Thursday, August 30, 2007
LISTS—Michael Hawley's "Tabulation of Deprivation" (A.K.A. 50 Films He Wishes Would Come to the Bay Area)
Way back in April, just prior to the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), local film writer Johnny Ray Huston posted an interesting list of 50 films and videos on the SF Bay Guardian Arts & Culture Blog. They were all works which—for one reason or another—had yet to play the Bay Area. Being a compulsive list-maker myself, and one who feels personally slighted when films I want/need to see bypass our local theaters and festivals, I set about compiling my own home-town tabulation of deprivation. Four months later, I realize it's gotten to be now-or-never time. With Venice and Toronto about to begin, I'll be needing a list that's a helluva lot longer than 50 if I wait any longer.
Most of these films were made during the past two years, and none had their world premieres later than this past January's Big Three: Berlin, Rotterdam and Sundance (meaning there's nothing from this year's Cannes.) Also, none have been released on Region One DVD, to the best of my knowledge. Perhaps a dozen are films I've already seen outside the Bay Area, either at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, or during two vaguely recent film-going jaunts to Paris. They're on the list because I want my Bay Area movie buddies to have the chance to (hopefully) enjoy them as much as I did.
I'm aware that a number of these 50 films have received perfectly God-awful reviews, which may help explain why we haven't seen them. But when it comes to directors, actors, subject matter or countries of origin that interest me, I usually prefer to seek out the bad and ugly, as well as the good, and then judge for myself.
A list like this will of course have an extremely short shelf life. With the Mill Valley and Arab Film Festivals in October, and the Latino and 3rd i Festivals in November, I'm optimistic that at least a few of these films will soon be coming our way. I anticipate that our local cinemas and rep houses will also do their part. Just days ago I learned that two films originally on the list, Aki Kaurismäki's Lights in the Dusk and Bahman Ghobadi's Half Moon, will be screened at the Pacific Film Archive (PFA) in October.
Finally, you'd think that living in second best place in the nation for cinephiles would leave one with little or nothing to complain about. You would be wrong. So without further ado…
4:30—Singapore director Royston Tan's follow-up to 15, which was one of my 10 favorite films of 2004. I foolishly passed on seeing this at Palm Springs, certain that the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) would bring it to us this spring.
Abeni—In 2005, the PFA had an evening of films from Nollywood, the nickname given to Nigeria's burgeoning video industry. One of the highlights of that program was Tunde Lelani's Campus Queen, and this is his latest.
Alatriste—The most expensive Spanish-language film ever made, starring Viggo Mortensen as a 17th century army captain. Nominated for 15 2006 Goya Awards.
Alexandria . . . New York—81-year-old Egyptian director Youssef Chahine is considered by many to be the greatest Arab filmmaker of all time. His latest film Chaos, is set to premiere at Venice this year. Meanwhile, I'd sure like to have a look at this feature from 2004.
Armenia (Le voyage en Arménie)—The latest from Marseilles auteur Robert Guédiguian, whose working class dramas (Marius and Jeannette, The Town is Quiet) frequently star his wife, the sublime French actress Ariane Asacaride. The SFIFF brought us The Last Mitterrand in 2005, but the Bay Area has also yet to see 2002's Marie-Jo and her Two Lovers and 2004's My Father is an Engineer.
Bad Spelling (Les fautes d’orthographe)—Teenagers run amok in a French boarding school, with Olivier Gourmet and Carole Bouquet as headmaster and mistress. One of many French films on this list, proving the necessity for a Bay Area version of New York's "Rendez-Vous With French Cinema", or LA's "City of Angels/City of Light".
Blame it on Fidel (La faute à Fidel)—A nine-year-old girl finds her world turned upside-down when her parents become leftist radicals in early 1970s Paris.
Carnaval of Sodom (El Carnaval de Sodoma)—Mexican master Arturo Ripstein's first narrative feature since 2002's The Virgin of Lust.
Close to Home (Karov La Bayit)—A film about the experiences of two teenage girls serving in the Israeli military. This played in dozens of US festivals earlier this year and was a surprising omission at last month's SF Jewish Film Festival.
Cobrador: In God We Trust—Mexican director Paul Leduc's anti-globalization tale starring Peter Fonda. I confess to not having seen a Leduc film since 1986's haunting Frida, naturaleza viva.
The Consequences of Love (Le conseguenze dell'amore)—Paolo Sorrentino's debut film about a Mafia hit man holed up in a Swiss resort hotel was one of the best received films of Cannes 2004. It was subsequently a box office success in Europe, but never registered in the States (not even at our own annual New Italian Cinema series). It appears that his 2006 follow-up, A Friend of the Family, will suffer a similar fate.
Container—Swedish director Lukas Moodysson (Lilya 4-ever, A Hole in My Heart) takes a break from reminding us what a horrible, brutal world we live in and tries his hand at something truly experimental.
El Custodio—Argentina continues to make some of the most urgent and interesting cinema in the world. This film by Rodrigo Moreno was one of the hits of this year's New Directors/New Films series in NYC.
Destricted—This collection of seven erotic shorts from the likes of Gaspar Noe, Larry Clark and Mathew Barney played at Sundance and Cannes in 2005 and then completely disappeared.
Day Night Day Night—Julia Loktev's controversial accounting of a young woman's final hours as a Times Square suicide bomber didn't make much of an impression on me when I saw it at Palm Springs. Still, it deserves to be seen by Bay Area audiences. If Salt Lake City, Santa Fe, Milwaukee and Atlanta have seen it, why haven't we?
Drama/Mex—This Acapulco-set teen drama has been called the Mexican version of Kids.
Gift From Above (Matana MiShamayim)—Dover Koshashvili had a nice festival/arthouse success with his 2001 film Late Marriage, set within the Georgian community in Israel. As far as I know, his next film has never been seen in North America. I saw it in Paris in 2005, loved it and would jump at the chance to see it with English subtitles.
The Great World of Sound—One of the few Amerindies at Sundance this year to pique my interest, it's about phony record producers who travel the country bilking gullible amateurs.
I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK (Saibogujiman kwenchana)—The new Park Chan-wook.
In the Pit (En el hoyo)—This Mexican documentary about the construction of a super-highway was featured in Landmark Theater's Spring FLM magazine, but has yet to be released. I saw it at Palm Springs and was underwhelmed, but I'd happily sit through it again to re-experience that jaw-dropping finale.
Invisible Waves—I have a feeling we'll be seeing Pen-ek Ratanaruang's newest film from this year's Cannes (Ploy) before we'll see this poorly-received film from Berlin 2006. This is another one I passed on at Palm Springs, certain it would play one of the Bay Area's spring fests.
Johanna—I've heard both awful and fantastic things about this 2005 filmed opera set in a mental hospital, which was produced by Bela Tarr.
Ken Park—I saw this Larry Clark shocker at a Parisian multiplex in 2003 and can sort of understand why it was never released in the US, either in theaters or on DVD. Two particularly outrageous scenes are the stuff of legend. I've heard rumors of a clandestine invitation-only screening at the Castro several years ago.
Khadak—A young nomad makes a shamanistic journey across the frozen steppes of Mongolia in this Sundance 2007 Grand Jury Prize winner.
The Last Communist (Lelaki komunis terakhir)—In 2005 the SFIFF had a wonderful side-bar on New Malaysian Cinema, but they've neglected to follow through. All of the directors in that sidebar have since released new films, but with the notable exception of Yasmin Ahmad, none have been seen in the Bay Area. This is one of two films by Amir Muhammed that I'm quite anxious to see (the other is 2007's Village People Radio Show.)
Life is a Miracle (Zivot je cudo)—Something's truly wrong when a two-time Palm d'Or winner like Emir Kusturica makes a film and we don't get a chance to see it. Fortunately, I had the pleasure of catching this Cannes 2004 entry in Paris two years ago (albeit with French subtitles), and wonder if I'll have to return to Paris in order to see his film from this year's Cannes, Promise Me This.
Mary—Abel Ferrera's 2005 contemporary take on the Mary Magdalene legend. Again, I have a feeling we'll be seeing his latest work, Cannes 2007's Go Go Tales, before we get the opportunity to see this.
The Matsugane Potshot Affair (Matsugane ransha jiken)—A new film from Nobuhiro Yamashita, director of the fabulous Linda Linda Linda.
Never Forever—Another 2007 Sundance Amerindie that sounded interesting. Vera Farmiga is married to an infertile Korean-American husband, and to save their marriage ends up taking an unusual path to pregnancy.
No Place Like Home—Perry Henzell's 30-year-old, finally-completed follow-up to 1972's The Harder They Come had its world premiere at Toronto last year. Two words . . . Grace Jones!!!
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (OSS 117: Le Caire nid d'espions)—French comedies are rarely my thing, but this stupid/smart retro spy film was one of the most enjoyable experiences I had at Palm Springs. I wrote more about it here.
