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Jazz has endured because it doesn’t have a beginning or an ending. It’s a moment.” — Robert Altman, 2004

"The game of life is hard to play" MASH Robert Altman, 1970 Cinematography | Harold E. Stine

“The game of life is hard to play”
MASH
Robert Altman, 1970
Cinematography | Harold E. Stine

A quote that not only offers perspective on the art of jazz, but also provides a key to why so many of Robert Altman’s films carry such power. When attempting to provide an over-all descriptor of this Cinematic Master’s work the word “satire” is the most often used. Other great words would be “psychology” and “humanity,” because I find it difficult to limit the scope of Altman’s filmography to the satirical. Even when he pulls us into soft satire there are equal measures of psychology and human nature that make a film like The Player resonate. I remember being surprised at how much I enjoyed The Player. A meta-film filled with late 1980’s Hollywood insider jokes and pokes that I had already decided that I would not get most of what Altman’s film pursued. I was wrong.

"So, what's the story? The Player Robert Altman, 1992 Cinematography | Jean Lépine

“So, what’s the story?
The Player
Robert Altman, 1992
Cinematography | Jean Lépine

At the time I didn’t fully appreciate many of the jokes/pokes, but Altman managed to pull me into his protagonist’s shoes. Tim Robbins’ Griffin is not an easy character to like. He is most certainly not the sort of character that you expect to root for, but I did. When this iconic movie is over the viewer is fully satisfied, but this was a movie that did not actually end. As I left the cinema that evening my mind drifted back to Griffin‘s situation. Just how far would he go in the next movie deal? The Player never really stops playing.

This sort of “ending” is the type Altman most often relied upon. In this case that ending was open-ended and threatened a whole new twist to a complex situation. Other times Altman simply cut the movie off or have his story forever floating off the screen as the credits began to roll. This often resulted in a sort of gut-punch or lingering melancholy. His first major critical and box office hit, MASH, was satirical as much as was potently human. By the time we come to that moment when the silly antics, raunchy pranks and comedy will conclude — it suddenly occurs to the audience that all of it has been a ruse. These characters have yucked it up not because it sums up who each of them are, but because they are all trying to delude themselves away from the realities of war. It is both innovative and startling to realize that Radar’s voice which has been booming out announcement over the military encampment is actually reading off the movie’s cast credits. Altman’s way of ending MASH is cleaver and hints that we are leaving the movie while the tragedies continue.

MASH Robert Altman, 1970

MASH
Robert Altman, 1970

Robert Altman had been working in the film industry for over sixteen years when he was finally able to make his narrative fiction feature film. He was 43 years old when he arrived in Canada to shoot That Cold Day in the Park. He was no neophyte. A viewer need not know that fact because this seemingly forgotten cinematic gem is handled with a confident elegance. Having managed to secure Academy Award winning actress, Sandy Dennis, to star was a crucial part of his plan. In any other filmmaker’s hands this profoundly odd character study would have been turned into a morbid horror film. Nothing about the way Altman handles Cold Day indicates the creepy place the film is headed.

Sandy Dennis plays her character like only Sandy Dennis can. She is a wealthy but lonely young woman. She lives a mundane, lonely life surrounded by wealthy extravagances limited by a social life structured around older people. It almost feels as if she has being forced into the role of an aging spinster when in reality she is far too young. It is never clearly articulated, but thanks both to Altman and Dennis’ performance we receive several clues that something is very wrong with “Miss. Frances Austen.” When she breaks convention and offers help to a homeless mute “boy” who is actually closer to her own age than others we meet in her life. We hope this is a sign of healthy rebellion and quest for human connection.

But how often does human motivation follow our better hopes? 

"I have to tell you something." Sandy Dennis That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | Laszlo Kovacs

“I have to tell you something.”
Sandy Dennis
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | Laszlo Kovacs

With Laszlo Kovacs’ brilliant cinematography bringing additional emotional levels, one could call this movie a psycho-sexual thriller. The challenge in limiting this surprisingly effective film to that genre is non-sensical. The film is far more concerned with human psychology to allow itself to fall into line with a cinematic trope. That Cold Day is far more focused on human loneliness, lack of connection and the tyranny of societally imposed isolation and alienation. The film is all of these things but Altman’s main pursuit is to slip into a woman’s damaged psyche.

The film is short and fast-paced. Filled with uncomfortable and realistic scenes between Miss. Frances Austen and The Boy, we see the woman open-up to the mute boy who she manages to keep mostly nude most of the time. Altman’s protagonist is dealing with a whole lot more than sexual repression and alienation. The movie’s “twist” arrives shortly after the one we expect. It is the way in which Altman brings about That Cold Day‘s non-ending that sparks this low-budget magic. The deliverance of the story’s true twist shifts the audience chuckle into an unexpected disturbance. What seems comical gradually takes on the perspectives of the sinister and disturbing. This little movie will never leave your mind. Film critics at the time failed to grasp the power and audiences failed to see it. Robert Altman’s true cinematic debut continues to be studied and re-evaluated.

"I want you to make love to me. Please." That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969

“I want you to make love to me. Please.”
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969

Another forgotten Robert Altman gem arrived to cinemas in 1978. A Wedding is structured and filmed in typical 1970’s casual Altman style. It is satire that manages to be both sharp and silly. A Wedding is also surprisingly sad. Filled with rambling sub-plots as two families come together for a lavish post-wedding reception, it is intentionally rambling but stumbles into deep-cutting cultural commentary. A Wedding is concerned with societal ideas around marriage, family, class and loneliness. A Wedding would later inspire a modern opera.

Carol Burnett A Wedding Robert Altman, 1978 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Carol Burnett
A Wedding
Robert Altman, 1978
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

As the wealthy and the middle class mingle and attempt to form a vague idea of familial bonds we see almost every sort of tragedy and mishap imaginable. Altman seems to constantly being throwing the audience off-guard. He seems determined to refuse any specific genre. Intellectual, slapstick, raunchy and introspective, A Wedding stretches use of familial dysfunction to its limits. The end credits arrive with an unforgettable mixture of crudeness and solemn regret. It is a very strange and often dark “comedy” of epic proportion. It failed to connect with mainstream audiences despite an amazing cast list. Part of the reason remains active today. A Wedding is framed and seems to have been set-up as a forgotten chapter of American Cultural Satire documented so brilliantly with Altman’s 1975 cinematic masterpiece, Nashville. A Wedding was never intended as such. It stands alone and has a very different sort of aim.

"You know weddings are the happiest events I could possibly dream of and yet some how when they're over it's always so sad." A Wedding Robert Altman, 1978

“You know weddings are the happiest events I could possibly dream of and yet some how when they’re over it’s always so sad.”
A Wedding
Robert Altman, 1978

The ill-fated ad campaign for A Wedding boasted that the movie contained a great many secrets, but there were no secrets about his earlier movie. Altman took a head-first plunge into the murky waters of dream logic with 1977’s 3 Women. Altman was specifically clear that this entire film was born of a personal nightmare. He was also very gracious in sharing a good deal of the credit with one of the film’s primary stars. 3 Woman is an incredible examination of identity and surrealism was largely formed by the participation of all three actors in the title roles. This is most particularly true of Shelley Duvall.

" I had the most wonderful dream..." Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

” I had the most wonderful dream…”
Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

This wildly experimental dark comedy morphs into one of the more disturbing films you are likely to see. It is full of female energy, but it never feels as if it is trying to make a statement about anything other than these three very specific female characters. Shelley Duvall’s Millie gleefully informs Sissy Spacek’s Pinky, “This is my parking space. It’s the best one!” Later Millie explains, “That’s Dirty Girtie! Pull her bow and she’ll say hello!”  Her delivery of those improvised lines creates an odd and varied response for viewers. Some giggle, some laugh, and many are not sure how to react. There is one reaction that is usually shared: Millie and this dream-inspired film is uncomfortable and induces squirms.

"My leg! My leg! My leg hurts..." 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“My leg! My leg! My leg hurts…”
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

When 3 Women debuted nearly all major critics swooned. In what has inspired a number of debates, Pauline Kael truly disliked the movie. Her negative viewpoint of this film is of particular interest because up until this movie, Kael had been a consistently staunch Altman ally. Her odd dismissal of 3 Women seemed to curse this extraordinary surrealistic movie. When 20th Century Fox released it into cinemas, audiences were either entranced, confused or indifferent. The film flopped and was pulled out of cinemas just a couple of days beyond a week. Over the following two decades 3 Women has not only become a “Cult Classic” — it is now considered one of the most important American films of the 1970’s. Robert Altman’s surreal study of female identity, isolation, loneliness and sexuality is a cinematic masterpiece.

"The Home of Country Music..." NASHVILLE Robert Altman, 1975

“The Home of Country Music…”
NASHVILLE
Robert Altman, 1975

As The United States headed into its Bicentennial and a game-changing election year, Robert Altman’s Nashville provided a satirical assault. This movie is quite often called the quintessential Robert Altman film. I agree with this viewpoint. Everything we know to anticipate from the great filmmaker is present. Overlapping dialogue, lots of characters, rambling plot points, improvisational in feel but clearly mapped-out toward one clear moving image of mid-1970’s US. Country music was shifting into a more mainstream accessed pop sensibility. Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt were both about to take a place on the pop charts. Country Music stardom was no longer limited to The Grand Ole Opry. And as the country headed into a cultural values torn battle — celebrity and celebrities were as important as anything else. Music Row was selling out. Altman and his screenwriter, Joan Tewkesbury, focused on Nashville as the stage to provide a scathing satire of American culture.

Perhaps the most lost is the most knowledgeable.  Lily Tomlin  NASHVILLE Robert Altman, 1975 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Perhaps the most lost is the most knowledgeable.
Lily Tomlin
NASHVILLE
Robert Altman, 1975
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

So much has been written about this exceptional film it seems silly to attempt to add anything worthy of it, but this epic film remains as powerful as it must have been in 1975. It is satire, but it is also realistically grounded within the limitations of its very human characters. It has continued to cause incorrect criticism for depicting the horrors of celebrity stalking. This film is not an inducement, it is a mirror reflection. Looking carefully in the mirror is never easy. An epic film.

In 1971 Altman set out to explore the concept of The American Western. Many have referred to McCabe & Mrs. Miller as a satire of The American Western. I do not agree with that assessment. This artfully shot and realistically acted film feels like it is attempting to more accurately be an American Western. It succeeds.

"...Oh I hope you run into them, you who've been travelling so long. Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control..." McCabe & Mrs. Miller Robert Altman, 1971

“…Oh I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long.
Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control…”
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Robert Altman, 1971

The timing of the story is a key element for McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The film takes place just as the 19th Century is about to progress into the 20th Century. The setting of the film is that place we know as The Old West. Filmed utilizing natural light as if he were painting on a canvas, Vilmos Zsigmond’s work is breath-stealing. I would doubt that Altman had ever worked so closely with his cinematographer to capture the exacting viewpoints so precisely with the film’s. It also had to be a major coup to manage to cast both Warren Beatty and Julie Christie (infamous lovers at that time) on one screen. He makes the most of both movie stars.

Warren Beatty’s sly ‘aw, chucks attitude is transformed into the one of the movie’s two main characters. McCabe may be tough and ambitious, but he is not very smart. I think it is safe to describe Beatty’s McCabe as a seemingly lucky idiot. Julie Christie’s luminously erotic beauty and intelligence bring Mrs. Miller to life. There is a surprisingly realistic love story here: A stunningly beautiful and intelligent woman begins to fall in love with the handsome man who appears to have all the power. The film’s straining question is how far can love grow when two people are so very different. McCabe‘s brainpower and opinions are so dull that it seems to degree a sad fate.

 

"...When you're not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you've sinned..." No. It's not Jesus.  Warren Beatty McCabe & Mrs. Miller Robert Altman, 1971 Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

“…When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned…”
No. It’s not Jesus.
Warren Beatty
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Robert Altman, 1971
Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a beautiful looking and sounding film. Leonard Cohen’s songs fill in as much of the movie’s soundtrack. This actually lends a very late 20th Century take on the film’s story. Cohen’s music also adds to the melancholy that pours out from Zsigmond’s photography. This masterful film is not satire. It is reality. Understated and even quiet, this film is truly brilliant. At long last the film has been newly restored and will be issued to DVD/Blu-Ray thanks to the folks at The Criterion Collection.

Going against the beginning of my post, McCabe & Mrs. Miller does offer a true end to the story. And this is a story that continues to speak in a meaningful way.

Julie Christie McCabe & Mrs. Miller Robert Altman, 1971 Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

Julie Christie
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Robert Altman, 1971
Cinematography | Vilmos Zsigmond

Happy endings are absolutely ludicrous, they’re not true at all. We see the guy carry the girl across the threshold and everybody lives happily ever after — that’s bullshit. Three weeks later he’s beating her up and she’s suing for divorce and he’s got cancer.” — Robert Altman

There was once a time when Madonna presented ideas far deeper than that of “Pop Star.” While those days seem to have past, many of the ideas she presented and asserted remain.

Lucky for us a female film artist adapted Phoebe Gloeckner's insightful novel for the screen. Kristen Wiig / Bel Powley / Alexander Skarsgård The Diary of a Teenage Girl Marielle Heller, 2015 Photograph | Sam Emerson

Lucky for us a female film artist adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s insightful novel for the screen.
Kristen Wiig / Bel Powley / Alexander Skarsgård
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Marielle Heller, 2015
Photograph | Sam Emerson

One of the last times I recall finding myself thinking about something she co-created was her 2000 single:

“Skin that shows in patches.
Strong inside but you don’t know it.

Good little girls they never show it.
When you open up your mouth to speak, could you be a little weak?

Do you know what it feels like for a girl?
Do you know what it feels like in this world…” — Madonna

Aside from being catchy, this pop song did elevate itself more than a little by what it had to say about the ever-mounting challenges and societal/cultural indifference and injustices perpetuated against and projected upon the idea of female identity. Sadly, the iconic superstar chose to have her then filmmaker husband create the song’s vid-clip. The video for this song was crass and violent for reasons of shock-value vs. offering any level of content truly relevant toward a song that seemed tied to a young woman attempting to indicate the cruel patriarchal views to a young male. A missed opportunity to say the least.

Marguerite Duras' novel about a young woman's sexual awakening received a very male-eroticized translation from Jean-Jacques Annard. Jane March / Tony Leung The Lover Jean-Jacques Annard, 1992 Cinematography | Robert Fraisse

Marguerite Duras’ novel about a young woman’s sexual awakening received a very male-eroticized translation from Jean-Jacques Annard.
Jane March / Tony Ka Fai Leung
The Lover
Jean-Jacques Annard, 1992
Cinematography | Robert Fraisse

It has taken a tragic and centuries long tyranny for women to finally make significant strides in the areas of filmmaking. Such recently formed groups like The Alliance for Women in Media have smartly utilized social media to promote, promote and organize female film artists. While the idea of the female filmmaker is not at all new, the voices of these film artists that have managed to gain attention are painfully few. Those voices that have managed to obtain success have largely been built on celebrity [think Nora Ephron, Julie Delpy, Barbra Streisand, Penny Marshall, Elaine May, Susan Sideman, Anne Fontaine, Diane Keaton or Kathryn Bigelow] or controversial films that were either too scandalous or provocative [think Claire Denis, Lina Wertmüller, Patty Jenkins, Liliana Cavani, Lynne Ramsay, Mary Harron, Mia Hansen-Løve, Doris Dörrie or Catherine Breillat] to be ignored.

Note: this statement and the listed artists is not intended toward the quality of work or respective importance. However significant gains have been made in just the last ten years.

One of the most important historic moments in US history is captured by a female director. Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King SELMA Ava DuVernay, 2014 Cinematography | Bradford Young

One of the most important historic moments in US history is captured by a female director.
Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King
SELMA
Ava DuVernay, 2014
Cinematography | Bradford Young

As Film Art moves forward we will be given more opportunities to see female characters written and presented by women. It is interesting to experience the “knee-jerk” reaction of fellow cinephiles when I bring this up. It seems that the majority of people seem to feel it is not all that important or different to have a female vs. male filmmaker. From a technical proficiency standpoint it really does not make a difference. However, good luck at convincing most Big Money producers or film studios that there isn’t. The shift in this perspective is resulting from peer and societal pressures. Sexism and Racism still run the show, but this might be changing. What interests me is seeing how a female filmmaker might be able to bring a more balanced depiction of female characters and their situations.

A great deal more than "a sex comedy" that the film's marketing team led us to believe. Juno Temple & Kathryn Hahn deliver potent performances in a vastly under-rated film. Afternoon Delight Jill Soloway, 2013 Cinematography | Jim Frohna

A great deal more than “a sex comedy” that the film’s marketing team led us to believe.
Juno Temple & Kathryn Hahn deliver potent performances in a vastly under-rated film.
Afternoon Delight
Jill Soloway, 2013
Cinematography | Jim Frohna

Would Ava DuVernay’s Selma have been different if it had been made by a man? A white woman? I suspect so, but Selma was crafted with such a steadfast and sure handed — it is hard to say. Would Jill Soloway’s under-appreciated Afternoon Delight have been different if it had been written/directed by a male filmmaker? I’d say most certainly so. Would Diary of a Teenage Girl have presented themes of sexuality and identity have been handled in a different manner by a male? Would Mia’s frustrations, anger and sexual awakening been explored differently if a man had directed Andrea Arnold’s screenplay for Fish Tank? I’d say most definitely. Or what if we stop and imagine what might have happened if Lynne Ramsay’s husband, Rory Stewart Kenner, had directed their screenplay adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin? Would Michelle Williams’ Margot had received a more typical level of exploration had Sarah Polley not written and directed Take This Waltz? Would a male director had handled Father of My Children in the same way that Mia Hansen-Løve so grimly caring as she was able?

Even brightly painted walls are unable to hide the challenges of a young woman coming of age within a council estate. Katie Jarvis Fish Tank Andrea Arnold, 2009 Cinematography | Robbie Ryan

Even brightly painted walls are unable to hide the challenges of a young woman coming of age within a council estate.
Katie Jarvis
Fish Tank
Andrea Arnold, 2009
Cinematography | Robbie Ryan

If we think back to some of the more controversial European films of the past 50 years it brings up an even stronger concern. Imagine if Pier Paolo Pasolini had directed Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter? …A film that still makes both female and male audiences squirm some 40+ years after it was originally released. Try to imagine if Jacques Audiard had directed Claire Denis’ White Material. Actually this might be the true exception to the rule. I do not think there are any filmmakers who think and film anywhere near to the manner in which Denis approaches her distinctive and intimate films.

An odd sort of buddy film morphs into something very different in the hands of this respected female film artist. And guess what? She secured one of the most interesting American cinematographers working -- who happens to be a woman. Joslyn Jensen / Kentucker Audley FUNNY BUNNY Alison Bagnall, 2015 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

An odd sort of buddy film morphs into something very different in the hands of this respected female film artist. And guess what? She secured one of the most interesting American cinematographers working — who happens to be a woman.
Joslyn Jensen / Kentucker Audley
FUNNY BUNNY
Alison Bagnall, 2015
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Even so, just think what might have happened. A similar exception might rule for both Catherine Breillat and Josephine Decker — both of whom seem to have a very unique and intimate connection to their work. Decker’s voice is still taking form and I think we are approaching an era where it will be allowed to do just that. The same did not happen for the likes of Claudia Weill and Elaine May. Two incredibly gifted artists who had the unluck of making a flop each. Male filmmakers can make a flop movie and move on, the same has not been true for women.

Sidney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Gary Marshall would have simply shrugged and moved on to a new project. However all it took was one box office flop to bring Elaine May's directorial career to an abrupt end. Dustin Hoffman / Warren Beatty ISHTAR Elaine May, 1987 Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro

Sidney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Gary Marshall would have simply shrugged and moved on to a new project. However all it took was one box office flop to bring Elaine May’s directorial career to an abrupt end.
Dustin Hoffman / Warren Beatty
ISHTAR
Elaine May, 1987
Cinematography |Vittorio Storaro

An even more vexing concern for female artists comes up when we do think of all the inaccuracies of treatment for male filmmakers vs. female directors. Men can misbehave. Does anyone out there think that a female artist would have been allowed to put a cast / crew through emotional tantrums thrown by David O. Russell during the making of I Heart Huckabees? You are living in a make believe reality if you do. You would also be in an equally confused reality if you think a male PEO could have gotten away with this behavior on a Hollywood set. Ironically, the artist who paid the price for Mr. Russell’s bizarre behavior ended up being an innocent bystander. Unlike her co-stars, Isabelle Huppert and Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin refused to sit quietly while Russell blasted them with unprofessional rage-fueled insults.

