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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

 

Definitions, categorizations and comparisons fill the world of art theory. When it comes to Film Art there seems to be an almost endless stream of terms. Defining “cinema” and determining what films truly achieve “cult” status is not always as easy as it would seem. A great Cinematic Master gave a definition that I’ve always found inappropriate and insulting. However I am forever returning to his definition in much the same way I am constantly re-watching one of his many masterpieces.

"Oh, you ARE sick." Eraserhead David Lynch, 1977

“Oh, you ARE sick.”
Eraserhead
David Lynch, 1977

Federico Fellini once described the art of cinema as “...an old whore, like circus and variety, who knows how to give many kinds of pleasure.”

There is a good deal of validity to this definition. Film has become an integral part of our culture and is quite possibly the most valued art form which screens 24/7 all over the world. It is also based on a model so firmly grounded in marketing and profit earning that is impossible to talk with any filmmaker and not end up discussing the costs to make them and how much they earn. Of course even while money is the requirement and the goal, it takes a backseat to the pleasures it provides to us, its John. And we are a constantly returning customer.  No matter how bad the weather or strapped for cash we might be. This is one service most of us seem to need and we constantly run the risk of being disappointed.

Lonely, isolated and sad. Donald Sutherland Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Lonely, isolated and sad. Mid-1970’s audiences did not know what to think of this strange Surrealist take on Casanova. Three decades later, a whole new audience eagerly awaits a refreshed print. Criterion Collection?
Donald Sutherland
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Sometimes one of the these movies seems to pull us back again and again. We can’t get enough. This of course is not a hooker. This is a film that develops a loyal following no matter its profit margin. And no matter how hard it is to locate. We pursue it. Welcome to the Cult Film. David Lynch’s Eraserhead is an exceptional Cult Film. It is not a bad film. I would argue that this 1977 film represents years of work, dedication and is ultimately a fine work of American Art. But how can a films like Eraserhead and Grey Gardens be lumped into the same category as Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All in a Row or Mark Robson’s painfully bad, Valley of the Dolls? Well, it is pretty easy actually.

"They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope. Now get out of my way, I've got a man waiting for me." Valley of the Dolls Mark Robson, 1967

“They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope. Now get out of my way, I’ve got a man waiting for me.”
Valley of the Dolls
Mark Robson, 1967

Wikipedia prefers to apply the term “Cult Classic” instead of “Cult Film.” The definition provided is “…a film that has acquired a cult following. Cult films are known for their dedicated, passionate fanbase, an elaborate subculture that engage in repeated viewings, quoting dialogue, and audience participation. Inclusive definitions allow for major studio productions, especially box office bombs, while exclusive definitions focus more on obscure, transgressive films shunned by the mainstream. The difficulty in defining the term and subjectivity of what qualifies as a cult film mirror classificatory disputes about art. The term cult film itself was first used in the 1970s to describe the culture that surrounded underground films and midnight movies, though cult was in common use in film analysis for decades prior to that. Cult films trace their origin back to controversial and suppressed films kept alive by dedicated fans. In some cases, reclaimed or rediscovered films have acquired cult followings decades after their original release, occasionally for their camp value…

"A good football coach can get away with murder." Uh, oh. Movies do not get much worse or conversely better than... Pretty Maids All In A Row Roger Vadim, 1971

“A good football coach can get away with murder.” Uh, oh. Movies do not get much worse or conversely better than…
Pretty Maids All In A Row
Roger Vadim, 1971

The definition goes on to discuss the fact that Cult Classic is not limited to the campy or the failed. It is often reserved for films that are acclaimed but never quite move into mainstream success. There are some exceptional Cult Classics, or Cult Films as I prefer to call them. These are artistically solid works of Film Art that may not have broken box office records or secured the false acclaim of The Academy Award. In fact there are some fairly new films that are brilliant and are already achieving Cult Film status. There are also a number of God-awful movies that have over the past decade have begun to return to our attention as Cult Films.

