conservatory program. I studied with amazing teachers and actors, and discovered that acting is both more spiritual and intellectual a craft than I’d imagined. In the process of relearning yourself as a human being (and the attempt to unlearn much of the rest), you become a more compassionate and mindful person.  

Dusty:  As many creative professionals have done, you have seized control of your career as a performer by stepping into the producer role.  I am assuming that this was a move which allowed you some creative control over the projects you chose to work on.  Could you tell us a little more about wearing the "producer" hat?  What was the impetus for that decision?

Galia:  Two things. First, I’ve had some good experience in the production world, working for two major Israeli companies, so it didn’t scare me as much. But from an actor’s perspective, it was a way for me to take control over my work. Starting out as an actor is tricky, and it can be very discouraging. What often happens is that you find yourself auditioning for anything you are called in for, even when you don’t really want to do it. Something in your thinking changes, and you are left with wanting to be liked. You depend on others completely - the type of role you’ll play, the quality of the footage and post, the story that is being told… and you’re often not getting paid. That’s a lot of effort and frustration for very very little. I don’t rule that out, but I carefully select what I apply for today. So, since I don’t like the feeling of being passive and reactive in my work, and since I have a background in writing and film, my natural inclination is to create my own content. 

Dusty: Would you give us an elevator pitch for your 4 Variations on a Theme?  

Galia: With this project, a group of collaborators was invited to isolate and reexamine the cinematographic components that reveal and portray characters and their universe. The focus was on exploring the range to which one sequence can be stretched, to see how elastic it can become when adjusted to viewers' interpretations.  The footage consisted of a 4-minute silent sequence, following our protagonist as her day unfolds. It was then sent to 4 writers of different backgrounds, nationalities and styles, who each came up with a script. With no defined boundaries and directions, the writers followed where the footage took them. Each version was then matched to a different composer who wrote a score for it. We ended up with 4 completely different short films, made with identical footage. 

Dusty:  Tell us about the 4 writers. How were the scripts selected? I’m assuming that the footage was shown to the writers in advance?

Galia:  Yes, the writers saw the footage and had to write a script to go with it. I left it completely open, as long as the content was triggered by what they viewed. The writers were selected in advance and I trusted that their scripts would be interesting, so there was no selection afterwards. I contacted very different people who I’d known on very different levels. Roy Ben Shai is a good friend who is not in the film business at all, but a brilliant philosopher and fascinating person with a very independent thinking. Yael Nussbaum I'd known very little and only heard about her work, and I was blown away by her sharp writing and interpretation of the piece. Justin McElwee is a dear guy who made me laugh like no one else at a random party in Brooklyn. Thanks to Facebook, I was able to hunt him down and make him write something for me. Chris Bentley had sent me an interesting script before, for another project, and I was glad for the opportunity  to finally work with him. 

Dusty:  Tell us about working with Director Jeremiah Kipp (we’re fans around here).

Galia:  Well, I don’t know how he does it but he does it all and at the same time. I’m certainly a fan too, although following his work is getting really challenging! He was really the best. He brought extraordinary people to the set - Andrea Urbinati the DP, who made the footage look absolutely beautiful, Brian de la Cruz and Alex Gavin, who held it all together and made it work, and super charming actor Lucas Rainey. Working with Jeremiah on the production aspects was a wonderful experience because he was responsive, helpful and thorough and, of course, very experienced. As an actress, I appreciated his style, taste and direction very much, and his openness to wherever the moment took us. He’s also the sweetest guy, as you know. I’d be thrilled to work with him anytime. 

Dusty:  Is there any other projects you have in the works? What’s next for you, Galia?

Galia:  I’m currently co-writing a narrative feature with Jay (Yair) Vilnai, to be produced in late 2014. Preproduction is planned for early June. Jay wrote the score for the first film of “4 Themes on a Variation” (“Justin & Jay”), performed the VO for the second (“Yael & Izzy) and recorded the sound for all the voice overs. Since everything he touches turns gold, I forced him to collaborate on this one, and it’s a very interesting journey we’re on. A woman's life as she's known it ends abruptly, which pushes her to remove herself from her immediate environment. In her last attempts to see if she could reinvent herself or her take on life, she moves to Paris. An encounter with a frequent visitor to the city turns into an unusual kind of relationship which allows her to look at things from a slightly different angle.


Galia’s Official Site:

Her Production Company:

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Playground Gets Ponderous: Remakes, Sequels, and Retreads...Oh My

(Editor's Note:  Freelance writer Kate Voss has contributed this tasty assessment of Hollywood's continual unoriginality.  Thanks for the guest post, and take it away, Kate!)