The Other (El Otro)—From Argentine director Ariel Rotter, this year's Silver Bear winner from Berlin.
Paraguayan Hammock (Hamaca Paraguaya)—This difficult, but intriguing bit of minimalism by Paz Encina is the last of the New Crowned Hope films waiting to make an appearance in the Bay Area. I saw it at Palm Springs, and would gladly take a second look.
The Pool—Documentary filmmaker Chris Smith (American Movie, The Yes Men) makes his narrative feature debut with this Goa-set tale about class distinctions.
Rain Dogs (Tai yang yue)—More independent Malaysian cinema from Ho Yuhang, director of 2004's Sanctuary.
Retribution (Sakebi)—This is the latest film by prolific Japanese creep-meister Kiyoshi Kurosawa that has yet to come our way (we're also waiting for 2005's Loft). Both were ignored by the SFAIFF and the SFIFF, which surprised me in light of their previously strong support of his work.
Right of the Weakest (La raison du plus faible)—The latest from Swiss actor/director Lucas Belvaux, director of 2002's ground-breaking Trilogy (On the Run, An Amazing Couple, After the Life).
Les Saignantes—Opportunities to see contemporary, home-grown African films in the Bay Area are increasingly rare these days. Even this year's New African Cinema series at the PFA consisted of a meager four features. That said, I still have hopes of someday seeing this 2005 feminist sci-fi tale from Cameroon.
Southland Tales—Richard Kelly's much-anticipated follow-up to Donnie Darko was considered to be THE disaster of Cannes 2006 (and was at the top of Huston's list of 50 films). Rumor is that some version of it will arrive in theaters later this year.
Still Life (Sanxia haoren)—This 2006 Venice Golden Lion winner from Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke was perhaps the most glaring omission from this year's SFIAAFF and SFIFF. When we finally see this, it will hopefully be accompanied by the film's related documentary, Dong.
Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters (Tachiguishi retsuden)—The latest animated feature from Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell).
Takva: A Man's Fear of God—This Turkish film about the personal hypocrisy a devout Muslim faces when his lot in life suddenly improves has garnered raves at every festival it's played.
Taxidermia—György Pálfi's (Hukkle) fabulously disgusting allegory on recent Hungarian history would have been such a natural programming choice for the SFIFF's Late Show series, SF Indiefest or the recent Dead Channels festival. Yet another reason I'm glad I went to Palm Springs.
Time (Shi gan)—Kim Ki-duk's 2006 plastic surgery parable. His latest film, Cannes 2007's Breath, also waits in the wings.
To Get To Heaven First You Have To Die (Bihisht faqat baroi murdagon)—This sly, little black comedy from Tajikistan suggests that perhaps murder is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Another film from Palm Springs and one of my favorites of the year so far.
Transylvania—Perhaps Asia Argento's stature as Queen of Cannes 2007 (with films by Abel Ferrera, Catherine Breillat and Olivier Assayas) will help get this 2006 Tony Gatlif film released. My write-up from Palm Springs is here.
Tuya's Marriage (Tuya de hun shi)—Chinese/Mongolian Berlin Golden Bear winner about a disabled married woman's search for a new husband.
The Untouchable (L'intouchable)—Isild le Besco re-teams with director Benoît Jacquot (À tout de suite) for this story of a young woman who travels to India in search of her father.
VHS–Kahloucha—This Tunisian documentary about a prolific amateur filmmaker got raves at Sundance and elsewhere.
Welcome Europa—Bruno Ulmer's stylized documentary about male immigrants literally prostituting themselves in order to survive in today's Europe.
Introductory illustration courtesy of Brian White.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
The wicked bitchiness between two men is pitched darkly perfect in Sleuth, Kenneth Branagh's incisive tête-à-tête remake of Joseph Mankiewicz's final film Sleuth (1972), based upon Anthony Schaeffer's 1970 Tony Award-winning play and given a whole new set of teeth by Nobel laureate Harold Pinter. This is absolutely one of the few times I can say without reservation that I prefer the remake to the original. It bites much deeper and draws blood.
First of all, the casting is impeccable for all its ironic inversions. Michael Caine one-ups Laurence Olivier's characterization of crime novelist Andrew Wyke by adding a sinister dimension riddled with morbid jealousy. Jude Law steps in to play Milo Tindle—the second time he has reinterpreted one of Caine's previous roles—but, whereas he didn't quite hit the mark with Alfie, he redeems himself here by being a cocky foil for Caine's nuanced Wyke. They square off face to face and the blows are low and psychological.
The plot remains essentially the same. Andrew Wyke, a wealthy writer of detective novels who delights in playing elaborate games has become aware that Milo Tindle, a hairdresser who fancies himself an up-and-coming actor, is having an affair with his wife. They meet at Wyke's isolated high tech home where they indulge and evade surveillance cameras as facilely as each others' queries. With intricate calculation, Wyke proposes to Tindle that—though willing to grant his wife a divorce—he must first be assured that Tindle will be able to keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed. To this effect, he appeals to Tindle's need for money, suggesting they stage a theft of valuable jewels in Wyke's safe that Tindle can fence for a high profit while Wyke cashes in on the insurance. This proposal sets up a sequence of schemes and double-crosses that leave each being a cat with drawn claws one moment, and a mouse with dashed hopes the next. The shifts of power are intoxicatingly entertaining. They spin so fast and so frequently the viewer is dizzied by the repartee and the teethmarks on your hand make you say, "Ouch" with a smile.
The tension between them dalliances vertiginously with the homoerotic as Patrick Doyle's tango-esque score kicks heel to calf. Tim Harvey's production design caters to Pinter's every word. I'm ready to listen to this bitch fight all over again.
Cross-published at Twitch.
Just when I think I know all there is to know about the Nazi concentration camps, along comes a film with yet another slice of the historical pie. Though competently served, the question becomes who will have an appetite for this fare? Survivors guilt is more bitter than most palettes prefer. Not an easy film to watch; certainly difficult to digest.
The Counterfeiters, written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, concerns “Operation Bernhard”—possibly the biggest counterfeit money scam of all time engineered by the Nazis in collaboration with select prisoners whose specialized skills afforded them a Mephistophelian choice: in exchange for a temporary reprieve from the gas chambers, and their willingness to create counterfeit currency to help the Third Reich finance its war effort, these select prisoners were offered life in a “golden cage”. Sequestered from their fellow inmates in two isolated barracks (Blocks 18 and 19) at the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, with enough to eat and comfortable beds to sleep in, the participants of Operation Bernhard face the ultimate question: Is it possible to save your life and, at the same time, save your conscience? Especially when the pained cries of the tortured can be heard through the walls? Or when news arrives that loved family members have been exterminated at other camps?
The “King of the Counterfeiters” Saloman Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) looks the other way when he cannot face the truths in front of him. August Diehl as Adolf Burger excels as the one who cannot look away and begins to covertly sabotage the enterprise. Sebastian Urzendowsky (last seen in Matthias Luthdart’s Pingpong, which screened earlir this year at San Francisco’s Berlin and Beyond) renders a heartfelt portrait of an inmate weakened by tuberculosis who Sorowitsch struggles to protect; his last connection to what is human within him. Director Ruzowitzky does an admirable job of evoking empathy for these individuals placed in such an ethically-fraught predicament.
Cross-published on Twitch.
Last year I attended the Toronto International Film Festival as a civilian. This year the lines of my hexagram have shifted from "Difficulty at the Beginning" to "Perseverance." Attending pre-festival screenings offered by local Bay Area publicists has not only reduced the must-see quandaries to a (nevertheless) daunting process of choice, but afforded the welcome chance to talk to seasoned press about what I can expect in Toronto (I've heard over and over how well journalists are treated by festival personnel). It's been interesting to note that all over the place more pre-festival screenings are being shown than ever before. That's a welcome trend and so I offer up the first of a series of quick preliminaries of what I've seen from TIFF before even arriving.
I've been watching David Cronenberg's films since my early 20s. At first I was a bit embarrassed that I enjoyed his disturbing visions so much, whether venereal parasites bursting out from beneath the skin, or infectious syringes emerging from the armpits of ex-porno stars, or the body negotiating bizarre interactions with technology; but, I really shouldn't have been embarrassed. Time has confirmed that—though dark—Cronenberg's films exhibit a singularly-unique luster. It's hard not to be hypnotized by their sheen.
Besides, color me perverted, but Cronenberg's understandings of the human body within its social context has been way ahead of the pack for decades now. Especially his awareness of skin as a liminal site of transformation. In recent years he has shifted away from genre manifestations of "horror" or "SF" to examine the truest horror of all lingering underneath the skin: the human propensity for violence. In Eastern Promises he offers the surface, the tattooed skin itself, and the tattoo as the mark of sin. He's not the first, but, he's certainly the most recent to remind that the Mark of Cain is the original tattoo.