Both Roger Vadim’s deeply odd Pretty Maids all in a Row and Mark Robson’s big-budgeted major studio Valley of the Dolls have enjoyed the status of Cult Films for decades. These are both examples of unintended camp. When it comes to Robson’s adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s hugely successful novel, the idea of Cult Film is turned every which way but loose. This film was actually a huge box office hit. When watching this infamous movie it boggles the mind that our parents and grandparents were rushing to local movie theaters to watch this astoundingly bad film. But they did. Drag Queens should be given credit for catching the camp value of this film first, but over the past couple of decades those of us who love a great bad movie have come to love it just as much. At once shamelessly lewd and contradictorily innocent, from start to finish — VOD is continually amping itself up to a seemingly endless escalation of camp.

An exorcise in narcissism featuring fashion designs from the mind of the film's star. Diana Ross Mahogany Berry Gordy, 1975 Cinematography | David Watkin

An exorcise in narcissism featuring fashion designs from the mind of the film’s star. Another painfully bad film that is so desperately horrible it becomes an endless source of fun! 
Diana Ross
Mahogany
Berry Gordy, 1975
Cinematography | David Watkin

Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids was designed to cash in on the idea of the T&A movie merged with once major Hollywood Players. Rock Hudson and Angie Dickinson quickly tossed cautiously crafted on-screen personas to prove they were hip to the grooves that had spread across middle America. Keenan Wynn, Telly Savalas and Roddy McDowell were also eager to strap it on for the ride. None seem to be embarrassed as they romp about with semi or fully nude nymphettes. Nor do any seem to be bothered by the fact that the sexual teases were also mixed with serial murder killings. The film was also intended to be a dark comedy. The film flopped. It was decidedly not hip and most certainly far from cool. It was not particularly funny. It did however open a door for Telly Savalas by inspiring the idea of what would become Kojak. After the tragic death of Rock Hudson, this film began to be re-evaluated. It was still bad, but oh so much mind-blowing fun to watch.

As bad as these two major studio films are, neither can top Berry Gordy’s ill-advised star-vehicle for Motown’s own, Miss. Diana Ross.  That film is Mahogany. A hit song did not a hit movie make. When news that the film was being released to DVD, fans rushed to pre-order it. So unwilling to have to even think about the movie, Diana Ross herself held up over 500,000 newly printed DVD’s hostage (!) until someone convinced her it would be cheaper to let the film out. Those of you who know the fun that is Berry Gordy’s Mahogany hold that DVD close to your hearts. Of course it was this film that inspired Rupaul to become the persona she is today! But Mahogany merits its own post. There is not enough room here.

"Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!" Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983

“Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!” An example of profound Surrealism that verges toward that of Cinematic Masterpiece is now considered a Cult Film or Cult Classic. As well as a beloved member of The Criterion Collection.
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983

In the early 1980’s David Cronenberg finally secured a modest, but decent budget when he made Videodrome. Featuring Pop-Icon, Debbie Harry, in a pivotal role — this controversial and surreal examination in body horror and paranoia was acclaimed and achieved a slight success in cinemas. Far too grim, graphic and controversial to achieve major box office success — this film was admired. By the time it was released to VHS, Cronenberg’s dark vision had already built a solid fan base that would continue to grow. Videodrome is now rightly viewed as somewhat of a cinematic masterpiece. It is also a member of the esteemed Criterion Collection. This is a Cult Film that is brilliant and some 30 years on — it still threatens to bite. Despite the fact that the technology key to the film’s plot has long been left behind in the dust, this movie remains disturbing, visceral and horrifying. Interestingly, this film also remains controversial in its depiction of BDSM.

But I’d like to shift focus forward to a couple of more recent films that are quickly establishing themselves as Cult Films. One such movie is Evan Glodell’s 2011 independently produced, Bellflower.

