Thursday, January 31, 2008

NOIR CITY 6—Eddie Muller Intro to 20th Century Fox Doublebill: Hangover Square and Dangerous Crossing

Matt Sussman's write up of Noir City for the San Francisco Bay Guardian is some of his most elegant writing to date and a seminal read to grasp one of the main undercurrents in this year's program lineup. Astutely entitled "Noir or Not?", Matt's overview discerns: "Perhaps more than past incarnations, Noir City 6 makes a case for film noir as a set of stylistic conventions—or, alternately, for noir as an inspired malaise that permeates a film like stale cigarette smoke—rather than something hard-and-fast that sports a time stamp."

Eddie Muller pleads a similar case. "As many of you know who have attended this festival over the years, my definition of film noir can be somewhat elastic. It is not so elastic as to include The Poseidon Adventure." Muller was referring to the Castro Theatre's marquee, freshly-painted to its '70s grandeur and dressed specifically for the evening filming of Gus Van Sant's Milk. While waiting in line, Noir City aficionados were treated to Sean Penn and James Franco re-enacting a '70s police raid on the resurrected Toad Hall; a gay bar that—though re-situated on Castro Street for filming—remains fixed in my memory as a favorite watering hole after getting off work as a waiter at Fanny's Cabaret during what is now termed "the Castro Fluorescence". Watching the re-enacted fracas of police and gays in front of Toad Hall—endeavored four or five times—reminded me that you have several takes with filmmaking and only one shot with true history.

I feel blessed and forever changed for having taken part in these events when they occurred and heartened to know that our struggle for liberation has not come to naught. Young queers have inherited what strides were made by their elder brethren and—as fickle as Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs might be—their main concern at present is that, hopefully, Milk will at least be a good movie. I did make a group of onlookers laugh by commenting, "Oh no, this is historically inaccurate." "How so?" one guy bit. "The cops are much too thin," I smiled.

"I hope none of you were confused by the marquee out in front," Muller apologized. "Tonight's program is, in fact, sponsored by 20th Century Fox, which in the past several years has put out a terrific line of Fox film noir classics on DVD. 20th Century Fox is one of the studios that—I'm happy to say—has done a terrific job of maintaining their library and not letting films deteriorate. I'm not sure they understand what film noir actually is, but they do know not to let the films deteriorate. I'm very happy that they are on board with the Noir City Film Festival; they've been great supporters of ours for the last several years and that's all a very very good thing.

"The film that we're going to start off with tonight—just to show you how difficult it sometimes is to figure out what qualifies as noir and what does not—I was waiting for Hangover Square to appear in the Fox film noir series; but, somebody in charge at Fox felt that Hangover Square was a horror film and not a film noir movie so it was released separately on DVD as part of the brand-new Fox Horror Classics series of DVDs. The reason why I will stress to you that I think Hangover Square really is a film noir and not a horror film is that it's based on a book, a novel by Patrick Hamilton, that is a definitive noir written in 1941, pre-Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside of Me and it is very much an inside look at the mind of a killer.

"[Hamilton's] story of Hangover Square is set in London in 1939. The protagonist is not, in fact, a concert pianist. It's really a very noir novel, but when Fox bought the rights to the novel and decided to turn it into a film, somehow it ended up being set in London in 1903 instead. I don't really get it; but, this is the way it works in Hollywood. Laird Cregar, Barré Lyndon (who wrote the screenplay for this film) and John Brahm, the director, had made a film called The Lodger that was very successful for 20th Century Fox. The Lodger was an adaptation, if you will, of the Jack the Ripper saga. They had great success with that so they thought, 'Let's do that, again!'—the time-honored Hollywood tradition—so they took Patrick Hamilton's novel that had been set in 1939 London and decided they would make it something else: a period costume drama.

"…The main thing about this film that I wanted to tell you about is the star Laird Cregar, who was one of the most unique and formidable actors of the early 1940s. If you're familiar with his work—I Wake Up Screaming and The Lodger—he's very unique; he's a handsome heavy. He was from Pennsylvania, came out to Hollywood, desperately wanted to be an actor, always had weight problems and didn't really fit the profile of the handsome leading man. He got Hollywood's attention by doing what we now call "a Billy Bob": he invested his own money into putting on a stage play in a theatre on Hollywood Boulevard where he did a one-man show as Oscar Wilde. It became a sensation in Hollywood and everybody had to go see Laird Cregar do this performance. That's what got him his contract with 20th Century Fox. But he was so unusual and unique that he was not going to be leading man material. They found a niche for him as a sophisticated heavy in the movies. Literally, he was a heavy, weighing upwards of 300 pounds.

"Hangover Square was tailored for him in the wake of his success in The Lodger. Cregar was a big man with a hidden Tyrone Power lurking within him. I don't mean that facetiously. That's really the way he thought of himself. He desperately wanted to be a romantic leading man. When he made this picture, he went on a crash diet to lose all his weight. This diet was so drastic that it actually induced a heart attack and he died at 29 years of age. That ended his career two months before Hangover Square was released. That's noir. [As a noir trivia note, Cregar's death lost him a role he was being groomed for; that of Waldo Lydecker in Laura. The part went to Clifton Webb upon Cregar's death.]

"[Hangover Square] is exceptional and—as we noted in the program—we're broadening the definition of noir and seeing how the audience reacts. We're stretching things to get out of the rain-slick streets and the mid-20th century American metropolis to see what else is out there in this world of noir. Hangover Square definitely qualifies. You'll also get to see one of my favorite gals in noir, Linda Darnell. One of the great features of this film—besides the amazing Joseph LaShelle cinematography—is one of Bernard Herrmann's greatest scores. The film builds to the concerto macabre.

"Those of you who might have been here on Saturday night to see The Prowler and Gun Crazy and a little film called The Grand Inquisitor, I want you to know that—when we made that film with Marsha Hunt—it was so amazingly delightful to work with her because when you'd break for lunch, you'd be scarfing down food and Marsha would tell you stories about when Orson Welles came over for dinner and how 'Benny' (Bernard Herrmann) lived down the block from her and they were really good friends. He would come over and cry on her shoulder about how the studios didn't understand his genius.