2014 Movie Remakes & Adaptations

Every movie buff already knows that Hollywood has a knack for rehashing ideas in their new movies. While this has been a common practice in Hollywood for years, it is becoming even more of an occurrence as time passes.  Already, 2014 is looking like the year of the remakes, adaptations or sequels and it’s kind of unsettling.

Many people have tried to speculate why Hollywood is so infatuated with revamping old stories into new movies, but it simply comes down to money. Movie studios are more interested in making money than anything else, and it is a lot easier to make money with a remake, adaptation or sequel. Millions of people have to be interested enough in a movie in order for it to make a profit at the theaters, and this is simply easier to achieve when dealing with an existing fan-base. If a book or original movie is popular enough, then there are already going to be millions of fans interested in seeing a movie adaptation, remake or sequel. This installed fan base ensures that people are going to flock to the theaters when the movie is released, which gives the movie studio more financial confidence.

There continues to be great original movie ideas every year, but it is becoming increasingly harder to get these films made. Two of the best films in 2013, Her and Nebraska, were completely original ideas not based on history. They have a combined 11 nominations at the Academy Awards, but they still barely made enough money to be profitable for the studios despite relatively low budgets. If some of the best original movie ideas of last year could barely make money, it doesn’t bode well for originality.  And what happens when originality goes out the window?  Remakes, adaptations, and sequels…oh my. 

A revamped movie idea has the ability to become a box office smash when it is turned into a great film. Not only do the diehard fans of the franchise show up, but the film is also able to attract new fans. 2014 may be the year of the rehashed movie idea, but at least some of them appear like they will be excellent films. The top five revamped movies of 2014 are as follows:

22 Jump Street has the distinction of being a sequel of an adaptation. The first film was one of the biggest surprise hits of 2012, but the new film seems like a guaranteed hit. 22 Jump Street (which you stream on and Netflix) stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as they go undercover in a college to bust a drug ring.

The Purge: Anarchy is a sequel to the 2013 horror hit The Purge, but with a completely new cast. The film follows two parents as they attempt to get home safely during the purge after being stranded. The ability to see the horror from an outside perspective during the purge should be very appealing to fans of the first film.

Divergent is a film adaptation of the highly popular young adult book series by the same name. The film takes place in a future dystopian Chicago that forces people to live in factions based on their personalities, but it may ultimately be a plot by the government.

Angelina Jolie stars in the dark re-imagining of "Sleeping Beauty" in Maleficent. This type of re-imagining has already worked with "Snow White and the Huntsman" and "Alice in Wonderland," so it would be shocking if people did not flock to see a new version of the Disney classic.

All of the Marvel movies have become massive hits, so the same should be true for Captain America: The Winter Solider. The film follows Captain America following the events of The Avengers as he attempts to save the world from a crazed madman that happens to be his former best friend.

With all the remakes, it’s no wonder movie theaters are struggling, prices are skyrocketing, and more folks are inclined to stay home and watch the original. After all, why put money in the pockets of greedy execs when the original, first version is probably not only better, but less expensive to see?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Movies I Actually Enjoy: (Static)

(Editor’s Note:  I’m not sure who the audience for this piece is.  The five people who have watched Static?  If you are one of those, then welcome.  I have found my people at last.)  

The “Roadmap” For This Entry

A voice from the “future”: I have just read over what I have written and realized that it lacks any kind of cohesiveness.  I decided to devise a list of objectives (a way of finding my own ass in the dark without a flash light).  
    • I am going to talk about Static (1986) as a statement on insanity.  Specifically, how much “crazy” are we comfortable with in everyday life?  When do we turn our backs on someone who we feel has crossed over the line from “lovably goofy” to “needing help?”  
    • I didn’t say this is going to be a linear list of objectives, so let me back track.  Before I get to my assessment of Static, I am going to give my audience (all two of you) a look into how I select movies to write about.  (Have you ever read about PT Barnum?  He used to promise people they’d see a Unicorn, and it would turn out to be a goat with a cardboard cone on its head.  This is going to be a bit like that.)  This will naturally feed into why I chose to write about Static.  I will also talk a bit about “smart blogging” and why I don’t do it.   
    • As I said, this isn’t linear, so: After my thoughts about insanity in Static, I will talk about why it succeeds as a film.  I will use hyperbole and ballyhoo such as: “This is the great cult classic without a of the best films of the ‘80s...a film that speaks to me personally...but it should speak to everyone else too!”  That sort of film nerd ejaculatory bullshit.  
    • There are standard things that I should include in this review.  You know: plot summary and a description of the characters would be helpful.  I will attempt to sprinkle that on like salt on French Fries.  
    • I am also going to speak more about “the script that drove me insane.”  (See my Crown International entry.)  