Collaborating once more with his History of Violence leading man Viggo Mortensen, I had the chance to talk to both Cronenberg and Mortensen recently when they were in San Francisco on press junket and Greencine will be publishing that interview closer to the film's distribution; but, for now, allow me to say that Eastern Promises delivers all it promises. Mortensen, as Nikolai Luzhin, maneuvers a mesmerizing dance between suave veneer and ruthless interiority and his performance in the bathhouse scene—which will be the scene everyone will be talking about—is downright brave and committed. All the performances are solid, each textured with moral ambiguities, that both distance and engage the audience simultaneously. My only objection—and it's an admittedly half-hearted one at that—is the casting of Armin Meuller-Stahl as Semyon, the head of one of London's most notorious organized crime families. Perhaps because of his brilliant performance in The Music Box, I assume a dark lining to his coat every time and am rarely taken by surprise when Papa becomes the Devil incarnate. Vincent Cassel's performance as Semyon's son Kirill provides the film's Shakespearean shadings. "You play with a prince to do business with a king," Cronenberg reminds us; an intrigue Nikolai woos to advantage.
Another consideration, completely incidental to the film itself, is Cronenberg's admitted ennui with the so-called "horror" genre. He has gone on record as saying that he wants to move on. What I find of interest, however, is that Eastern Promises falls within the realm of horror's earliest manifestations, when horror "came from the East" (i.e., Eastern Europe) to infect and infiltrate the Western world with its threat of miscegenation. Think of the Golden Age of Universal Horror with the tainted blood of its vampires and werewolves. With the advent of horror being registered through the American family, Eastern horror was relegated to the sidelines. Though perhaps not intending to, Cronenberg has restored Eastern horror to its rightful throne, replete with implications of miscegenation.
Cross-published on Twitch.
Saturday, August 25, 2007
Not for the spoiler-wary.
In his Dead Channels Diary, Twitch teammate Collin Armstrong wrote of Jamaa Fanaka's comments after the Friday night screening of Welcome Home, Brother Charles: "Clearly a born storyteller—the tale of his road to UCLA's film program (by way of an aborted auto theft) was priceless—he talked at length about the subtexts at work in Brother Charles and his goal of using it as a way to burst the myth of physical superiority in African Americans. He ended with an inspiring message to up-and-coming filmmakers, and capped things off by embracing Bruce [Fletcher] and thanking him for the opportunity to exhibit Welcome Home, Brother Charles on the big screen again."
I first saw the infamous penis strangulation scene in Welcome Home, Brother Charles earlier this year at an Oddball Cinema program on sex in cinema. Out of context, it proved shocking and I couldn't imagine the movie from which it was excerpted. Finally seeing the film in its entirety did nothing to minimize the shock of its keynote scene. Flawed as it might be in production value, as Collin has indicated, I have to concur that, notwithstanding, it is "something of a marvel."
Jamaa and I met for coffee and conversation the following morning at the Hotel Phoenix.
* * *
Michael Guillén: Jamaa Fanaka is your chosen name. Your birth name is Walter Gordon. Why, when and where did you choose the name Jamaa Fanaka?
Jamaa Fanaka: I was a student at UCLA film school at the time and I went to see a film called Cooley High. I loved that film. It reflected so accurately the Black culture. It reflected the general culture of young people but specifically the culture of young Black people. I'm always sensitive to credits. I watch the credits—especially the directing credit because I was studying to be a director—and I saw that the credit for the director was a guy named Michael Schultz. I thought he was a Jewish gentleman and I said, "How could a Jewish gentleman be that cognizant of the deep aspects of the Black culture?" I checked into it and found out that Michael Schultz is a Black man. So I said, "I want to make sure that—when one of my films come out—that everybody knows that it was made by a Black director." Because most of the "blaxploitation" films were made by White directors—they had Black casts but they had White directors—so I wanted to make sure that the public knew that I was Black.
I went over to the African Studies Department, contacted one of the professors in that department, he pulled down a Swahili dictionary, I go through the Swahili dictionary looking for words that would mean something, be my name but also mean something, and I ran into the word "jamaa." Now, there's a variation of the spelling. They sometimes spell it with a "l", sometimes they spell it with one "a"—j-a-m-a-l—and sometimes they spell it j-a-m-a-a, which is an unusual spelling but it was one of the spellings. It means "family" and "brotherhood" and "togetherness"; the commonality of human-ness. I said, "I like that." So I went further and I ran across the term "fanaka" and it means "progress" and "success." So I said, "Okay, those words together will mean through togetherness we will find progress and succeed." That's how I chose that name Jamaa Fanaka; it means through brotherhood and togetherness, we will progress and succeed.
Guillén: A beautiful choice.
Fanaka: It wasn't a renunciation of Walter Gordon, under which I was born, it was an embracing of a name that had some social significance and significance in terms of how I chose to lead my life. I'm a cosmopolite. A cosmopolite is a person who embraces all cultures, all races, all religions; he just embraces human-ness. He doesn't even put his own culture or his own race up above or before other races. He loves other races and other cultures as much as he loves his own. I'm a true, devout cosmopolite.
Guillén: I'm glad to hear that. From an early age then—because your father was a television repairman in Jackson, Mississippi and your family was one of the first to own a television in Jackson, even before there was a television station—you were brought up with an awareness of the moving image. My understanding is that you became attracted to film through the director William Wyler and his film Ben-Hur.
Guillén: What was it about Ben-Hur that mobilized a young Black boy in Jackson, Mississippi?
Fanaka: Ben-Hur was a film that had a deep meaning to it; but, it was immensely entertaining. I thought the merging of entertainment with education—you got an education from that film; you got a sense of the human-ness of the people—was so well-done. I saw it as a very young man.
My first acquaintance with film was when I got a Super-8 camera as a birthday present when I was 11 years old. As a matter of fact, I took the footage and on my mother's 80th birthday, I presented her with a dvd copy of an edited version of all the rites of passages of myself and my family—the grammar school graduations, the Christmases, the Easters, the marriages, the Disneyland visits—all the rites of passage we had. I recorded them with my Super8 camera. That's what really got me into liking to shoot film; but, I didn't start really thinking about being a filmmaker or the behind-the-scenes aspects of making films until Ben-Hur. Then I started to research and realized these films did not just materialize out of thin air; they came about like a building does. You don't just start putting bricks together. There's a plan there. I thought about that and said, "Hey…." And then William Wyler—The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur, Funny Girl, Friendly Persuasion—this guy could direct anything. He became—and still is—my favorite director of all time.
Guillén: At last night's screening, you talked about how you ended up at the UCLA film school and how—for your second school project—you decided instead of a short film, you would just make a full-length feature, which became Welcome Home, Brother Charles. At that time, how was the film received? You said people thought you were crazy to make a full-length feature in the first place. What did they think after they saw it?
Fanaka: They thought I was crazier even more! [Laughs.] There were things in the film that had never been done before. What I wanted to do was take a well-known lie that had saturated our culture to the point where—if you tell a lie long enough, someone said—it becomes a truth.
Guillén: A truth that captures people and robs them of freedom.
Fanaka: Right. It captures them in that falsehood and they accept it as a truth, as a given, and it's not a given; it's pure, unadulterated B.S. At the time—and still—I wanted to make a "moving" picture. I call my films moving pictures not only because the frames move through the projector but because I wanted to move people in the right direction. I wanted to have my films affect people in an entertaining way but also make strong statements. Sometimes, in order to get to people, you got to use some kind of instrument to get their attention. I wanted to debunk that myth of Black sexual superiority based upon the size of the sexual equipment.
I felt that in order to get that attention I had to do something obscene that was so outrageous; that would take the myth and blow it up for the lie that it is. It was so new and so shocking that people didn't know how to take it.
Guillén: It's shocking enough now and we're talking 30 years ago, right?
Fanaka: Yeah, '75. As the years have progressed, it's become a cult classic. It's taught in universities across the country. Take for example, Melville's great masterpiece Moby Dick was a failure when it first came out. It sold very few copies until about 30-35 years later. Then it was "discovered" by a critic, people re-read it, and—of course—it will live forever. That seems to be what's happening with Welcome Home, Brother Charles.
Guillén: It's certainly gained a cult following in recent years. I was impressed and grateful and respectful of the fact that you brought your own print of Brother Charles to Dead Channels to share with San Francisco. I want to thank you personally for that. You seem to want at this time in your life to travel with these films specifically to provide context. Is that true?