"Dude you are fucking Lord Humongous. The master of fire, the king of the wasteland." Bellflower Evan Glodell, 2011

“Dude you are fucking Lord Humongous. The master of fire, the king of the wasteland.”
Bellflower
Evan Glodell, 2011

From the first moment Evan Glodell’s writing/directorial debut, Bellflower, starts – – the audience knows that they are about to watch something at once slightly familiar and yet remarkably unique in almost all aspects. Bellflower is not quite like any movie you have seen. Without giving away any spoilers the film begins as a rather humorous and sad take on a relationship between two late twenty-somethings one of whom is a man obsessed with apocalyptic movies and creating weapons in preparation for the end of times.

The main character fill his days and time with his best bud day dreaming about the ultimate apocalypse in which they will each play roles of the Mad Max/Road Warrior types. These two men share a child-like joy in the planning of playing these roles in the Hell that will be left after the world as they know it ends. All the more interesting is the fact that these two “dudes” do not even have any sense of their own immaturity or the irony that their adult feet are planted so firmly in adolescence.

His heart broken and without the maturity to work through a lost first love, Woodrow's mind leads us into a film where reality and fantasy become blurred. Bellflower Evan Glodell, 2011 Cinematography | Joel Hodge

His heart broken and without the maturity to work through a lost first love, Woodrow’s mind leads us into a film where reality and fantasy become blurred.
Bellflower
Evan Glodell, 2011
Cinematography | Joel Hodge

The plot takes a turn for the romantic when Woodrow, played by director/writer, Evan Glodell, meets the beautiful and equally odd, Milly. Like Woodrow and his close pal, Aiden, Milly seems to be stuck in a rut of narcissistic immaturity. Milly and Woodrow fall in love but both lack the maturity to navigate the wild woods of a romantic relationship. It isn’t long before their relationship takes a dead end turn. At that point Bellflower pulls the audience into the darkest corners of damaged heartbreak and rage. Bellflower becomes a devastatingly disturbing apocalyptic journey filtered through the eyes of drug-fueled insanity. Glodell has cleverly created a highly artistic and powerful study of the Love Wounded Boy-Man Walking. As this metaphor that when merges with the stunted emotionality of the character, Bellflower comes close to the trajectory of Coppola’s cinematic masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. In fact, Bellflower almost manages to make Apocalypse Now seem like a Disney movie. This impact is quite a cinematic feat.

For one immature slacker, love takes a startlingly apocalyptic turn. Bleeding, violated, defeated and broken -- Evan Glodell and Jessie Wiseman embrace as everything around them seems to fall apart. Bellflower Evan Glodell, 2011 Cinematography | Joel Hodge

For one immature slacker, love takes a startlingly apocalyptic turn. Bleeding, violated, defeated and broken — Evan Glodell and Jessie Wiseman embrace as everything around them seems to fall apart.
Bellflower
Evan Glodell, 2011
Cinematography | Joel Hodge

Evan Glodell’s film deals with pain and frustration that every young adult feels in his/her first loves and quite literally blows them to oblivion. It is a gut punch that would make the strongest of people bend over or, at the very least, squirm in their seats. While this film garnished Film Festival attention, it did not fare so well at the box office. Since it was released to DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD, this film has emerged with a fierce following. While it is about as dark as any film can get, it resonates.

This movie is tapping into a current vibe shared by many as we enter the 21st Century. So much is unknown. So much is uncertain. Uncomfortable change and misadventure seem to be in the air. Bellflower plays with that creepy societal feeling to an extreme that turns to an almost manic glee of vengeance. The failure of the characters to have grown into mature/adjusted men and women is presented as a reflection of a generation weaned on TV, bad movies and low expectations. Bellflower grinds into the psyche as a blistering reminder of our shared creation of a generation of people largely misplaced and lost.