Are you still here? 

The Method Behind My Madness

As I sat down to begin the “hashing out” process of this review, I had a strange and self indulgent thought.  I have never explained why exactly I choose to review the movies that decorate this obscure little corner of the internet.  I remember the one time I ever attempted to read Nietzshe.  He wrote an entire book about why he was so clever, relevant, and insightful.  Nietzshe was leaving it behind for generations to discover that: “Hey, this dude probably shouldn’t have died in obscurity with a bitchin’ case of syphilis.”

I’m not going to go as far as to write an entire book...maybe just a paragraph.  So here it goes!

My philosophy for Playground of Doom is simple: I attempt to sound like the guy on the next bar stool over.  The passionate film geek who has no problem pontificating on different colors of movie blood used in ‘70s Hammer Horror films.  There is no reasonable explanation for why the guy cares so much about an abstract bit of minutia.  You might not listen to everything he pours out of his soul.  You might not agree with it.  Still, you leave the joint with an odd hankering to sit down and watch The Satanic RItes of Dracula.  

The opposite of that (and what I like to call “smart blogging”):  Many standard movie blogs have an exceedingly narrow focus.   You want to write about the films of Ingmar Bergman?  That audience is now yours through the magic that is search engines.  You love movies based on Stephen King Novels?  The King legions will find you, and you’ll have a “successful” blog.  

That doesn’t quite mesh with my man at the bar, though.  He has a very personal relationship with films, and only talks about movies he gels with.  

He is the blogging version of the priest in “Eleanor Rigby.”  Look at him working, writing a sermon that no one will hear...

But you know what?  Damn it, he made at least one person seek out Static.  

Oh, this was supposed to be a review of Static.  Please let me adjust accordingly and we’ll come back to that.  

(I was serious before: Is anyone still reading this?)  

Why I Chose to Write About Static (1986) part one

There is a reason that I went to such a painstaking effort to introduce Static.  (“Painstaking effort” only looks like “avoidance,” please bare that in mind.”)  

Allow me to conjure up my “character,” the man at the bar who starts to rant about Static.  Here he goes:

“Have you seen Static, the Keith Gordon movie?  What?  You need to track that down.  It’s the cult movie without a cult.  One of the best films of the ‘80s...and no one has seen it.  Oh, I have to tell you what it’s about?  All right: here’s the pitch.  This lovably goofy guy, Keith Gordon as Ernie, loses his parents in a car crash.  So he develops this top secret invention: I almost don’t want to spoil it for you...but it’s a TV set that broadcasts a live signal from Heaven.  He keeps hoping to see his Mommy and Daddy.  

Oh, did you just check out?  No, no, this isn’t some bullshit movie you see on that Religious Over the Air channel at 2 a.m.  Ernie only claims that it broadcasts a clear image of Heaven.  Everyone else only sees snow...or more specifically Static.  There’s an inherent metaphor in the title...a crazy person is capable of seeing anything they want to.  So called sane people only see ‘static.’

What do you mean you and your friend are leaving?  You’re getting a drink somewhere else?  I haven’t even told you about Amanda Plumber as Julia...she is (I think) an old flame of Ernie’s.  Holy shit, there’s this great opening to the see, Julia is a keyboardist who flips out on stage.  She just walks off in the middle of a rock’s fucking great.

Here, let me walk you to the door.  I still have to tell you about Ernie’s cousin Frank, played by Bob Gunton.  He is this crazy pseudo preacher!  Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood?  He’s like the central character in that book; except he believes that World War III is coming.  Frank lives in an honest to god bomb shelter...he gives his kids hazard suits and gas masks for Christmas.  

They sit around and watch the fucking TV wearing hazard suits!

Can I at least call you sometime?  I could tell you about how Static perfectly utilizes The The’s classic “This is the Day.”  It’s says so much about the emotional state of the characters!  Ernie is deluded enough to believe that this faulty invention will change his whole life.  ‘This is the day/You’re life will surely change..’

Did I mention that he works in a goddam crucifix factory?  He steals them off the assembly line!  Wait, do you know the The The song?”  

Our man starts to sing as the girls leave the bar:  

“‘You didn’t get up this morning/Because you didn’t go to bed/You’ve been watching the whites of your eyes turn red...” 