"I'm really excited about showing Hangover Square and broadening the definition of noir. We have a beautiful print from 20th Century Fox to show you tonight. On March 11, they release the next wave—as they call it—in their DVD series. You tell me if Daisy Kenyon and Dangerous Crossing and Black Widow are noir or not—I don't really know—but, we love 20th Century Fox regardless!"

After Hangover Square screened, Muller returned to the Castro stage and admitted, "I don't know about you, but I don't really care about the definition of noir. I just wanted to see the concerto macabre on this screen. That was great!"

Adding an extra "noir note"—which Muller didn't want to discuss preceding Hangover Square—"As weird as it was discussing poor Laird Cregar's demise, how bizarre is it," Muller queried, "that Linda Darnell would actually die in a fire in real life [as she does in the film]? Completely freakish at only 40 years of age. She was visiting friends in a suburb of Chicago and fell asleep smoking a cigarette while watching her own movie Stardust on TV. Quite tragic."

Reiterating what he intimated earlier in the evening, Muller professed to not knowing what Fox is doing releasing some of these movies as film noir. Dangerous Crossing, the next film in the program, is not a movie that Muller under normal circumstances would classify as a film noir. "If you read a lot of noir literature," he said, "as well as watch a lot of noir movies, you clearly understand the distinction between certain writers who do this kind of thing—Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich, Charles Willeford—these guys who write noir fiction. The author of Dangerous CrossingJohn Dickson Carr—is never put in this group of writers. He is a specialist in what is known in the mystery field as the 'locked room mystery'. What distinguishes this type of fiction from noir fiction is that it's extremely plot-heavy. It's a puzzle movie. Something absolutely unbelievable transpires and the genius of the writing is in explaining how this could possibly have happened. Generally these stories unfold with a great premise and then there's 40 pages at the end of expository stuff explaining exactly how it happened. It's not the greatest climax in the world; like Simon Oakland at the end of Psycho standing there explaining the whole plot to you, right? Be that as it may, it does take a certain amount of genius to write these things and John Dickson Carr was legendary. He is considered to be the master of the locked room mystery. A novel he wrote called The Three Coffins is generally considered to be the finest example of the locked room mystery ever written.

"Dangerous Crossing was originally a radio play in Britain called 'Cabin B-13' that was created in 1943 and then it was transformed into a stage play and by 1953, 10 years later, the property was owned by 20th Century Fox and they decided to adapt it as a film starring Michael Rennie and Jeanne Crain. Jeanne Crain was a very popular actress of her time. She was one of those strange inbetween performers who didn't extend her charisma into the later decade. She's somewhat of a forgotten actress; but, she was hugely popular at this point and was one of 20th Century Fox's biggest stars. If you know Leave Her to Heaven with Gene Tierney, she was the 'other' woman."

With "noir or not" becoming the presiding theme of this year's Noir City, Muller encouraged his audience to offer feedback and to stop him in the theatre lobby to share opinions. "That's why this stuff remains so incredibly popular," he emphasized, "because we can actually stand there and argue about whether Noir City should be showing this or not."

Cross-published on Twitch.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

NOIR CITY 6—Diego Rivera's Cargador de Flores

The wonderful thing about watching noir films back to back at Noir City is that you spot associations you might otherwise not make. Armor Marlowe—set decorator for the opening night feature Repeat Performance (and a noirish name if ever I've heard one)—and Jacques Mapes—set decorator for the following night's feature The Prowler—both used Diego Rivera's painting "Cargador de Flores (1935)" as a set dressing. This struck me only because I recall seeing it in one of the Val Lewton films I recently reviewed for the Lewton blogathon. Now I have to go back and find out which Lewton film and somehow satisfy my curiosity concerning how many times Rivera's painting has been used as a set decoration and why? Aware that Hollywood was crucial in introducing Mexican art to the American public (Edgar G. Robinson was one of the first to buy Frida Kahlo's paintings, for example), I'm wondering if the usage of modern Mexican art in the 40s and 50s isn't comparable to the role of "Japanese taste" in films of the silent era; as a barometer of cultural sophistication? Discussing this with Alan Rode, he cautioned that I might never be able to secure clear answers. But I toss it out as a trivia question: have any of you seen this painting in a movie?

Coincidentally enough, this painting is part of the collection in San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art and
on their website Chicano artist Rupert Garcia—comparing "Cargador de Flores" to the Kahlo hung beside it—comments that in Rivera's painting "the people are insignificant; they're just like props." (Emphasis added.) The painting's formal attributes, he concludes, makes the painting "monumental."

Cross-published on Twitch.

NOIR CITY 6—Eddie Muller Intro to the "Dames Tough As Nails" Double Bill: A Woman In Hiding and Jeopardy

Crediting Bill Selby (art director) and David M. Allen (photographer) for creating the "noir exotica" poster for Noir City 6, Eddie Muller announced that the dress worn by the poster's "dragon lady" will be raffled off Friday night to raise further funds for the Film Noir Foundation and future noir restorations. "This is how we restore films at Noir City," Muller quipped, "We raffle off a woman's dress. Who needs all this high-tech stuff? This is like the old days. Let's go to the movies and win some dishes or one heckuva dress!" (Of related interest: David Allen has gathered his photos of Noir City 6 at Shutterfly.)

"I am not a dummy," Muller asserted, "Every Noir City we have a double-bill that's just about the dames. Because that's really why you people are coming out. 'I did it for the money and I did it for a woman. I didn't get the woman and I didn't get the money.' Pretty, huh? It is awful pretty when you see it up on the big screen. For some weird reason films like the ones you're going to see tonight are always called 'woman in jeopardy' movies, but I don't really understand because virtually all of film noir is 'somebody in jeopardy' movies and they don't specify that it's a 'man in jeopardy' movie but they always specify when it's a 'woman in jeopardy' movie."

Having raised the specter of gender parity in noir jeopardy, Muller then offered: "Do you really think that Ida Lupino and Barbara Stanwyck are ever really in jeopardy? I mean, these are the two toughest dames in Hollywood."