Armed with a hand-made weapon of destruction, our tragically lost man-child sets out to right wrongs and assert his masculinity. Bellflower Evan Glodell, 2011 Cinematography | Joel Hodge

Armed with a hand-made weapon of destruction, our tragically lost man-child sets out to right wrongs and assert his masculinity.
Bellflower
Evan Glodell, 2011
Cinematography | Joel Hodge

Bellflower, like Woodrow’s amped up car called Medusa, speeds, twists, turns, shoots out the very flames of fury and spins out of control into crashing oblivion. Horrible heartbreak speeds through the veins of Woodrow without the boundaries of emotional understanding to know when to put on the breaks or slow down at corner. This is spectacular feature film debut. Fingers crossed that Glodell will emerge with a new film soon. But no matter what he does, this dark film lives on in the minds of those who see it. And see it again.

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 these improvised 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 go fetal with dread. This film was inspired by a dream Altman experienced. He assembled his cast out in the desert and began filming. While there was a very loose form script, he encouraged both Duvall and Spacek to come up with their own voices for their respective characters. The entire film feels like a hazy dream that offers a glimpse into the psyche’s darkest corners of loneliness, insecurities and unsure identity.

"You're the most perfect person I've met." 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977

“You’re the most perfect person I’ve met.”
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977

The majority of film critics of the time loved the film. Sadly there was one exception. That exception caused a great deal of damage to the film’s potential for success. This would be the first Robert Altman film that Pauline Kael would dismiss. The film’s initial release was fairly limited to major cities and on to the Art House screens. Kael’s odd disconnect to this brilliant film kept many intellectuals away.

Millie Lammoreaux strives to be sophisticated and a woman of taste. Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Millie Lammoreaux strives to be sophisticated and a woman of taste.
Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

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. 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. His two lead actresses’ visions blend, but most importantly they successfully morph into Altman’s disturbing dream world. Sissy Spacek is outstanding in the film, but it is Shelley Duvall who remains the film’s vital core.

Almost completely improvised, these two actors transform their director's dream into a psychological study of identity that manages to be Surreal, comical and surprisingly horrific all at once. There is a great deal going on here... Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Almost completely improvised, these two actors transform their director’s dream into a psychological study of identity that manages to be Surreal, comical and surprisingly horrific all at once. There is a great deal going on here…
Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Despite the fact that the film was available on only inferior VHS tapes and in loose fragments online — much of which focused on Duvall’s scenes featuring only the eccentricity and comic aspects of her performance — 3 Women has never been short of devoted fans. Thanks to The Criterion Collection, the film was beautifully remastered and issued for all those devoted to grab. And of course, the film has since snared an even bigger audience and reappraisal. Some like to frame this film as an American answer to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, but that is a poor framing device. 3 Women is far less tight in construction. It flows over the viewer. While Duvall may make the audience laugh, she also slips in under the skin. Millie‘s awkwardness feels a bit too familiar. Spacek’s Pinky slowly begins to take on a sinister edge. By the time we become aware of the third woman played by a mute Janice Rule, the spell has been cast. This Cult Film goes deeper with each viewing.

"Dreams can't hurt ya." Or maybe they can... Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“Dreams can’t hurt ya.” Or maybe they can…
Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

In many ways, Altman’s 3 Women almost seems more tied to the American Underground Film of the late 1960’s to mid-1970’s. So many interesting works emerged from this Underground. One of the most interesting is also a film which has attracted a huge following over the past 20 years is a notorious epic called Thundercrack!.

"And don't go telling me it's some kind of a popsicle!" Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

“And don’t go telling me it’s some kind of a popsicle!”
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

Thundercrack! is truly one of the oddest films ever made. An odd mix of dark humor, surrealism and hardcore pornography — it can be a difficult viewing for some. A movie never intended for all audiences, this movie aims both cerebrally and very much below the belt. This film is a tripped-out work of art by the most bold artists’ of The 1970’s Bay Area. The level of Surrealism and Absurdism should not be denied. And on top of everything else, this twisted epic of a movie is often very funny.  This is a film that makes John Waters’ early films seem tame. Make no mistake, this film plunges into the full-on hardcore porn found in the mid-1970’s. It is like an experimental theatre company gone to seed and given a camera.