Fanaka: Right. Yes. As a matter of fact, I want to travel all over the country and even overseas, screen my films, and give Q&A seminars that inspire young people. I started making films in the covered wagon days of filmmaking. That's why, I guess, they call me a pioneer. When I was making films, what I had to pay for the raw stock to make Welcome Home, Brother Charles, you could make the entire film for now. There were very few people who were able to accomplish the making of a film, especially a feature film. It was so difficult because it was so expensive. It's the most expensive art form extant. If you want to be a writer, you can get a pencil and you can write. If you want to be a painter, you can go and buy you an easel and a canvas and paint. But in order to make a film back in those days, you had to have money and lots of it. With the advent of the computer, it has changed the whole landscape of filmmaking.
Guillén: Speaking of context then, the fact that you made Welcome Home, Brother Charles as a student project is what adds to its being so remarkable. Earlier this year I saw the arthouse revival of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, which was created about the same time, and it's my understanding Burnett was your cameraman on Brother Charles?
Fanaka: He was my cameraman. As a matter of fact, his working as the camera man on Welcome Home, Brother Charles is what inspired him and gave him the idea that he could make a feature. See, it was unknown for a student to make a feature film. My film was like the Holy Grail for filmmakers because I actually wrote, produced, directed and got theatrical distribution for a film. To get theatrical distribution is difficult now but it was even more difficult back then. The distributor had to commit to making a number of prints and prints are expensive. I'm the only person, before and since, in the history of filmmaking to write, produce and direct, and to have gained theatrical distribution for three moving pictures made as part of the academic curriculum. Of course I got A's on them. But these were school assignments.
Guillén: So obviously your films were received favorably by your instructors, but how was the reception by your fellow students?
Fanaka: It was mixed. Some students were obviously jealous that I was able to get grants.
Guillén: Envy's an ugly beast, isn't it?
Fanaka: It sure is. As a matter of fact, the American Film Institute grant that I got? I made history getting that grant. I was the first Black filmmaker to get this independent filmmaker grant. I helped open the door for minority filmmakers with the American Film Institute and other areas. I found out that the judges who made the decisions on who got the grants had all been White. The only non-White had been Cicely Tyson and Cicely Tyson was at the time in a sense a White Negro because she had become a great success. The more successful a minority filmmaker or a minority person gets, the less inclined they are to fight for their own people. They don't want to rock the boat. They've been accepted themselves but they don't want to take those chances to fight for the general purposes of helping other Blacks because they don't want to hurt their own career.
At the time, Alan Cranston was the senator representing California and the American Film Institute independent filmmaker grant was financed by the National Endowment for the Arts, which was a governmental concern. I wrote Alan Cranston a letter and said, "Look, I'm not accusing the American Film Institute of racism—I don't think they are racist—but, the fact that there has never been a Black or minority judging who [gets] the [grants], is important because we are usually drawn to material that reflects our own culture. I'd like for you to look into this because I think there are Black filmmakers—like myself—who deserve serious consideration." [The AFI grant] was the Holy Grail of grants. First of all, the American Film Institute has such cachet to get the grant. Also, it was $10,000 that they just gave you in your hand to go make any kind of film you wanted, whatever. There were no strings attached to it. There was a lot of prestige attached to it.
So Alan Cranston writes the head of the American Film Institute an enquiry-type letter and [it] shook this guy up. He called me up and said, "We get 20,000 projects submitted to us every year and it's inevitable that some great potential filmmakers are sometimes overlooked. But we will give a serious look to minority filmmakers and we will go out of our way to try to find some minority filmmakers that wield the power to make those decisions." I said, "Okay." The very next cycle, I got an American Film Institute grant. [Laughs.] And then on the next cycle, they invited me to be one of the judges.
Fanaka: There was four judges. There was 12 grants to be given out. What did we decide to do? Rather than have polemics over who we thought was best, each one of us had a choice of choosing three filmmakers to give grants to. I gave out three; the other three gave out three. I was able on that cycle to get grants for Black filmmakers, just on my rubber stamp. From that point on, they started being very sensitive to the fact that Blacks have a talent too and they need a chance. Just a chance. Nobody owes anybody a grant; but, just a chance at getting it.
Guillén: An opportunity they can seize.
Guillén: So receiving the AFI grant was the green light for Welcome Home, Brother Charles. How did you find your lead actor Marlo Monte?
Fanaka: There was an organization … a group of actors and actresses that would get together to perform skits and to network with each other about roles that they saw that were open and try to help each other out. I went there and saw some of the skits and Marlo was in one of them and I was impressed with him. Afterwards I approached him and said, "I'm making this film. Would you like to read for a role?" He said, "Oh man, would I!" He was just so happy that I would consider him.
Guillén: Did he know the story?
Fanaka: No. He didn't know anything about it. He didn't even know it was a feature. He just knew I was a UCLA student because there were a bunch of UCLA students that were with me. Those were the halcyon days of Black filmmakers at the film school. There's never before or since been that many Black filmmakers. We had about 25 of us, including Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry and Haile Gerima and Julie Dash; a number of filmmakers that went on to teach film around the country.
Guillén: Let me ask you this then, Welcome Home, Brother Charles—not only is it an incredible achievement that you got it made as a feature during your student days—but, it's almost like three movies. It's part documentary with its street realism that—along with Burnett's Killer of Sheep—has become an important, historical document of Watts in the mid-'70s. Then it's also a socially realistic drama about the plight of Blacks in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Then it shifts into this … I hardly know what to call it. At the time there wasn't the term "blaxploitation" and I don't really think of it in those terms; do you?
Fanaka: No. "Blaxploitation" was a term, ironically, that was coined by a Black man; an angry Black man. This is what happened: this guy was a publicist and he would from time to time get assignments from the studios as a publicist to publicize their films. But he wasn't getting the type of work assignments that he thought he deserved. There was a Black film that was up for release but they didn't call him in as a publicist so he made an appointment to go in to see the head of the [studio's] publicity department and he said, "You never call me. You don't even call me for those blaxploitation films." Exploitation films were a genre of the era of drive-ins, what they call grindhouse. Companies were set up just to make low-budget "exploitation" films on subject matter that the studios wouldn't want to make. If it was low-budget, they called it "exploitation", no matter what. [As far as] "blaxploitation", every Black filmmaker resented it because it was used in the pejorative. Now it has evolved to where "blaxploitation" has assumed the definition of a genre, like film noir.
Guillén: So you don't mind being included within that characterization now?
Fanaka: It's thrust upon me like the color of my eyes. I have no choice in the matter.
Guillén: But I want to give you that choice.
Fanaka: All right, then I don't consider my films "blaxploitation" films.
Guillén: That's what I wanted to know.
Fanaka: But I don't write vicious letters to the editor who refer to [my films] as that. I consider Welcome Home, Brother Charles a work of art of the highest order. The reason I consider it that is because it transcends its subject matter. In other words, it's a story and it has a message; but, the message is so fundamental….
Fanaka: Primal, yeah, that's a good word. [The film's] going to live forever.
Guillén: I look at it this way. So many movies are made and disappear just about as fast. The fact that Brother Charles is still around and kicking means it's a child that's grown up.
Fanaka: Right. And it's more influential and popular now than it ever was.
Guillén: Can that be attributed to the recent Grindhouse mania?
Fanaka: That too. Also that Tarantino, it's one of his favorite films. He's one of my greatest fans. That has helped. But also, they're teaching it at the universities; not only the quality and the artistic value of the work, but how it was made; how inspirational it can be to young film students—or old film students, everybody wants to be a film student—on how you can accomplish something if you are determined and creative. This film was made off will power.
Guillén: When you started Welcome Home, Brother Charles, did you have a finished script?
Guillén: I ask because some criticism I've read imply that the last part of the film was added on later specifically to sell it.
Guillén: That's not true?
Fanaka: No. That's not true. What happened was, there were two drafts of the script. In one draft of the script, and not only the script but one of the cuts, some of the scenes I excised for time reasons and also for artistic reasons. I dealt with the fact of the younger brother getting involved in gang activity and the older brother trying to discourage him and the confrontation between him and N.D. [who] had taken his girlfriend and had her dancing topless. I had him reconcile that. But I didn't want the main story to be predictable. The obvious thing was for him to come by and kick N.D.'s ass and take back his mama or reject her or whatever, or line up with the other woman. But I felt that I wanted to deal with the film in a more universal level, at a more fundamental and primal level. The betrayal that [Charles] suffers from his partner taking his girl and then having him beat up, okay, "I can accept that. I don't want to fight that. Let them go their own business. I'm going to go on with life the way it is." [Charles] tries to go on with a normal life. He finds a job delivering water. But I wanted to make it more fundamental and deal with the fact of how easily we can be railroaded into a situation. Although involved in illegal activities, he didn't deserve to have his penis damn near cut off.
Guillén: Or to be thrown in the slammer simply for running.
Guillén: I kept thinking, "What are they picking him up for?"