I guess she should have known she had no right to defend herself and the crew against and unprofessional male director.  Dustin Hoffman / Lily Tomlin I Heart Huckabees David O. Russell, 2004 Cinematography | Peter Deming

I guess she should have known she had no right to defend herself and the crew against and unprofessional male director.
Dustin Hoffman / Lily Tomlin
I Heart Huckabees
David O. Russell, 2004
Cinematography | Peter Deming

It was as if the highly respected and skilled actress had made a grave error against Hollywood’s Good ‘Ol Boy Club when she dared to respond to her director’s cruelty. Ms. Tomlin’s film career suffered a great deal due because she was unwilling to sit passively and suffer the indignity of O’Russell’s tyranny. This sad result of a YouTube leak has been little discussed. David O. Russell had already come to blows with George Clooney a few years earlier. Clooney seemed to earn “respect points” for standing up to the bullying. Tomlin did not fare as well. She was largely relegated to playing nightclub gigs. It would take more than a couple of years before she found worthy television / film prospects. Yet David O. Russell continued to excel up The Hollywood Food Chain despite not only his behavior but the box office fail of I Heart Huckabees.

An experimental, disturbing and fascinating independent film challenged all the rules of a male-dominated art form.  Robert Longstreet / Sophie Traub Thou Wast Mild and Lovely Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

An experimental, disturbing and fascinating independent film challenged all the rules of a male-dominated art form.
Robert Longstreet / Sophie Traub
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

However, I’ve gone way off point here. There are a slew of amazing films dealing with the psychology of women. Films that are rightly revered and studied. In no way would I want to discount these films, but it is interesting to think about them from the perspective that they were imagined, written and directed by men. Are these depictions any less valid because women were relegated to the role of “actor” vs. creator of these unforgettable cinematic masterpieces? It is an interesting talking point.

A woman plagued by a toxic world or muted oppression? A male director proves he can make films focused on women without error.  Julianne Moore SAFE Todd Haynes, 1995 Cinematography | Alex Nepomniaschy

A woman plagued by a toxic world or muted oppression? A male director proves he can make films focused on women without error.
Julianne Moore
SAFE
Todd Haynes, 1995
Cinematography | Alex Nepomniaschy

I was recently thinking of four films in particular. I don’t pretend to know the full answer to this hind-sighted reflection. For starters I am not a filmmaker, but most importantly I am a white male. These films were made by professional filmmakers — all of whom were white men.

Millie aims for perfection within a man's nightmare... Shelley Duvall  3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Millie aims for perfection within a man’s nightmare…
Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

The first film that crosses my mind regarding this line of questioning is one of my personal favorite movies: Robert Altman’s 3 Women. I’m not sure this is a good film to discuss in this vein as the entire film can be ascribed to dream-logic. Altman never made it a secret that the entire film was born of a personal nightmare. It is also no secret that this incredible examination of identity and surrealism was largely formed by the participation of all three actors in the title roles. This is most particularly true of Shelley Duvall.

The battle for identity... Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

The battle for identity…
Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Almost all of the film’s trajectories emanate from Duvall’s Millie‘s actions. Another aspect of this film that more or less eliminates it from this topic is the fact that the entire film does feel like a manifestation of male-based fears about women. This is not to say that 3 Women is not a fully potent vision of identity horror, but it does not actually seem to present itself entirely based female psychology. This wildly experimental dark comedy morphs into one of the more disturbing films you are likely to see. It is full of female energy, but it never feels as if it is trying to make a statement about anything other than these three very specific three female characters.

The second film I think of this respect is a more likely candidate for this type of analysis: John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. Experiencing a John Cassavetes film often leads the viewer to the mistaken idea that every aspect of what is being seen is an improvised experimental film. This is never the case.

A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974

A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974

Cassavetes was an articulate film writer as well as director. He had a very specific story to tell and he told it in his unique visionary way. Certainly not one to run from collaboration and open to ideas — he was nearly always set on how and what he wanted his films to say. He was blessed to share his life with one of the most important film actors to ever breathe, Gena Rowlands. However it is a major mistake to think that as Mabel, Rowlands was free-forming her dialog as she went along. It is both to her credit as an actor and her husband’s credit as a filmmaker that it feels that way. Even Rowlands’s Mabel odd and/or quirky hand gestures and ticks were already thought out in the filmmaker’s head. Do a Google and you will find images of Cassavetes acting out the hand movements and gestures for Rowlands to incorporate into her performance. It is also somewhat crucial to remember that Cassavetes main interest in his film storytelling was the pursuit of love. Yet it would seem difficult for even this great filmmaker to not note that there was something removed from that going on here.

Seeking intimacy and human warmth, but only finding guilt and confusion.  A One Night Stand and Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

Seeking intimacy and human warmth, but only finding guilt and confusion.
A One Night Stand and Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

A Woman Under the Influence works on all levels and remains a fascinating and deeply disturbing screen capture of a woman in full-tilt emotional breakdown. How or if she is full able to “heal” and return to life is more than a little ambiguous. What is clear in the film is that she is loved and loves, but this might not be enough for her to survive the life in which she has found herself. And this is one of the primary reasons this 1974 film continues to feel alive and real. The hair styles, the decor, the cars and clothing may all be dated — but the situations all feel profoundly current.

Mabel is not well. She is losing her grip on sanity. Something that the film never bluntly states but shows is that she is also deteriorating in imposed isolation, loneliness and suffocating within what begins to feel like a sort of familial pathology. The Longhetti Family is not well. The working-class husband / father is over-worked and seems more than a little under-educated. With the exception of a paycheck, he seems to leave all other responsibilities to his wife, Mabel. She is left alone with three children in a sort of lower-middle class hell.

"All of a sudden, I miss everyone..." Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

“All of a sudden, I miss everyone…”
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

She loves and adores her children, but they are all she has in the way of connection to the world. She may or may not be a bit smarter than her husband, but it does not really matter. We can see that she is overwhelmed. We can also see that her husband hasn’t a clue as to why or how to help her. He takes to what can only be described as domestic abuse toward his wife. He ultimately pulls his children into emotionally-damaging situations and allows indulgences into inappropriate behavior as a father. Mabel may not be a reliable parent, but she seems to be trying harder to set a better example than her husband. The 21st Century reaction to Peter Falk’s Nick is to take offense and become angry. However his performance and the film itself is so stunningly human, it is almost impossible to dislike Nick. We know he cares and is simply lost. The resulting film is powerful, sad and oddly inspiring in that it offers us a bit of hope for this woman.

When film acting no longer feels like "fiction." Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

When film acting no longer feels like “fiction.”
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

There was and will only ever be one John Cassavetes. A Woman Under the Influence is cinematic masterwork from every angle.

But have you ever wondered what this movie might have been like if a woman had directed it?

Would we be given a bit more information regarding those gestures or movements to understand the pressures of both the inner and outer worlds of Mabel? Would Nick have had more room to understand or even less? Would he have become a savior or more of a victimizer? When it comes to A Woman Under the Influence, one thing that was discussed when it was first released has come much more clearly to the forefront with the passage of time: there is an idea presented which is far less ambiguous today as was back in the 1970s. As viewers we do not really know if it is Mabel who is having the real problem here. Mabel appears to be more a victim of circumstance than one of mental illness. Is The Woman ill or is she simply a experiencing the logical result of a life so severely limited and oppressed? Perhaps it is Nick who really needs help. Mabel just might need to demand more freedom or walk away. Would the entire situation of this family be illuminated in a different way had it been in the hands of female filmmaker? Honestly, I’m not sure I really want to know…

The female psyche deconstructed... PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966

The female psyche deconstructed…
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966

The third and final film is also one of the greatest films ever made. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is a milestone work of art for more reasons than I’d be comfortable attempting to articulate. This largely experimental film is less about the core of Human Identity as it is about the twisted manipulation of identity by one of the two female characters. Bibi Andersson plays Alma. A young and inexperienced Psych Nurse assigned the task of caring for a highly respected stage and film actress played with equal mastery by Liv Ullmann. This is a Surrealist take on human cruelty and ideas of identity. It is also female-centric. Yet as much as it is concerned with female psychology, it is equally concerned with experimenting against the normal conventions of cinematic storytelling. Ingmar Bergman and his legendary cinematographer, Sven Nyqvist are both concerned with conveying ideas through image and editing even more than what the two actors present through performance and dialogue.

Too fragile to handle the world, so maybe she wants to try and manipulate it?  Liv Ullmann PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Too fragile to handle the world, so maybe she wants to try and manipulate it?
Liv Ullmann
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

We see both women react to their respective worlds and situations. Soon enough we see them react to each other. In uncomfortable silence as her patient has withdrawn from speech and human contact, Alma begins to find herself in the unique position in having a person of note who serves as her private audience. She begins to share her deepest and most intimate secrets to her Elisbet. One doesn’t need a degree in psychology to realize that Liv Ullmann’s character is somehow using her nurse for her own perverse needs and pleasures. We might think that it is the patient who is falling apart, but viewers quickly realize that the character who truly comes to the end of her mental and emotional rope is the nurse.

Silent prey or captive audience?  Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson  PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Silent prey or captive audience?
Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

One of the splinters the film that makes is truly jolting, but it is never fully clear as to why. Was this always going to happen or has Ullmann’s Elisabet pushing buttons and limits for her own sick gain? I suspect most of us would agree that this revolutionary bit of filmmaking is at least a partial off-spring from Freudian thought. In fact, it seems that Bergman was playing off Freud’s idea of both primary and normal narcissism. Persona almost seems to be constructing itself off Freud’s self-titled definitions of Demential Praecox and Paraphrenics (sp?) — Elisabet appears to an off-shoot example of Schizophrenia who is incapable of love or loving. Alma is the hysterical woman unable to escape the grasp of a sociopathic woman hellbent on ruining her. It would be irresponsible and lazy to dismiss Persona on sexist grounds as it comes from a very specific point in time and achieved a whole new sort of cinematic language. Persona is still a gut punch to the senses. In many ways, Ingmar Bergman’s film remains ahead of time. However it is firmly grounded in the world of Art Horror or Psychological Thriller. It is not and can’t be weakened by ideas that we now might deem as outmoded.

But it does beg a bit of examination regarding the ways in which Bergman crafted his two female characters? It is possibly unnecessary, but curious to wonder what a female film artist might have done with the ideas of female human beings in this situation. Would a female or a Feminist-perspective have changed this film for the different or better? Would Alma‘s memory of her sexual exploit be articulated differently? Would Elisabet‘s reactions and actions have been different? Would a sickly little boy reach out for the female faces or would he be replaced by a little girl? Would a female perspective lead us further than Bergman’s conclusion?

Sharing secrets turns into a mentally dangerous act... Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Sharing secrets turns into a mentally dangerous act…
Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Would it all still break the film strip?

Perhaps of all male filmmakers, Ingmar Bergman was the most interested in female-centric movies. He is not alone. Paul Mazursky, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Woody Allen and David Lynch are just a few of the white male filmmakers who pursue the stories and even the POV of female characters. Much of their work feels right, but how to know? Can a man really ever know what it feels like for a girl?

Or perhaps more on point: can a male film artist really ever know what it is like to be a woman? …much less even partially understand what it is like to be in her head?

Judging by many films, it would seem more than a little possible.

Intent to harm or heal? Bibi Andersson / Liv Ullmann PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Intent to harm or heal?
Bibi Andersson / Liv Ullmann
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

We have yet to have an equal opportunity to experience female film art perspective in equal measure. Let’s hope that we see and hear more from Female Film Artists and Women In Media as we move forward.  It has never been more important to support films made by women and people of color.

Aren’t we all pretty much bored with seeing the vast majority of movies limited to the white male perspective?

Matty Stanfiled, 1.19.2016

 

There will ever only be one Sandy Dennis.

When Broadway still mattered. Sandy Dennis, the star in the $7 dress.  TIME Magazine, 1967 Illustration | Boris Chaliapin

When Broadway still mattered. Sandy Dennis, the star in the $7 dress.
TIME Magazine, 1967
Illustration | Boris Chaliapin

A truly unique visionary of an actor graced with an undeniable charisma and presence that was solely her own, once you’ve seen her in action — you will not be able to forget her. At times her instinctively odd take on realism and her characters could be grating. A good example of this for me would be her odd turn in Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons or Mark Rydell’s The Fox. Other times her work was truly transformative as in Mike Nichol’s cinematic masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Robert Altman’s slow-burn human psyche horror show, That Cold Day in the Park or his off-beat film of Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

"Yes, but I chose to rise above the attitudes of this small town, while you chose to lay spread over a gravestone and take them inside you." Sandy Dennis Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean  Robert Altman, 1982 Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

“Yes, but I chose to rise above the attitudes of this small town, while you chose to lay spread over a gravestone and take them inside you.”
Sandy Dennis
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982
Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

Owen Sound has a great MUBI list site regarding the late American Actress.

https://mubi.com/lists/let-me-tell-you-about-sandy-dennis-there-should-be-one-in-every-home

It is from his list I pull the following quotes:

“Sandy was a marvelous actress. She was so gifted she made every part look easy…and she didn’t choose easy parts. It was a great pleasure to work with her.” – Gena Rowlands

“Sandy Dennis is so special, so unique – an incredible woman and artist.” – Elliott Gould

“Sandy was the most amazing actress: spellbinding. The audience would hang on her every pause. And as we all acknowledge, her characterizations were miraculous; no one can say then nor now from where her profound inspirations came. But there they were, for herself and for all of the world, forever.” – Karen Black

Sandy Dennis Head Shot NYC, 1964 Photographer unknown to me.

Sandy Dennis
Head Shot
NYC, 1964
Photographer unknown to me.

While her actual first big screen role was in the iconic Elia Kazan’s 1961 Splendor in the Grass, it would be several years later before she would be given a real role. Opposite the truly iconic Taylor & Burton as the mousy housewife for which she would win the coveted Academy Award.

Introducing to the Big Screen: Miss Sandy Dennis "I peel labels!" George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Introducing to the Big Screen: Miss Sandy Dennis
“I peel labels!”
George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Film and Stage critics adored her as much as they often scorned her. Often their darling, Roger Ebert famously summed up his respect for Sandy Dennis when he reviewed her performance in  1967’s Up The Down Staircase:

“We need more films that might be concerned, even remotely, with real experiences that might once have happened to real people. And we need more actresses like Sandy Dennis.” 

The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther would write:

“Sandy Dennis is engagingly natural, sensitive, literate, and thoroughly moving vivid performance…” 

It is rare to run across many negative reviews of her stage craft. Having studied under Uta Hagen and a strict Method Actor, Sandy Dennis’ stage work is a thing of legend. She received two Tony Awards. While she had many on Broadway and off-Broadway roles, the one for which she is most known is the lead in Any Wednesday. It is of note that actors still speak of this apparently amazing performance.

Sandy Dennis received the second of two Tony Awards for her infamous Broadway performance.   Any Wednesday , 1964

Sandy Dennis received the second of two Tony Awards for her infamous Broadway performance.
Any Wednesday , 1964

However, in the world of film acting her often odd take on character and line readings could illicit the most cruel of critical commentary. The New York Times‘ controversial Vincent Canby was seldom kind to female actors who failed to fit into his limited idea of female beauty. He once said the following:

“Miss Dennis, mugging outrageously and badly, gives the kind of performance that, 40 years ago, would have sent her to bed without her supper. It’s rude, show-offy and, worse, it’s incompetent. Watching her do a double-take is like watching a small tug trying to work the QE2 into her Hudson River berth in a gale. It’s long and boring.”

Interestingly, this particularly nasty review was alone as other film critics rallied her performance in the film to which his acid comic critique was offered. Actually her comic delivery in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s surprisingly subversive and funny satire of the Nixon Administration within the walls of Catholicism and a convent remains second only to Glenda Jackson’s leading role.

Sadly forgotten satire of Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. They won't have Sister Agnes to kick around anymore! Nasty Habits Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Sadly forgotten satire of Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. They won’t have Sister Agnes to kick around anymore!
Nasty Habits
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Perhaps the most respected American Film Critic of her day, Pauline Kael, was seldom a fan of Dennis. She famously wrote, that Dennis had “made an acting style of postnasal drip.”

This criticism was labeled as “valid” when Sandy Dennis herself stated that she agreed and that she needed to find a way to move in a different direction. As her career continued many of her biggest Film Theory supporters would complain of her consistently nervous interpretation of character.

Sandy Dennis was never able to completely abandon her ticks, mannerisms and phrasing. For her this was an element of humanity that seemed to draw her like a moth to flame. A self-admitted loner, she would say and write that she really didn’t enjoy people. She preferred her cats. However the psychology of the human condition fascinated her deeply. In most women she saw a culturally-infused sort of insecurity. The fragileness of the human condition was something key in her interpretation of character. She was often thought of as a seemingly fragile person, but this seems to be more a reaction to her work than herself.

Not too many people seemed to get into her private life. She preferred a bit of distance. Her love was found in animals. There almost seems to have been a thought forming in her head that we should be in the cages at the zoo. Humans were the ones to be studied and watched. Non-human animals were more open to love. This is just my read on what I’ve read and heard about this great artist. I also must point out that this does not hold entirely true. To those whom she did let in, she was much loved. And that love was returned.

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting "reality" That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting “reality”
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

Those who knew and loved her, felt she was a strong and often staunchly independent person. In the very early 1980’s when Robert Altman convinced her to take to the Broadway stage for Ed Graczyk’s unusually quirky Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean she found herself working with an untrained pop superstar, Cher. Cher did not encounter a fragile person. Cher has stated that Dennis was quick to point out her “bad reading” of her role. Cher, no fragile person herself, pushed harder until she earned Dennis’ respect.

Despair, rage, delusion and regret. Sandy Dennis brings it forward with Karen Black and Cher Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Robert Altman, 1982

Despair, rage, delusion and regret. Sandy Dennis brings it forward with Karen Black and Cher
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982

At that time a supporting player, Kathy Bates, was more than eager to work with both Altman and Dennis. After Sandy Dennis died she commented:

“Sandy was the great peacemaker of the group when we were doing Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. She was the solid one with her feet on the ground, which was interesting to me at the time, because she had such an ethereal quality as an actress. I also remember her wonderful sense of humor and her gorgeous hair. I think she was still seeing Eric Roberts at the time and we were all very jealous.”

Also at the time of Ms. Dennis’ death, Sean Penn’s full commentary offers a great deal:

“Sandy Dennis never met an unpredictable instinct she didn’t like. She was an actress and woman with beautiful idio-syncrasies and gentleness. There’s never been anyone like her. And me and movies miss her a lot. I directed the movie that turned out to be her last, The Indian Runner, which we shot in and around Omaha, Nebraska. I was honored to work with her and I’m pleased to know that she’s being honored by her own.”

Frail, tired and dying Sandy Dennis gave her all in what would be her final performance. The Indian Runner Sean Penn, 1991

Frail, tired and dying Sandy Dennis gave her all in what would be her final performance.
The Indian Runner
Sean Penn, 1991

But looking back when Sandy Dennis fully entered the world’s pop culture chart as Edward Albee’s “Honey” in Mike Nichol’s brilliant film adaptation — Dennis’ portrayal goes far deeper than what “we” were used to seeing in 1966 cinema. This is not a surface performance. It is naturalistic and brutally real. And yet, there is something deeply odd about it. The oddness is what Dennis’ is able to sneak in with awkward pauses, drunken lapses of self-restraint and intoxicated epiphanies.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966

There is a strange new sort of presence on the screen. Both Burton and Taylor are pitch-perfect in their perverse roles. When the door is opened to reveal their after-party guests appear to be exact opposite of who they are. George Segal is also brilliant and bland as the good-looking former jock now tied in what is most likely a loveless marriage. Sandy Dennis’ “Honey” appears to be a reserved, polite and friendly middle class wife. Before long this mouse takes on a level of dark sorrow and fear that is both tragic and scary. In a strange way, thanks to Dennis’ delivery, “Honey” surprisingly game participant in her hosts’ sick game.

"I peel labels!" George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

“I peel labels!”
George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

As she confusingly takes her place in this twisted domestic game, “Honey” reveals something that only seems like a memory in the faces and actions of the other three characters: she is human and she is breaking under the weight of her life and this demented game.

There is something almost inexplicably raw and powerful in Sandy Dennis’ fragmented and almost stuttering method of speaking. Her lines come out like twitches and spastic after thoughts. While the other actors deliver with venom, gusto, pain and grief — Sandy Dennis subverts Albee’s words to the introspection of human psychology.

While the other actors seem to be absorbing the characters into their very pores, Dennis seems to be doing the opposite. She is absorbing into the pores of her fictional character. A sort of distorted version of self into fiction. Or at least this is how it feels. Dennis took a supporting role and amped it into the heretofore unbreakable personas of two of the biggest movie stars of all time. A supporting performance is seldom this transformative. 

Never mix. Never worry. Sandy Dennis Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Never mix. Never worry.
Sandy Dennis
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

No one would ever dare argue that there was any other choice to receive that Oscar but Sandy Dennis. No one had ever seen a woman do this. Marlon Brando had done it, but here Sandy Dennis is free of censorship. It would be a couple of more years before Marlon Brando would turn it all upside down in Last Tango in Paris.