The thing about Thundercrack! is that while it is all of these things, it manages to step up toward a twisted version of Art House Cinema. This may be a part of The Underground Trash Cinema subgenre, but it is clearly an artistic venture. Directed by Curt McDowell and co-written with Mark Ellinger (who also serves as the film’s composer and sole musical instrument player!) — the script would also feature some added ideas from the infamous George Kuchar. McDowell was a Queer Artist going places. Tragically, AIDS would steal him away from the world far too soon.

Mrs. Gert Hammond finds her home full of lost souls with more than a few secrets, but all of them are limp when compared to Gert's. Mark Ellinger and Marion Eaton Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

Mrs. Gert Hammond finds her home full of lost souls with more than a few secrets, but all of them are limp when compared to Gert’s.
Mark Ellinger and Marion Eaton
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

Marion Eaton is the film’s “star.” She plays sad Mrs. Gert Hammond. A wealthy, constantly drunk/drugged eccentric, we find Gert drunkenly yelling at her radio. A horrid storm is raging and she soon opens up her home to a wild and often sordid bunch of strangers who need shelter from the raging storm. Each character has a dark secret, but none have a secret that tops the two Mrs. Gert Hammond is keeping. Gradually each secret is revealed until the film builds to its insane crescendo when Gert’s secrets are revealed. Interestingly, this motley crew is willing to accept every secret except for the two belonging to their host. Mrs. Gert Hammond simply goes too far.

A demented and often brilliant vision captures the mood of the mid-1970's Sexual and Cultural Revolution. ...with plenty of lube. Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

A demented and often brilliant vision captures the mood of the mid-1970’s Sexual and Cultural Revolution. …with plenty of lube.
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

 

All manner of things happen. Conflict and melodrama run amok. In between strange scenes of banter, the film features a wide range of sex acts. Leading us back to The Bay Area of the 1970’s when sexual experimentation and exploration were still free of dangers, nothing appears to be off-limits for these characters. This is fluid sex at it’s most hairy. Never actually erotic, the sex scenes seem to serve more as an empowering statement of sexual rebellion and freedom. These actors don’t just go for broke, they are out to break. The most impressive member of the cast is Marion Eaton. Every movement, line and gyration is delivered with theatrical sincerity. The late Ms. Eaton even finds moments of poetry which she delivers as if her life depended upon it.

"Who is it that speaks to me with the voice of a woman?" Marion Eaton Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

“Who is it that speaks to me with the voice of a woman?”
Marion Eaton
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

Heavily censored and often difficult to find, Thundercrack! has a running time of close to 2.5 hours. It will be too much for many, but for many it is an unexpected, strange and wild trip. Thundercrack! ‘s road to restoration and Blu-Ray/DVD has been a long one. But Synapse Films has finally released it to the Cult that has been waiting patiently. This film is not for everyone, but if you’re feeling adventurous you will discover a movie that can still leave a viewer God-smacked some 40 years since it first screened. This is a film that defies categorization, time, space and your judgement. It does not care what you think. 

Artistic and poetic moments surface between scenes of hardcore sex and absurdist situations... Marion Eaton Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

Artistic and poetic moments surface between scenes of hardcore sex and absurdist situations…
Marion Eaton
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

As Spencer Susser film begins a middle grade teacher tells his class, “Now today we’re going to talk about ‘metaphor.’” Welcome to the world of  TJ played by Devin Brochu. TJ’s father (played exceptionally by Rainn Wilson) has fallen into a deep depression following the death of his wife and TJ’s mother. They are now living with TJ‘s elderly Grandmother. Piper Laurie delivers a touching performance as an elderly woman who feels helpless as she sees her son vanishing and her grandson losing control.