Reminding his audience that Ida Lupino was the only woman to direct a noir film at RKO—The Hitch-hiker (1953)—during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Muller promised to eventually screen The Hitch-hiker at Noir City. Though Lupino also directed a bunch of other great films, including The Bigamist (1953) and Not Wanted (1949)—where Elmer Clifton garnered the directorial honors while Lupino went uncredited—The Hitch-hiker is the film from Lupino's directorial oeuvre consistently included in the film noir filmography. Muller admitted that the reason he has hesitated screening The Hitch-hiker is because "there's no women!" It's a feature directed by a woman with an all-male cast. One can only hope that Muller will get over it and walk his talk regarding gender parity.

Muller thanked Bob O'Neill, vice-president of asset management at Universal Studios, for continuing to champion Noir City, especially by striking new prints at their expense specifically for the festival, which—of course—furthers the goal of the Film Noir Foundation "in the best possible way." This year Universal really came through for Noir City by striking brand-new prints of Night Of 1000 Eyes, Woman In Hiding, and The Story of Molly X. Further, Muller related that when he visits Universal's vice-president of distribution Paul Ginsburg once or twice a year, Ginsburg's office walls are decorated with nothing but Noir City posters.

With regard to Woman In Hiding, Muller commented: "I'm sure a lot of you know that Howard Duff—who played the good guy in Woman In Hiding—was married to Ida Lupino. They actually met making this film. That hokey, happy ending where they go off and get married was actually true." Despite the fact that advertising for Noir City 6 promised no happy endings, Muller excused Woman In Hiding.

"There was another actor," Muller advised, "who was cast to play [Duff's role of Keith Ramsey]. This actor broke his leg a couple of weeks before the film started production. I want you to comprehend what could have happened if this guy had not fallen down and broken his leg, because that other actor was Ronald Reagan. Think about it! The course of American history could have changed if Reagan had not broken his leg. He would have played that part. He would have fallen in love with Ida Lupino. He would have been happy playing second fiddle to the smartest woman in Hollywood, instead of going on to fall in love with some power-mad crazy bitch with delusions of grandeur who drives him all the way to the White House! Think about it! Then again, maybe Ida Lupino might have ended up being First Lady? Who knows?"

Along with Lupino starring in Woman In Hiding, the evening's doublebill included Barbara Stanwyck in Jeopardy (originally entitled Woman in Jeopardy but condensed to basics), a film where Muller points out "she almost meets her match in Ralph Meeker, who was one of the great, lunk-headed, mean thugs in movie history." Muller admits one of his favorite moments in film noir history is watching Barbara Stanwyck and Ralph Meeker "go toe to toe."

"When they say, 'They don't make them like that anymore,' " Muller prefaced, "It's absolutely true. Because if you are like me, you too feel that every movie that comes out of Hollywood today is 20 minutes too long. Every single one; 20 minutes too long. Back then they actually said, 'You know what? This movie is too long. Let's make it shorter. Isn't there some way we can make it shorter? Cut it! Make it shorter. Make it tighter. We can do it!' Jeopardy is 68 minutes long. It's fabulous! It doesn't need to be 69 minutes long, no, it's 68 minutes long. That's what you loved about the old days when you went to the movies and saw a double-feature, because they weren't afraid to make a movie that was 68 minutes long."

Cross-published on Twitch.

Monday, January 28, 2008

NOIR CITY 6—The Grand Inquisitor

Eddie Muller expressed a note of chagrin when I advised him that I had read his short story "The Grand Inquisitor" in Megan Abbott's anthology A Hell Of A Woman. He was concerned it would ruin the film version for me. Granted, the story's plot punch is somewhat anchored to the element of surprise; but, I had other reasons to look forward to Noir City's world premiere presentation of The Grand Inquisitor. Primarily, the return to the screen of Marsha Hunt after a nearly 30-year absence. As well as hometown pride in the film's local pedigree: produced by Anita Monga, directed by Eddie Muller, filmed by Jonathan Marlow, and edited by Hannah Eaves.

Muller's imaginative spin on San Francisco's notorious Zodiac killings is not only a riveting short story but an effective piece of film as well, especially because of Marsha Hunt's portrayal of Hazel Reedy, "a milky-eyed recluse with a past darker than she can bear." At 90 years old, Hunt's charisma is still commanding. You can't keep your eyes off her.

Admitting that "some clown abused his power as festival host" to sandwich The Grand Inquisitor between two topnotch Dalton Trumbo features, the world premiere was introduced by the "Queenpin of Noir" Megan Abbott. Abbott wanted a contribution from Eddie Muller for her anthology "not just because of his ravishing film noir books or his sublime glamour-drenched 1940s novels Shadow Boxer and The Distance; but, because in all his fiction he's always written wonderful virtuoso female characters."

After begging, cajoling, and asking several times for a contribution, Muller finally agreed and—though the son of a newspaper man and a newspaper man himself—he didn't bust deadline twice turning in his story. The wait was worth it, however, as "The Grand Inquisitor" is "an eerie, utterly seductive story of two women filled with dark secrets circling each other" that likewise reminded Abbott of "Little Red Riding Hood directed by Jacques Tourneur." A short month later Muller advised Abbott that "The Grand Inquisitor" was no longer just a short story; it had been adapted into a screenplay and production had started on the film.

After the film's enthusiastic Noir City reception, Marsha Hunt took the stage to accept her standing ovation. Once the applause subsided, she remarked, "I came back to life just to see this. And to see you again, this audience. This very night is the anniversary of our first meeting. A year ago tonight, I met most of you. You're a faithful audience; you keep coming. And what an audience you are! You must be bursting with pride for his very first motion picture; Eddie Muller's first!" Hunt then called for Muller to join her on stage.

Muller thanked Jonathan Marlow not only for his cinematography but because—after Marlow read the short story—he said to Eddie, "There's a movie. Let's just make it." Muller responded, "C'mon, where are we going to get somebody to play Hazel Reedy?" Marlow rallied, "Call Marsha! Ask her!"