With an Oscar under her arm, Sandy Dennis was primed for movie stardom. Or was she?

Warner Brothers recognized the talent and everyone was aware of the acclaim she had achieved on Broadway in Any Wednesday, but they simply could not imagine “Honey” managing to play the “kept girl” of that play. I mean, aside from Streisand’s turn in Funny Girl, this was the most talked about stage performance of the day. No. Jane Fonda would be cast in the film version. At the time more than a few actors were upset.

Warner Brothers' consolation prize to Sandy Dennis for not casting her in the film of "Any Wednesday."  Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley in Sweet November Robert Ellis Miller, 1968

Warner Brothers’ consolation prize to Sandy Dennis for not casting her in the film of “Any Wednesday.”
Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley in
Sweet November
Robert Ellis Miller, 1968

However Warners had a plan. They loved the play, Sweet November, but didn’t feel that Barbara Harris had “movie star potential” so the same film director, Robert Ellis Miller, who would direct Fonda in Dennis’ original role would also direct Denis in Harris’ role.

Both casting decisions were ill-advised.

Jane Fonda gave it her best, but she wasn't yet able to achieve what the part required.  Any Wednesday Robert Ellis Miller, 1966 Cinematography | Harold Lipstein

Jane Fonda gave it her best, but she wasn’t yet able to achieve what the part required.
Any Wednesday
Robert Ellis Miller, 1966
Cinematography | Harold Lipstein

Jane Fonda had not yet fully gained access to her voice. And the director was in way over his head trying to “tame” Dennis’ style of acting to blend in with Anthony Newley’s “hammy” approach. Any Wednesday is only worth watching for the fashions. But despite all of the flaws, Sweet November, does offer a good deal of uneven entertainment. And while it all gets far too corny to believe, Sand Dennis does manage to retain some of the plays bittersweet charm. In the end the film almost works.

She would also secure the lead role in Robert Mulligan’s acclaimed 1967 film, Up The Down Staircase. Her performance is solid here as the teacher who wants to effect change for her students but doesn’t know how. This was a bit of ideal casting.

"When I finally get the chance, the first few precious minutes to talk to them about something I want them to understand, and I find that I am some kind of enemy. The butt of some enormous joke." Sandy Dennis Up The Down Staircase Robert Mulligan, 1967 Cinematography | Joseph F. Coffey

“When I finally get the chance, the first few precious minutes to talk to them about something I want them to understand, and I find that I am some kind of enemy. The butt of some enormous joke.”
Sandy Dennis
Up The Down Staircase
Robert Mulligan, 1967
Cinematography | Joseph F. Coffey

This success was met with controversial failure when Mark Rydell cast her opposite both Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea in a modern take on DH Lawrence’s The Fox. A soft focus haze of timid eroticism with Anne Heywood in full-on glam, Keir Dullea aiming for full-on handsome male lead — Sandy Dennis’ realistic spin as Heywood’s long time lesbian lover is far too-grounded to make sense as Heywood and Dullea seem to be dancing on air and Dennis walks about suspecting both.

"Maybe you need a man around the place." D.H. Lawrence comes to the screen... The Fox Sandy Dennis, Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea Mark Rydell, 1967

“Maybe you need a man around the place.”
D.H. Lawrence comes to the screen…
The Fox
Sandy Dennis, Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea
Mark Rydell, 1967

It does not work. Only Dennis is credible here, but mismatched to both of the other more Hollywood-aligned actors.

It was shortly after the mistake of Sweet November that Sandy Dennis would once again receive a great film role. This time it was an Independent Canadian film by Robert Altman. Director and actor were equally interested in each other and Altman seemed to have an interesting short-hand with Dennis. His way of communicating worked perfectly in reigning in Sandy Dennis’ often eccentric take on her characters.

Neurosis morphs into sociopathic horror with Sandy Dennis as Miss. Frances Austen in That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969

Neurosis morphs into sociopathic horror with Sandy Dennis as Miss. Frances Austen in
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969

In the case of Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park, she didn’t need to bring any more eccentricity as the role of Miss. Frances Austen could easily be blown off the charts and into camp. This is not what Altman was after and it was certainly never be the intention of Sandy Dennis. However her’s was an often untethered sort of talent. Altman managed to assist her in containing it.

Sandy Dennis plays her character like only Sandy Dennis can, but with an elite and elegant level of restraint. She is a wealthy but lonely virgin spinster. She lives a seemingly mundane life among older people. It is never clearly articulated, but thanks to Dennis’ performance we receive several clues that something is wrong with “Miss. Frances Austen.” Actually, we are almost certain something is very much wrong.

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting "reality" That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting “reality”
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

When she notices an apparently homeless, mute and handsome man sitting alone on a park bench in the park, Miss. Frances Austen breaks convention and insists the “helpless” boy come to her swank home to warm up and have some food. She sends her cook and butler away. Why does she even have a cook and a butler in such a small but nice condo? It is never clear.

This film was mis-judged by film critics at the time of its release. It is an appropriate bookend to Altman’s interest in the psycho-sexual thriller. A few laters, Altman would pursue this genre again in Images — a film which received more acclaim than I think it deserved. Here, in TCDITP Altman more precisely and effortlessly slips into a woman’s damaged psyche.

Much of the credit is deserved to Sandy Dennis. The film is short and fast-paced. Yet it is filled with fairly uncomfortable and realistic scenes between Dennis and Michael Burns as the handsome young man. As Miss. Frances Austen begins to open-up to the mute mostly nude young man who is unable to speak either with/to her — things start to take an oddly warped vibe. Clearly, Miss. Frances Austen (and her name bears repeating) is a virgin and dealing with a whole lot more than sexual repression.

“I’m not going to get under the covers or anything. I’ll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it’s all right. I want you to make love to me. Please.” Sandy Dennis on the verge of something… That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

“I’m not going to get under the covers or anything. I’ll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it’s all right. I want you to make love to me. Please.”
Sandy Dennis on the verge of something…
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

The “twist” does not come as a “surprise” or even a device in a very smart move by Robert Altman. We know what is coming. This handsome mute boy is “playing” Miss. Frances Austen. He is using her for his own twisted fun and grift. The actually unexpected “twist” comes shortly after the “expected” one.

Just because it says “Exit” doesn’t mean it is a way out. Sandy Dennis That Cold Day in the Park Robert Atman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Just because it says “Exit” doesn’t mean it is a way out.
Sandy Dennis
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Atman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

After this twist is delivered, the viewer is likely to chuckle and feel reasonably entertained by this strange little movie. The thing is — Robert Altman and Sandy Dennis had just pulled-off a great cinematic trick. The final turn of the movie isn’t going to leave your mind. What seems comical gradually takes on the sinister and disturbing. There are  no jokes, camp or “bad” moments. Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park is near perfect and horrifying.

Sadly, this film was probably a little too “out there” at the time it was released. Appreciation for this film has really only taken hold in the last decade. Much credit should be given to Bruce LaBruce and his very Independent and very Queer-Core re-working of Altman’s film in his 1991 experimental and controversial cult film,  No Skin Off My Ass. This movie helped bring Altman’s forgotten film back into discussion. A discussion and re-evaluation which finally led to Olive Films doing a 2K restoration for blu-ray release. That Cold Day in the Park continues to claim its rightful place in cinematic history.

"Oh My Goooood!" Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon  The Out of Towners Arthur Hiller, 1970

“Oh My Goooood!”
Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon
The Out of Towners
Arthur Hiller, 1970

Oddly enough, Sandy Dennis would soon be cast in her most mainstream success opposite Jack Lemmon in Arthur Hiller’s 1970 adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Out of Towners. Filmed on location in a decaying 1969 NYC, Hiller’s film is as silly as it is insightful as a glimpse into what appears to be a truly dying city. Lemmon and Dennis play off of each other brilliantly. The film is blessed with some genuinely comic moments. Sandy Dennis’ “read” of “Oh my God” is hysterically funny. The film was a box office hit.

When they take you for an out-of-towner, they really take you. Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon The Out of Towners Arthur Hiller, 1970

When they take you for an out-of-towner, they really take you.
Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon
The Out of Towners
Arthur Hiller, 1970

While the money made was probably a great thing, Sandy Dennis never seemed to be particularly comfortable with success. She quickly retreated to the theatre and teaching at The Actor’s Studio. She would continue to take roles in movies but these were more often more “off the grid” type of films. An exception was 1977’s smart satire from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Nasty Habits. 

This clever film featured an incredible cast with Glenda Jackson (think Richard Nixon as a Mother Superior) in the lead. The supporting players as corrupt nuns (all the equal to someone involved in the Watergate Scandal) included Sandy Dennis (in a truly goofy turn as the nun equal to Nixon’s John Dean), Melina Mercouri, Geraldine Page, Anne Jackson, the great Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller, Eli Wallach and Rip Torn. Sadly the film failed to find an audience. There is hope that someone will resurrect this film soon. It is almost impossible to even find stills from this film.

A seemingly lost classic... The Watergate Scandal for Nuns. Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Glenda Jackson and   Melina Mercouri Nasty Habits Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

A seemingly lost classic…
The Watergate Scandal for Nuns.
Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Glenda Jackson and Melina Mercouri
Nasty Habits
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

When Robert Altman called again, Sandy Dennis agreed to come aboard for his return to the Broadway Stage. This would eventually be filmed into a strange but potent film, 1982’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The film failed to register at the time of it’s release, but it appreciation for this film has grown into a solid following.

Karen Black and Cher look through the mirror of time at Sandy Dennis' "Mona"  Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Robert Altman, 1982 Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

Karen Black and Cher look through the mirror of time at Sandy Dennis’ “Mona”
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982
Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

After this it seems the roles she chose were largely based on requests from fellow-artists she respected (Alan Alda, Woody Allen, Larry Cohen, Bob Balaban and Sean Penn) or ones that provided a quick and easy paycheck (976-EVIL, the 80’s reboot of  Alfred Hitchcock Presents and an odd appearance on The Love Boat)

Her supporting role as Millie Dew in Bob Balaban’s odd and very demented 1989 satire, Parents, is a stand-out. Sicker than sick, often disturbing but always darkly comic — Sandy Dennis is clearly having some fun and adds a great deal to an already impressive cast. Miss. Dew stands out. For more than a few reasons. If you’ve seen it, you will know to what I refer. This is a brilliant little movie that deserves to be revisited. 

"This will be delicious!" Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt have very different plans for their son's guidance counselor, Miss Millie Dew played to the hilt by Sandy Dennis. Parents Bob Balaban, 1989 Cinematography | Ernest Day / Robin Vidgeon

“This will be delicious!”
Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt have very different plans for their son’s guidance counselor, Miss Millie Dew played to the hilt by Sandy Dennis.
Parents
Bob Balaban, 1989
Cinematography | Ernest Day / Robin Vidgeon

Her final performance was for Sean Penn and his directorial debut, The Indian Runner. Even though she was unable to complete the film, she made a memorable impression. It is a sigh of relief to know that she exited the stage with such a great role in a great film.

Sandy Dennis was a fairly private person. Perhaps more so, she simply did not enjoy the company of people. She had been in a decade long term relationship with Gerry Mulligan, an essential American Jazz artist. And she had a four year relationship with actor, Eric Roberts. While this was clearly far more than just a romance, Dennis opted to end it. There was no scandal, they remained friends. She was never bothered with rumors of her bi-sexuality. Eric Roberts had publicly discussed that she had shared her sexual experiences with other women to him and close friends. Even though she wrote her memoirs, there is much about her that is largely unknowable.

Aside from her work and esteemed professional reputation, the strongest testament of who Sandy Dennis was remains in the clearly beloved memories of her close friends, students and colleagues. Perhaps her two closest friends were Brenda Vaccaro and Jessica Walter. Equally respected and well-liked, it speaks volumes that these two women were her dearest friends.

She had been battling cancer for sometime. She passed away in her home surrounded by her life’s true joy: her cats. She was only 54 years old.

I really like something that fellow actor and a friend, Ian McKellen, wrote in 2004:

“Had she lived, by now she would have been a veteran actor of formidable powers or perhaps, eschewing work, she would simply be an animal-lover at home, smiling indulgently at the craziness of the world around her.”

Sandy Dennis with one of her beloved cats. Sandy Dennis 1937 - 1992 RIP Photograph | © Michael Tighe, 1991

Sandy Dennis with one of her beloved cats.
Sandy Dennis
1937 – 1992
RIP
Photograph | © Michael Tighe, 1991

A foundation was started in 2012 in her hometown of Hastings, Nebraska. There is a great deal of information to be found here about the legendary actress. The goal of the foundation has never been clear to me, but contact information can be found there should you want to pursue.

The Sandy Dennis Foundation

Matty Stanfield, 9.18.2015

Recently I saw Belinda Sallin’s documentary, Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World. An art gallery curator spoke regarding the therapeutic healing aspects of Giger’s work.  He commented that many artists deal with the darker aspects of human experience and survival by diving deep into the damage of human suffering to find the “voice” and “inspiration” for art but then re-emerge to take a break from all of the darkness. The curator then stated a fundamental in understanding the late H.R. Giger, H.R. Giger dove down deep and stayed there. Whatever childhood or personal traumas this man endured — he opted to find a way to be comfortable in the darkness and pain. This is one of the reasons his art speaks to so many people on such a profound level.

Art Therapy Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World Belinda Sallin | 2014 Eric Stitzel | Cinematography

Art Therapy
Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World
Belinda Sallin | 2014
Eric Stitzel | Cinematography

I saw this film out of curiosity of the way Sallin and her Cinematographer, Eric Stitzel, had reportedly approached the artist and his home. It was a rewarding cinematic experience. It also gave me pause to look at the often disturbing sexualized themes of Giger’s art.

Debbie Harry KooKoo, 1981 Photograph | Brian Aris Art/Design | H.R. Giger

Debbie Harry
KooKoo, 1981
Photograph | Brian Aris
Art/Design | H.R. Giger

What had often struck me as phantasmagorical exploration into BDSM / KINK erotica, was actually offering a great deal more to his ardent followers. H.R. Giger’s dark work served not only as his personal art therapy, but offered the same release to viewers. So much so that an entire subculture of artistic and marginalized people have taken these works to form detailed maps tattooed all over their bodies.

Art speaks to us. Sometimes it is there to only allow an escape. Other times it is a form of magical pleasure. This is especially true of Film Art and Music. The Sound of Music has held generations of people within its sway. The same is certainly even more true of Star Wars or the television series, Star Trek.

Just the sight of the iconic graphic logo sets millions of hearts and brains' a-flutter.

Just the sight of the iconic graphic logo sets millions of hearts and brains’ a-flutter.

As for music, a song can bring us back to the happiest moments of our lives and the saddest. There are more than a few generations of people who think of songs as Anthems. A sort of collective “call to arms” on the fields of sport or in pursuit of summer fun. This of course is the power of art. No matter how “lofty” or “petty” the concerns of the artists, the work that results impacts in various and powerful ways.

In 2009, I was diagnosed with D.I.D. (Dissociative Identity Disorder). The diagnosis was horrifying to me. It would take me about two and a half years before I could fully “own” this disorder.

"Scary monsters, super creeps. Keep me running, running scared..." David Bowie Scary Monsters and Super Creeps | 1980 Photography | Brian Duffy Painting /Art Direction | Edward Bell

“Scary monsters, super creeps. Keep me running, running scared…”
David Bowie
Scary Monsters and Super Creeps | 1980
Photography | Brian Duffy
Painting /Art Direction | Edward Bell

However, as shocking as this diagnosis was, it did make sense. I had been “losing time” for almost a year. I would be sitting some place and then find myself in another with no clue as to how or why.

Most scary was finding myself in places that I did not know. I did not yet have a smart phone to help me determine where I was. I was convinced I had a brain tumor.

After visits to numerous specialists to clear me of any physiological issues, it came down to psychologists and psychiatrists.

After 18 months and four psychiatric professionals who consulted with each other, it was determined that I was “lucky.” After several years of repeated and nightmarish childhood sexual assault, my mind had developed a way of surviving it.

Roger Daltrey is "blind, deaf and dumb"  Tommy Ken Russell | 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Roger Daltrey
is “blind, deaf and dumb”
Tommy
Ken Russell | 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

The subconscious took over and created tiny spaces in which to place the seeming “unsurvivable” emotions and pain. As I entered adulthood these fragments within my brain remained somehow active.

What were once my mind’s coping strategies morphed into oddly functional capacities. One of the reasons I had so much trouble in accepting the diagnosis of D.I.D. was that I had no problem remembering what had happened to me. In fact, I remembered everything with almost detailed precision.

"Ain't got no distractions Can't hear no buzzers and bells. Don't see no lights a-flashin' Plays by sense of smell. Always gets a replay, Never seen him fall.." The Who and Elton John Tommy Ken Russell | 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“Ain’t got no distractions
Can’t hear no buzzers and bells. Don’t see no lights a-flashin’ Plays by sense of smell. Always gets a replay, Never seen him fall..”
The Who and Elton John
Tommy
Ken Russell | 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

After intense therapy I began to realize that there were entire blocks of time over the course of my life from the age of 9 to 38 of which I had no memory.

Having been an exhaustive journaler from way back, I spent a couple of months sorting through them.

Pages had been ripped out or “detracted” by self-imposed scribbles to prevent me from reading what I had been up to.

Suddenly it all begin to make sense.

The Who Tommy | 1969 Full Gate Sleeve Art | Michael McInnerney

The Who
Tommy | 1969
Full Gate Sleeve
Art | Michael McInnerney

Aside from the fact that I had to quit and walk away from a highly successful professional life and face life in the “fun world of Disability” I had to come to understand the odd way in which my mind helped me to succeed where many would have failed.

The sad fact of D.I.D. is that sooner or later the coping strategies backfire. Instead of assisting the individual, they start to turn against the goals of the owner.

"Gather your wits and hold on fast, Your mind must learn to roam. Just as the Gypsy Queen must do You're gonna hit the road..." Tina Turner as The Acid Queen Tommy Ken Russell | 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“Gather your wits and hold on fast, Your mind must learn to roam.
Just as the Gypsy Queen must do You’re gonna hit the road…”
Tina Turner as The Acid Queen
Tommy
Ken Russell | 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

For women this tends to happen sooner in life. For men, it appears the strange functioning powers hold off giving-out later in life. So it was as I entered my 40’s that I could no longer succeed in the line of work or any level of employment that required active thought and responsibility. This may change in the future, but for now I am told that I need to “re-adjust” my life goals. For now, I need to think about a life without a traditional career.

I could go on and on — and, in fact, I have written a great deal about this struggle. The point of this blog entry is to discuss how Film and Music Art have helped me all of my life.

Lost within his mind... The Who  Tommy | 1969 Photography | Barrie Meller

Lost within his mind…
The Who
Tommy | 1969
Photography | Barrie Meller

Much like H.R. Giger and has fans, darkness in art is often a forgiving and cathartic place for me to seek refuge. Unlike Giger and many of his fans, it is not a place in which I can stay for too long. I have to “escape” all of it. But I cannot stay away for too long. There is a healing to be found in both the world of darker art and certain levels of escape art.

Pink Floyd  The Wall | 1979 Inside Full Gate Fold Art Direction | Roger Waters Art | Gerald Scarfe

Pink Floyd
The Wall | 1979
Inside Full Gate Fold
Art Direction | Roger Waters
Art | Gerald Scarfe

As a child I was utterly consumed with fascination regarding the music and film world. Rather than attempt to “restate” myself regarding these Artists and their work I will simply mention them and include some images. You can draw your own conclusions. Maybe a few of you will even relate or connect to a different (I hope!) but similar way.

What's Up Doc? Barbra Streisand / Ryan O'Neal Peter Bogdanovich | 1972

What’s Up Doc?
Barbra Streisand / Ryan O’Neal
Peter Bogdanovich | 1972

I was four years old when my parents decided to take me to see a “re-issue” of Bambi. The cinema was sold out. So they opted for us to see What’s Up Doc?

I was too young to find the movie funny or interesting. However, I recall something very vivid about the experience of seeing Peter Bogdanovich’s classic film: This different looking lady was laying on top of a grand piano. She started to sing, “You must remember this…

Barbra Streisand What's Up Doc? Photograph | Steve Schapiro, 1971

Barbra Streisand
What’s Up Doc?
Photograph | Steve Schapiro, 1971

and my four year old ears and eyes were forever changed. Something in this lady’s voice grabbed hold of me and never let go.

After the movie I demanded to know who this lady was.

I believe it was my father who told me she was a singer.

I demanded that we cross the busy street to K-Mart so I could get the What’s Up Doc? record. There was no such thing. But I think my demand was puzzling enough for my parents to follow it. I selected my first record album based on the fact that the cover was of a child who seemed close to my own age.