"Today, we are going to talk about 'metaphor.'" Hesher Spencer Susser, 2010

“Today, we are going to talk about ‘metaphor.'”
Hesher
Spencer Susser, 2010

Everything takes a very fast change for “the better” when a stoned-out, psychotic, metalhead and ‘pyromatically’-inclined dude named Hesher appears. At first he is a threat to TJ, but soon he becomes a hero. Hesher takes it all on for TJ. Spinning wild tales of drug-fused adventures and sexual escapades. Hesher is sort of like a very sick and twisted id personified. Hesher quickly leads the boy into a string of dangerous, profane, violent and sexually charged situations. Essentially this film is about rage. In fact, it is one of the most interesting explorations of rage I’ve ever seen.

Grief, loss and resulting depression leave a child's world vacant of hope. Rain Wilson, Piper Laurie and Devin Brochu Hesher Spencer Susser, 2010 Cinematography | Morgan Susser

Grief, loss and resulting depression leave a child’s world vacant of hope.
Rain Wilson, Piper Laurie and Devin Brochu
Hesher
Spencer Susser, 2010
Cinematography | Morgan Susser

TJ has seen his mother killed in a violent car crash, his father is fading away, his Grandmother seems to be on the verge of dying, he is bullied, he is lonely and he is lost. This child is in a deep grief that he can only express through rebellion and righteous anger. Small and unsure, he needs a way to channel his rage.

Enter Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Hesher.

This film is full of strong performances. The mix of realism and surrealism is intentionally vague. It is also one of the key reasons the film begs for repeated viewings. Each revisit reveals a bit more of something that we either did not notice or interpret correctly. Sadly the film’s use of the perverse and its steadfast refusal to hold the audience hand, seemed to cause indifference from film critics. Some dismissed the film as “unbelievable” and others accused it of being unnecessarily offensive. These opinions were short-sighted. It’s valid R-Rating also kept Gordon-Levitt’s mass of young girl fans from gaining access.

A creation of rage and survival. Joseph Gordon-Levitt Hesher Spencer Susser, 2010 Cinematography | Morgan Susser

A creation of rage and survival.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Hesher
Spencer Susser, 2010
Cinematography | Morgan Susser

Of course, Hesher is almost all metaphor. It is doubtful that any aspect of Gordon-Levitt’s character is even real. Spencer Susser created a surreal film that many didn’t seem to realize was surreal. Much of this film is in TJ‘s mind — and the rest is propelled by bravery he finds in his imaginary Death Metal Hero. This is an angry and defiant movie told from the perspective of a very sad and traumatized child. This was not a sanitized cineplex movie. This is an Art House Cinema with unexpected edges. Sharp and threatening potential danger, Hesher continues to attract fans. The film is already being reevaluated and gaining a rightful Cult Following.

This year saw the release of some original, innovative and amazing films. One of the best films to find its way to cinemas this year was John Magary’s feature-length debut, The Mend. Magary’s film presents itself as one thing, but works its way under the skin. A brilliantly conceived and constructed film, The Mend is not simplistic. Always potent, the film’s power grows with each viewing. It has been gathering a following since it’s first screening.

"Hey! Can we go get ice cream?" The Mend John Magary, 2014

“Hey! Can we go get ice cream?”
The Mend
John Magary, 2014

John Magary’s feature length film debut is so impressive it is hard to believe that this is his first movie. Despite a low budget, this is a masterfully constructed work. Assured and rigid in its refusal to dumb itself down or fall back on cinematic trope, this odd dark comedy is sharp. It is cutting and it cuts so fast you do not realize you’re bleeding until well after the closing credits. Josh Lucas, an accomplished actor by any standard, delivers the performance of his career.  Essentially an incisive character study of two brothers. Both are miserable. One represses everything and attempts to force his way through. The other seems to have slipped into an empty world of rage and damage.