Marsha agreed and flew up to Alameda to film her sequence over four days. Muller said there was only one anecdote he really wanted to share about how professional an actress Marsha Hunt is. After reading the script she asked him, "Do I really have to smoke that much?" He thought, "Wow, either Marsha has never smoked or she quit a long habit; one or the other." It ended up being the latter and Muller apologized but told her she would indeed have to smoke that much because it was part of her character. They went to great pains to secure herbal cigarettes "that everyone smokes in the movies now"; but, Marsha Hunt—after trying the herbal cigarettes the day before they started shooting—insisted on smoking Pall Malls when she arrived on set for the first day's shoot. "Her reason for it was not what you might think," Muller explained. With complete professionalism, Hunt warned Muller that the herbal cigarettes would burn too quickly and he would have a hell of a time with continuity.

"I do want to compliment the members of the crew who are here," Hunt specified. "We worked in—as you saw—very close quarters. There were no dressing rooms. There were no usual conveniences handy. But we all worked with—I don't know—a kind of joy. This is what was so baffling, that a story as noir as a story could get would be such a pleasure to make. I hadn't worked for—what?—25-30 years and it was in a film by Dalton Trumbo." Muller identified that film as Johnny Got His Gun from 1971; a film that Dalton Trumbo not only wrote but the only film Trumbo ever directed.

Marsha Hunt expanded: "Johnny Got His Gun was a bestselling book in the wake of World War I. It was the definitive war-is-hell book. It was so shattering for people to read about what war could do to such a lovely, live young man and it haunted the nation for many years. It haunted Dalton, who so wanted it filmed. He couldn't get it done until, finally, he did it himself. It won first prize at the Cannes festival."

Marsha then invited her co-actress Leah Dashe to the stage. I was familiar with Leah's work, having seen her in Eddie Muller's adaptation of the Grand Guignol classic Orgy in the Lighthouse presented by Thrillpeddlers last Valentines Day.

"Marsha was amazing to work with," Leah effused, "as I'm sure you can all imagine. My first film ever with Marsha Hunt who's done 63 films. …As Marsha told me the first day that I met her when we came into the room and all the crew members were there—they stood up and gave her a standing ovation the minute they saw her—I stepped aside and Marsha took my hand and she said, 'No. No, we don't do that. We bow.' " She and Marsha then bowed to their cheering audience.

Cross-published on Twitch.

NOIR CITY 6—James Ellroy Intro to Dalton Trumbo Doublebill

With arms akimbo and legs planted firmly apart, James Ellroy delivered a hardboiled (and hilarious!) introduction to Noir City's doublebill of Gun Crazy (1950) and The Prowler (1951), both written by the infamously-blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Not only is Trumbo the uncredited screenwriter on The Prowler—screened at Noir City in a sprarkling new restoration print—but his voice can be heard as the voice of John Gilvray, the night-time radio DJ.

Ellroy explains that he is to Los Angeles what Eddie Muller is to San Francisco. He is Robert Ryan, the tall, imperiously goodlooking psychopath to Eddie Muller's sweaty, evil opportunist Edmund O'Brien. He incants:

* * *

Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I'm James Ellroy, the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, and the slick trick with the donkey dick. I'm the author of 16 books, masterpieces all; they precede all my future masterpieces. These books will leave you reamed, steamed and drycleaned, tie-dyed, swept to the side, true-blued, tattooed and bah fongooed. These are books for the whole fuckin' family, if the name of your family is the Manson Family.

If each and every one of you buys 1000 copies, you will be able to have unlimited sex with each and every person on this earth that you desire every night for the rest of your lives. If each and every one of you buys 2000 copies of my books tonight, you will be able to have unlimited sex with each and every person on this earth that you desire every night for the rest of your lives and still get into heaven as the result of a special dispensation signed by me, The Reverend Ellroy. If each and every one of you buys 3000 copies of my books tonight, you get all that sex, you get into heaven, and—for the first time in its tortured, left, queer counterculture existence—San Francisco will rule the world!

T.S. Eliot wrote if you came this way, starting from anywhere, at any time and in any season, you'd have to cross such a notion. You are not here to instruct or sell or to inform curiosity or to carry a report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been proven valid and for me, James Ellroy, the death dog of American literature, prayer has been proven valid at one spot and one spot only: L.A., my smog-bound fatherland where I was born at the dead-cold center of the film noir era.

Thank you for coming. I realize you had options tonight. You could have stayed home and attended to your sex lives and your drug habits and your dubious San Francisco politics; but, you didn't! You came here to see three great movies, Eddie Muller and me because you love noir and you know what the central theme of film noir is: you're fucked. You just met a woman. You're two seconds away from your most redemptive love and the greatest sex of your life; but, within four short weeks, you will be railroaded into the gas chamber at San Francisco's San Quentin prison, framed for a crime that you did not commit. And as the pellets drop in the sulphuric acid, your last grateful thought will be of her because it's film noir and you're fucked.

It's 1934 and you're socially conscious. You're left. You're queer. You're San Francisco and you go to a commie meeting. Then you turn straight and you get a great great studio job as a screenwriter (pant, pant, pant) but your name's on a list and 24 years later some flat-topped fascist grey-suited fed pulls you in just as you've met the woman and—in four short weeks—you're framed for a crime you did not commit. You didn't even get laid and—as the pellets drop—your last grateful thought will be of her because it's film noir and you're fucked, with such great, surpassing, insolent, gorgeous style.

In 1951, Joseph Losey and Dalton Trumbo struck a masterpiece of sexual creepiness, institutional corruption and suffocating, ugly passion. You will need antidepressants, booze, drugs and bleak anonymous sex after you see this movie and—believe me—you are in the perfect city to find that! The great Dalton Trumbo wrote it, the great Joseph Losey directed it, Evelyn Keyes and Van Heflin in The Prowler.

* * *

Eddie Muller then took stage and shouted that—if anyone buys one of his books—he would promise to sign it. He contextualized that Ellroy had told him that The Prowler was his favorite movie and—when it came time to hit up people for hard money to get the film restored—"guess who I went to first?" Ellroy brazenly milked his applause. But Muller qualified that it was not only Ellroy's financial backing but all the people in the audience and all the tickets sold at Noir City that made up the bulk of the war chest that made the restoration print possible.