Barbra Streisand My Name Is Barbra | 1965

Barbra Streisand
My Name Is Barbra | 1965

I would go on to play this album so much that I swear you could hold it up and see through the vinyl. I listened to Barbra Streisand constantly. Over the years her voice became my equal to chicken soup.

I was 8 when I discovered The Who and Ken Russell’s Tommy. Both the 1969 album and the 1975 movie.

Your senses will never be the same... Tommy Ken Russell | 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Your senses will never be the same…
Tommy
Ken Russell | 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

The connection to this film and The Who album seem almost painfully obvious with hindsight. 

"You didn't hear it. You didn't see it. You won't say nothing to no one. Never in your life. You never heard it, Oh, how absurd it all seems without any proof." Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Jack Nicholson Tommy Ken Russell | 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“You didn’t hear it. You didn’t see it. You won’t say nothing to no one. Never in your life. You never heard it, Oh, how absurd it all seems without any proof.”
Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Jack Nicholson
Tommy
Ken Russell | 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

It would not be long before I found a powerful level of escape from weed and downers. (Valium was my particular favorite) But music and most especially Film Art formed into a core of my being. While most of my friends were obsessed with Welcome Back Kotter and Happy Days, I was consumed with Ken Russell’s rock opera film and Streisand’s rock-pop remake.

A Star Is Born Barbra Streisand / Kris Kristofferson  1976

A Star Is Born
Barbra Streisand / Kris Kristofferson
1976

As I am unable to legally work, I have found creative entry ways into helping re-discover work and artists that matter to me. Aside from filing my time, it has led to some unexpected connections and a sometimes exciting background “roles” in helping to get films restored and re-issued.

Sometimes my assistance leads to nowhere. Other times it helps.

I’m not an artist.

I’m not paid.

But my voice is now heard in surprising new ways.

Lisztomania Ken Russell | 1975

Lisztomania
Ken Russell | 1975

D.I.D does not get in my way the way it used to. Right now the main challenges are defeating phobias and odd thought processing. 

And, no. My life is nothing near nor has it ever been remotely like the depictions of the disorder seen on television or movies. I don’t change clothes and personas.

Actually, it is so nuanced that few ever noticed.

"Let me take you to the movies..." Led Zeppelin  Physical Graffiti | 1975 Art Direction / Design: Peter Corriston, Mike Doud & Elliot Erwitt

“Let me take you to the movies…”
Led Zeppelin
Physical Graffiti | 1975
Art Direction / Design:
Peter Corriston, Mike Doud & Elliot Erwitt

There was a period of about 4 years where it would sometimes be clear to others that something wasn’t quite “right” but for the most part it has never been easily spotted.

And I’m very relieved to say that I have not “lost time” in over 3 years now.

The challenges now seem to creep up in phobias, self-doubt and often inabilities related to concentration. Sometimes letters re-arrange as I write or read.

That is when it is time to stop and just lose myself — in Art.

Shades of and introduction to Arthur Rimbaud & Rebellion Patti Smith Horses | 1975 Photograph | Robert Mapplethorpe

Shades of and introduction to Arthur Rimbaud & Rebellion
Patti Smith
Horses | 1975
Photograph | Robert Mapplethorpe

Art that seems to speak to struggles, fears, reality, surrealism and ideas 

"Well, it sure don't look like Texas." 3 Women Robert Altman | 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“Well, it sure don’t look like Texas.”
3 Women
Robert Altman | 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

that seem to have the ability into which I can escape. 

"Oh, you are sick!" Eraserhead David Lynch | 1977

“Oh, you are sick!”
Eraserhead
David Lynch | 1977

…And, to heal the broken.

Matty Stanfield, 8.25.2015

break the idol... Tommy  Ken Russell | 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

break the idol…
Tommy
Ken Russell | 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

Tastes being subjective, Film Theorist and Film Preservationists are and will always need to continually “re-assesing” the value and merit of the art form.

A good football coach can get away with murder. ...And, if the coach is a closeted movie star he can get away with even more!  Pretty Maids All in a Row Roger Vadim, 1971

A good football coach can get away with murder. …And, if the coach is a closeted movie star he can get away with even more!
Pretty Maids All in a Row
Roger Vadim, 1971

Perhaps the most challenging sort of movie to asses are those cinematic oddities that simply refuse to go away. Cult Films are an essential part of the cultures that produced them. Some are worthy of their “cult” status and others require massive abuse of drugs to share in the “joy.”

However, just because something is “exploitive” or “tacky” does not immediately excuse if from being re-visted, restored and re-distributed. Very often it boils down to the fact that a movie is “exploitive” and “tacky” that ends up making it relevant. A movie might create a permanent stain on our cultural fabric. Sometimes it is better to cover the stain with a Ron Howard movie and hope no one ever notices it again. Other times we need to frame that “stain” and celebrate it.

I love all kinds of film. But I have a soft spot for misfits and movies so painfully “bad” they work themselves around to being “exceptionally fun” — such is the case of Berry Gordy’s horrifyingly funny 1975 cinematic error, Mahogany, in which poor Ms. Diana Ross must climb the depraved ladder of fashion to achieve superstar success.

Um, do you know where you're going to?  Miss. Ross is  Mahogany Berry Gordy, 1975

Um, do you know where you’re going to?
Miss. Ross is
Mahogany
Berry Gordy, 1975

We cringe as she is forced into awkward situations with Anthony Hopkins. Playing a celebrated fashion photographer, Hopkins is once again cast as a psycho in  jeans so tight they actually might have been sewn onto him. Equally uncomfortable is the fact that Diana Ross saw this movie as chance to show off her personal “fashion design” brilliance.

"Give it to me, baby!" Anthony Perkins / Diana Ross Mahogany  Berry Gordy, 1975 Cinematography | David Watkin

“Give it to me, baby!”
Anthony Perkins / Diana Ross
Mahogany
Berry Gordy, 1975
Cinematography | David Watkin

Yes, she designs her own clothing. And it hurts. But Mahogany goes about everything just a bit too hard and too much to make it worthy of trying to save. It will always offer fun to some, but not enough to warrant a restoration. Don’t flame me if you disagree. I’m just stating an opinion.

Richard Elfman’s one directorial effort is insane, offensive, profane and an incredibly bad movie. Yet, The Forbidden Zone, is so strange and brimming over the top with creativity, ideas, talent and sheer force of will — It will never go away!

"Why does it feel so good to be sooooo bad?" Susan Tyrrell & Hervé Villechaize The Forbidden Zone Richard Elfman, 1980 Cinematography | Gregory Sandor

“Why does it feel so good to be sooooo bad?”
Susan Tyrrell & Hervé Villechaize
The Forbidden Zone
Richard Elfman, 1980
Cinematography | Gregory Sandor

And it shouldn’t. In addition, TFZ is a musical staring Hervé Villechaize, Susan Tyrrell and Danny Elfman! Danny is Richard’s little brother. The Forbidden Zone demanded a revisit! It was restored and re-distributed. It is just as bad as Mahogany, but what it offers is so unique, entertaining and odd that it’s horrible glory can’t be ignored or forgotten. In it’s own way, The Forbidden Zone is a brilliant off-kilter work of art.

I thought I’d briefly mention some movies that have recently been revisited/restored and a couple that I feel deserve to have a re-visit or reconsideration.

Warner Brothers often makes odd choices regarding what films within their massive achieve are deemed to be of value for restoration and redistribution. They continue to release Ken Russell’s controversial The Devils. They also refuse to allow Irvin Kershner’s Up The Sandbox to be properly re-stored and issued to HD/Blu-ray quality and format. Yet, they are more than eager to restore the Bette Davis & Robert Montgomery contractual obligation of 1948, June Bride. They have also allowed the forgettable Herbert Ross George Burns and Walter Matthau vehicle, The Sunshine Boys, to be restored.

Angie Dickinson as Miss Betty Smith, well versed in grammar, murder and free sexual guidance to her more advanced students.  Pretty Maids All in a Row Roger Vadim, 1971 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Angie Dickinson as Miss Betty Smith, well versed in grammar, murder and free sexual guidance to her more advanced students.
Pretty Maids All in a Row
Roger Vadim, 1971
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

It took Warner Brothers decades to decide to offer a “clean-up” but not fully restored DVD/VOD of Roger Vadim’s infamous exploration film, Pretty Maids all in a Row. This nasty little 1971 movie features an unforgettable cast of actors — almost all of whom appear to be a little uncomfortable for the duration of the movie. The idea in 1970 was to allow Roger Vadim free-reign to create a satirical and perverse sex comedy to bring in the big bucks and to revitalize Rock Hudson and Angie Dickinsons’ respective careers.

Interestingly, it would go on to inspire a major network to create a classic iconic TV series for Telly Savalas called Kojack. Yes, kids. We have this amazingly twisted and so-bad-it’s-good Cult Film to blame (or thank) for the 1970’s Kojack. The film didn’t do much for anyone else. If anything it killed a few potential careers as casually as it kills cheerleaders. Joy Bangs, anyone? With a name and body like that she was expected to go far, but this would be one of her last bids of fame.

But rest easy, plans are lurking to fully restore and redistribute this cinematic oddity to HD/Blu-ray. But keep your fingers crossed just to be safe. But within the next 6 to 8 months!

Check out Todd Gaines review of this film on LetterBoxd. He sums this film up better than I ever could:

http://letterboxd.com/todd_gaines/film/pretty-maids-all-in-a-row/

Warner Brothers has also finally surrendered and agreed to “restore” Tony Scott’s infamous, iconic, controversial and much admired cult classic of Vampiric-Cool, The Hunger. Sadly, WB has taken it upon themselves to do this. The Blu-Ray will be released next Tuesday, 8.18.15! The transfer looks good and the sound is improved from the DVD release. It could have been better, but it is still worthy improvement.

Nothing loves forever. Especially Catherine Deneuve.  The Hunger Tony Scott, 1983

Nothing loves forever. Especially Catherine Deneuve.
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1983

Very loosely based on Whitley Strieber’s novel, Tony Scott was far more interested in style and the hopelessly cool cast he managed to assemble in this very entertaining Art-Horror Film. It often seems like we are seeing only the coolest of the early 1980’s NYC Art Scene hiding around the corners as Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie pursue their blood-lust. One of their first victims is Eternal Hipster, Ann Magnuson. Not to mention the fact that movie opens with Peter Murphy and the legendary British Goth Rock band, Bauhaus – crooning their seminal hit, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”

"undead. undead. undead" Peter Murphy / Bauhaus The Hunger Tony Scott, 1983 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

“undead. undead. undead”
Peter Murphy / Bauhaus
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1983
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

It is an artfully and darkly shot bit of early 1980’s stylistic chic. It is also one of the most erotic vampire films you will ever see. Man, woman, gay, straight, trans or any existence between — you’re bound to find Catherine Deneuve’s seduction and love-making to Susan Sarandon hot. …hot as well as kind of funny and still a bit surprising.

Lesbian Vampire Sex was never meant to be this hot!  Sarandon / Deneuve  The Hunger Tony Scott, 1983 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Lesbian Vampire Sex was never meant to be this hot!
Sarandon / Deneuve
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1983
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Tony Scott loses his way with the story. As the film sleeks casually and oh-so-cool toward it’s end, you realize that it may not make any logical sense whereas in the novel the ending was truly disturbing and unforgettable. With this awesome movie, the ending is not so important as how neat it all looks! Seriously. This graphic film of obsession, lust, fear of aging and AIDS metaphor is amazing.

Uber-Cool Ann Magnuson is about to get more from David Bowie than she probably anticipated.  The Hunger Tony Scott, 1983 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Uber-Cool Ann Magnuson is about to get more from David Bowie than she probably anticipated.
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1983
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

The Hunger even manages to be creepy. Oh, and be sure to play this film really loud. Crank that sound up! 

Sandy Dennis does her unique Sandy Denis-thing as Miss. Frances Austen in That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969

Sandy Dennis does her unique Sandy Denis-thing as Miss. Frances Austen in
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969

We have Olive Films to thank for rescuing Robert Altman’s deeply odd / disturbing 1969 psycho-sexual thriller, That Cold Day in the Park, back from the land of the forgotten. While Olive Films restoration abilities are severely limited, they do a decent job. It is a far cry better than allowing this classic film from rotting somewhere at Paramount.

Initially, this Canadian movie was brought back to life by Bruce LaBruce’s 1991 super-lo-fi film, “No Skin Off My Ass.” LaBruce’s framed that entire film off a distorted VHS copy of Altman’s movie.  Altman’s 1969 film was dismissed and quickly faded into obscurity. Thanks to LaBruce’s underground film and Altman fans this film has returned from its imposed exile. It would take two decades but Olive Films brought the original film back to life!

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors.  That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors.
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

Sandy Dennis plays her character like only Sandy Dennis can. She is a wealthy but lonely virgin spinster. She lives a seemingly mundane life among older people. It is never clearly articulated, but thanks to Dennis’ performance we receive several clues that something is wrong with “Miss. Frances Austen.” Actually, we are almost certain something is very much wrong.

When she notices an apparently homeless, mute and handsome man sitting alone on a park bench in the park, Miss. Frances Austen breaks convention and insists the “helpless” boy come to her swank home to warm up and have some food. She sends her cook and butler away. Why does she even have a cook and a butler in such a small but nice condo? It is never clear.

Now, we'll just play a little game.  Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Now, we’ll just play a little game.
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

This film was mis-judged by film critics at the time of its release. It is an appropriate bookend to Altman’s interest in the psycho-sexual thriller. A few laters, Altman would pursue this genre again in “Images” — a film which received more acclaim than I think it deserved. Here, in “TCDITP” Altman more precisely and effortlessly slips into a woman’s damaged psyche. Much of the credit is deserved to Sandy Dennis.  The film is short and fast-paced. Yet it is filled with fairly uncomfortable and realistic scenes between Dennis and Michael Burns as the handsome young man. As Miss. Frances Austen begins to open-up to the mute mostly nude young man who is unable to speak either with/to her — things start to take an oddly warped vibe. Clearly, Miss. Frances Austen (and her name bears repeating) is a virgin and dealing with a whole lot more than sexual repression.

"I'm not going to get under the covers or anything. I'll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it's all right. I want you to make love to me. Please." Sandy Dennis on the verge of something... That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography |  László Kovács

“I’m not going to get under the covers or anything. I’ll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it’s all right. I want you to make love to me. Please.”
Sandy Dennis on the verge of something…
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

The “twist” does not come as a “surprise” or even a device in a very smart move by Robert Altman. We know what is coming. This handsome mute boy is “playing” Miss. Frances Austen. He is using her for his own twisted fun and grift. The actually unexpected “twist” comes shortly after the “expected” one. After this twist is delivered, the viewer is likely to chuckle and feel reasonably entertained by this strange little movie.  The thing is — Robert Altman and Sandy Dennis had just pulled-off a great cinematic trick:

The final turn of the movie isn’t going to leave your mind. What seems comical gradually takes on the sinister and disturbing.

Just because it says "Exit" doesn't mean it is a way out.  Sandy Dennis That Cold Day in the Park Robert Atman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Just because it says “Exit” doesn’t mean it is a way out.
Sandy Dennis
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Atman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

A long neglected bit of cinematic magic has been saved by Olive Films. Do not miss it. Unlike the above mentioned films, this one is truly outstanding. There are really no jokes, camp or “bad” moments. Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park is near perfect.

Like Olive Films, Shout Factory has also done an amazing job of saving, restoring and re-distributing forgotten cinematic history. Unlike Olive Films, Shout Factory has a been more of a budget and access to more fully restore film. While far from being able to achieve what The Criterion Collection can, Shout Factory does great work. Perhaps their most important gift to Film Restoration is it’s recent release of Werner Herzog: The Collection. The set features 15 of the brilliant director’s best work. Thus far, Shout Factory has released 3 of those individually.

Their collection continue to grow. Thus far the films that they have restored and distributed that meant the most to me have been Cat People, Audition and The Herzog Collection. That doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed other re-discoveries. Perhaps my most personal favorite film that Shout Factory rescued would be Lewis John Carlino’s much neglected and forgotten pretty mess of a movie, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea.

Kris Kristofferson / Sarah Miles The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Kris Kristofferson / Sarah Miles
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Yukio Mishima’s exceptionally interesting, disturbing and thematic novel lost almost all of what makes it so brilliant when Lewis John Carlino adapted it for the screen in the mid-1970’s. It would be wrong to state that this film starring Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson is good. But it would be equally unfair to say that it holds no interest or merit. Carlino’s film is just strange enough to make it all interesting. Carlino’s interest in bringing Mishima’s book to the screen is limited to the perverse eroticism and sociopathic tendencies of the stepson. And, get ready. This is one of those “WTF” 1970’s Cinematic Moments.

Jonathan Kahn as the son and stepson to The Sailor has a few issues... The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Jonathan Kahn as the son and stepson to The Sailor has a few issues…
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Filmed in a “Vasoline Gauzed Haze” a loney and sex-starved widow/mother sits in isolation. She is unaware that her seemingly sweet son has drilled a peephole into her bedroom so that he can watch her. The son watches her masturbate as well as cry. Now, one would assume that the son is “getting-off” on this. But that is not necessarily the case. It is never clear.

Anne's son likes to watch.  The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Anne’s son likes to watch.
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

When a tired and weary sailor meets “Mummy,” Sarah Miles falls immediately in love as does Kristofferson. At the time of the film’s release much to do was made over some infamous sex scenes between the two actors. Though, most of those scenes failed to make it into the movie, but went straight to Playboy Magazine for marketing.

The Sailor falls... Kris Kristoffers getting very personal with Sarah Miles The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

The Sailor falls…
Kris Kristoffers getting very personal with Sarah Miles
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

But what a campaign it was! Interestingly, the eroticism remains running between Miles and Kristofferson, but their on-screen eroticism is not as bold as the following snaps from the movie that went to the cutting room floor to avoid an “X-Rating” — they served to promote the movie even today.

“Mummy’s” sweet son is troubled by the Sailor’s decision to abandon his life at sea to live with he and his mother. His level of cruelty as “the leader” of his band of fellow “enfant terrible” begins to even make his followers a bit nervous.

This is one poor little kitty who should make a run for it!  The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

This is one poor little kitty who should make a run for it!
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

The Sailor catches the sun watching him make love to his wife and the boy’s mother. Well, things just take a very twisted turn after this.

Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson made the news with this infamous scene.  The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson made the news with this infamous scene.
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

The movie is a cinematic error. It doesn’t work, but it doesn’t work so well that it offers a sort of interesting appeal that almost slips into “camp” but instead loops itself into a decidedly sick and twisted cult movie. The sad thing about this film is that Yukio Mishima’s novel would make for an amazing film if the filmmaker were talented enough to translate/adapt it for the screen. The book is so dark and the themes so complex, it is doubtful any will attempt it.

AVCO Embassy Pictures did a great deal of cutting to secure an already-pushed R-Rating The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

AVCO Embassy Pictures did a great deal of cutting to secure an already-pushed R-Rating
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

As silly as the movie is, be warned that the depictions of animal cruelty and sexuality are fairly realistic/graphic. The actors do a fairly decent job. For most of us, however, the movie will neither shock or disturb us as much as it causes pause.

How in the world did this movie ever get made?!?!?

Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson serve as specimens for voyeuristic interest and psychotic interests. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea Lewis John Carlino, 1976 Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson serve as specimens for voyeuristic interest and psychotic interests.
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea
Lewis John Carlino, 1976
Cinematography | Douglas Slocombe

If we didn’t need further proof that 1970’s decade was truly odd era, Carlino’s adaptation of the acclaimed novel actually fit right into the cinematic syntax of it’s day.

I am currently working “covertly” and “off the grid” to help find another flawed but interestingly potent b-grade mishap from the World of Grind House Cinema.

I first saw this strange drive-in / grind house movie in 2005. I had been asked to view it as a potential for a film festival. I loved it, but for all the wrong reasons. The festival passed and last night I discovered that my “screening” DVD had died. Bummer. This movie is awesome and strange. The date of 1977 is incorrect. This film was actually shot in The Bay Area in the very early 70’s. It has been released under a number of times with different names. The original title was “The Seducers Deadly Game.” It found it’s way on double bills in NYC and LA between 1974 and 1975.

An odd venture into "Feminist" Fury is as flawed as it is interestingly brilliant.  Seymour Cassel, Sondre Locke and Colleen Camp  Death Game / The Seducers Deadly Game Peter S. Traynor, 1977/1974 Cinematography | David Worth

An odd venture into “Feminist” Fury is as flawed as it is interestingly brilliant.
Seymour Cassel, Sondre Locke and Colleen Camp
Death Game / The Seducers Deadly Game
Peter S. Traynor, 1977/1974
Cinematography | David Worth

Eventually thanks to Sondre Locke’s fame as Clint Eastwood’s leading lady, it was released again in 1977 as Death Game. This is the name that stuck and it’s 1977 release was wide at drive-in’s across the nation. There are also several versions floating around out there. One is an edited 91 minutes in length. The other is the one I owned which runs at about 105 minutes.