Fanaka: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. As a matter of fact, if I wanted to exploit the penis strangulation thing, I would have had him strangle the other people on camera—the cop who tried to castrate him?—you never actually saw the [strangulation there]; I only showed it one time.
Guillén: Once was enough.
Fanaka: Yeah, once was enough. I didn't want people to think I was trying to use that in an exploitive way. I was trying to use that to take a ridiculous situation and just blow it up to such a proportion that you can't miss the ridiculousness of it.
Guillén: Let me ask you this then, Charles's revenge at the injustice of being railroaded, I know that some people have wondered why he didn't kill N.D. for taking away his woman and luring his younger brother into drugs? Why he didn't kill another Black man?
Fanaka: That's what I'm saying. [N.D.] was a victim himself of the whole system.
Guillén: So you're saying that N.D.'s betrayal of Charles was somewhat a consequence bred from their mutual environment?
Fanaka: Right. If [Charles] wants to go along and change his life, he has to forget that. "That is a part of my life. She's chosen him. Let me get on and try." And he falls in love with the other girl and they get into a relationship.
Guillén: I understand the differentiation you're making between the wrongs committed against Charles by N.D., who's in the same boat, and the wrongs committed by a White system that railroads him into prison. It reminds me of that wonderful line in Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit where El Pachuco snaps his fingers, stops the script and says, "That's just what the movie needs now, Ese; one more Mexican killing another fucking Mexican."
Guillén: The central section of Brother Charles when he's in solitary confinement in the penitentiary is a beautifully-edited montage of his thought process in voiceover mixed with still black and white photographs.
Fanaka: Thank you.
Guillén: What motivated the design of that sequence?
Fanaka: Why I wanted to do it in black and white is [because] black and white is an actor's colors. You don't have the distraction of color. What the audience concentrates heavily on is the actor. It's stark naturalism, as they would refer to it in literature. A naturalistic approach to show in a short period of time the whole three years [of imprisonment] encapsulated in practically one shot. Actually, it's two shots. I go in and then I cut to him. But it's only two shots. I wrote the music too.
Guillén: Speaking of the "music", what is that strange foghorn-like sound?
Fanaka: That's a saxophone.
Guillén: Ah. That sax motif in the score also shows up in the beginning credits where the audience sees the ithyphallic African figurine. How I interpreted that was that it connoted an ancient African power. Is that right?
Fanaka: Yeah, right. Hey man, you are very observant! That's what it was. I was trying to show the primal instincts of Africanism, what they call the natural religion, the humanistic religion, that pervades Africa even now. That music was supposed to convey that type of primal feel, that guttural [quality]. I wrote it by recreating the sound for the saxophone player. He would keep trying it until I got the sound I wanted. For the rest of it, I would tell them how I wanted it: crescendo, diminuendo, I expressed it to them and they were able to recreate it [at] UCLA. UCLA had a four-track recording studio and that's where I did the score.
Guillén: Another thing I wanted to run by you: the film ends with his girlfriend Carmen telling him to jump. The way I took that was that she didn't want him to get railroaded into prison again. Is that right?
Fanaka: Yeah. Let's face it, his life was over. She didn't want him to become a research monkey.
Guillén: I know some reviews described her as not being very loyal; but, no, she loved him completely and knew death was his only real way out.
Fanaka: Yeah. And she loved him enough to see a lot. People don't realize that death is not the worst thing that can happen to you. A lot of things can happen to you that—living through it—is the worst thing that can happen to you.
Guillén: To wrap things up then, you clearly are traveling with the film to inspire young people. As a filmmaker, what has been your greatest joy?
Fanaka: My greatest joy is getting responses like I got last night. I had a guy come up to me and say, "Hey, we have Jamaa Fanaka nights where we get together at each others' houses and show Jamaa Fanaka films."
Guillén: I'm going to lobby for a Jamaa Fanaka retrospective in San Francisco.
Fanaka: They say a perfect place would be the Castro Theatre. I've heard that's a beautiful theater. That's the Gay area, right? I think the Gays would relate to this film too. It's a universal film. It speaks to everyone.
Guillén: Brother Charles spoke to me as a Gay man because—as a Chicano—the process of having your ethnicity fetishized is a troubling hurdle to leap over as you try to individuate and become—first and foremost—a human being. It's disturbing to have your identity usurped and commodified by erotic agendas that are in service to colonial mechanisms of enslavement through effacement. You set out to have Brother Charles be a slap in the face about such matters and you succeeded. The film provokes an embarrassed shade of consciousness and uses prurience to prove its point. It's been a great honor to speak with you today and I thank you for your time.
Fanaka: Thank you, my brother I have a lot of respect for you, my man.
Cross-published on Twitch.
06/28/08 UPDATE: Marc Savlov talks to Jamaa Fanaka for The Austin Chronicle.
Turner Classic Movies ("TCM") is set to premiere the second installment of its remarkable "Lost and Found" series with a collection of films made at London's famed Teddington Studios by Warner Bros.-First National between 1932 and 1943. The collection of 13 films includes the U.S. premieres of two early works from director Michael Powell (The Red Shoes)—the comedy Something Always Happens (1934) starring Ian Hunter, and the crime thriller Crown vs. Stevens (1936) starring Beatrix Thompson. The other premieres are Crime Unlimited (1935) starring Lili Palmer; Man of the Moment (1935) starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Laura La Plante; The Peterville Diamond (1943) starring Anne Crawford and The Dark Tower (1943) starring David Farrar. The Teddington Studios: Lost and Found films premiere on TCM in September.
Charlie Tabesh, senior vice president of programming for TCM, advises, "Similar to the lost RKO films we premiered earlier this year, these six films had also quietly slipped through the cracks of film history. Warner Bros deposited the original nitrate camera negatives at the BFI in 1963 and, over the years, the BFI had restored and preserved them. As curators of film history, TCM is proud to take the lead in showcasing these rare and historically important films and airing them for classic movie fans of all ages."
Known as "quota quickies," these films were shot at a fast pace on low budgets to meet the demands of the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, created by the United Kingdom Parliament to require a yearly quota of British-made movies and hopefully counter Hollywood's dominance of the cinema world. (Never considered a success, the Act was modified over the years and repealed in 1960.) The films made at Teddington during its Warner Bros. era were strictly for the U.K. market, and most were never seen on this side of the Atlantic. Of more than 100 such films, only 33 are known to survive.
Many distinguished actors worked at Teddington during its Warner Bros. period; also represented in the TCM series are Michael Redgrave in Sons of the Sea (1941), Richard Greene in Flying Fortress (1942) and John Gielgud in The Prime Minister (1942). Among those films believed to be permanently lost, one of the most historically significant is 1934's Murder in Monte Carlo, in which a young actor named Errol Flynn so impressed Warner Bros. executives that they dispatched him to Hollywood.
Teddington Studios has a long and interesting history dating to the 1880s. It became a production center for feature films in 1916 and was leased, then purchased, by Warner Bros. in the early 1930s. In 1944, during the dwindling days of World War II, a German rocket exploded on the property, causing extensive damage. Eventually reconstructed, the studios would become home to Thames Television, and today the facility remains an important media center.
Cross-published on Twitch.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Daisuke Miyao in his fascinating account Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom (London, Duke University Press, 2007:5) claims that Hayakawa's acting style so inspired French intellectuals that they developed the concept of photogenie, "the unique aesthetic qualities that motion picture photography brings to the subject it films."
"The photogenie later became a significant theoretical basis of the French impressionist movement, filmmaking that [quoting Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell's Film History: An Introduction (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1994:89)] 'displayed a fascination with pictorial beauty and an interest in intense psychological exploration.' " (2007:5)
New York fans of silent film will have the opportunity to assess for themselves just how photogenic Sessue Hayakawa is when the series "Sessue Hayakawa: East and West, When the Twain Met," opens at the Museum of Modern Art September 5–16. I mention it in passing here because, according to my friend Frako Loden, discussions are already underway to bring the program to the Pacific Film Archives.
Miyao writes at the KineJapan mailing list: "This is the first extensive retrospective of Sessue Hayakawa (1886-1973), Japanese actor and very popular movie star in the period of silent cinema. Most of the surviving prints of his silent films in the American film archives, including Hayakawa's debut film O Mimi San (1914), Thomas H. Ince's The Wrath of the Gods (1914)—a spectacular film with scenes of a volcano eruption—and Cecil B. DeMille's controversial race melodrama The Cheat (1915), will be screened in the series. This is a rare opportunity to witness Hayakawa's acting with "great intelligence and subtlety." The Devils' Claim (1920)—the film produced at Hayakawa's own production company, which has recently become available and has not been seen even by Hayakawa specialists—is also included in the series."
Donald Richie reviews Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom for The Japan Times, as does David Cozy for Google Groups, and Film Stew.