At last year's Noir City festival, on the second night, they were forced to screen a 16mm print of Cry Danger with Dick Erdman present as a guest, and it was very disappointing that no 35mm prints of that film existed. One year later, Muller is delighted to announce that his dear friends at the UCLA Film and Television Archive have advised him that the elements for Cry Danger have now been found and soon Noir City will be seeing a restored 35mm print. Muller introduced Todd Weiner in the audience, his point man at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, as well as Nancy Mizell, the woman who spearheaded the restoration of The Prowler and managed it through to its completion. With added pride, Eddie announced that Christopher Trumbo was in the audience representing his father.

"We are here tonight to honor all the writers," Muller added, "but specifically one writer. You will not see his name appear on either of the movies that you will see tonight. That is because he was blacklisted at the height of his career and he had to do all this work using fronts. I'm going to put him in a tie with Ben Hecht as my favorite screenwriter of all time."

Cross-published at Twitch.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

NOIR CITY 6—The Evening Class Interview With Editor Megan Abbot and a Handful of Writers from A Hell Of A Woman

Kneeling before each and every one of them as if they were the pantheon capriciously in command of my life at that given moment, I took advantage of Noir City's book signing for A Hell Of A Woman (Busted Flush Press, 2007) to speak to "Queenpin" Megan Abbot—the anthology's editor—and to several of the contributors to the volume.

In her introduction to the anthology, Megan Abbot explains: "The women in these pages are climbers, dreamers, hustlers, holders of secret truths tucked close to their shuddering chests. They're both hardscrabble and manor-born, regal yet gutter-sprung. They're guileless and stout-hearted. They're steely and smooth as silk. They're love-riddled and heartbreakers. They're shopworn angels and stone-cold dazzlers, avenging angels and knights in shining armor. We have a boxing cutman with a fierce heart, a trailer park Madonna whom neither man nor nature can vanquish. We have a police detective with a wicked bluff and a housewife with hidden steel. We have one, two, three waitresses, dreamers all, and a milky-eyed recluse with a past darker than she can bear. We have a country girl, lashed with fear, finding her chance to make things right. And they all bear secrets heavy as this blue, sick world can hold." (2007:5)

Kneeling Before the Queenpin

Michael Guillén: So does Eddie Muller call you "The Queenpin" because of your book of the same name?

Megan Abbott: I think so, yes.

Guillén: How did you go about gathering these voices for your anthology? What strikes me most about these stories is that I can hear these characters telling them. There's a strength to the narrative personas.

Abbott: The idea was to take these women on the fringes of most noir—characters that wouldn't keep the center because they're not traditional femme fatale or woman in distress—and move them from the fringes to the center. Among the authors there was a revelatory feeling that they were finally getting a chance to speak for these kinds of characters that always interested them…. There was an enthusiasm among the authors to write about the diner waitress, or the secretary or the postal worker and give them the full glamour noir treatment.

Guillén: Forgive me if this sounds too simplistic; but, what is the value of such an exercise?

Abbott: These were things we talked about early on. There's a sense that noir is a man's game but I actually don't think that's true, which film festivals like Noir City show; when you show a full range of noir films beyond the traditional canon, for instance. There are great virtuoso female parts. The same with noir fiction. Our idea was to draw attention to that and to expand our definition of noir from that of a hard-boiled tough guy and the woman with the long legs, which is such a cliché.

Guillén: How has the book been received as you've been taking it around?

Abbott: It's been very well received. It got really good reviews. I think there was a desire for it. It's time had come. We were lucky. We were in the right place at the right time. I've heard actually that there's a new anthology going to be coming based on the success of A Hell Of A Woman about women pulp writers; bringing back and rescuing forgotten female pulp writers.

Guillén: I noticed that—other than for your intro—you didn't include one of your own short stories in this collection?

Abbott: No. I felt a little funny about doing that. Picking myself as one of the 25 seemed fascist.

Kneeling Before David Corbett

David Corbett's contribution to the anthology is situated in an Appendix aptly named "Women in the Dark" where "an array of authors, booksellers, critics and film aficionados pay homage to favorite noir writers, characters and performers." I had a question for him regarding "I Re-Dream Mrs. Dietrichson."

Guillén: Does poet Kim Addonizio know you're casting her in the role of Double Indemnity's Phyllis Dietrichson?

Eddie Muller: [Interjecting] He sends her copies of it every day. Every day he drops it in her mail box.

David Corbett: Please, Kim, please! No. I sent it to her friend Dorianne Laux. I figured that she'd forward it to her; but, I've never heard from Kim about it.

Kneeling Before the "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller
Eddie Muller's contribution to A Hell Of A Woman is a story entitled "The Grand Inquisitor", which—since publication—has morphed into a screenplay and then into a film. The film version of The Grand Inquisitor, in fact, was a mere few hours away from its world premiere.

Guillén: Are you excited about your premiere?

Eddie Muller: Uh, yeah. I'm very excited. It's great to have done this for Marsha Hunt. I'm more excited for Marsha. It keeps me calm.

Guillén: We were talking yesterday and she told me she hasn't seen the film yet.

Muller: She has not seen it. I didn't intend it to work out this way to keep her in suspense. I've tried to show it to her, but we've had technical problems that have kept me from showing it to her. The same thing happened when I showed it to Megan on my laptop in New York. I invited her up to see my film to some fifth floor walk-up, this little garret in the East Village. She didn't know what was happening! We got almost to the end and then it froze. It's not like she didn't know the story. She was the first one to read this story and know how it ends.
Kneeling Before Sara Gran
Sara Gran contributed "The Token Booth Clerk" to A Hell Of A Woman. She is the author of the novels Dope, Come Closer, and Saturn's Return to New York. Her work has been published in nine languages and fourteen countries. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times and the New Orleans Times Picayune.

Guillén: "The Token Booth Clerk" is an absorbing study of the transitory importance urban strangers have on each others' lives. Where did this story come from?

Sara Gran: Taking the subway every day for 30 years.

Guillén: How did you find the voice for this character? What was it like for you to write in the persona of a man, or is that a stupid question?

Gran: It's not a stupid question; I just don't know. I don't know if you write; but, you just do it. I always feel stupid because I don't know how to answer questions like that.