Can they change or is the dysfunction shared between two brother a part of their inherited DNA? Stephen Plunkett and Josh Lucas The Mend John Magary, 2014

Can they change or is the dysfunction shared between two brother a part of their inherited DNA?
Stephen Plunkett and Josh Lucas
The Mend
John Magary, 2014

As cruel as it is often deeply and artistically insightful. The brothers are caught in vicious cycle of dysfunction that may or may not have been “passed-on” or pulled into their own psyches. This idea of being genetically dysfunctional hoovers over the brothers. While it is often very angry and dark, it is also somehow always funny. The Mend feels a bit like a French film in the way it applies intellectualism and unexpected comedy. The film also has no problem of utilizing an often off-kilter style that doesn’t seem to match the content. Yet as we follow the eccentric narrative of these two broken men, the obscure stylistic leanings begin to make sense.

The Mend automatically lends itself to repeated viewings. Ideas and scenes haunt the viewer long after seeing the film for the first time. The second viewing offers a more firm understanding of what we have already seen. This is not a flaw. This is a brilliant move by Magary. There is nothing surface or easy about this smart film. So much is presented that it is hard to take it all in.

Giving an e-cig a run for it's money. Josh Lucas The Mend John Magary, 2014 Cinematography | Chris Teague

Giving an e-cig a run for it’s money.
Josh Lucas
The Mend
John Magary, 2014
Cinematography | Chris Teague

What could have easily turned out to be yet another in a long line of familial dysfunction and tormented boy-men who refuse to grow up, is actually a brutally realistic glimpse into the human instinct to survive. It is this same survival instinct that trips our two lead characters up as they each realize that they want so much more from life than what they are receiving. While each comes to realizations, it is unclear if either has the ability to escape each other or even their respective selves. Cynical but never satirical or unrealistic, these two brothers know they are sick and getting sicker, but getting well is easier discussed than achieved.  This movie works brilliantly.

A man on the verge... Josh Lucas delivers what is most likely the best work by a male actor in any film released in 2015. The Mend John Magary, 2014 Cinematography | Chris Teague

A man on the verge…
Josh Lucas delivers what is most likely the best work by a male actor in any film released in 2015.
The Mend
John Magary, 2014
Cinematography | Chris Teague

The Mend is still new enough to be seen before it reaches full Cult Film status. However you better hurry or you will be joining the party late.

I realize I should end this rambling post on positive note. I could easily discuss Alejandro Jodorowsky, Slava Tsukerman, John Waters, Andrzej Zuławski, The Coen Brothers, The Brothers Quay, Ed Wood, Peter Greenaway or Terry Gilliam. But instead I would like to turn my attention to the ultimate in my favorite type of Cult Film: The major studio cinematic error and the film that most best embodies the endless possibilities of its results. Yes, I must discuss the demented alchemy of Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest.

"I'm not mad at you, I'm mad at the dirt." Faye Dunaway takes film acting to a whole new operatic level... Mommie Dearest Frank Perry, 1981

“I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt.”
Faye Dunaway takes film acting to a whole new operatic level…
Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry, 1981

Shortly before the movie premiered, Faye Dunaway gave a couple of interviews in which she explained that she felt as if the spirit of Joan Crawford had possessed her. At that time one thought this was just an actor marketing her latest film. Who could have known that there was more truth to Ms. Dunaway’s statement than anyone could have imagined. Unless you are old enough to have sat in a crowded cinema during the first several days that Frank Perry’s legendary Mommie Dearest, you have no way of understanding the way in which this film hammered its way into the film viewing experience. I was still somewhat new to being a teenager as I sat next to my mother watching this doomed movie unspool.