Monday, August 20, 2007
Touring the cathedrals today with cameras and guidebooks in hand, we may experience something at odds with our practical secularism: a peculiar and embarrassing desire to fall to our knees and worship a being as mighty and sublime as we ourselves are small and inadequate. Such a reaction would not, of course, have surprised the cathedral builders, for it was precisely towards such a surrender of our self-sufficiency that their efforts were directed, the purpose of their ethereal walls and lace-like ceilings being to make metaphysical stirrings not only plausible but irresistible within even the soberest of hearts.—Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness: The Secret Art of Furnishing Your Life (2006:112).
I'm not the first to write it, nor is this the first time I myself have written it, but cinemas are spaces of worship for many of us. My conscious use of the word cinema implies this in a way, saying something more reverential than "multiplex" or "movie house" or even "movie theatre" can convey. The grandeur of cinemas such as the Castro Theatre may not allow for as vast an experience as the cathedrals of Europe in de Botton's passage above, but for me—and I suspect I am not alone here—the space of the Castro Theatre allows for a chill, a physical chill of goosebumps caused by the difficulty (and now environmentally questionable practice) of heating the place, and a spiritual chill that, to borrow from Leonard Cohen (whom I understand borrowed this from another writer as well), enables the lights to seep in through the cracks of our pedestrian existence.
Daniel Gilbert, in his book Stumbling On Happiness, a book not about how to be happy but a book about what studies tell us truly makes us happy, argues that studies show the happiness inspired by religion in our lives may not be about the content as much about the communities the content creates. We are happier when we have connected ourselves to communities. If writing in general is talked about as an isolating pursuit, writing about cinema is often seen as one of the more deserted islands on the lonely archipelago of writers. Yet ironically, the Castro Theatre's vast architectural space leaves me feeling more bonded with my fellow movie-goers than my trips to the more cramped and intimate Opera Plaza theatre. (Please don't take offense, oh little Opera Plaza, I still appreciate all the films you bring to us.) Even large spaces such as the AMC 1000 or the Sony Metreon seem to create distance amongst the anonymous patrons through the comfort of their chairs. The Castro's older, rickety, wooden flip seats with barely a backrest may be hard on the butt and back, but they allow for a greater connection with my fellow seekers, my brothers and sisters of the church of cinema.
So when Michael Guillén flattered me by asking if I'd write about my top five memories of the Castro Theatre in celebration of its 85th Anniversary while suffering through my second typhoon in Manila for work, (in spite of the weather, my trip here nicely coinciding with the CineManila International Film Festival where I got to see Persepolis), I was happy to oblige and focus my response on how connected the Castro has made me feel to my fellow cinephiles.
You Always Remember Your First
My first experience at the Castro Theatre was watching Tsai Ming-liang's Vive L'Amour, one of my favorite films. I was told by the woman I was dating at the time, a woman who was about to relinquish my obligations to her, a relinquishment I deserved, that I should see this film alone. This was another subtle hint to me about how she was feeling in Vancouver at the time. I wasn't oblivious to this hint, but was inept at how to respond, so, in that way young men respond to their ineptitude, I didn't respond, closing off from her further. Instead of listening to her completely, I went with my friend Wendy to see this film at the Castro. My friend and I were still both extremely affected by the film. The unconsummated wanting of Tsai's muse, the final scene of our real estate agent walking around the unfinished park, than sitting for a long, tear-drenched cigarette, such is urban ennui at its best. Tsai's film was a wonderful introduction to the Castro Theatre, where I realized through the presence of others in the theatre and through what transpires on screen that, to paraphrase the classic song by The Police, one is not alone in being alone.
If I recall correctly, I've only been up in the balcony of the Castro Theatre twice, both during silent films, one with my friend Sandy and her girlfriend at the time and the other with my good friend Sarah. Sarah, (who has been so gracious as to recently become engaged to a Kiwi so that I can have an excuse to visit New Zealand for a second time), joined me to see Fritz Lang's Metropolis to a packed house, watching a part of history in the present. We were just as mesmerized by the sight of the packed crowd from our roost up above as we were from what was before us on screen. I just remember Sarah and I being giddy during the entire screening. The cliché is to call it "electricity", but it was really what happiness feels like in the moment of feeling connected with your dear friend beside you and the strangers around you.
The Sound of Silence
I've seen more Silent Films at the Castro Theatre than anywhere else, assisted by the Castro Theatre being the venue for the Silent Film Festival. So it makes sense that many of my favorite memories there are associated with Silent Films, such as the ones noted above and the ones noted here. Silent Films all spectacled up with accompanying pianist or orchestra at the Castro are perfect date films. And three years ago I was able to take a woman from Montreal I was dating (yes, I have a thing for Canadians) to the Brazilian film Sangue Mineiro on a Saturday and the U.S. film The Sideshow the next day. She had never experienced the Castro Theatre in this way before. Thanks partly to the energy these moments promoted, these films assisted for a very memorable weekend together. Although at this time in my life I had become adept at what I was previously inept, able to have the conversations that my previous inability to have left me as alone as the real estate agent in Vive L'Amour, this wonderful woman would eventually break my heart. But I'm of the philosophy that I'm happy to have a heart to be broken, appreciating whatever moments of intimacy come my way or that I bring my way, regardless of how brief. As for my relationship with the Castro, I would miss the last two Silent Film Festivals due to work sending me abroad. This year I passed my tickets on to the woman I'm dating presently, (who, if you're wondering, happens to not be Canadian). I was going to take her with me if this recent work trip hadn't come up. It would have been another lovely date, but I took conciliation in hearing that she and her friend were overjoyed with the film they saw together thanks to my initiative. Silent Films never fail, at least not at the Castro.
Movie and a Dinner
My dear friend Dee had never been to the Castro Theatre, nor had she ever seen a film in a language other than the two she knows. So I took her to see Anno Saul's Turkish-German comedy (co-written by Turkish-German film phenom Fatih Akin) Kebab Connection. This comedy was able to cross language and cultural barriers for both of us, and, gauging from the laughter surrounding us, our fellow audience members as well. We followed this enjoyable film with a delicious Turkish meal at Ala Turka at Geary/Larkin. Too full to continue our evening out further with drinks, my South Bay-stationed friend was soon itching to make the trek back up the peninsula to see something, anything, at the Castro again.
The last screening I saw at the Castro was during the Frameline Film Festival, three installments of the cable TV series The DL Chronicles, studies within the TV drama form of the complex transposing of Black and Gay communities. While in the queue I ran into Michael as he was leaving the earlier screening. Our conversation was brief because he was on his way somewhere, and my line was slowly moving towards the entrance. Still, veterans of these types of run-ins, we both were able to make the brief conversation mean something. The conversation wasn't rushed, it just was simply concise. That pleasant surprise (but perfectly natural since we now run into each other again and again at screenings) was followed by my running into my friend Bill in line, a friend from college whom I hadn't seen in nearly 9 years after he left the Bay Area. We caught up, I discovered he'd returned to the Bay Area a couple years ago, we exchanged memories along with cell numbers, and we sat next to each other as we watched the three installments of the TV show. I'm sure we'll see a lot of each other now since a mutual friend we've both kept in touch with is moving to the Bay Area from Melbourne this Fall. But it's these surprises, the extreme such as that with Bill whom I had no idea was back in San Francisco, or the subtle such as knowing my fellow filmgoer Michael will likely be at the same screenings as I, are part of what embeds the Castro Theatre in my memory.
And that's what the Castro Theatre is to me, as much a place to share with my friends as it is a place to watch great films with strangers.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Because I can never get enough of a good thing, and despite the fact that Jack Hill provided generous context and backstory to both Spider Baby and Pit Stop at Dead Channels Sleazy Sunday double-bill, I still had a few threads I wanted to pursue. He was gracious enough to grant me some time Monday morning before heading north to the wine country. We countered the cool San Francisco morning by sitting close to the overhead patio heaters at the Phoenix, until driven away by bullish cigarette smokers.
I won't be the first to mention that softspoken Jack Hill does not come across as the man who was one of Exploitation Cinema's reigning champions, proponent of tits and ass feminism, and blaxploitation classics such as Coffy and Foxy Brown. Perhaps it's all the years of meditation he's practiced that has allowed him to keep his career in moderate perspective and to persevere through the ebb and flow of popular appeal. He certainly comes across kind and centered.
* * *
Michael Guillén: Roland Hill, your dad, was art director in the '40s at Warner Brothers, then moved on to the Disney Studios. He helped create the interior design of the Nautilus for Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and designed Sleeping Beauty's castle for Disneyland, as well as Tom Sawyer's Island. What influence did he have on your wanting to become a filmmaker or on your filmmaking?
Jack Hill: Not so much. My mother was a music teacher so I got into music since I was five years old.
Guillén: Which might explain your original impulse to become a film composer?