Guillén: I don't mean to put you on the spot; it's just that it struck me interesting that in an anthology of women's voices, you chose to write as a man.

Gran: I had written the story previously. I didn't write it for the anthology. I'd written it a while ago and I'm friends with Megan. As soon as she asked for a story, I thought, "Well, maybe this will fit the bill." I usually write in a female narrative. That's about the only thing I've written through the voice of a male. I tried to write a book first person male and I found it was challenging. I ended up not finishing it for a number of reasons.
Kneeling Before Christa Faust
An admitted cynical, hardboiled bitch with a fetish for noir cinema, tattoos and seamed stockings, Christa Faust is older than you think and younger than she feels. She's got great gams and perfect size five feet, if you can handle the razor-edged tongue that goes with them. Her contribution "Cutman" to A Hell Of A Woman was one of my hands-down favorites for its cajones (yes, she's got 'em) butch dyke persona.

Guillén: Great story. How did you find the voice for this character?

Christa Faust: It seemed very natural. It just kinda came out that way.

Guillén: Do you have a boxing background? You evoked the ring excellently.

Faust: I'm a fight fan. I enjoy that whole world.

Guillén: And the story had a great twist to end its tale. I'm glad she got away. I'm glad she wasn't punished for what she did.

Faust: But in a way it's sadder because women get it up to do something like that and then nothing happens. She built up so much to do this murder and then she might as well not have murdered at all. It's kinda sad in a lot of ways and very noir, of course.
Kneeling Before Cornelia Read
Cornelia Read is the acclaimed author of A Field of Darkness and—more recently—The Crazy School, both which feature the acerbic and memorable voice of ex-debutante Madeline Dare. The voyeuristically perverse "Hungry Enough" was her contribution to A Hell Of A Woman.

Guillén: Where did you come up with this grisly idea?

Cornelia Read: I had a friend who was a starlet in the '80s. She told me that Sylvester Stallone had a suspended slab of glass above his bed and liked to hire blonde girls to wrestle on it and that they were paid extra if they got all "messy". The other thing was I had a stepfather who was in early television in L.A. and his secretary saw a rich producer in the pool one brunch at Belair. She was in high heels and a bikini and she pointed at him and said, "Hey you, out of the pool."

Guillén: One of the sexiest come-on lines ever!

Read: Yeah, that's one of the great family stories. And then my mother always said, "I love driving drunk" and a friend of mine who I once repeated that to looked at me and said, "Of course you do. It's so easy." So it was all that and so much fun to write. I hadn't done a short story since college.

Guillén: And I like how—towards the end—these two women were allowed to get away with their murder.

Read: It was interesting because most of the stuff that I write is vaguely autobiographical so to really be in somebody else's head and make something up from scratch and then see where that takes you was like almost doing improvisations.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Friday, January 25, 2008

2008 OSCARS—On Your Mark Red Ribbon Runners!!

Each year when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences officially announces their nominations, I momentarily wax nostalgic thinking back on the individuals I've had the chance to talk with in the preceding year who find themselves looking skyward at the starting gun.

This year in the category of Best Actor in a Leading Role, I sat down with Viggo Mortensen when he and David Cronenberg were in town promoting Eastern Promises. He was thoroughly down to Earth and gave me an inscribed copy of one of his books. Our conversation was published by Greencine on their main site.

In the category of Best Actress in a Leading Role, Omar Moore and I chatted it up with Laura Linney when she was in town promoting The Savages. That conversation is up on The Evening Class. I'm booked to interview Marion Cotillard this coming Tuesday and that interview has been optioned by Greencine. I'll advise when that goes up.

I drank coffee with Marjane Satrapi and interviewed Vincent Paronnaud, the co-creators of Persepolis, nominated for Best Animated Feature. Both the Satrapi and the Paronnaud pieces are up on The Evening Class.

Tony Gilroy, nominated for both Best Achievement in Directing and Best Original Screenplay, proved thoroughly charming and fascinating when we spoke during his tour through San Francisco. That piece will be going up on Greencine on February 18, timed to its DVD release and just in time for the Oscars.

I'm booked to interview Stefan Ruzowitzky when he passes through San Francisco in the next couple of weeks and will advise when that goes up. His film The Counterfeiters—which I wasn't sure anyone would want to see—has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. I'm glad I underestimated his audiences.

"Falling Slowly" is just one of the tunes composed by Glenn Hansard and Marketa Irglova from the Once soundtrack that I couldn't stop humming for weeks. I'm delighted it's been nominated for Best Original Song, just as I was equally delighted in talking to the two of them. That conversation is up at SF360, with a personal aside on The Evening Class.

Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski seemed coy considering their chances for an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short when I assured them it was in the bag. Madame Tutli-Putli is a marvelous testament of creativity and my lunch with the two of them one of my favorite meals ever; up on The Evening Class.

So how's that for namedropping? I assure you, the pleasure is all mine.

01/28/08 UPDATE: Dishearteningly, it's now possible that "Falling Slowly" may be disqualified from the original song category, per David Carr at The New York Times.

Cross-published on Twitch.


At times—when I look back on my life—I feel positively feline. In one of my previous lives I was a full scholar for the San Francisco C.G. Jung Institute, helping out with their public programs and serving as Precolumbian consultant to the ARAS Archives. This opportunity lasted nearly 20 years and provided an education I could neither have anticipated nor afforded were it not for my scholarship status. I met and learned from incredible personalities at that time, not the least of which was Dr. John Beebe, whose psychological explorations of films and filmmakers taught me some of the tools I still use to this day in evaluating film. Specifically, he taught me the many ways one can "enter" a film and the role the psychology of a filmmaker has in their creative expression. I remember learning as much about the psyches of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch as teasing out psychological particulars in their films.

Committed to his professional practice, it's been a while since Dr. Beebe has taught on film in the Bay Area and I'm delighted to announce that the current Public Programs brochure for the C.G. Jung Institute includes not only a day seminar with Dr. Beebe but two equally intriguing programs in upcoming months.