"The meanest mother of them all..." Joan Crawford terrorizing an enfant. Mommie Dearest Frank Perry, 1981 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

“The meanest mother of them all…”
Joan Crawford terrorizing an enfant.
Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry, 1981
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

It was jarring, odd and it often almost scary. There were smatterings of laughter, but mostly it was a communal jaw-dropping two hours of shared confusion. Mommie Dearest is essentially an epic cinematic error. Constructed in a clumsy manner with dialogue more fitting for a bad 1940’s melodrama and almost all of it delivered with mind-numbing bad performances.

There is a major exception to the bad acting.

That exception is Faye Dunaway. Stuck in a mediocre script better suited for an ABC Made-for-TV Movie of the Week and being led by a director who was clearly in over his head — Dunaway delivers one of the most memorable film performances of all time. That might sound like a good thing, but this is a performance beyond unrestrained.

Part impersonation mixed with passion, theatrical by the way of Kabuki Art and fused with a level of adrenaline that would have killed most athletes — Faye Dunaway goes to a place I’ve never seen another actor go. Fearless and with no net, this is an operatic show of force that threatens to melt the film on which it was captured.

Although notoriously maligned, Faye Dunaway's performance as Joan Crawford is among one of the most interesting ever captured on film. This is an actor performing feats beyond imagination. And she does so without a net. Faye Dunaway Mommie Dearest Frank Perry, 1981 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Although notoriously maligned, Faye Dunaway’s performance as Joan Crawford is among one of the most interesting ever captured on film. This is an actor performing feats beyond imagination. And she does so without a net.
Faye Dunaway
Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry, 1981
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

This transformative take on one of the most iconic movie stars to ever splatter on the screen, Faye Dunaway’s take on Joan Crawford is all persona and moves itself into what can only be called Avant-garde Performance Art. Sure it is funny to watch, but there is an artistic spark here that simply does not allow the audience to dismiss it. Faye Dunaway is more Joan Crawford than Joan Crawford could have ever hoped to be. There is no way this actor can fit nuance or even hint at vulnerability. This is a bold experimental sort of acting turn.

Dunaway is playing it legit, but totally untethered and constantly running it in high gear. And as she held onto balance in spike high heels, there was no net waiting to catch her if she fell. As campy as it gets, this is powerful performance. Her career would never recover. The damage was done, but this is the stuff of legend. Even all these years later, Ms. Dunaway continues to refuse to discuss this movie. And while this is a bit of a bummer, it also adds to this Cult Classic‘s credentials.

Pushing into it’s 35th year, Mommie Dearest remains a film that is impossibly entertaining and is forever cemented as the ultimate in Cult Film. Dialogue from this movie is firmly imprinted in the shared Pop Culture Brain. Wire hangers, rodeos and warning “‘Barbara, ‘PLEASE!” stay with us in darkly comic ways.

While John Water’s Pink Flamingos, David Lynch’s Eraserhead or The Rocky Horror Picture Show might have created the concept of The Midnight Movie, there can be no doubt that this is most likely the most important example of a big budget mainstream movie gone so far off the rails it offers endless hours of viewing. It is fair to call Mommie Dearest a bad film? Yes, but there is no denying its power and entertainment. Sometimes a bad film can come around to a whole new definition of good.

A different kind of Chorus Line... The Rocky Horror Picture Show Jim Sharman, 1975

A different kind of Chorus Line…
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Jim Sharman, 1975

If cinema is as Fellini perversely defined it, an old whore, then I’m more than happy to get lost in the magic of an ever-evolving aged sex worker. Dim the lights and start the movie.

Matty Stanfield, 12.10.2015

 

Perhaps the best example of unintended camp, as funny as it gets -- there is an undeniable level of artistic focus and energy within Faye Dunaway's iconic portrayal of Joan Crawford. Mommie Dearest Frank Perry, 1981 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Perhaps the best example of unintended camp, as funny as it gets — there is an undeniable level of artistic focus and energy within Faye Dunaway’s iconic portrayal of Joan Crawford.
Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry, 1981
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

 

 

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