This should go without saying: our man doesn’t score...Static goes unfairly neglected...and my little blog goes unnoticed because I didn’t write a review of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3-D.

Why I Chose to Write About Static part two

You most likely get the gist of what Static is about now.  The “crazy” inventor and the T.V. to Heaven is the crux of it.

We now interrupt our review for an autobiographical break:

I was working on a script about an inventor around the time I first caught Static.  This was to be the blue print for my second film; I apparently hadn’t learned anything about practicality from the first one.  No, I wanted to stuff the movie to the proverbial gills.  “What would I do if this was the last film I ever made?” I asked myself.  

The problem was the story started to bother me profoundly.  There was something in the core of my being that had been vacuumed into the script.  I wasn’t ready to deal with anything that primally, I wanted this childish dream of “making movies.”  The two warring parties (the Emotional Baggage and the Dream) couldn’t seem to reconcile.  That left me in a state of paralysis for finishing the script.

(I would later come to the conclusion that you need to deal with the baggage first.  After that, you are safe to make the movie.  The work will reflect your emotional maturity, and be all the better for it.  John Lennon’s album The Plastic Ono Band is a prime example of this.)  

I started to puzzle over the archetype of the “Inventor.”  What is it all about?  An inventor is bringing a thing to life out of thin air.  That is a massive amount of responsibility.  You have to be crazy for even wanting to attempt such an endeavor.  You have to be even more “fucked in the head” (to use a layman’s terms) to continue to believe in your work.  This is especially true when the sound and fury of your passion falls on deaf ears.  

You can use the character of an inventor as a nifty metaphor.   Dig a little deeper under that character and you find the Dreamer.  You unearth the story of most artists.  I’ll even throw in Don fucking Quixote and Warren Beatty in McCabe and Mrs Miller.  

Was I pulling a Don Quixote?  Was I just tilting at windmills?  Was I “crazy?”  

Somewhere in the haze I encountered Static.  I’m not making this up: the movie found me through the innocuous Comcast On-Demand service.  Do you see the question listed above this ranting?  “Why did I choose Static?”  The fact that this movie resonated with me has a giant something to do with it.  

We now return to our regularly scheduled review.  

(Are you still here?  I wouldn’t blame you if you are running for the exit.)

Why I Chose to Write About Static part three

This is where I tie Eleanor Rigby, the guy at the bar, and Ernie from Static together.  Yes, there is even a large portion of myself thrown in.  

Static is about how and why we deem people to be “crazy.”  

Take a look at how the other central characters in the film interact with Ernie. 
    • Julia, after her melt down on stage, explicitly asks Ernie: “Do you think I’m crazy?”  Ernie is smitten, and just finds her quirks eccentric and adorable.  
    • Frank, Ernie’s cousin, is what we might today label a “fringe personality.”  The man lives in a “World War III” shelter.  I am completely confused by his rhetoric to be blatantly honest.  He poses as a Bible Thumper, only to reveal the fact that he doesn’t believe in Jesus.  His belief is that Jesus won’t save us from the impending World War III...and he employs the preacher act to throw people off the scent of his so-called truth.  The logic is missing; but Ernie never comments on it.  He still sees Frank as his best friend.  
    • Ernie is somewhat of a local celebrity.  One of the people at the diner he eats at says: “That boy is going to be famous someday.”  There’s a dark irony there because of the ending of the film.  (Not to be revealed by me.)   
I touched on the significance of the title.  Ernie reveals his invention about half way through the film (the classic “midpoint” in screenwriting terminology).  That is when his so-called “friends” abandon him.  The lovable nut has gone too far to the dark side.  What lead him there?  Belief in his esoteric passions; mental illness is just a little bit of a side effect.

Ernie’s “community” needed him before the reveal of the invention to act as a mirror.  He was a direct reflection of their own insecurities, and they loved him for it.  That mainly has to do with the casting of one of cinema’s more lovably enigmatic nerds: Keith Gordon.  There’s no way you can’t find him sympathetic.  

What happens when the Keith Gordon/Ernie mask falls off, though?  The people he was close to (Frank and Julia) can’t stand the harsh reality of what they see.     

The guy at the bar, Ernie, the priest from Eleanor Rigby, and me: we should probably keep our interests to ourselves.  They tell stories on us, and we start to appear a bit “touched.”  Find a more mainstream hobby like Football.  You’ll be better off that way.  

(Really: who spends their Saturday writing over 2000 words about a film five people have seen?)  