You realize that this might be a strange movie as it begins with a title card warning that everything shows is completely true. But then the screen fills with some children’s artwork of family that feels a little “off” from the get-go. And a purposely annoying little sing-a-along song accompanies the credits.

The film stars Seymour Cassel as a father/husband/business man who has the house for the long weekend. All to himself, he decides to have a bit of fun. He lets it to “post-hippie-love-children” sex vixens played by the infamous Sondre Locke and Colleen Camp. Rule #1: if it is 1971/1972 and two hippie chicks knock at your door after sunset, don’t let them in.

Sadly, nobody taught Mr. Cassell Rule #1 for the early 1970’s.

Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp and Seymour Cassel Death Game Peter S. Traynor, 1977 Cinematography | David Worth

Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp and Seymour Cassel
Death Game
Peter S. Traynor, 1977
Cinematography | David Worth

“Sorry to bother you, really. But we’re lost!”

It is important to point out that this screen caps are deeply lacking in value because the current copies available all suck. Amazon sells one, but it is shorter in length and fairly poor quality.

They seduce poor Seymour Cassel in hazy 3-way and then the sick/twisted games begin. Turns out our hot hippie vixens have more in common with Charles Manson than Rod McKuen. They also each have a bone to pick with men. And for better or worse Seymour Cassel comes to represent “Daddy” to both of them. Though, clearly adult women both claim to be minors and that he has raped them.

They quickly began calling him “Daddy.” They are out for sex, blood and major home invasion wreckage. They also decide to put “Daddy” on trial for all the horrible things men have done to not only them, but for all of woman kind. Their mock trail is as comically bad as it is rather disturbing. And much like The Sailor, Seymour’s cat attracts some very unwanted attention from these two crazy sisters with a grudge.

This sick movie is just wrong, but infectious. If you’re like me you will be hooked to the screen until you come to the movie’s equally odd thud of an ending.

The Official 1977 Movie Poster Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp and Seymour Cassel Death Game Peter S. Traynor, 1977 Cinematography | David Worth

The Official 1977 Movie Poster
Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp and Seymour Cassel
Death Game
Peter S. Traynor, 1977
Cinematography | David Worth

This movie was shot in 13 days with very limited audio-recording capabilities. The entire film had to be re-dubbed. The great Jack Fisk served as set designer and his wife, Sissy Spacek, is said to have had a hand in the costuming. She apparently declined to be in the movie. Seymour Cassel hated making this movie so much that he refused to show up and dub his lines. His lines are actually spoken by a member of the crew. The dubbing impact is annoying at first but it starts to take on a sort of Surrealistic vibe as the movie progresses. It is sort of like being dropped into a total nightmare.

The thing about “Death Game” / “The Seducers” is that it is impossible not to watch. It just keeps “one-up’ing” itself scene after scene. The movie is completely insane. If you get the opportunity, see it. Be warned, as silly as it all is — this is not a movie for all tastes. Heaps of inappropriate nudity, cruelty and violence. But seriously, this movie is so bad it becomes brilliant! I’d put it one notch above Roger Vadim’s also odd but big-budget “Pretty Maids all in A Row.” ...this is a major compliment.

"We find you Guilty!" Sondra Locke  Death Game Peter S. Traynor, 1977 Cinematography | David Worth

“We find you Guilty!”
Sondra Locke
Death Game
Peter S. Traynor, 1977
Cinematography | David Worth

I had the pleasure of asking Mr. Cassel if he would be willing to attend a screening and a have a “Q&A” with the midnight audience for a 2004 film festival. He was nice, but he quickly turned the offer down.

From my brief conversation with the great film actor, I gathered that Fisk/Spacek were involved in the production to raise some funds for a David Lynch project. Cassel could not remember, but I’ve always wondered if this was “Eraserhead‘ — much of which was actually shot in Fisk/Spaceks’ garage.

At any rate he also told me that he had been informed he would receive a script, but when he showed up the plan had been changed. The entire film was to be improvised by both Sondre Locke and Colleen Camp!  Improvising all of their lines under the guidance of the director, Mr. Cassel was to improvise toward their lead only. When it became clear that “sound” was not a logical expectation of this “off the grid” movie project, Mr. Cassel lost his patience. And who can blame him?

Clearly there was no love lost between this great actor and his two leading ladies and the film’s director. Mr. Cassel preferred to talk about Jack Fisk, Sissy Spacek and David Lynch. Though, he couldn’t remember if Lynch was ever present at the messy shot in which an entire home was essentially destroyed. However I did push him a bit.

He was genuinely shocked to discover that the screening was expected to sell out and that this little film has a following as well as having served as the subject of more than a few Doctoral Theses.

What more evil things can we do?  Sondra Locke Death Game Peter S. Traynor, 1977 Cinematography | David Worth

What more evil things can we do?
Sondra Locke
Death Game
Peter S. Traynor, 1977
Cinematography | David Worth

The last thing he said to me was, “I don’t know, Kid. Go figure. Shocks the shit out of me.”  And then he just laughed.

The truth is we never really know how a work of art — no matter it’s intention or motivation — will age.

But Film Art is far too important for us individually as well as a culturally.

We should never dismiss anything too quickly.

Like Mr. Cassel, it may shock us, but we never really know — for 20 years at least.

Catherine Deneuve is watching, hunting and smoking hot The Hunger Tony Scott, 1973 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Catherine Deneuve is watching, hunting and smoking hot
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1973
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Matty Stanfield, 8.13.2015

Please Note: The validity of the information I’ve translated in the following post must be viewed as conjecture. Time and emotional perspectives seem to distort, amplify and confuse “fact” into varying degrees of truth, unfairly skewed opinion, and incorrect analysis. Sadly, old grudges, resentments and jealousies can lead  “logic” to “mythologic.” The fact is that a number of people who were directly involved in a specific situation often remember it differently. What they have adapted to “truth” is sometimes little more than gossip. It is a challenge to determine how to look back in cinematic history. I’ve done my best to “filter” through the questionable to include what is most likely true. Please be aware that my “filtering abilities” are very limited in scope. It is not my intention to play into or further tighten untruth. 

“Gossip is the opiate of the oppressed.”  — Erica Jong

In the Robert Altman’s 3 Women, Shelley Duvall gleefully informs Sissy Spacek, “This is my parking space. It’s the best one!” Later Duvall explains, “That’s Dirty Girtie! Pull her bow and she’ll say hello!” …her delivery of those lines creates an odd and varied response for viewers. Some giggle, some laugh, some are not sure how to react, but many viewers feel the need to squirm.

"1 woman became 2/2 women became 3/3 women became 1" 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“1 woman became 2/2 women became 3/3 women became 1”
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

When 3 Women debuted, nearly all of the major critics swooned. But the most powerful Film Critic of the day, Pauline Kael, truly disliked the movie. Her negative viewpoint of this film is of particular interest because up until this movie, Kael had been a consistently staunch Altman ally. When 20th Century Fox released it into cinemas, audiences were either entranced, confused or indifferent. In 1977 there was no Internet. There were no cell phones. While many people took the time to read serious film criticism, access to “Art Films” was largely limited to major cities like Manhattan, Boston or Los Angele. Before any sort of “word of mouth” regarding Robert Altman’s surreal experimental film had the chance to spread, it was pulled out of circulation within 8 days. Over the following two decades 3 Women became not only a “Cult Classic” but was largely considered one of the most important American films of the 1970’s.  Yet only a very few had ever actually seen an uncut or clear presentation of the film.

Shelley Duvall improvises Millie Lammoreaux with an mid-mix of comedy and looming horror. Welcome to Robert Altman's dream turned to film. 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Shelley Duvall improvises Millie Lammoreaux with an mid-mix of comedy and looming horror. Welcome to Robert Altman’s dream turned to film.
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Robert Altman’s study of identity, isolation, loneliness and sexuality is pure cinematic magic. Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek are pitch-perfect. The cinematic experimentation employed is fully realized. Altman had a strange dream. He then brought it to life allowing his two key actors the freedom to improvise and create their individual visions which could blend with his. Sissy Spacek is outstanding in the film, but it is Shelley Duvall who remains the film’s vital core.

"You're the most perfect person I've met." Sissy Spacek prepares to take aim. 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“You’re the most perfect person I’ve met.”
Sissy Spacek prepares to take aim.
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

If you’ve not seen it, prepare yourself for a film completely different and oddly disturbing. Were it not for the help of Altman and the dedication of some folks at Criterion, 3 Women might have been forever lost in an abbreviated and muddy form of a memory. In 2004, just two years prior to Altman’s passing, it was finally properly restored and placed within the correct ratio. There are more than a few people who hated it when it was released for brief week in 1977 who now find it hard to believe that they didn’t like it. Most interestingly, a lot of viewer’s who parodied Shelley Duvall’s carefully articulated “Millie” discovered there was a great deal more to her artistry than realized via YouTube and scruffy VHS tapes revealed.

Shelley Duvall has been the victim of gossip and collective mythology. Duvall is not insane. Rest assured she is not wandering around the heat of Texas trying to runaway from UFO’s. People actually believe these ridiculous rumors. The truth is that Shelley Duvall just tired of the pressures of the business.  After a great deal of success creating a television series that artfully retold fairy tales, she decided to focus her attentions

"I had the most wonderful dream..." Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall Robert Atlman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“I had the most wonderful dream…”
Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall
Robert Atlman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

to the care and promotion of animal rights. As the 1990’s came to a close, she relocated permanently back in Texas. She likes her privacy, but she is not a recluse. She remains an endearingly eccentric but highly intelligent woman. It would have been interesting to gain her perspective regarding the production and  her experience of  3 Women and subsequent reception. It was out of respect for her wishes to go under the radar of “celebrity” that she did not take part in Criterion’s restoration or release. But Shelley Duvall will always hold a fascination of the collective consciousness. 3 Women and The Shining remain her most studied work. You would be hard pressed to think of two more oddly-effective performances in two films that hold a great deal of power in film lore.

What is it that pulled you up into that cinema screen?

What is it that pulled you up into that cinema screen?

It is challenging to even attempt to articulate how difficult it often is to secure these “lost” or “forgotten” films. My reaction to the stubborn dedication to find these films: “Man, it is really cool she loves this movie so much she is willing to devote several years trying to secure the rights to restore and distribute it.” At the same time, I do get it.

The logic is found in answers to questions like: What draws us to movies? What is about a particular movie that makes it important? Why do some important works of Film Art fail to gain notice when first released? How do important films get lost? What makes you want to watch a movie more than once? What is in this movie that resonates for you? What lost cinematic treasure would you be willing to pay $30 to own on blu-ray?

And then, come the questions from the organization that needs to fund the pursuit: What makes you think that a re-master/re-transfer of this movie will yield profit? Are we sure that the people who made this movie are willing to encage or revisit the failure of this movie? What makes you think that this person wants to remind people of this movie flop? Don’t you know that the person who needs to be involved in this re-issue is incredibly difficult? Are you not aware that this person is insane? Why do you think anyone in this century would be interested in those filmmakers? If this movie is important, why haven’t I heard of it?

"Well, here we are on the road." "Yup, that's where we are all right." Two-Lane Blacktop Monte Hellman, 1971 Cinematography |  Jack Deerson

“Well, here we are on the road.”
“Yup, that’s where we are all right.”
Two-Lane Blacktop
Monte Hellman, 1971
Cinematography |
Jack Deerson

Long out of circulation and “non-distributable” because of disputes over music rights, all it really took were several people who loved Two-Lane Blacktop to swerve around obstacles and navigate challenges with the kind of dedication the two lead characters apply to drag racing.  But this amazing film was eventually transferred to HD/Blu-ray via The Criterion Collection. Monte Hellman’s film is so effortlessly brilliant, it is hard not to wonder if he had any idea that what he was filming would result in a cinematic masterpiece.

What at first appears to be a vague character study of two dudes drag racing their way across the country slowly develops into a surprisingly insightful art film. In truth, the movie offers only 2 characters: The primer-coated / souped-up ’55 chevy and the lonely landscape of late 1960’s America. And of the two, only one of these is fully formed. The only reliable thing “The Driver” and “The Mechanic” have in life is their powerful American car and a shared need to speed.

"You can never go fast enough..." Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird and Jame Taylor Two-Lane Blacktop Monte Hellman, 1971 Cinematography | Jack Deerson

“You can never go fast enough…”
Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird and Jame Taylor
Two-Lane Blacktop
Monte Hellman, 1971
Cinematography | Jack Deerson

Monte Hellman captures a country sad, detached, lonely and half asleep. With the gift of hindsight, it seems as if Hellman’s US is falling asleep as culture slips into a stew of sexual experimentation, identify assertion, self-absorption and paranoia. As we ride alongside these two half-formed men and the free-willed woman they have picked up — we see a world of loneliness, suspicion and isolation. It is all very minimalist in approach, but unbelievable in power.

The challenges involved in securing music rights often appears impossible to resolve. But that worry seems easy when encountering other concerns that greet the initial decision to pursue acquiring the rights to remaster, adjust and transfer a film to the 21st Century HD formats. If the initial line of questioning is met and a firm decision is made to fund the pursuit — a whole slew of new obstacles come up that will lead to a dead end.

While a major studio may have owned distribution rights in the film’s era, it usually has no has valid ownership today.  But the majors have the power and the influence. Even though former and infamous studio leadership is long gone, there can be resentments and very real grudges that are still seething just beneath the surface. Sometimes, power never forgets. But most often the biggest challenges arrive in securing the trust of some or one talented key artist(s) who have not only secured the rights to some of their own films — they often have one of the very few near-pristine mint copies safely sealed away.

"The earth is my body; my head is in the stars." Harold and Maude Hal Ashby, 1971.  It would not be until 2012 that Criterion was able to get this film re-issued in the quality it deserved.

“The earth is my body; my head is in the stars.”
Harold and Maude
Hal Ashby, 1971.
It would not be until 2012 that Criterion was able to get this film re-issued in the quality it deserved.

A more challenging situation is when the key artist(s) are no longer living and control has been handed over to an individual, an estate or some other entity. A wide spectrum of potential problems arise. The family of the deceased artist(s) have unrealistic expectations of monetary value. Or for one reason or another is unwilling to discuss the topic. This situation is almost hopeless unless another “key” player in either the film’s history or is somehow “connected” to the individuals not interested is willing to step-in and put in a good word.

When looking back at the restoration and re-distribution of many films, the use of then popular songs playing in the background of a scene is particularly difficult. To provide a fictional example: If Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach plays for over 20 seconds, an agreement much be reached with the artist or company who owns the rights to the original recording. While it might seem a minor detail that a filmmaker chose to play 65 seconds of Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach in a movie. For the filmmaker and to the fans of the film, those 65 seconds of Madonna’s pop song are vital. Unless the artist or the publishing company is willing to cut a break this can grind the whole process to a stop. In truth, the reality is usually that if one of the individual’s pursuing the film is able to connect with either the artist or someone close to that artist. The problem can often be resolved.

While some artists are truly difficult and unreasonable, most are not. And it is usually the artists who have been most often labeled “difficult” or “unreasonable” are often the easiest and logical people you will encounter. The mythology of gossip is more important to perception than reality. Chances are Madonna has no idea that a few seconds of an old song are blocking the release of a movie. And why would she? The real challenge? …finding a way to contact Madonna without causing her alarm.

Yet something within these films requires the lover(s) of film to push in pursuit of creative ways to secure the opportunity to restore/reissue the movies. Even when everyone and everything tells them “No Way!” There are always individuals who refuse to give up the pursuit. But sometimes the pursuit almost seems like an exorcise in self-torture. Some “challenges” can’t be predicted or expected.

Your hairdresser does it better... Shampoo, Hal Ashby Cinematography | László Kovács

Your hairdresser does it better…
Shampoo, Hal Ashby
Cinematography | László Kovács

A highly respected and sought-after film released over 40 years ago remains a “soft spot” for some of the artists involved. This important 1975 movie still stirs powerful feelings among several powerful senior members of The Hollywood Machine. The importance of Hal Ashby’s contribution to Film Art is not to be underestimated. He was a master of capturing his era with no concerns regarding the problematic aspects he might discover. This is one of the many reasons his films have retained power. Ashby had the ability to turn the camera on his era, the characters roaming within it and the odd logic applied to choices and actions. His films never manipulate or hold the audience hand. They simply roll out in vivid simple complexity.

And now I enter the void of “filtering” information. I hope what I have come to understand is accurate, but it is very important to note that several artists of note have wildly different perspectives of a film to which they are tied. That being said, I doubt that much of this will be news to many people who have wondered why this film has never been treated appropriately.

When Warren Beatty hired Hal Ashby to take on the role of director for Beatty and Robert Townes’ incredibly smart script in 1974, he knew what he was doing. The film that would become Shampoo was a serious examination of ambition, sexual opportunism, misogyny, politics, fear, rage, loneliness and ultimate self-loathing disguised as a sex comedy. At this point one can only theorize why Beatty/Townes decided to set the movie in the Hollywood of 1968. It would seem obvious. When it comes to modern history, 1968 is one of if not the most important years that Post-WWII United States has ever experienced. Shampoo could most certainly be viewed as a realistically scathing study of that moment in time. However, it might be more likely that the decision for setting it in 1968 was a bit more personally complicated.

Julie Christy as Jackie. Her career seems to have stalled. So her hairdresser reminds her of erotic pleasure and gives her new "do" to hopes of propelling an image change. While true to late 60's glam, does it not remind you of a certain movie star's early 60's "do"?  Shampoo Hal Ashby, 1975 Cinematography | László Kovács

Julie Christy as Jackie. Her career seems to have stalled. So her hairdresser reminds her of erotic pleasure and gives her new “do” to hopes of propelling an image change. While true to late 60’s glam, does it not remind you of a certain movie star’s early 60’s “do”?
Shampoo
Hal Ashby, 1975
Cinematography | László Kovács

The origins of Shampoo‘s plot have always been a bit sketchy. Dependent upon which “sources” you feel are more accurate, Shampoo takes an oddly superficial motivation. The filmmakers, or a few of them, have stated that the story was “loosely inspired” by two notable hairdresser of that time. Discussion regarding this matter has always been approached cautiously. It is more than likely that one particular hairdresser is being parodied. And, more than a few people of influence in the early 1970’s were referenced within the characters. While several individuals who suspect that they were hidden inside “characters” no longer care if this was true or not. Some very much do still care. As for the hairdresser who may or may not served as the inspiration for Warren Beatty’s character — it’s a problem. But it is best to not go there.

Shampoo achieved a great deal of success. Both a critical and box office hit, the movie also secured an Oscar for Lee Grant. And Grant really rocks the screen in Shampoo. Interestingly, Grant’s further career pursuits seem to have instantly become limited after she received the trophy. Like many supporting actors honored with the Oscar, she sort of fell off the map. The success of Shampoo was more than earned, but it did cause some panic within the rank and file of 1975 Hollywood. More than a few “important” people felt that they were seeing themselves portrayed unfairly. Whether they were correct in that feeling is not clear. But for a movie of such success and esteem, it seemed to take a very long time to find its way to VHS and even longer to make it to DVD. When it was released to DVD, it was given the barest of transfer improvements. Actually, the only improvement was to present it in “letter box format” It didn’t look much better on DVD than it had in an already lazy transfer to VHS. Columbia Pictures/Sony no longer own the distribution rights. However, Sony still retains a vested interest in Shampoo that is difficult to clearly define. It has never been restored and transferred to HD/blu-ray quality. Note: It is not for lack of trying. It is unclear if Shampoo will ever be pulled out of the complex mire that keeps it restrained. Yet the pursuit pushes onward.

Another film from the 1970’s which has slowly began to be “revisited” from a Film Theory / Cinematic History perspective is far more obscure than Shampoo. This other film was released in 1972. It was independently financed by a very powerful actor/singer who wanted the opportunity to make a film which more personally expressed the ways in which the cultural/societal ideals of rigid Feminism were causing a confusion of female identity. This artist was and remains one of the most misunderstood public figures in entertainment history.

Barbra Streisand at 27. Photograph | Steve Schapiro, 1969

Barbra Streisand at 27.
Photograph | Steve Schapiro, 1969

Barbra Streisand was not yet 30 but was already labeled “iconic” and “superstar” and she was the actor/singer.  The movie she wanted to make was Up The Sandbox. It was based on Anne Roiphe’s 1970 novel. Up The Sandbox is a particularly interesting example of the way unexpected obstacles block the ability to secure distribution rights and release in HD quality to blu-ray. Once again, it is here that it is often hard to sort out “truth” from “distorted opinions” and tacky old gossip.