Cinematic Expressions of the Anima: A Day With the Feminine in Film

Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World and Jean Vigo's L'Atalante are the two films Dr. Beebe has selected to be shown together. Both are recognized film classics possessed of abundant charm, humor, poignancy, and vitality and cherished by connoisseurs; yet since their first release neither has reached a mainstream audience. This is because they challenge conventions of narrative cinema to make room for an expression of the unconscious. They privilege the image over narrative, and they complicate the masculine hero myth with another archetypal pattern, the realization and revaluation of the feminine. Both have strikingly original soundtracks, and both draw anachronistically on silent film techniques. Both are unusually short for the archetypal ground they cover. The first, The Heart of the World, was prepared for the 25th anniversary of the Toronto International Film Festival, is only six minutes long, and purports to offer a founding myth on cinema itself. It was chosen by Vincent Canby of The New York Times as one of the 10 best films of the year 2000, surely a first for a film so short.

The second, L'Atalante, by the seminal French auteur Jean Vigo, is often selected as one of the 10 best films of all time. It tells the story of early days in the marriage of a provincial French woman with longings to sophisticate herself in Paris, to a river barge captain, who plies the river Seine. Her life aboard the barge, whose name is "L'Atalante", is complicated by the presence of a first mate, an old sea salt played by the great French comedian Michel Simon, who has a strong Breton brogue and a possessive attitude both toward the boat and the husband. His belated recognition of the value of a woman to this masculine set-up is one of the most moving transformations ever recorded. With Dita Parlo as the unhappy bride, who manages to survive the mother complexes of the sailors after leaving her own mother following the wedding that is filmed like a funeral.

John Beebe will introduce each film. After each film has been shown in full, he will lead the participants in a discussion of the psychological implications of its imagery, demonstrating what it has to tell us about the role of the feminine in ensouling and centering the self, and about masculine attitudes that block and enable the psyche's ability to manifest wholeness. Dr. Beebe is a member analyst of the C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco. He has been teaching the Jungian understanding of film since 1981, when he gave his first weekend workshop for the Institute's Public Programs entitled "Film as Active Imagination"—which I attended. His reviews of movies have appeared in The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal and Jung Journal: Culture and Psyche, and his articles on film as a medium for psychological expression have appeared in numerous journals and books. This year, with Jungian analyst Virginia Apperson, he will be publishing his first full-length book applying Jungian concepts to the analysis of movies and the movie medium, The Presence of the Feminine in Film. Dr. Beebe's seminar will be held on Saturday, March 22, 2008 from 10:00AM to 5:00PM at the C.G. Institute located at 2040 Gough Street (between Clay and Washington) here in San Francisco. Cost: $125. For further information, phone the Institute at (415) 771-8080.

Chac the Rain God

Next on the Institute's Public Programs film calendar is a Sunday film matinee screening of Rolando Klein's Chac the Rain God, moderated by Jean Kirsch, M.D. This film opens up into yet another of my previous lives when I was a practicing Mayanist. Though enshrouded in academic controversy when it first came out, Chac the Rain God still retains an ethnographic charm and vitality. Several years back (in yet another of my lives) I actually collaborated with The Mexican Museum in bringing Klein up to the Bay Area for a screening of the film at San Francisco's Legion of Honor.

"Myth is our window to the dawn of humanity." These are the words of Rolando Klein, the Chilean director who followed the ancient Mayan creation myth, the Popol Vuh, in creating his film Chac the Rain God. Chac is the fearsome god of rain among the Mayan pantheon, often appearing as the four Chacs, one for each quarter of the universe. He gallops with the wind on a white steed, his sword slashes the clouds with lightning, his thunderous voice splits the sky asunder. With great sensitivity and a grasp of the mythical world of the objective psyche, Klein carries us into the liminal realm that is usually beyond the reach of our senses.

Klein tells the story of a civilization on the brink of extinction, its old beliefs shunned, its ancient rituals forgotten. In a small mountain village populated by descendents of the ancient Mayans, the rains have not come. Without rain there will be no corn; without corn, the people will die. Even their shaman has forgotten what the old ones knew. In the crisis of a drought, the desperate villagers seek the aid of a diviner. "They say there is a man who lives in the mountains, knows the old ways, and speaks the language of the birds." While some believe he is a witch, the elders prevail upon the chief and his captains to summon him. And so they set out upon a journey into the unknown, which will test their courage and their faith, 12 men and one mute boy who is mysteriously drawn to "the one who knows the old ways." Still, there are the doubters, those men whose trust lies with "the white men in the North, who put steel eyes in the sky and see the clouds beyond and know when it will rain." Those incapable of trust in the old ways ultimately prevail, though not before we witness the remarkable motivating power of the myth, as the seer joins the villagers to direct them in a communal effort to re-enact an ancient ritual to summon Chac, the Rain God.

We can be grateful to Rolando Klein for his insight and inspiration, for what he was able to accomplish in 1975 would be impossible today. Shot in a small village in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, Klein drew upon the unschooled villagers to comprise his cast and wrote a script that would be familiar to each of them. Nominally Catholic, the inhabitants of the village of Tenejapa were still attuned to the ancient Mayan stories and were naturally at ease with their roles. Twenty-five years later, he drove on a road to the previously inaccessible village, to find its inhabitants watching TV and wearing jeans in place of their simple woven garments of the past. Thus, Klein has given us an amazing glimpse into a world that has only recently surrendered to our global civilization. This matinee screening will be held at the C.G. Jung Institute on Sunday, April 6, 2008 from 1:00 to 5:00PM. Cost: $25.

Fellini and His Film Satyricon: From Personal Event to Mythical Stories

After having graduated from the C.G. Jung Institute of Zurich in 1965 Peter Ammann spent four years in Rome, where he met Federico Fellini. The Italian film director became an admirer of Jung's work through the influence of Dr. Ernst Bernhard, the first Jungian analyst in Italy. Dr. Ammann met Fellini at a time when Fellini was in the middle of a serious creative crisis. Though not being his analyst, he had the privilege of Fellini's sharing with him at that time numerous dreams which throw a highly interesting light on the interrelationship of "the art and the psyche" of this eminent film director.