Hill: Yes. I was in music. I was a concert and performing artist and arranger and starting to write music. I wanted to learn how to score films. That's how I got into the cinema department at UCLA, so I could learn about films so I could write music; but, then I started writing, and they encouraged me to do more. I ended up directing some student films. I loved music and I loved being in music but I had a little 8mm movie camera since I was 14 and I made some films with friends and edited them myself just for fun. I never thought about it as a career.
Guillén: Warner Brothers back in the '40s appears to have left a strong imprint upon you. I've read that your favorite movie was White Heat, which you consider to be "the last great American film." Why do you say that? What is it about White Heat that you feel sets such a benchmark?
Hill: Because it's got that spirit to it, that in-your-faceness, that impudence that I enjoyed as a style. I and most of my friends used to go see all the Warner Brothers movies. They had much more of a fire to them than the big studio films because they were made with lower budgets under difficult circumstances. They had these great stars, a different kind of star, Bogart and Cagney, people like Virginia Mayo, who were very different.
Guillén: That's what you mentioned yesterday afternoon and I thought that was such an interesting analogy between the Warner films in the '40s made on their tight budgets and limited means—and the creativity that came out of that—comparable to the low-budget rapid-fire independent film making of the '60s-'70s. In both instances, by the grace of good casting some great movies were made. Researching your work, that's one of the comments attributed to your success: the impeccability of your casting. That made me curious about how you went about it. It's my understanding that when you were at UCLA your adviser was Dorothy Arzner? Is this the same Dorothy Arzner who invented the mike boom?
Hill: That's right.
Guillén: So how did that work? You're in film school and you're casting your student projects, did Arzner come in to help you find actors?
Hill: No, not at all. Dorothy basically had the feeling that you needed to make your own mistakes; but, she would let you know you were doing so. "You're making a mistake, but, go ahead." Francis Coppola and I both really listened to her. We worked on each others' student films and, in fact, when he created his theatre he named it the Dorothy Arzner Theatre, in recognition of what he had [learned] from her.
Guillén: Arzner's a director who was nearly forgotten. Most people don't remember what she's done.
Hill: Since the Women's Movement, she's become a little bit more recognized.
Guillén: Speaking of UCLA film school, the one person you didn't talk much about yesterday was Francis Ford Coppola and your interaction with him. My understanding is you did a few films with him? You both helped out with The Terror. IMdb lists about four or five directors on that film. How does that work?
Hill: We were not billed as co-directors. Roger Corman was the main director. But some of us put bits and pieces together over a period of time.
Guillén: Was that the same with Dementia 13? You came in later and added some pieces?
Hill: Francis had not really finished the picture. There was only about 60 minutes of film there, which he finished and then he went on to bigger and better things with major studios. I added some additional sequences that I wrote myself to pad it out to a full-length running time.
Guillén: So your student film The Host, then, was your true first film?
Hill: I had done a directing assignment before then, a 15-minute film; but, The Host was what they called at UCLA a "major production" of a half an hour film. You had sets and a lot more where you could finish it; but—in order to finish the film and do all the post-production—you had to have your own money for it. They didn't have a budget for it. So my edit of The Host sat in my garage for 30 years until Quentin Tarantino decided to put it on the release of Switchblade Sisters as a DVD extra. He got Miramax to pay for the cost of finishing it, to put music with it.
Guillén: Regarding that student project The Host—and I'm sure you've probably been asked this a million times—but, many folks have recognized its influence on Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
Hill: Yeah. [Steve Burum], my camera man on that student film, was the second unit camera man on Apocalypse Now. And there was another fellow who was also a student at UCLA at the time who [served] as an advisor on the film for Francis, and according to [Burum]—who I saw some years later—he said they were making jokes about making Jack Hill's student film. It was the last act of [Apocalypse Now], which was the part that didn't really work.
Guillén: So you don't mind that Coppola "reworked" it?
Hill: No. You always borrow things from other films. I've certainly done my share.
Guillén: Regarding the casting of Spider Baby, yesterday you talked about Sid Haig, Lon Chaney, and the two girls. The fellow who played Peter Howe ("Uncle Peter"), Quinn Redeker—who later went on to become Oscar-nominated for co-writing The Deerhunter—he was such a charming character in Spider Baby.
Hill: He was perfect, yeah.
Guillén: What made his characterization work so well? Did you write his character that way? How did you come up with this guy who was so normal he was odd? He was like a bastion of '50s Americana in the midst of all that zaniness.
Hill: I didn't really understand this at the time; but, the critic who wrote about the film and then in personal messages to me, said that was really me. That was my point-of-view character, totally oblivious to all this craziness going on around him.
Guillén: And very good-natured about it too. That's what I loved and laughed about later when I was thinking about him. He was so good-natured, poking Sid Haig's character in the ribs, inducing that strange facial reaction from Sid.
Hill: The way [Quinn Redeker] played that character was beyond my imagination of what he could do with the part to bring it to life.
Guillén: You were saying that you didn't feel you directed your actors much in Spider Baby; that they basically knew what they had to do and did it for you.
Hill: Yeah. The first rule of medicine is "do no harm" and that was my rule.
Guillén: The pool of talent in Spider Baby is amazing. I was enjoying watching the movie and recognizing faces from other vehicles. Carol Ohmart as Quinn's selfish sister Emily, she'll always (for me) be the woman who backed up and fell into the vat of acid in House on Haunted Hill.
Hill: Yes. At the time I did [Spider Baby], I had not seen that picture. I didn't know she had backed up into a vat of acid.
Guillén: What felt odd yesterday was to recognize her from a movie I loved as a kid. She's remained in my mind all these years. That's one of those cinema moments I'll never forget. Or maybe it was the skeleton on a string William Castle had swooping over the audience in the theater?
Another great character actor you used in Spider Baby was Mantan Moreland, who I recognized as one of the devils or "idea men" in Cabin in the Sky.
Hill: Yeah, I had never seen that film. I knew him from all the Charlie Chan movies.
Guillén: That's what my friend Frako Loden mentioned as well; but, I'm sorely unfamiliar with the Charlie Chan movies. I read somewhere that Moreland ran into problems after the Civil Rights Movement? His style of acting became disparaged?
Hill: Yeah, he didn't feel that his style, his character, was demeaning like Stepin Fetchit, which it really was. He was bitter about it. They lumped him together with those character actors that did demeaning roles, shuffling around. He wasn't like that.
Guillén: I've read that you killed him off early in Spider Baby to symbolically kill off the stereotype?
Hill: Yeah, that was my conceit through the whole movie. Like murdering Santa Claus in the first reel.
Guillén: Well, as a film writer relatively unfamiliar with your body of work and catching up to everybody else—I'm part of your new audience actually—what really struck me yesterday was how thoroughly entertaining and engaging your early films are, in contrast to the seemingly hundreds of current movies I've seen this last year out of Hollywood that I don't even want to write one sentence about; movies that I forget as I'm watching them. What was so refreshingly apparent in the two films I watched yesterday was their heart. There's a lot of heart in your movies. I really cared about the characters in both scenarios. Is that what you're going for?
Hill: That's what makes films work for me. That's what I try to do.
Guillén: I also read that there was some talk a few years back regarding a remake of Spider Baby. Is that still in the works?
Hill: There's actually a couple of things in the works. There's a fellow who I met who was a big fan of Spider Baby; he wrote a script for a remake. It's not really a remake as much as it is a script inspired by the original. The characters are still there but it's a totally different milieu. It was picked up and they were going to make it; but, they had a problem over the rating, blah blah blah, and so they have writers rewriting it. But it's still out there. It went into turnaround for Lionsgate and so he's still struggling with it; but, I was recently approached by another company who wants to remake closer to the original.
Guillén: You have no issue with having it remade? I feel it's so perfect as it is. It has this heart, as I said. My fear would be that these days when they make remakes, the heart is the first thing they take out.
Hill: Well, that's true. But I'm waiting to see what kind of story they come up with. It will be quite different because it's a thing of its time, although it's timeless in some ways. To do a new version, it's a new audience today so they want to make it in a much more up-to-date style. We'll see what happens. If they make a remake, it will make more people interested in seeing the original, I would think, so it's fine with me.
Guillén: Where did the story for Spider Baby come from? You had the script ready to go, so that when the producers surfaced, you were ready to go; but, where did the original story come from?
Hill: It came to me overnight.
Guillén: Did you have the slightest inkling that it would have the influence it would have? It created the template for kooky mutantly-inbred families, with elders in the cellar, that prey upon unsuspecting guests. It's become something of a genre all in it's own and you were one of the first to really do that, weren't you?
Hill: Yeah, I think so; but, I don't know [how much of an influence it had]. The film was not widely seen in the film industry at the time. I don't really think there's necessarily a connection there.
Guillén: Okay. So maybe it was an idea smoldering in the American psyche, just waiting to manifest itself? A way America had of thinking of itself? I do think the idea of the family out in the country that seems ordinary but isn't has definitely become one of the staples of American horror.