In the late 1960’s many bankable film stars began to feel the major studios were consistently limiting their artistic abilities and interests. It was then super-agent, Freddie Fields, who came up with an idea for for Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman. He suggested that the 3 iconic artists join together to form a new kind of film production company which would give all 3 creative power in the films they chose to make.  As all 3 knew each other fairly well, Freddie Fields felt that each of the four actors trusted each other’s individual visions. They agreed.

Film Icons McQueen, Streisand, Newman and Poitier join together to form First Artists. Hollywood, 1969.  Photographer | Unknown to me

Film Icons McQueen, Streisand, Newman and Poitier join together to form First Artists. Hollywood, 1969.
Photographer | Unknown to me

Streisand/Poitier/Newman all had the shared goal of controlling their film carriers. In less than a year, Steve McQueen joint the 3. A bit later Dustin Hoffman joined them as the 5th. McQueen/Hoffman also shared the same opinion that the major studios “did not get” who they were or what they could do as actors, producers and directors. Each of them would take on the sole responsibility for each of his/her respective film(s) that they would co-jointly fund. They also committed to produce three films each. There appear to have been other details involved how the partners would reach a consensus to “green light” each project. But I’m uncomfortable in assessing the validity of the information related to this aspect of the artists’ agreement. But it does seems to have been more of a “safety net” that these 4 movie stars secured a co-deal which made First Artists a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Interestingly, Warner Brothers seemed hesitant to serve as the distributer for films made by First Artists. National General Pictures was a new distribution company that initially distributed the first several films. Within barely 2 years, NCP was cited for Anti-Trust infringement and was shut-down. At that point WB started distributing First Artists Productions films.

But the initial spirit of United Artists became muddled fairly early in. It seems clear that McQueen liked all of his fellow partners, but he did not agree with their strongly shared political left-wing opinions. McQueen  great deal of trouble securing “buy-in” or “agreement” for to pursue the scripts he wanted because they did not reflect what the other 3 artists felt their shared films should reflect. Later on, Dustin Hoffman ran into challenges with not only McQueen but Paul Newman over several projects he wanted to pursue. It is almost impossible to know what actually happened, but one of the aspects of First Artists that continues to surface, Streisand often calm situations. While strident in her political and civil rights concerns — she didn’t seem to feel the need to make that an essential aspect of the production company. It has been noted that of the 5, Streisand had the most logical business approach: The individual artist should be granted more control, but the bottomline had to be met. In other words, she might not have been particularly interested in seeing McQueen’s The Getaway, but she understood that McQueen knew what he was doing and that his film was likely to be a hit. A clear pattern seems to emerge that Streisand had a clear understanding of the reality that First Artists had to turn profits. Freedom of control would not amount to much in the big picture if monetary success was not achieved. It seems that both Newman and Poitier understood this, but were less concerned.

One of several logos employed by First Artists in the 1970's.

One of several logos employed by First Artists in the 1970’s.

Unlike many of the film production companies that would spring up throughout the late 1980’s/1990’s, this was not a “tax write-off” or a way for actors to make more money on any film in which he/she stars. This was a legit attempt at taking control of their “individual” and “shared” artistic “visions.” First Artists managed to create minor box office hits, but only three significant money-makers:  Steve McQueen’s The Getaway was the first major hit earning an initial $37,000,000 and later approaching $50,000,000 with worldwide distribution with a budget of only $4,000,000. Both the budget and the box-office earnings were challenged, but it seems those numbers are most accurate. McQueen’s film directed by Sam Peckinpah is now a cinematic classic, but it is not clear that it did big business during its initial release.

"Punch it, Baby!" The Getaway Steve McQueen Sam Peckinpah | 1972 Lucien Ballard | Cinematography

“Punch it, Baby!”
The Getaway
Steve McQueen
Sam Peckinpah | 1972
Lucien Ballard | Cinematography

As it would turn out, Streisand was the only of the 5 artists who was able to deliver major commercial hits. Despite an epic pan by critics, her 1976 A Star Is Born earned $80,000,000 and continued to higher profits via world wide distribution. Though it is difficult to fully know what a film earned back in the 1970’s, it is thought that A Star Is Born earned well over $100,000,000 by the end of 1977. With a budget of 6,000,000 this would be the only “blockbuster” First Artist would ever produce. Her 1979 movie, The Main Event, once again escaped film critic’s disdain when it earned $43,000,000 with a budget of only $8,000,000. Once again it would earn closer to $50,000,000 via world wide release and had secured “blockbuster” status by early 1980. With only three major hits in eleven years, First Artists folded by the end of 1980.

The first two films released were from Paul Newman: Pocket Money and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Both of these films were released in 1972. Pocket Money failed to make money and was greeted negatively by the critics. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, directed by the great John Huston, initially failed to make money, but critics quite liked it. It also earned an Oscar nomination for “Best Song” and several Golden Globe nominations. This would help it to eventually earn $7,000,000 in 1973. However, the actual budget for Judge Roy Bean remains a mystery. For reasons related to concerns over who would direct, First Artists ended up paying what was then termed “a record price” to secure the rights to John Milius’ script. It must have been a true record price because First Artists and Warner Bros. viewed it as a box office loss.

Up the Sandbox would be Barbra Streisand’s first venture into the world on the other side of the camera. It would also be the third film First Artists made and released. Up the Sandbox would actually earn some of the best reviews Streisand had yet to receive from serious film critics — most importantly, Pauline Kael. Similar to Paul Newman’s Judge Roy Bean, Streisand’s first venture started out with a modest budget. Once again, sorting truth from fact is difficult.

"If this is what being a mother is like, I turn in my ovaries!" Barbra Streisand  Up The Sandbox Irvin Kershner,1972 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

“If this is what being a mother is like, I turn in my ovaries!”
Barbra Streisand
Up The Sandbox
Irvin Kershner,1972
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Streisand wisely asked Irvin Kershner to helm as director. He was her first choice and he accepted immediately. Streisand had a deep respect for Kershner and he for her. As the two began to plan and work with Paul Zindel and his adaptation of the novel to screenplay, Streisand was pressed to increase the budget. The actual truth is not clear, but it appears that Kershner’s vision was more ambitious than Streisand’s. He felt it was important to treat her character’s reality and fantasies in the same way. In other words, he was interested in applying a higher level of Surrealism than Zindel captured in his original draft. Among Kershner’s ideas was to film several scenes of the movie in Africa. During post-production, the expensive African shoot was hardly used in the final cut. He also agreed with Streisand that Gordon Willis was the best cinematographer working. Willis’ dance card was full at this time and he wasn’t just any cinematographer. But he accepted the offer and was hired. Eventually Streisand increased her film’s budget to $5,500,0000.  Streisand fully supported her director and their cinematographers’ instincts. And it bears noting that she still agrees today. She appears to have no regrets regarding Up the Sandbox. But it would be her first cinematic flop. Sandbox earned only $3,500,000. The fact that her film flopped had a more potent impact on her “cred” than the even more substantial losses suffered by her business partners. This is most certainly fact. It can’t be disputed. Hollywood’s infamous “Boy’s Club” was less forgiving toward Streisand than her male business partners. Thus ended Streisand’s attempt with experimental cinema.

Fantasies and Mundane Reality merge   Barbra Streisand (without a wig or a net) Up The Sandbox Irvin Kershner, 1972 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Fantasies and Mundane Reality merge
Barbra Streisand (without a wig or a net)
Up The Sandbox
Irvin Kershner, 1972
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Up the Sandbox is dated, but it is an exceptionally interesting surreal experimental film. This not a typical Streisand film. Zindel and Kershner approached the line between realism and fantasy in ways that create a disarming sense of disorientation. What at first appears to be a fairly clear way of fusing reality into fantasy gradually becomes unclear. It is becomes difficult to know when what we have seen is real or fantasy. As the mid-point of the movie arrives, the viewer begins to suspect or wonder if what was “perceived” as a fantasy at the beginning of the film might have actually been “real”

Streisand and her lover head out to express political anarchy through terrorism. Up the Sandbox Irvin Kershner, 1972 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Streisand and her lover head out to express political anarchy through terrorism.
Up the Sandbox
Irvin Kershner, 1972
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

This is achieved by slightly changing the “style” when it comes to some outlandish fantasies and applying an almost passive focus to other fantasies. The character’s reality veers into several shifts of style as well. By the time the credits begin to roll, the audience is no longer sure what has been “real” and what has been “fantasy” This intended confusion actually becomes stronger when the viewer has a bit of distance from the film itself. Irvin Kershner crafts the film in a manner that compels repeated viewings.

There was a strong and often confused political stance regarding Feminism of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Many of the Feminist Goals seemed to have applied pressure on many women for whom these goals were not always the optimal choice within the context of daily everyday life. Up the Sandbox‘s main character is bored and constantly trying to determine where she stands in a world filled with political and sexual revolution. She is feeling uneasy and confused by a growing level of cultural pressure and expectations regarding her own female identity. Her decision to put her “career” on the back-burner to stay at home and raise her children turns a quite valid decision at odds with the culture she navigates. With the gift of hindsight, the main character’s conflict with The 1970’s Feminist Movement blended with the cinematic experimental style makes Up the Sandbox seem like a very odd career choice for Barbra Streisand both as a producer and a highly politicized public person. It also adds a distinctive underlined power to the movie.

Film critics met the movie with mixed responses. Some loved it. Some were confused. But only a handful of critics disliked it. Perhaps most significant of this era, Pauline Kael gave Streisand praise for taking on and succeeding at playing a character so far from public perceptions of Streisand. First Artist Productions and National General Pictures were equally conflicted about how to market the movie. The decision was to promote the movie as a “comedy” utilizing a Richard Amsel illustration of a pregnant Streisand tied to a baby bottle on the cover of Time Magazine declaring Streisand to be “The dust mop of the year!” It was an odd and misleading choice. By the time it reached cinemas Streisand fans were expecting an R-rated version of What’s Up Doc? — instead they found themselves watching an experimental film featuring a version of Streisand they had not seen. There were few wise-cracks. There was no glam. Streisand had not worn a wig for What’s Up Doc? but Peter Bogdanovich ensured that her hair was well appointed for each scene — as well as make-up. Up the Sandbox presents Streisand without a wig and the benefit of constant grooming and Gordon Willis applied a natural lighting when he shot her. This was Streisand “acting” and she is believable as an upper-middle class housewife of a middling academic with two children. There were very few typical funny scenes. The humor most often takes the tone of Absurdism. The marketing error is that this was film for Art House Cinemas and it should have been marketed to express that. However, even Pauline Kael’s positive assessment wasn’t enough to make Film Art supporters believe they should bother seeing the movie.

The film also fueled anger from the left. Vito Russo, a crucial Gay Rights Advocate, was very quick to criticize a liberal with strong ties to the gay community for allowing her character to say a line during what turns out to be a potential lesbian experience. Streisand’s repressed character’s response is still disturbing. Feminist were angered by this scene and were also frustrated that an ally of The Feminist Movement would even hint at playing a character who is conflicted by anything related to Feminist philosophy. But the mainstream had already ignored the movie before any of these controversies were discussed.

Are we sure she is actually seeing that? Barbra Streisand Up the Sandbox Irvin Kershner, 1972 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Are we sure she is actually seeing that?
Barbra Streisand
Up the Sandbox
Irvin Kershner, 1972
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Streisand over-saw the remaster of Up The Sandbox to DVD and Warner Bros released it as a part of DVD box set in 2004. It features a commentary from Streisand as well as Irvin Kershner. Streisand’s commentary is not particularly insightful. The main “take away” is that this film was very important to her, she remains proud of the movie but seems genuinely “bruised” by its failure. As she provides her commentary it almost seems like we are hearing a tired mathematician trying to determine the answer to a difficult equation. Irvin Kershner’s commentary is more relevant. He touches on the fact that at the time they were filming, friends warned him to not to share some concerns he began to have in mid-production. He took that advice. Long after the film was completed and released, he shared this with Streisand. Both commentaries make it clear that the two were and had remained friends. Kershner discovered that Streisand was hurt that he hadn’t trusted her enough as the producer to bring his concerns to her attention. The experience of this film’s commercial failure would forever change the way Streisand approached projects. It also resulted in over 2 years of unemployment for Kershner.  As he once stated, “It’s not so easy to be the only filmmaker to direct a Barbra Streisand movie that flops.”

The other 3 DVDs initially only sold as a set with Up the Sandbox were soon offered for purchase individually. Up the Sandbox was the lone non-seller of the set.

Over the past decade this movie has started to gain the attention of number of Film Theory and Film Historians. It seems potentially posed for critical re-evaluation and an ideal time to properly restore the film. It would seem the current challenges are more tied up in confusion about distribution rights and a general mistrust that anyone would buy the blu-ray or HD stream. So the current situation is making the case for  Up The Sandbox as a valid and important film. It is a great snapshot of a woman caught in the unique Cultural Web that was spun out of the 1960’s.  I recently received an email from one of the people most vested in getting this film restored. She wrote: “The film actually feels more French than American. And yet it is filled with idiosyncratic use of ‘nameless’ iconic pop culture figures…”  She is referring to Up the Sandbox‘s odd assortment of easily recognized but somehow forgotten actors. Most of the minor supporting roles are played by soon to become key players in some very iconic television. Much of TV’s The Jeffersons, Electric Company, Laverne & Shirley, One Day At A Time and other soon-to-be-famous 1970’s TV show actors are present. Most notably, this was Stockard Channing’s film debut. It does sort of add an additional aura of disorientation.

The other “selling points” are that the film speaks to the skill of Irvin Kershner, a great filmmaker who never gained the respect he deserved. He was very much apart of the whole new American filmmaking era that gave us such artists as Altman, Ashby and Arthur Penn. History has largely relegated Kershner to being the director who got into arguments with George Lucas as he directed sequel to Star Wars. Apparently Kershner’s idea of adding “a bit more depth” was a daunting challenge for the director of Return of the Jedi. He was an odd pick for that movie and it seems strange that this is the film for which he is remembered. Additionally, Gordon Willis added his brilliance as cinematographer. Up the Sandbox appears to be a lost, forgotten and under-appreciated cinematic curiosity. But it has several key players in the world of film restoration trying to find ways to secure distribution and they are determined.

The whole world of The Film Art Restoration/Release and that of the Boutique DVD/Blu-ray fascinates me. It has also holds a seductive power. I’m intensely curious why certain movies mean so much to people. This is one of the many magic aspects Film Art. It is subjective, but is seems to stir an incredible level of passion. I find it inspirational to see that initial individual  who starts the initial journey to restore a film and manages to succeed. And usually even if I’m not particularly interested in the movie, their commitment to these films resonates for me.

Matty Stanfield

 

 

 

 

You may not not fully recognize Memorex’s slogan or Steve Steigman’s iconic photograph unless you were born before 1978. Memorex Tapes were challenging listeners’ ability to judge between live performance and recordings of something that was once a live performance.

Memorex sound quality is blowing Peter Murphy away.  Photograph | Steve Steigman, 1979

Memorex sound quality is blowing Peter Murphy away.
Photograph | Steve Steigman, 1979

The ability to distinguish fantasy from reality is gained sometime between the ages of 3 and 5. That doesn’t mean that a 7 year old will  trust his mother when she tells him there are no such things as monsters.  It also doesn’t mean that the child’s mother might not be able to fight the need to look in her own closet or under her own bed from time to time. The concept of “monster” changes as we grow into adulthood.  Mom and Dad know there are no monsters in the house, life’s brutal truths leaves us all with a vague uncertainty about what potentially could be hiding under our beds. The mind’s perceptions related to “truth” and “false” are constantly shifting. Movies constantly challenge our process of thought.

Have you ever been able to fully enjoy swimming in the ocean without thinking of that girl being attacked by the shark?  Jaws, Steven Spielberg Cinematography | Bill Butler

Have you ever been able to fully enjoy swimming in the ocean without thinking of that girl being attacked by the shark?
Jaws, Steven Spielberg
Cinematography | Bill Butler

Logic tells us that being attacked and consumed by huge shark is not only highly unlikely, but close to impossible. Logic also refuses to let go of the very real horror that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws lodged deep within our collective consciousness. We know that Michael Myers is not in our house, but there will always be a vague worry that someone like him might not have followed us and now waits to attack us. Movies play an important role in life beyond entertainment. Film Art projects our hopes, dreams, fears and reality in deeply effective ways. Our ideas and certainties often find themselves being challenged by the Film Artist’s motivation. Whether the intent is to manipulate us into fear or to bend it to suspend them to accept fiction as fact or to force our attention on an idea in a whole new perceptive. Defining the art of documentary from the art of fictional film is often more difficult than can be easily articulated.

The Blair Witch Project played with the idea of turning “found footage” intended for a film student’s documentary into the horror film genre. In the years since Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez’s 1999 low-budget classic seeped first tripped many film viewer up at the cineplex, this idea is has been explored so much that it is increasingly hard to fool us. The Blair Witch Project has become a symbol of parody and a lingering source of cinematic inspiration. It is interesting how most refuse to admit how this 1999 movie has changed the experience of camping in the woods. Interestingly, the sounds of what could potentially be a very real threat of a bear has morphed into an idea of some paranormal demonic presence. It takes only a few seconds to push the irrational fear away so the we can focus on what could be a “real” concern.

This screenshot of Heather Donahue became iconic within less than a week of the release of The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez, 1999.

This screenshot of Heather Donahue became iconic within less than a week of the release of The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez, 1999.

The power of a talented film director lies in his/her ability to utilize motivational intent to sculpt fiction into reality or reality into fiction to form a bridge toward “the truth” that leads the audience. It is not unusual for an artist to be somewhat fixated or even obsessed with one or maybe two core themes that runs his/her entire collected works. It is also not usual for an artist to approach a wide variety of themes by use of one particular style. What is rare is to discover an artist as self-aware of not only his work but what truly motivates him to pursue it. Werner Herzog never uses vague or opaque terminology when he discusses film. He is blunt in addressing questions related to his work and his opinion of the type of film art that appeals most to him.

“You should bear in mind that almost all my documentaries are feature films in disguise.” – Werner Herzog

His interests revolve in the way humanity attempts to interact with nature which inevitably lead his audience to an idea that seems to bother many. The core idea is that nature’s beauty is deceptive. Herzog sees nature as a place of cruelty, chaos and danger. Despite this bleak view, he is a major advocate of saving it. But the most interesting aspect of Herzog’s work is that he loves exploring the perplexing ambition of humanity to bend nature to his needs and dreams. Werner Herzog loves dreamers and the pursuit of their dreams. These dreamer might take the form of a sociopathic warrior, an obsessive music fan, a drug addled cop, a brave soldier, a naive amateur environmentalist, or a vampire — These dreamers eventually must wake and face their irrelevance to “The Beast” of the earth’s natural power. Aside from the fact that Herzog has always expressed his logical views and awareness of the chaotic world of nature, he still fully relates to his flawed cinematic dreamers.

While Fitzcarraldo is a narrative feature film, the feat of pulling of undertaking the task of pulling a boat that size up a mountain was brutally real. Klaus Kinski as Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog, 1982. Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

While Fitzcarraldo is a narrative feature film, the feat of pulling of undertaking the task of pulling a boat that size up a mountain was brutally real. Klaus Kinski as Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog, 1982.
Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

Herzog seldom applies any trace of what I would call “style” — even his surrealist work is grounded in a very simple application of camera. Both Aguirre Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo are both amazingly beautiful and take full advantage of the surroundings in which his dreamers find themselves. But the camera work is economical and usually static. They both have the look of a documentary. Regarding the making of both these movies, Herzog and his team encountered more than a few major challenges. These challenges were often as dangerous and unbelievable as the stories themselves. Defining documentary as “truth” and narrative film as “fiction” restricts artist, subject and audience from understanding how to engage.

Herzog’s brilliant film is not a fictional film. It is based on the Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald, a 19th Century Peruvian rubber barron who managed to fight all odds and transport a 30 ton steamship across a treacherous isthmus (or strait of land) and then onwards from one challenging river to another. He and his team did this by dismantling the ship into pieces and reassembling it once destination was reached. This feat obviously caught Herzog’s imagination, but he had no problem in mixing fiction with truth. As  Fitzcarraldo, Klaus Kinski conveys a passion that quickly turns into almost insane obsession. So strong is his love of opera that is determination knows no bounds in bringing that music to the culture in which he lives. The core of Fitzcarraldo is one man fighting any and all odds in pulling a 300 ton steamboat over an isthmus between the Urubamba and the Camisea rivers. Herzog not only increased the boat by ten times the truth, but he had his protagonist achieve it without any dismantling.