Fellini in 1963 had made , the story of a man's—in 1965 Juliet of the Spirits, the story of a woman's—midlife crisis. Both films are inspired by his own life and the world in which he lived. Fellini in 1966 was preparing a film called The Journey of G. Mastorna, which was meant to be the story of a musician who had lost his identity and had to retrieve it during a long and difficult quest. But with this project Fellini found himself at an impasse. It was not possible anymore for him to go on telling stories in the same way he had done in the past. He was full of doubts and uncertainties. He even fell seriously ill. It was in this period that Fellini had dreams that coincide with a turning point in his career as a film director. It was a painful period of transition, which led Fellini away from "personal events" to a realm we could call "mythical stories".

Fellini's Satyricon bears witness to this reversal in his artistic development. It no longer has to do with his personal life, it tells of two thousand years earlier. It was as if Fellini had to distance himself from his own problems. Forced by his destiny, he had to turn towards a more collective, more archetypal dimension. Satyricon is a representation of ancient Rome, a journey through a mythological, pre-Christian world, in which the cults of the Great Goddess played a dominant role.

In this presentation Peter Ammann shall illustrate this change in Fellini's work by showing the entire Satyricon plus excerpts of his films preceding his creative crisis. Fellini's dreams, which he will present and interpret, are no secrets; they are all published in his biographies. Dr. Ammann will discuss the content of Fellini's film which is inspired by two novels from the Roman Antiquity, Petronius' Satyricon and Apuleius' The Golden Ass.

Peter Ammann, having studied music and musicology, trained at the C.G. Jung Institute of Zurich. He is now a training analyst and a lecturer at the International School of Analytical Psychology in Zurich. After working with Fellini in Rome, he became an independent documentary maker. His documentaries include Hlonipa—Journey Into Wilderness; Sandplay With Dora Kalff; and Spirits of the Rocks. He is in private practice in both Zurich and Geneva. This seminar will be held on Saturday, May 10, 2008 from 10:00AM to 5:00PM at the Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. Cost: $125.


Commencing with its international premiere at last year's Cannes Directors' Fortnight, the Gulbenkian Foundation-funded omnibus O Estado do mundo (State of the World)—featuring filmic compositions by Aiysha Abraham, Chantal Akerman, Wang Bing, Pedro Costa, Vincente Ferraz, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul—journeyed on to screen around the world, finally finding its U.S. premiere in San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Reviews—though respectful of the project's directorial pedigree—have been mixed.

As the producers themselves admit, it would be a frivolous conceit to presume that any unified vision of the world could be achieved under their ongoing project aegis "State of the World" and thus—since the task is inconceivable—this omnibus retains a diverse subjectivity through the personal lens of its six individual perspectives. More accurately, it is the "State of the World(s)", necessarily plural, signified by six separate "regards", which even in themselves eschew any definitive focus, relying more on the glimpse and the glance than the grasp.

The sextet begins with Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Luminous People; "a fleecy, poetic contribution" (Robert Koehler, Variety) that depicts a family scattering ashes on the Mekong River between Thailand and Laos. These smoky ashes swirling in the muddy water are all that is left of husband and father. What is of interest is that "Joe" will not allow a peaceful atmosphere despite bereavement, rituals of incense and the scattering of flowers. The boat's motor is loud, waves are kicked up by wind, and—as the filmmaker himself admits—"The film disintegrates. Both the crew and the actors seem to be bewildered." What is Weerasethakul saying about the state of the world when individuals must recede into their own subjectivities for comfort and bearing?

Next, Brazilian director Vicente Ferraz segues from the glinting water of the Mekong River to that of Guanabara Bay in his character study Germano, which pits a non-industrial fisherman against the polluting forces of encroaching globalization; namely oil-spilling tankers. With the fish driven away by the polluted waters close to shore, Germano and his crew sail into deeper waters hoping for a respectable catch. A failed engine places them at risk within the trade routes of looming Russian oil-tankers. It's probably the story most people will be able to relate to, even—as Robert Koehler puts it—its unabashed symbolism is "too facile by half."

Ayisha Abraham's One-Way is a documentary-style portrait of Nepalese Shyam Bahadur who has been forced into exile in Bangladore, India. Consigned to work as a security guard, 35 years have passed since he left his home and advancing age now makes the high mountains of Nepal—let alone Chinese governmental impositions—seem threatening. With weary resignation, Bahadur grapples with all the two-lane and one-way streets of Bangladore and the very real possibility that his own exile is a one-way street from which he can never return home.

Wang Bing's Brutality Factory mercilessly sears the boilerplate procedures of political torture into the audience's sensibility. There is no escape, just as historically there was no escape for countless Chinese men and women whose murders were hidden in shadow and shallow graves. Of the six films in the omnibus, Brutality Factory was the most disturbing, even as it was the most artful, "exquisitely wrought" (Koehler, Variety), employing a littered industrial mise en scène to depict a world driven insane by misguided authority.

Pedro Costa's Tarrafal is an equally powerful film with its allusions to the Tarrafal prison on Santiago Island, Cape Verde. Its narrative moves forward first through cautionary ancestral tales regarding the inescapable summons of death and then through the voices of ghosts who remember their tortured past. It is a political tract rendered exquisitely as a haunting ghost story. Its short length is amplified by textural density.

Finally, Tombée de nuit sur Shangaï (Avril 2007) is Chantal Akerman's contemplation of the Shanghai skyline at night, where the flat planes of the highrises are used as screens to project light show advertisements. This "show" underscores the prescience of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner vision of a future world dominated by Asian commerciality. What at first appears beautiful succumbs to its soul-sucking artificiality.

To wrap up, State of the World, funded by Lisbon's Gulbenkian Foundation in celebration of its 50th anniversary, and co-produced by Noémie Mendelle of the Scottish Documentary Insititute, is an ambitious but uneven collection ultimately entangled in negativity and deeply reliant upon directorial pedigree. It will also need a fair amount of museumspeak to convince audiences that these short visions are true "regards" of the filmmakers and not just facile disregards. If you think things are bad with the state of the world when you go in, you'll emerge feeling not much better. It seems appropriate that the omnibus was screened within the walls of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where it can be appreciated as the art project it was commissioned to be and not be mistaken as an evening's entertainment.

Cross-published on Twitch.