Wait, there’s more: A Few Reasons Why Static Is a Good Film

Static is a good film because of the little nuances that so easily could misfire as “pretentious.”  

Such as:  
    • There’s a small boy who lip synchs to an old country song on the diner’s Juke Box.  
    • Ernie gives Frank’s children nightmarish masks as a Christmas gift.  Why does he feel like that’s an appropriate thing to do?
    • How is Frank in a sturdy marriage?  His wife is an absolutely gorgeous and stable Asian beauty.  
    • The wonderful scene in which Ernie goes to invite Frank to his “unveiling party.” The two men sit in the fall out shelter, surrounded by automatic weapons, and drink Tang while having a heartfelt moment.  
    • The haunting use of Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” over the end credits.  The tragic ending takes place on Christmas Day.  I’m sure there’s ironic commentary there.  I just haven’t deciphered what it is commentary on yet. 
    • The movie slowly reveals itself: You don’t know what the hell Ernie is up to  Director Mark Romanek and co-writer Gordon take their sweet time to reveal all the pieces of the puzzle.   

Are you still here?  Would you like to see my invention?  You’ll never guess what it is...

Next Up: The much anticipated (and delayed) conclusion of the Abducted saga. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Why Remember Anything?: The Crown International Experience

How did I discover the output of Crown International? 

There was a time in my life when I desperately yearned to be a filmmaker...oh yes, did I burn.  There is a strange event that takes place when you start to chase after a goal.  What is it?  You start pretending that you are more important than you are.  You attach signifiers to your name such as: “Writer-Director” and “Producer.” 

In reality, you are just another sucker that got a film project off the ground.  That doesn’t diminish the relationship you develop with you cohorts.  So for a while I had a friend who was willing to act as the “producer” to my “writer-director.”  I also had a script which I couldn’t finish.  There was something about the nature of the story that deeply depressed me.  I could barely talk about it without wanting to cry.   

What the hell does this have to do with cheap drive in movies?

My “producer” friend had given me a deadline for a finished script that I kept dodging.  Most of the time my favorite way to do this was go and buy cheap DVDs.  That was when I stumbled upon something that purported to be full of “DRIVE IN CULT CLASSICS.”  

What would seduce me into plunking down five dollars on such a purchase?  Well, I can assure you that it had nothing to do with the cover.

No, nothing at all.  Nor did it have anything to do with an attempt to escape the script that made me cry.  There are a few other things to consider: I had also recently started blogging and watching far too many movies.  

If my “producer” called, I most likely screened the caller ID and didn’t answer.  I was too busy destroying hours of my life with this pedestrian, “Cult Classics.”

I began watching the films, and found they had been produced by a production company called “Crown International.”  That’s when all the trouble began.       

My Original Plan for Writing About Crown International

I’ll level with you: my first inclination was to write a very long piece drawing on suburban ennui, Raymond Carver, and various religious symbolism.  Applying this “theory” to boob-and-schlock-fests like The Teacher and Malibu High was to be a particularly epic (and heroic) failure.  

You might ask yourself: “What would put that sort of idea into your head?”  

Let’s talk about what I saw in almost every outing with Crown International:
    • Wildly overblown “pot boiler” stories, usually involving domestic abuse, suicide, and marital dysfunction.  (Cindy and Donna, The Stepmother, The Teacher, Malibu High)
    • Ridiculously down beat endings to movies that were supposed to be salacious good times.  (I’ll write about that later in my little review of The Teacher.)  The characters are “done in” by ludicrous means (car crashes, gun fire that comes from nowhere, homicidal maniacs on the loose).  You can’t help but wonder:  “Are these characters being judged harshly for their behavior?  Or am I being implicated as an audience member?”  More specifically: “Am I the one who is being judged for watching this junky movie?  Am I being moralized to?”  
    • The Suburban Sprawl: I understand that this was likely a result of low production values.  That still didn’t stop me from noticing: most of the movies are set in generic, uninteresting, almost low rent suburban neighborhoods.  The kind that you see in your head when you read Raymond Carver.  Raymond Carver wrote about lost little moments in which people realized how hollow their lives had become.  Crown International made sleazy movies in which characters looked for any distraction they could find as a way of numbing boredom.  Don’t you see the connection?   I know I do.  (Note: I realized today that I might have readers who have never heard of Raymond Carver.  I’ll let you look that reference up on your own.)  

The fundamental problem: these movies don’t justify the effort...that didn’t quell my fascination with them.  (Despite the unsuccessful Raymond Carver allusions.)  That also didn’t stop me from trying to plumb the depths.  

This will lead me rather clumsily to the next section.  These are not so much “reviews,” as they are “memory pieces.”  

Exhibit A: The Teacher (1974)

There is the matter of what The Teacher is on the surface.  Angel Tompkins is a hot, older teacher who “cougars” the young and impressionable Jay North.  That sounds like brainless fodder for 2 a.m. on a Saturday night, right?  

Now let’s talk about what is inexplicably weird about The Teacher:
    • Jay North: this actor apparently played an incarnation of Dennis the Menace on TV in the 1960s.    Have you ever wondered what Dennis the Menace would look like if he hit a bad patch of adolescent awkwardness?  The best description I can offer is to imagine Dennis having an unfortunate accident involving radiation.  His once adorable boy like features are swollen, and he now reassembles one of the Geico cavemen.  We’re supposed to accept that a lovely woman like Angel Tompkins would want to seduce this dude.  Their love scenes made me feel cold and dead inside.  (And there’s a tag line for Crown International:  “The will make you feel cold and dead inside...Coming this Summer!”)
    • Angel lures Jay into her house for the first time by promising him: “Don’t worry, I’m not going to rape you.”  Yes, that is really what she says.
    • There’s a theme song that resembles what Muzak might sound like if it was played in Hell.  A female voice silkily sings: “Every boy needs a teacher....”  
    • Then there’s Anthony James as Ralph: this is what throws a giant web blanket on what should be a sleazy good time.  Anthony James, one of cinema’s great creepers, plays a man who is feverishly obsessed with Angel Tompkins.  He stalks her through out the movie, and we can’t help but wonder how these two worlds are going to collide.  His creepiness leads to one of the most remarkable scenes I’ve seen in any movie.  That occurs after Angel and Jay finish having a tryst on her houseboat.  (I’ve neglected to mention that Angel has a rich husband who never seems to be around.)  After they are done, our boy Anthony pops up in front of the boat wearing a Scuba Suit.  He has been lurking under water the entire time.  
    • Then there’s the ending: Anthony James lures Jay North to an abandoned warehouse and pushes him off a staircase.  The movie fades to black as Angel Tompkins holds Jay North’s crumpled dead body in her arms.  This is the paradox I spoke of earlier.  She is being punished for her indiscretions.  Logic would dictate that she is acting as the audience surrogate: we’re the ones being punished.  (I’m not just talking about the shame that comes from spending two hours of your life on The Teacher.)

Exhibit B: Malibu High (1979)

Do horrible movies happen by accident?  Or are they premeditated?  I’m not going to delve too far into the plot of Malibu High...though it is a doozy.  Jill Lansing plays a high school senior who falls into prostitution; then becomes a professional hit woman through an odd twist of fate.  

That’s not important, but two indelible scenes are two.
    • Lansing starts turning tricks out of a vintage VW van.  Would you like to feel very bad about yourself?  Just wait until you start chuckling at the following: A group of sleazy looking men form a line outside the van.  The camera pulls a rudimentary, dead pan scan through the line as if to say: “No big deal!”
    • We get a tragic flashback to Lansing’s childhood.  She walks into the room as her Daddy hangs himself.  Make no mistake about it people, this is the most unintentionally comic suicide ever put to film.  Were the filmmakers laughing as the camera rolled?  Or were they just horribly inept?  I just don’t believe that a piece of filmmaking like this happens on accident.  

Lansing meets another abrupt and tragic end.  The bullet literally seems to fall from the sky.  (Was she punished by a vengeful God?)  

What’s It All About?  

I’ll start by admitting the following: I recently watched The Van (1977).  Another Crown International “gem”: about a wormy dude who buys a Chevy Van.  He converts it into what might modestly be called “a Shaggin’-Wagon.”  This movie destroyed my theories about the “hidden depths” of Crown International.  This is a generic Porky’s precursor and not much else.  No dark ending, and certainly nothing resembling shame.    

Then what about my experience with the earlier films.  Was I digging too deep? 

I often wonder (in life as well as movie watching) if it’s possible to want something that isn’t there.  You can convince yourself that an experience is better than it is in reality.  I didn’t want to deal with the fact that I was wasting my time.  Raymond Carver, suburban ennui...why not? 

I never finished the script, and ended up giving up on filmmaking.  That said, I still finished watching every solitary film in this “Cult Classics” collection.  How is that for accomplishment?       

Now would anyone like to take this abysmal set of “Drive-In Classics” off my hands?   

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Playground Gets Ponderous: Goodbye, Norma Jean (Or What Makes a Movie Star)

Part One: Let’s Start with a Little Odyssey I Went On Recently

This whole mess began when (somehow, perhaps by magic) My Week with Marilyn (2011) landed into my instant queue.  

My Week with Marilyn is not a very good movie, at least by my semi-professional estimation.  The film feels a bit like a stale diet soda version of a Merchant Ivory production.  We follow a young man named Colin Clark (a boring performance by some guy named Eddie Redmayne) as he chases after his dream of “getting in the picture business!”  (There’s a family to do about this...his father wants him to be a doctor or something.  It’s only there to add a lazy shade of character coloring...and really, who cares?)

Colin “gets in” by planting himself in the office of Sir Laurence Olivier on a daily basis.  (I will mention that Olivier is played by Kenneth Branagh.  It’s a good performance; he doesn’t do a strict impersonation but a real and nuanced acting job.)  The secretary finally caves and lets him start answering the phone while she is at lunch.  After that, we watch as Colin has a ring side seat for the making of a not very good film called The Prince and the Showgirl.  This is a romantic comedy starring Olivier and Marilyn Monroe  (Michelle Williams, we’ll get to that).  

Shit goes down after that: Colin gets involved with Marilyn, after she is abandoned by her relatively new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott).  The shoot goes down the tubes, because Marilyn is incredibly troubled with pills and mental illness.  She has two handlers that constantly coddle her, and presumably get paid well to do it.  There’s another girl that Colin hurts terribly by dismissing her for his fling with Marilyn (and she’s played by WhatsHerFace from Harry Potter).  

There are two issues that make My Week with Marilyn difficult for me to dismiss:
    • Michelle Williams as Marilyn: Michelle Williams is most certainly not the real Marilyn.  She has somehow sidestepped becoming a movie star and settled for doing legitimate work in small films.  That is why she is able to “ape” Marilyn successfully, but also go the extra step by completely tearing off the band aid.  She manages to funnel all of Marilyn’s deep wounds through the signature baby soft voice.  
    • Everyone in the story comes off stinking like a clogged toilet.  Olivier is an insensitive jerk on set.  Arthur Miller decides that the best way to solve his problems is to run away from them.  That only happens after Marilyn finds notes for an incredibly unflattering script he is writing about her.  Colin might seem like the innocent in this situation.  However, I see him more as an opportunistic scum bag in training.  The real Colin managed to write not just one, but two books about his fling with Marilyn.  That was the source material for this outing.  Most of all, there’s Marilyn herself.  She uses everyone around her for her own benefit, as most drug addicts do.  The “little girl lost” act might have made her a star, but it was also the scape goat for some extremely bad behavior.  In short, some mediocre people made a mediocre movie and then moved on.  I suppose this is where you would insert a: “Welcome to the film industry” comment.  

As you can gather from my somewhat flippant tone, this movie got under my skin.  That’s when I had a realization: I had never seen a Marilyn Monroe movie.  “Could that be right?” I thought as I read through her filmography.  How did that happen?

Part Two: Of Course I Knew Who She Was

The fact that I have never seen a Marilyn Monroe film seemed almost (to quote The Princess Bride) inconceivable to me.  Why?

She’s ubiquitous in American culture:
    • Who hasn’t seen the Andy Warhol silkscreen of her?  
    • We’ve all had to hear Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” ten thousand times, and most of them at the dentist’s office.  (My teeth are hurting just thinking of it.)
    • I remember reading a Gloria Steinem essay somewhere in the haze of English 102.  Steinem’s astute point (from what I can remember) was this: Marilyn Monroe was pushed over the edge by our cultural expectations of her.  She was the ultimate sex symbol, and the sad carrier for literally millions of juvenile sexual fantasies.  Pay attention to this, kids.  I’m going to piggy back off of Gloria for some of my later remarks in this essay.  
    • Hell, I even “met” Marilyn once.  Okay, so she was an impersonator outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in LA.  She wasn’t even a very good one: she was pushing 40 and looked like she had spent some of that tip money on some “help” with her looks.  She was standing next to Batman with a Beer Gut and some Hobo dressed up as Gandalf.  

With all this said, how the hell had I not seen a Marilyn movie?  (I would like my audience to ignore the fact that I had ZERO FUCKING INTEREST in Marilyn Monroe before this.  Or if I was to sing it in true Marilyn style...ZERO FUCKING INTEREST...boop boop be do...yeah.)  

What to do?  

Part Three: The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot

We should all celebrate when something in this life happens easily.  By a stroke of luck, both The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot popped up on Instant.  

I would like to start with what I knew about these films before watching them.  Everyone has seen the iconic shot from The Seven Year Itch, with Marilyn standing on top of the grate “feeling the breeze.”  I also knew that Some Like it Hot had something to do with cross dressing.  

The Seven Year Itch is nothing great.  The truth is that it is slight, horribly dated, and somewhat sexist (towards both are nothing but libidinous monsters and women are their all too willing victims).  The whole affair is an over boiled sitcom without the laugh track.  

I’m not going to go too far into summarizing the story.  You know it’s about Tom Ewell as a horny middle aged man whose wife and kids leave for the summer.  The central conflict occurs when Marilyn (as a character simply called The Girl) starts to sublet the apartment upstairs.  The guy feels “the seven year itch...” after being married for “so long.”  

Here’s the crux of it:  Nothing really ever happens between the Tom Ewell character and Marilyn.  He invites her down for a drink, feels unreasonably guilty, and then (through a series of events) lets The Girl live in his apartment.  (Spoiler: In a terribly constructed ending, he goes back to his wife and you can’t help but wonder what the point of the movie was).  

Marilyn is there to play a fantasy figure, and she’s adequate.  She has impeccable comic timing, she looks great, and is by far the most interesting thing in the film.  I finally had my “eureka” moment: this was what all the hoopla was about; a real movie star.  Perhaps not a great actress, but a perfect Marilyn Monroe.  I would like a chance to see her in a better movie.  

Now what?

The next stop on the trip was Some Like It Hot.

Now Some Like It Hot is a completely different beast from The Seven Year Itch.  That’s because Some Like It Hot is, quite simply, a great film.  The dialogue is sharp and the plot is immaculately constructed.  The subject mater is particularly daring and risque for the time.  The biggest surprise: the thing is laugh out loud hilarious.  

All of that doesn’t concern us for this piece, though.  Marilyn is given a substantial character to play, or at least a role that seems tailor made to fit her personae.  She is Sugar, a down on her luck night club singer that always falls for saxophonists.  She’s vulnerable, she’s funny, and even sings four or five songs.  Her singing voice is somewhat thin, but watch how she plays to the night club audience.  

I haven’t even mentioned the substantial scenes she shares with both Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.  The sterling example (in my mind) is the scene with Tony Curtis (badly impersonating Cary Grant) on the beach.  Of the Marilyn performances I’ve seen (all two of them), this is the one I would freeze in a time capsule as quintessential. 

Part Four: What I Have to Say about Marilyn Monroe

Judging from my glowing review of Some Like it Hot, I am a newly minted Marilyn Monroe fan.  I’m going to seek out her other films; and even watch (from what I’ve heard) her ill fated attempt to really act in The Misfits.

That said, I can’t help but think about the dark side of the mystique.  

I’m sure that I don’t need to tell you: Marilyn Monroe was Norman Jean Baker.  There are cracks in the facade and you can see them.  This is a bizarre thing to nit pick: but take a close look at her hair.  You can tell it’s completely fake, and stylized beyond all belief.  You could just assume that she made “more sense” as a blonde.  (I don’t know enough about her biography to know who made that decision.) 

Even more than the hair: pay close attention to what she says in both films.  The Seven Year Itch is predicated on the fact that she would at least have a passing interest in a dude like Tom Ewell.  Her character’s ultimate fantasy in Some LIke it Hot is to meet a “man with glasses.”  She assumes that they are “gentle.”  

Is that something a beautiful woman would say?  Or is it an industry full of men projecting their fantasies onto her?  I can’t help but contrast this fantasy image with the “real” woman as portrayed in My Week with Marilyn.  The one that “cougars” the kid; is this man eater the same delicate creature who loves glasses wearers?  

We’re in Gloria Steinem land here: Marilyn Monroe was the giant sacrifice for our collective fantasy.    

However, I can’t help but think about the opposite of the coin.  Who goes looking for this sort of attention?  She wanted to be rich, famous, and intensely adored.  Was this a case of “be careful what you wish for?”

At any rate, her early death was an incredible waste of beauty and talent.

I’m rambling. 

So I will end with two thoughts that are not my own. 

To quote Bernie Taupin: “Goodbye, Norma Jean...”

And to borrow the immortal last line from Some Like It Hot: “Nobody’s perfect.”

Next Up: Some thoughts on the twisted world of Crown International Pictures.