The movie that almost defeated Werner Herzog who nicknamed himself  "Conquistador of the Useless"  The Infamous Steamship in Fitzcarralod, Werner Herzog, 1982.  Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

The movie that almost defeated Werner Herzog who nicknamed himself “Conquistador of the Useless”
The Infamous Steamship in Fitzcarralod, Werner Herzog, 1982.
Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

Not only did Herzog, his dedicated crew, and the tribal Aguaruna people of the region have to join forces to make this happen they also had to deal with the insanity of Klaus Kinski while doing it. Herzog uses no special effects. He and his crew really pulled that huge boat up and over the mountain. Misunderstandings between cultures resulted in tribal members destroying camp sites. Frustrations and exhaustion created intense fits of rage. Friendships and cultural relations were pushed beyond well past acceptable boundaries. Mount all of this with the perspective that the tribal Aguaruna men so detested Klaus Kinski they wanted to kill him.

Klaus Kinski winning friends and influencing people.  Fitzcarraldo Werner Herzog, 1982 Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

Klaus Kinski winning friends and influencing people.
Fitzcarraldo
Werner Herzog, 1982
Cinematography | Thomas Mauch

Tragically, three of the six film artists on the boat as it crashed against the rapids were seriously injured. To be clear, Herzog was one of the six on the boat. Consistently honest and open to discussion, Herzog has stated that he used all tensions to the benefit of the energy we see in the film. All challenges were faced and ultimately met head-on. The result is one of the most interesting films of not only its era, but of all time. Even with 34+ years of time since, Herzog is still often in the position of defending his choices during the staggering production of the iconic movie.

The sheer beauty and idea of a man and his pursuit of a dream against all obstacles may not be new in “concept” but never has it been portrayed in such a painfully realistic way. How does one actually define “truth” and “fiction” when it comes to Fitzcarraldo?

The level of will, risks of danger and dedication required by the production is the stuff of legend. But this is legendary truth.  Les Blank’s documentary, Burden of Dreams, is focused on Herzog making Fitzcarraldo is almost as interesting as the film itself. Les Blank captures The Artist grappling with not only incredible odds of completing production — it also captures Werner Herzog worn down past the point of exhaustion, but on the brink of re-thinknig his own personal identity to filmmaking, to nature and to life itself. It serves as a historic document of filmmaking. The distinction between “truth” and “fiction” are more clear in Blank’s Burden of Dreams. Or are they?

Werner Herzog discusses his worries and concerns as the boat sits stuck at the bottom of the mountain. Burden of Dreams, Les Blank, 1982.

Werner Herzog discusses his worries and concerns as the boat sits stuck at the bottom of the mountain. Burden of Dreams, Les Blank, 1982.

As Les Blank films the ever-mounting challenges, failures, tensions, fatigue and dangers involved in bringing Fitzcarroldo to the screen —  we are able to actually see how Herzog and all involved managed to do what we see in the film. However, there are moments in Blank’s documentary that make it all too clear that everyone knows they are being filmed. There is no escaping that in any documentary, but when you are filming artists at work some of what is said or how things are done take on a greater significance. This is especially true early on before everything begins to unravel beyond control. It is obvious that Klaus Kinski’s personal vision of reality has long been loosely defined.

Klaus Kinski in one of many rage filled rants at poor Walter Saxer, Production Manager.

Klaus Kinski in one of many rage filled rants at poor Walter Saxer, Production Manager.

Most interesting is the way we first see Herzog discussing his views of nature vs. Kinski’s attitude. Herzog loves to discuss ideas. So the content of what he tells Les Blank is all familiar. But to hear these ideas within the context of “where” he is both geographically and psychologically does not seem to fit. There is a most definite air of performance. It is only as Herzog’s determination, patience and passion began to collapse from tensions and exhaustion that Blank actually captures Herzog at his most self-aware and most distanced from the concept of Blank’s camera. “If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that,” he tells Blank. As the production gets closer to completion, Blank asks what he plans to do next. A surprising defeatist attitude comes forward: “I shouldn’t make movies anymore.”

Lucky for us that was exhaustion speaking. Herzog would go on. As he moves further into documentary filmmaking his artistic motivation remains consistent. Contrary to what many would like the audience to think, Herzog is not a cruel man. “Exploitation” is a problematic word when it comes to The Creative Arts. I do not feel Herzog “exploits” his subjects more than any other filmmaker. He does sometimes manipulate and approaches all subjects/topics in a distinct pursuit from the moment productions star though to the post-production editing and narration. Herzog bend and adjust the focus of the camera’s lens on reality so that it captures his motivational intent of showing us his personal “truth” — and that is not far from how fictional narratives are made.

I did entertain the idea of writing about these films in a chronological order, but when discussing the art of documentary vs. the art of Narrative Film — it just seems most natural to start with Herzog and then immediately turn to Errol Morris. While the motivational goals of both filmmakers are different, there is a very strong connection in the way both artists capture humanity and the many ways we either adapt or refuse to adapt to our environment and the others with whom we share it. It is also no secret that Werner Herzog played a key role in helping Errol Morris to stick with his vision and get his film completed. Herzog even stated that he would eat his own shoe if Morris would finish his movie. Ever true, Herzog ate his shoe in front of a full house at UC Berkeley forever captured in Les Blank’s Herzog Eats His Shoe.

In support of Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven.  Herzog Eats His Shoe Les Blank, 1980

In support of Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven.
Herzog Eats His Shoe
Les Blank, 1980

It is challenging to think of an art form that is more collaboratively dependent than filmmaking. Every member of a film crew and crew is crucial to the outcome of each scene. And when the crew is minimal it often only enhances the need for collaborative unity in bringing all skills and talent together to meet the director’s vision. I’ve always thought of the director as an intensely driven orchestra conductor. The director must find ways to guide, motivate and gain the trust of everyone behind and in front of the camera(s). Some are better at this than others. I’ve noticed that the directors who most interest me tend to have the reputation of being more open to new ideas and feedback from his/her crew/cast but never never to the point of breaking away from  her/his artistic intent. I suspect it is a very fine art of balancing perspective to be open enough, but finding a way to close it without turning the other artists against him/her.

Over the years since Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, Errol Morris has evolved a system of documentary filmmaking that is efficient and effective. But no matter how his approach has changed, Morris cares about his subjects. They trust him as much as his crew. He consistently produces powerful and polished documentaries. As good as his current work is, he has never found a way back to the casual approach applied that created as magic or human as Gates of Heaven.

Transcending The Art of Documentary Film.  Gates of Heaven Errol Morris, 1978 Cinematography | Ned Burgess

Transcending The Art of Documentary Film.
Gates of Heaven
Errol Morris, 1978
Cinematography | Ned Burgess

No matter how many times I watch Gates of Heaven — and I have watched it over and over ever since it came out on VHS — I always notice something new or I discover something deeper of myself hiding within it. As one of the pet owners attempts to needlessly defend grief, he says “There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something. Didn’t it?” Over time, these people and their respective observations Errol Morris captured have consistently taken a deeper meaning for me. I’m not alone in that feeling.

Errol Morris had not yet fully grasped what would serve as his artistic motivation. In the mid-1970’s he only knew what he found interesting. The starting point seems to have been an article he read in the newspaper. Some sort of falling out between the owners of a small pet cemetery had led to the decision to sell the cemetery’s land to a corporate developer. While the soon-to-be former owners of the cemetery have found a way to remove the deceased animals and transfer them to another pet cemetery, the former pet owners were upset. This was the starting point of Errol Morris unforgettable feature debut. His starting point would lead him to unexpected discoveries that pulled him in a number of directions. It wasn’t until he sat down to edit the footage that he found his motivation: humanity.

Gates of Heaven was a true game-changer in the world of documentary filmmaking as well as to the general Art of Film. We now know that much of what Morris achieved was due to some lucky circumstances that seem to have not only inspired him but required him to come up with a way to get these people to actually talk with him. Gates of Heaven transcends beyond the typical ideology of “The Documentary Film” — the focus and tone are always changing as we watch. What appears to be a documentary about the reasons for the creation and demolition of one pet cemetery gradually appears to be leading us to the story of a new pet cemetery. As the “stories” develop his camera continually readjust “focus” to a wide variety of people who have some vested link.  Morris’ initial interviews with the first round of owners feels familiar but somehow “off” — These people open up to Morris, but it seems as if he is attempting to stage them. There is a long shot of his first subject sitting uncomfortably under a tree. The camera’s perspective is distant. But soon we notice a distinct change in the manner Morris approaches his subjects. With the gift of hindsight information we know that Errol Morris discovered that people are more open when you allow them to decide where they will be filmed. He also discovered that the best thing he could do was simply ask one question and just keep the camera rolling. As these people begin to try and form an answer to his question(s) they began to forget the presence of the camera. They are actually speaking to Errol Morris as a person. He loses the identity of a filmmaker. They trust him.

Phillip Harberts reveals far more than motivational techniques or his new role working with his family in Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978. Cinematography | Ned Burgess

Phillip Harberts reveals far more than motivational techniques or his new role working with his family in Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978. Cinematography | Ned Burgess

If you’re taking the time and attempting to read my ramblings — I’m confident that you’ve already seen Gates of Heaven at least once if not multiple times. The above screenshot is a classic example of Errol Morris’ technique. Sitting in his office surrounded by the objects that he most prizes, Phillip Halberts begins his infamous system for being an effective salesman. It is a truly funny scene of the movie. The key hers is that the viewer never loses sight of the fact that this guy is grappling with emotional and professional challenges that are all too familiar to any adult. We can’t help but giggle as he lists out his theory for success. But we can’t help but like him. Like nearly everyone featured in the movie, you find yourself wishing you could reach through the screen and offer some support.

"Oh! Wha- what was that? Was that a car? My goodness!"  Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978 Cinematographer | Ned Burgess

“Oh! Wha- what was that? Was that a car? My goodness!”
Gates of Heaven,
Errol Morris, 1978
Cinematographer |
Ned Burgess

The main point here is that Gates of Heaven is important, valid and ageless documentary. Gates of Heaven offers nothing in the areas of the political, environmental, social or ethical issue. Errol Morris found an entry point into the deepest concerns of humanity.  The only artistic motivation is focused down to exploring the deep need for connection, love and understanding. In the end, it has very little to do with the pets. It is about the humans who love them.

Albert and David Maysles began their careers firmly rooted in the idea that they were not really “Documentarians” — Both brothers were devoted to the idea of cinéma vérité or, more accurately, The Maysles Brothers viewed their films as “Direct Cinema.” In other words, their artistic motivation was to capture reality as it happened and then to turn it all around to question the validity of the “reality” captured. Direct Cinema doesn’t clearly define a boundary between the filmmaker and the situation/subject that is being filmed. Albert and David Maysles and their fellow collaborators had no problem if they became a part of the situation or developed a friendship or disdain with their subjects. The idea of “reality” is always in question when Direct Cinema technique is applied. Direct Cinema film artists welcome confusing concepts of reality. But it is fairly well documented that neither of The Maysles had any idea that their interest in Big Edie and her daughter, Little Edie would become a cinematic and cultural milestone.

Little Edie asserts herself despite the signs of decay that surround both she and her mother, "...you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn't know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there's anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman... S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There's nothing worse, I'm telling you. They don't weaken, no matter what."  Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles& David Maysles, 1975.

Little Edie asserts herself despite the signs of decay that surround both she and her mother, “…you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn’t know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there’s anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman… S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There’s nothing worse, I’m telling you. They don’t weaken, no matter what.”
Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles & David Maysles, 1975.

Perhaps even more importantly, the fact that they both found themselves caring about these two women. It would be challenging to touch on all of the aspects of culture and film that Grey Gardens influenced. Too strange and intense to match the easy-access of Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven that would follow over three years later. Grey Gardens became a cult hit that slow-burned itself into the cultural thumbprint of America.

Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale / “Big Edie” and  Edith Bouvier Beale / “Little Edie were the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. At one time these two women were major players in the world of wealth and influence.

We will never really know what happened to this beautiful and vital young woman to make her retreat into seclusion. But we can't forget Little Edie.  Grey Gardens Albert & David Maysles, 1975

We will never really know what happened to this beautiful and vital young woman to make her retreat into seclusion. But we can’t forget Little Edie.
Grey Gardens
Albert & David Maysles, 1975

But by the mid-1960’s they had officially slipped into an isolated world. They had already been living in the grand home for decades and labeled as “Crazy Recluses” for quite a while. Despite being supposedly well-monied, Big & Little Edie lived on limited funds for decades. The once stunning home officially named Grey Gardens in the 1920’s  began to fall into decay. By 1971 the wealthy residents who lived near the estate began to file official complaints. They were living without running water, tons of garbage, a slew of cats as well as wild feral animals. Grey Gardens had become more than a somewhat hidden eye sore, it was officially a health hazard. They attracted unwanted attention from the media due to their connection to The Kennedy Family just before their County Health Department was about to condemn the property and evict both women. The media speculation was so intense that both Jackie Kennedy and her sister paid for the entire clean-up and repair of the house. Neither ever seemed to ever get over what they considered an attack by the media, but it Little Edie who seemed to be the most plagued with fear and paranoia.

Little Edie wearing 'the best costume for the day' and Big Edie frustrating over where in the hell she thinks she is!  Grey Gardens Albert & David Maysles, 1975

Little Edie wearing ‘the best costume for the day’ and Big Edie frustrating over where in the hell she thinks she is!
Grey Gardens
Albert & David Maysles, 1975

It has never been clear to me how The Maysles Brothers secured Big and Little Edies’ permission to film them, but they did. And the method of Direct Cinema for documentary gave these two amazing but deeply eccentric women the opportunity to freely share their history and opinions to the camera. Grey Gardens is profound in the way it captures the on-going love/hate shared between mother and daughter.

“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too in life.” Little Edie casually points out.
“Oh, yes, I did. I did, I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted.” Big Edie responds with pointed glee.

At turns hilarious, disturbing, haunting, sad, grotesque — it is impossible to not love these two women. And while both take deep joy in “hamming” it up for the Maysles cameras — the film captures devastating moments of self-awareness, regret and longing that grip the audience so tight it can never let go or forget the movie. While the film is certainly a documentary, it is also just as certainly confused about what is “true” and what is “fiction” — Grey Gardens is a mysterious film that is unrelenting in confusing “reality” with “distorted truth” and often the deception of “memory” tinged with the need to “alter” truths — not for the audience but for these two women. It is a complex, fragile and beautiful film that refuses to tell us the truth.

European and Asian countries have specific eras of like-minded film artist who have created films at the same time that have resulted in what are easily identified as cinematic waves.

Welcome to the beginning of La Nouvelle Vague. The 400 Blows,  François Truffaut, 1959. Cinematography | Henri Decaë

Welcome to the beginning of La Nouvelle Vague. The 400 Blows,
François Truffaut, 1959.
Cinematography | Henri Decaë

I’m unaware of any such occurrence in American Cinema. Aside from the Golden Era of Hollywood, I’m hard pressed to think of any American “waves” — our culture is too young and diverse. Once the old-school Hollywood studio system fell away there was a whole new generation of almost maverick-like filmmakers. But it seems that there was no singular shared voice at the same time. There was certainly a revolutionary shift in cinematic art starting in the mid 1960’s, but typically the American Film Artist tends to be somewhat of a loner. There are two American filmmakers and one American film that I want to highlight briefly because all three touch directly on depicting fictionalized reality or fictional narrative within an almost documentary-like approach. These two American Film Artists created two unique styles with two very different artistic motivations. And, then there is one film that really stands out and remains entrenched in my brain.

I don’t think anyone filmmaker can be named as “the best” or “the most influential” — art is far too subjective for that level of claim. That being said, the work left by Robert Altman is as relevant, interesting, provocative, experimental, unique and experimental today as it must have been when it was released. Some of his films fail. A few seem to get anchored in a sort of drug’d haze that alienates the viewer. But he made more than a couple of films which are true cinematic masterpieces. And when it comes to mixing ideas around reality with fiction, he was undisputedly a genius.

Largely credited with  reinvented the language of cinema, Robert Altman working with Julie Christie on the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1970. Photographer unknown to me.

Largely credited with reinvented the language of cinema, Robert Altman working with Julie Christie on the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1970. Photographer unknown to me.

In this sense the key work is 1975’s Nashville. It is essentially an epic study of American culture just before it hit it’s 200th birthday. While it might seem odd that he chose to capture a snapshot of America via The Nashville Music Industry, it was incredibly clever. Like most of Altman’s 1970’s work, all the actors are mic’d.  Unlike Altman’s prior work the actors are usually in filled spaces with non-actors.  Only a very select few of the actors actually knew when one of Paul Lohmann’s cameras are focused on them. They had lines, but were free to “riff” or alter lines if it felt more believable to do so. Those actors who were playing musicians or actual County & Western Stars were required to write or co-write their songs as wall as to play/sing them. And, as Altman was constantly changing ideas or re-writing scenes, it is my understanding that no one had a full screenplay of the film while it was being shot.

Long before we had access to cyber "search engines" like IMDB, viewers could easily mistake actor, Bill Jenkins, as a "real" Nashville TV reporter.  Nashville, Robert Altman, 1975 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Long before we had access to cyber “search engines” like IMDB, viewers could easily mistake actor, Bill Jenkins, as a “real” Nashville TV reporter.
Nashville,
Robert Altman, 1975
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

When combined with Altman’s grim view of the state of American culture and it’s ever-growing obsession with fame — Altman was taking a big risk. Nashville could have easily been a meandering mess. Instead it is a darkly funny, insightful and disturbing film. Nashville does meander, but all of the subplots and characters are slowly working their way to a conclusion which remains a topic of controversy within the world of celebrity. Not that entities such as The Academy Awards should ever be given the level of ultimate cinematic valuation that it is often allowed, but it is likely the disquieting view of both “celebrity” and American culture which prevented Nashville from being honored as 1975’s best film.

As Altman’s cast intermingles with valid country musicians, non-actors and actors playing versions of themselves — this fictional film takes on a vibe that feels real. Nashville is filled with awkward, comic and disturbing moments inter-laced to create an uneasy tension. We forget that it is Laugh-In’s Lily Tomlin struggling with her duties as a wife, mother, desires and self-identity within cultural and societal pressures. When she allows herself to be seduced we are surprised in the discovery that she not only fully understands the Keith Carradine’s hollow vacancy, she is not bothered by it. The womanizing soon-to-be major recording artist seems as shocked as we are when this “truth” is passively revealed. “Tom” croons that he is “easy” but he is actually very difficult. It is here that Robert Altman and three actors push fictional moments into the realm of painful reality. This points to one of the many key reasons Nashville is so powerful. Altman films his epic like a documentary. It is an essential film and a classic example fiction merging into deeper truth than the viewer anticipates. The suspension of disbelief is not really so much as an audience choice but a clever manipulation to force it.  From the most superficial to the deepest core, Nashville is disconcertingly real.

Lily Tomlin's comic persona disappears as a conflicted wife becomes the focus of a musical lothario. She is not 'easy' in Nashville, Robert Altman.  Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Lily Tomlin’s comic persona disappears as a conflicted wife becomes the focus of a musical lothario. She is not ‘easy’ in Nashville, Robert Altman.
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

No one filmmaker has ever been better at blurring the lines of reality and fiction than John Cassavetes. It is my opinion that all true lovers of cinematic art holds at least one Cassavetes movie close to the heart. A Woman Under The Influence is the best example of a filmmaker’s motivation applied in what appears to be either a very loose improvisation of reality or an obscure documentary of a family in crisis. With hindsight we know that nothing about this film was improvised or real, but a viewer would have to be truly emotionally stunted not to find her/himself challenging those facts as this movie unspools. Gena Rowlands has earned a unique place within the world of cinematic acting — and, when carefully studied, it is impossible to name any actor or actress who displays such effective naturalized performance. I view that statement as fact. Rowlands has charisma, presence, natural grace, impossible beauty and an ability to merge identities into characters like no other. For 135 minutes, Gina Rowlands is Mabel and Mabel is Gina Rowlands.

"All of a sudden, I miss everyone..."  Gena Rowlands A Woman Under The Influence John Cassavetes, 1974.

“All of a sudden, I miss everyone…”
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under The Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974.

In A Woman Under The Influence Cassavetes artistically approaches everything as simply and as minimally as possible. Rowland’s Mabel is car wreck waiting to happen. The late and criminally underrated, Peter Falk, is equally realistic Mabel’s confused and helpless husband. As Mabel’s emotional grounding becomes shakier with each passing moment, Peter Falk tackles the issue from every perspective he can find. When he turns to the equivalent of domestic abuse we are so unsettled that we barely have time to recover before their children jump in to protect their mom. When Mabel finally breaks, it is disorienting to determine if it Mabel or Rowlands having a nervous breakdown. The complexity and fragility of mental illness is almost too realistically articulated. It is terrifying to watch. Without any frame of context, Cassavetes’ cinéma vérité style could easily mistaken for a 1970’s documentary of a family coping and functioning through crisis. John Cassavetes was always very clear regarding his artistic motivation. His goal was to capture real love in film. It is at the heart of every film he ever made. He had no interest in vasolined-screened mush. He sought out the realities of love. His muse was his wife. Together, he almost always hit his mark. As dark and disturbing as A Woman gets, there are two things we know about Mabel and her husband: they are in love and they have each other’s backs no matter what challenges come their way.