Hill: I don't know. People have suggested that some of the other guys who made films like that had seen Spider Baby; but, I doubt that. They wouldn't have been able to see it because it was lost for a long time.
Guillén: That leads to a question that's difficult for me to formulate. You've been around for a while, you've done your work in different climates, different cultural zeitgeists, different mindsets, spanning generations of filmgoers—
Guillén: —Is it weird for you to be a survivor and have all these ascriptions made after the fact? Or to be given titles like the Master of Exploitation?
Hill: At the time I was making films and they were hitting number one at the box office, no one even knew who I was. And the next year no one even remembered the film.
Guillén: Directors weren't that well considered back then?
Hill: No. Most people weren't aware of who was directing a film.
Guillén: Roger Corman. How did you get hooked up with him?
Hill: Through Francis actually. Francis started working for him when we were in school and he brought me in to work with him on some of the [films] he was doing. I had worked with Francis before on these so-called "nudie cuties"….
Guillén: Are we talking The Bellboy and the Playgirls?
Hill: Yeah. I edited that actually. It's actually called The Playgirls and The Bellboy. The original title was The Bellboy and the Playgirls, and then they switched it around and it became a big hit because of the way people read the name; they saw the "playgirls" first.
Guillén: Makes sense, I guess. What was your involvement with The Wasp Woman? On IMdb you're listed as uncredited but it's not really your film?
Hill: No. It was a film that Roger had made. [On] quite a number of little films, the running time was too short for television. He was selling his whole library to television and some of the films were too short. It was only 70 minutes and they needed a [certain] minimum of time for TV. [Roger] assigned me this problem, to add 20 minutes to the running time of the picture. I had to figure out a way [to do that]. The actors were no longer available except one guy who couldn't see anymore and couldn't read a script. He was the only one who was available. I could get him. Basically, what I did was to write a kind of prelude to the film because I couldn't add anything to the story in any particular way without the actors. So I added a new beginning to it and I also added a few bits and pieces to tie that together in different parts of the movie just to pad it out. That was one of those learning experiences Roger had us do. Very valuable.
Guillén: It sounds like you learned a lot from Roger. Not the least of which was these creative strategies in response to low budgets.
Hill: Yes. I don't know whether I would have been able to do some of the things that I did without having had that training; but, Roger had a way of getting a maximum effect with a minimum of means. I see this mistake in expensive movies where they waste a big, expensive set by putting actors against a wall and showing them in close-up. Roger would bring his actors out in front so that you would always have space in the background, a feeling of more size and space, which makes you feel like it's a bigger picture. It doesn't look like it was shot in somebody's livingroom. And there were a lot of other tricks he would use to get a big look for very little money.
Guillén: You spoke so thoroughly about Pit Stop at yesterday's screening that I don't have a whole lot of questions about Pit Stop; but I did want to mention that I grew up in Brawley, California so that—when I saw those sand dunes—I recognized them immediately. As a youngster, I actually was part of that dune buggy culture. That footage of that gathering: where did that come from? Did you piggyback on some event that was going on?
Hill: Yeah. It was a real event and I wasn't really there for all of it, I sent my second unit guy out to do all the camera work. He was a guy named Frank Zuñiga. He later went on to do all these true life adventures for Disney, where you go out and sit in a blind for six weeks waiting for something to happen. He was a clever guy. He did most of the setting up and organizing of the dune buggy [scene].
Guillén: Jack, I have to admit that I loved Pit Stop and I'm not a car person. I don't even drive. I've never even had a license. Cars are not my thing at all. And yet I sat riveted in the theater. That Figure 8 stock car racing was unbelievable!
Hill: It is, isn't it?
Guillén: So your comments about how you were hoping to catch a slice of Americana for foreign markets, you did it! You caught something. Do they even do that anymore?
Hill: I heard recently that they do, in the South. They have some tracks down there where they do that.
Guillén: Still some crazy people down there, huh?
Hill: Yeah. Texas probably. [Laughs.]
Guillén: And the editing was phenomenal. It was so tense. I actually chewed my thumbnail down to the quick.
Hill: I'm sorry.
Guillén: It made me so nervous, especially every time two cars would just miss. When they collided, that was a relief.
Hill: That was the fun of it. Hair-raising.
Guillén: Turning to your current collaboration with Mark Atkins. The two of you are reworking the scripts you wrote for the Boris Karloff tetralogy—House of Evil, Isle of the Living Dead (alternately, Isle of the Snake People), The Incredible Invasion, and The Fear Chamber—which you wrote for Mexican director Juan Ibáñez. I wasn't clear about one thing: are you taking the original Karloff footage and reworking it into a new vehicle?
Hill: No. We're making totally new films.
Guillén: Will you redo them with the same actor in all four films like Karloff did before?
Guillén: There was a period of time—because of the way distribution patterns shifted in the U.S. and before the video/dvd revolution—when your films were forgotten; when, in effect, you didn't have a film career.
Guillén: What were you doing?
Hill: I did scripts, which got made, a couple of them. One was for a Mexican company and I was supposed to direct it but the producer, again, just before I fell into the same problems.
Guillén: You have a lot of trouble with Mexicans, don't you?
Hill: [Chuckles.] Yeah. I've had quite a bit to do with them. Then I wrote scripts that were done in a Canadian co-production so they had to have a Canadian re-writers and directors. My last film I directed ended up being called Sorceress.
Guillén: That was a Corman flick also, wasn't it?
Hill: Yeah. That's a long story that's kind of depressing. I don't want to go into it. I had to take my name off of the picture.
Guillén: Corman didn't come through with what he promised, is my understanding?
Hill: Yeah, right. So I took my name off of that. For a long time I was doing writing and then I fell into Groucho's paradox, where he said, "I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member." The only [films] that people could really see me doing, I didn't want to do. I didn't want to do exploitation films anymore. I wanted to do real movies. It's ironic that the kind of films that I did are [now] almost considered a legitimate art form. At the time I wanted to get out of them.
Guillén: They are art! And that's an advantageous perspective you have that's so intriguing. You had this period of time where—you didn't go away and were still creating—but, for all effects and purposes your career was at a lapse. Then video brought your films back and a new audience discovered you and loved you, Tarantino among them. Is this a conflict for you? That this new audience is still appealing to your old films when you want to move on? Or are you being able to use that rekindled interest in your old films to move on?
Hill: Of course it helps a lot that my name is known and I got a little bit of respect for movies that were not respected at the time. That helps a lot. But the issue for me right now is finding the right [film] that somebody will let me do. You can't get financing. My wife and I have written a romantic comedy set in England that we've been trying to get done for a couple of years and there has been some interest in it, but….
Guillén: Is that A Perfect Wife?
Hill: Yeah, it's called A Perfect Wife. It's a beautiful script, the best work I've ever done, y'know? But a Jack Hill romantic comedy sounds like a joke so I have to do some other films first….
Guillén: It's like you have to start all over!
Hill: Yeah. I need to get one film out that gets attention so that I can be in a position myself that I can have the [creative control] to do a film like that.
Guillén: I would say that yesterday, watching Pit Stop, you meant for that to be an art film and it is an art film. Not only is it a valuable and historically significant slice of Americana, but it has this Mephistophelian theme that's universal. As I said before, I watch so many movies as a film writer, so many of them negligible, but I loved Pit Stop. This is a really good movie.
Hill: Thank you.
Guillén: So yesterday when Mark asked who among the audience wanted to see a new Jack Hill film and everyone cheered, that's a clear signal that we're hungry for your work, your vision, and we can only keep our fingers crossed that some producer who's paying attention will take a chance on your romantic comedy. I understand you also have another project emulating the '40s era of Warner Brothers? Tangier?
Hill: That's one I've been trying to get done for 20 years. It's a script written by a friend of mine, a very good writer, and I rewrote it heavily. It's a script that everyone who reads it thinks it's a great script; but, it's so offbeat they don't quite know what to do with it. It's the kind of [vehicle] where I'd have to get a major star attached to it in order to get it done. It's not a small film.
Guillén: Is it known that you're looking for a major star to get attached to the project? How does that work?
Hill: Nobody knows how it works. It's tough to do.
Guillén: And even moreso these days, it seems. You're saying it's a little offbeat and eccentric that people don't know what to do with it; yet, that was the allure of film in the '60s and the '70s and now most Hollywood product seems so homogenized and repetitive. Or it's a remake of a remake of a remake.
Hill: Well, this one is really original. There's never been anything quite like it. It's a really clever story. But another thing against it, it's a period picture. It's set in 1938. I will get it done someday.
Guillén: I really hope so, Jack. Thank you so much for your time today. I genuinely appreciate it. Enjoy the rest of your visit!
Cross-published on Twitch.