Is it Mabel who is slipping into an emotional breaking point or is Gena Rowlands slipping with her?  A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes, 1974.  Cinematography | Al Ruban

Is it Mabel who is slipping into an emotional breaking point or is Gena Rowlands slipping with her?
A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes, 1974.
Cinematography | Al Ruban

Many cinephiles of my generation or older feel that the levels of Film Art which which these artists’ reached is no longer possible. This opinion is not true. A number of current film artists are even more strident in applying individual motivations which artistically merge truth with fiction than ever before. Independent Filmmaking has never been easy. Technology has provided tools and platforms that potentially allow anyone to make a movie. Too many movies are being made for film festivals to fairly evaluate what films get on their screens. And Film Critics are finding it impossible to actually review the number of films that manage to get distributed. he challenges of getting worthy art shown and distributed has never been harder. There are too many movies being made. And because anyone can make them it is a challenge to determine which independently funded films are worth the time to watch. Esteemed New York Times Film Critic, A.O. Scott sendt an email to Variety this year stating, “Because of the increasing volume of new films released each year, the Times is no longer able to guarantee reviews of all New York theatrical releases.” It is not hard to understand why The Times had to make this decision, but it doesn’t minimize the impact. A review from The New York Times can “make” or “break” a film artist’s career.

Looking at the challenge from another perspective,  I’ve never seen film artists approach a challenge with this creativity, tenacity, energy and devotion.  Unlike the late ’80’s/’90’s, the artist’s who seem to really succeed are the most devoted to their art. I find the drive and work of these new filmmakers incredibly powerful. I’m not a film critic. I just love cinema. But like many of my friends I had started to feel sad about the state of American Film in the year that actually gave us some amazing film. Pulp Fiction, Clerks, Ed Wood, Red, Muriel’s Wedding, Chungking Express and even Oliver Stone’s admittedly questionable but highly experimental Natural Born Killers — all came out in 1994. But in 1994 I started to note a shift in many of my peers perspective regarding films. This next remark is likely to earn me a number of angry emails, but I loathed Forrest Gump, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Interview with a Vampire and The Lion King. It was around this time that my closest friends begin to tell me I was a “movie snob”

"Epic in scope and triumphant in spirit!" or passively unconcerned solutions for PTSD riddled war veterans, marginalized people and protestors of War? Forrest Gump Robert Zemeckis, 1994

“Epic in scope and triumphant in spirit!” or passively unconcerned solutions for PTSD riddled war veterans, marginalized people and protestors of War? Forrest Gump
Robert Zemeckis, 1994

Skip forward a decade and I actually was afraid to tell people that I detested Paul Haggis’ Crash. I can remember a friend not speaking to me for over a year because of my opinion. This is particularly interesting because I’m not an aggressive person when it comes to my opinions. I have them, but I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. Sometimes I’m surprised when even one person agrees with me. So, I knew this movie was really a “hot” topic for white people. When I said that Haggis might be well-intentioned but the whole movie was so ham-fisted and too simplistic in resolutions that I felt insulted. I had a similar reaction when Jonathan Demme made Philadelphia over eleven years earlier. But in 1993 my “crowd” more or less agreed with me — or were at least willing to admit to the painfully “black and white” approach to only partially-formed characters. By the time every major film critic and the Academy Awards chose Thomas Langmann’s The Artist, which I hated, 2011’s best film, I seldom ventured to the cinema. The movies that were interesting me were harder to see on the screen. My two personal favorite films of 2011 were Steve McQueen’s Shame, Evan Glodell’s Bellflower and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. I was able to see two of these films on the big screen.

Living in San Francisco I was surprised when I was unaware of it having played here. I had to wait for it on blu-ray. When I suggested each of these movies to friends in West Virginia and Ohio, neither were able to find them screening in their areas. Interestingly, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life screened in their areas. Maybe I was hoping for too much as I entered The Sundance Kabuki Cinema to watch Malick’s film. I’m not sure. I was entranced by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, but I was never actually engaged by the film itself. Both of these friends contacted me after they had seen it. They were excited and loved Tree of Life, but as I discussed it with each of them — I discovered that neither understood what they had seen. The fact that I found myself explaining it twice to two very intelligent people confirmed my assessment of the movie. My two pals were claiming to like the movie because so many of the critics liked it.

This can't be Clint Jordan, right? No, this has to be  Virgil Bliss, Joe Maggio, 2001. Cinematography | Harlan Bosmajian

This can’t be Clint Jordan, right? No, this has to be
Virgil Bliss, Joe Maggio, 2001.
Cinematography | Harlan Bosmajian

In my spare time, I’ve worked for film festivals. I’ve even served on the board of one that has become fairly influential. It was involvement with a Film Festival that offered me the opportunity to see two films before they had secured distribution and were released. The first was Joe Maggio’s Virgil Bliss starring Clint Jordan as the title character. I was hooked from the beginning to the end. Maggio’s film was a lo-fi character study of a recently paroled criminal who desperately wants to secure a stable life. I had never seen Clint Jordan play a character this complex. It didn’t even feel like I was watching a movie so much as some profane transmission from reality’s grimmest corner. A couple of years later I would see Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone, a brutally realistic story of parenting and addiction which featured an unforgettable Vera Farmiga. Granik and Farmiga pulled me into this horrifying world. Both of these films were intensely intimate and painfully “real” — I will never forget them. They did secure distribution but largely thanks to the DVD and streaming markets.

Vera Farmiga's performance as Irene takes on bleary and almost horrifying level of reality in Down to the Bone, Debra Granik, 2004. Cinematography | Michael McDonough

Vera Farmiga’s performance as Irene takes on bleary and almost horrifying level of reality in Down to the Bone, Debra Granik, 2004.
Cinematography | Michael McDonough

And, then I started hearing about Mumblecore. A term I still dislike as it seems more than a little pejorative. Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig were the first of the “Mumblecore Movement” I saw. Both of these artist are naturalistic actors, but most importantly they are filmmakers who have disarming ways of presenting intimate and relatable characters that often feel so real that you find yourself squirming in your seat. Early on the co-wrote and co-directed Night and Weekends. With no budget and a non-apologetic manner of presenting themselves as actors, their movie challenges the audience in determining which of the two characters are more vested in this relationship. When the two lovers eagerly disrobe and have sex, the absence of any pretense of eroticism and the immediacy of the two characters’ mutual desire makes the audience feel like ashamed. It is as if we are voyeuristically looking at something private. At some point, it is impossible to discern these two filmmakers from the characters that they are playing. Insightful, sad and real — The movie refuses to be dismissed. The same goes with Joe Swanberg’s previous film staring Gerwig, Hannah Takes The Stairs.

A young couple struggle with the challenges of a long distance relationship in Nights and Weekends, Greta Gerwig & Joe Swanberg, 2008. Cinematography | Matthias Grunsky & Benjamin Kasulke

A young couple struggle with the challenges of a long distance relationship in Nights and Weekends,
Greta Gerwig & Joe Swanberg, 2008.
Cinematography | Matthias Grunsky & Benjamin Kasulke

Both Greta Gerwig and Joe Swanberg have pursued their artistic goals with a vengeance. Not to be conceived as a criticism, but Gerwig seems more comfortable in moving in the higher powered/monied productions of Whit Stillman, Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen. Whether that is luck or successful networking, Greta Gerwig has firmly established herself as a unique actor and filmmaker. It would be impossible not to mention the work of Mark and Jay Duplass who have both managed to move comfortably into mainstream without selling out. The same is true for Lynn Shelton who has achieved a great deal of success. Ti West has also found a great deal of success in the horror genre. Michael Tully is another to emerge as a truly riveting filmmaker. Also of note are the works of Lawrence Michael Levine, Sophia Takal and Onur Tukel within the realms of comedy. Amy Seimetz is another incredibly amazing actor who has thus far made one film, Sun Don’t Shine, which was one of the best films of 2013. Aside from Seimetz’s skill as an actor, Kate Lyn Sheil is probably the second most valuable player as an actress.

Joe Swanberg’s interests in film seem to be more committed to remaining the chief architect of his work. His talent and skill are unquestionable, but it wasn’t until he was able to collaborate with Kent Osborne and make Uncle Kent that his strength was crystal clear. Osborne is well established in the world of animated film art. In Swanberg’s Uncle Kent, Kent Osborne is playing a version of himself which leaves a great deal of mystery for the audience. We have no way of knowing when we are seeing “truth” in fuzzy sort of staged way or in a sort of re-enactment. Osborne is so believable in this film that it is more than a little difficult to know if this is made up or a very slanted manipulation of reality. Either way, the film works incredibly well. Swanberg does not deviate from his deceptively loose and slow pacing. In Uncle Kent we see a successful LA Film Artist who, through a series of increasingly uncomfortable moments of self-awareness, must come to grips with the fact that not only is he getting older — he is now finding it difficult to fit in and relate to the friends who populate his world. And his world appears to be made up of working on adult-oriented but infantile comedic cartoons, doodling, surfing the Internet, participating in Online Roulette, getting stoned, petting his cat and hanging out with friends ten years his junior.

Kent Osborne, Jennifer Prediger explore sexuality with Josephine Decker in Uncle Kent, Joe Swanberg, 2011.

Kent Osborne, Jennifer Prediger explore sexuality with Josephine Decker in Uncle Kent, Joe Swanberg, 2011.

It is an entertaining but precisely executed examination of the formation of what will likely be a tough mid-life crisis. Another aspect of Uncle Kent that adds a great deal is the contributions of both fellow filmmakers and actors, Jennifer Prediger and Josephine Decker. Prediger plays Kate with a mix of humor and sadness. It is a surprisingly complex performance that catches the audience off-guard. She must be acting, but it never feels like acting. When Josephine Decker enters the film she brings a level of energy that Swanberg is able to use as a major catalyst for Kent. As most of us know, the erotic idea of a three-way usually quickly dissolves into awkwardness in which usually only two of three finds any real erotic pleasure. A three way is exciting in concept, but when placed into theory it is most often an unenjoyable realization of interpersonal dynamics that are better off unexplored. This is certainly the case in Swanberg’s three-way scene. It is a powerful moment in a surprisingly potent movie.

It is important to note that Jennifer Prediger has gone to make her own mark as a filmmaker collaborating with Jess Weixler to create the quirky, funny and unique look at friendship, Apartment Problems (or known to some as Trouble Dolls)  Actually, The Duplass Brothers, Lena Dunham and Alex Karpovsky are not the only artists to find success. Meanwhile Josephine Decker continues to act, perform and create in various challenging and interesting projects. But most importantly Decker has recently made two vitally important films as both director and writer. Both of her directorial feature length films, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely are truly essential films Decker’s path as Film Artist seems to be headed toward a more experimental direction. Josephine Decker is an important Film Artist that I suspect will be leading us in some very interesting directions. With her second film, she actually surpassed Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, which was my favorite film of 2013.  Another independent filmmaker to note is Patrick Brice whose recent collaboration with Mark Duplass, Creep, re-examines the ideas of “found footage” and “documentary” to amazing effect.

It's creepier than you expect. Mark Duplass in Creep, Patrick Brice, 2015

It’s creepier than you expect. Mark Duplass in Creep, Patrick Brice, 2015

In 80 minutes Brice/Duplass manage to deliver a movie that elevates the horror genre both intellectually and emotionally. On the surface, Creep is fun adult horror movie. It is long after the credits roll that the underlying power really “creeps” up. Sure, it’s only a horror movie. Now, keep telling yourself that as you realize that what you’ve just seen could not only happen — it most likely does.

I was a little late in learning about Kentucker Audley. A friend in NYC sent me a DVD of his first feature length film, Team Picture. Perhaps more than any of the other filmmakers to emerge under the term “Mumblecore”,  Audley shines out as the boldest Film Artist. Much like Herzog, Audley is very open about his motivation regarding filmmaking. He has described his approach as being almost autobiographical documentary. It is and it most likely isn’t. The vital importance of Team Picture is the almost lazy feeling Audley applies as the minimal story unfolds. After only about five minutes into this movie, you can sense that Audley is far more schooled in the art of film than his film wants to show. A quiet film, Kentucker Audley plays David. David should be in college or seriously pursuing a career. Instead he is happy just to hang out with friends, strum his guitar and sit outside be the kiddie pool he uses to cool off in the summer sun. Despite the slow pace and drifting conversations, there is an odd pulse at play with Team Picture.

"I guess you don't need any help with anything. That's cool." The line between reality and fiction feels partially erased in the passively crucial art of Team Picture, Kentucker Audley, 2007 Cinematography | Timothy Morton

“I guess you don’t need any help with anything. That’s cool.” The line between reality and fiction feels partially erased in the passively crucial art of Team Picture,
Kentucker Audley, 2007
Cinematography | Timothy Morton

When Audley’s David decides to move on to another town it seems without any clear direction or purpose. However, we gain a gradual perspective into David’s life that reveals a childhood that offered him no clear paths to bonding with a male figure as well as a distinct level of confusion regarding his identity. A creeping sense that David’s environment and childhood have almost set him up. His expectations in life are muted. He is not a team player, but he has a confused need to somehow fit into the team if only for the purpose of momentary capture of belonging to something. Of the recent films to achieve a realism that feels more “true” than “fiction” — this might be the most powerful film.

In addition to being an important voice in modern film, Audley is an exceptional effective actor. I suspect his acting roles are how he funds his filmmaking work. But he will soon be seen in two important independent films: Jason Banker’s Felt and Alison Bagnall’s Funny Bunny. Audley has also positioned himself as vital member of the American Independent Film Artist World with his passionate approach to protecting the rights of individuality in Film Art with the creation of the user-friendly web site, NoBudge. He accepts submissions from indie-filmmakers and curates them on the site for free viewing and feedback. These are both feature-length and short films that might not hold the “commercial” accessibility required for film festivals and the increasingly powerful role of Aggregators to negotiate for independent films to be available for purchase/rental on digital media sites such as iTunes or AmazonPrime. But that certainly does not mean that they have a great deal to offer.

Check out NoBudge: http://nobudge.com

It was on Audley’s NoBudge site that I “discovered” Brandon Colvin. Colvin’s Sabbatical is a beautifully-rendered exploration of a man in crisis that adheres rigidly to Formalist Style. Colvin not only succeeds, he exceeds what one expects to find in a low budget film. Nothing about Sabbatical looks low budget. Sadly, Brandon Colvin’s masterful film is failing to secure distribution and an aggregator because Sabbatical does not “fit” or “conform” to the current ideas around what is commercial and what isn’t.

You can find out more about Sabbatical which also stars Robert Longstreet. An actor who so many of us admire. People are missing an amazing experience.

sabbatical-mossgarden.com

Eleonore Hendricks and Kentucker Audley try to fit into some part their culture's frame in  Bad Fever, Dustin Guy Defa, 2012.  Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

Eleonore Hendricks and Kentucker Audley try to fit into some part their culture’s frame in
Bad Fever, Dustin Guy Defa, 2012.
Cinematography | Mike Gioulakis

Dustin Guy Defa’s Bad Fever is another crucial film within the context of modern American Film Art. Kentucker Audley’s turn as a misfit and wanna-be comedian is more than just awkward and anxiety-inducing — it is tragic. Eleonore Hendricks plays Irene who quickly becomes Edie’s obsession. His desperation for her love is not only misplaced, it is inappropriate. Even within the context of Irene’s world, Edie’s presence is too worrying. Dustin Guy Defa’s experimental film delivers a constant stream of frustrated uncomfortable confusion hinged with potential violence. Nothing about this ver low budget film “feels” like acting.

Walter Bakes creates a beautiful music with only a rubberband as he wanders through the ever-changing landscape of Brooklyn and the calm-wild of Texas. An artists' existential search and crisis that seems to require he pull his wife and child with him along the way. An uncertain future in A Rubberband Is An Unlikely Instrument, Matt Boyd.  Cinematography | 2011

Walter Bakes creates a beautiful music with only a rubberband as he wanders through the ever-changing landscape of Brooklyn and the calm-wild of Texas. An artists’ existential search and crisis that seems to require he pull his wife and child with him along the way. An uncertain future in A Rubberband Is An Unlikely Instrument, Matt Boyd.
Cinematography | 2011

Matt Boyd seems to be approaching documentary film with a style that is somewhere between the accepted notion of what documenting reality and The Maysles Brother’s type of Direct Cinema that leave the audience wondering when what we are seeing is real or possibly staged. His study of marginalized musician, Walter Bakes, and his family in A Rubberband Is An Unlikely Instrument is a challenging but rewarding examination of decay and self-absorbtion. It does not hedge from showing the warts and all of its subject but it never feels judgmental or exploitive. Matt Boyd is heading to an interesting career.

And as I come to the end of this rambling post, Rick Alverson must be mentioned. Along with Kentucker Audley, Alverson may be the most interesting Film Artist who is unrelenting in his pursuit of cinematic truth. Rick Alverson is far more concerned with style than Audley. This may end up being Alverson’s greatest challenge as filmmaker. His stylistic impulses sometimes appear to be at odds with the more immediate concerns just below the sensitive skin of his films. All the same, Alverson is building an amazing body of work. Best know for his 2012 film, The Comedy, which received a great deal of attention at the time of its release. It was praised and dismissed in equal measure. One of the dismissals came from my personal favorite Film Critic, A.O. Scott who caught me off guard when he was so frustrated by Alverson’s movie that he felt the need to attack those of us who saw the merit in it. According to A.O. Scott if I find any “critical distance” or “interesting perspective” in Alverson’s The Comedy — then I am the butt of Alverson’s joke. I do not know Rick Alverson and I have not ever read an interview with him. I only am aware of him by his work. Alverson was not joking with The Comedy. Alverson presents a level of white male entitlement and human cruelty without offering any evaluation or background. Thanks to an amazing cast of effective actors, all we really need to know is passively communicated in the sad eyes and pointless actions. We might not like the main character or any of his friends, but viewers would need to be equally emotionally-stunted, damaged and as casually cruel as these characters to not see the tragic darkness which Alverson masterfully examines.

Doing his very best to push past what appears to be depression or something worse, Colm O'Leary slowly begins to construct his perception of an American home in The Builder, Rick Alverson, 2010

Doing his very best to push past what appears to be depression or something worse, Colm O’Leary slowly begins to construct his perception of an American home in The Builder, Rick Alverson, 2010

In The Builder, Alverson’s first feature which was made in 2009 and very limited released 201o — he collaborates with Colm O’Leary to create a very realistic study of an immigrant who attempts to pursue construction of his American dream house. O’Leary has a strong presence, but is allowed very little to say. The film is a bleak depiction of a man fighting through a depression in pursuit of something that seems to be failed abstraction of something deeper he can’t obtain. While the film offers viewers too little information to fully encage, it carries a power that is hard to forget. It feels like a film from an alternate universe of 1970’s American Filmmaking. We don’t understand this builder, but he feels far too real and familiar to forget.

Colm O'Leary and Will Oldham attempt to form a friendship for what appears to be two very different reasons.  New Jerusalem, Rick Alverson, 2011

Colm O’Leary and Will Oldham attempt to form a friendship for what appears to be two very different reasons.
New Jerusalem, Rick Alverson, 2011

In Rick Alverson’s New Jerusalem we are given more insight into the two men we follow. New Jerusalem touches on everything from faith to immigration to PTSD but it only barely touches this topics and themes. Alverson’s motivation is to explore an uneasy connection that begins to form between two men. This uncomfortable look at male bonding provides challenging ideas regarding the needs of male bonding. Ultimately, the viewer is never clear on why these two characters put up with each other. Aversion is not interested in resolving the tension and conflict. His goal is bring the reality of it to the audience.

New Jerusalem  Rick Alverson, 2011

New Jerusalem
Rick Alverson, 2011

The conclusion is left to us. The merging of “truth” and “fiction” will not always result in something simply entertaining and satisfying. Most often true art forces us to look at our own reflection and projections. Being able to fully understand the difference between real and fake is not always an asset. Most of human life is spent putting on one mask and quickly replacing it with another as we navigate our way through life. Not all of us want to escape from reality. Some of us want more from art than escape. I want to gain perspectives regarding the complexities and challenges of life. Like everyone, I want to know I’m not alone.

Little Edie notes the confusion of time, so do The Maysles Brothers artfully allow the confusion of truth.  As the groundbreaking documentary was released over 40 years ago, it remains valid Film Art. Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles & David Maysles, 1975.

Little Edie notes the confusion of time, so do The Maysles Brothers artfully allow the confusion of truth. As the groundbreaking documentary was released over 40 years ago, it remains valid Film Art. Grey Gardens,
Albert Maysles & David Maysles, 1975.

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. You know what I mean? It’s awfully difficult.” – Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale