Sometimes I forget just how stodgy I am. What an old pedant. Just how deeply embedded in a certain class of art and culture.
And it is good to be given a peek at a different way of seeing things, a different esthetic judgment.
It happens about once a year when my son, Lars, comes to visit his mother and me in Asheville, and brings along a trove of his favorite movies for us to watch.
Lars is head programmer for the Austin Film Society in Texas, an organization founded by film director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Bernie, Waking Life, Boyhood). Lars visits the big film festivals to view potential movies for the AFS theaters, but he got his start hosting the “Weird Wednesday” genre film series at Austin’s Alamo Draft House, that featured the kind of movies that used to run in drive-in theaters in the 1970s. Lars has seen more movies than anyone else I know, and I’ve known a number of professional film critics — at least one of whom burnt out watching too many movies per week. Not Lars, at least, not yet.
That Weird Wednesday series spawned the American Genre Film Archive, which now collects neglected 35mm prints abandoned in old drive-ins and warehouses, restores them and digitizes them. It now owns some 6,000 movie prints, including such timeless masterpieces as Ninja Zombies, Bloodsuckers from Outer Space, and The Return of Superfly — to say nothing of Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971, Thomas Casey, director). Lars is on AGFA’s board of directors, and he’s written a new book, Warped & Faded (Mondo Books, 415pp.), that chronicles the birth and growth of AGFA, and highlights many of the films in the archive.
In the book, he makes it clear he is not writing about movies “so bad they’re good.” He hates that formulation. No, he finds something in each of these films he genuinely appreciates for its filmmaking, its storytelling, its mythic resonance or its acting. He finds what he believes are moments in them that deserve recognition. These films, he wrote in the book are “worthwhile and deserving of serious consideration.”
When he comes to visit ma and pa, he brings a trove of titles for us to see, and he seems to take great glee in finding things he knows dear old dad would never, on his own, choose to watch. (I should mention that Lars doesn’t only watch exploitation films — he has a great background in the classics of world cinema, also, and can discuss the films of Vittorio De Sica or Yasujiro Ozu as well as the giallo genre of lesbian vampire films. His erudition is both wide and deep.)
During this past visit, which lasted three days, we watched 10 movies. Lars’ enthusiasm for them was infectious and we talked about the films late into the early hours of the following day, with me scratching my head over some of them, and Lars making the case for them, as well as any lawyer arguing a case. He didn’t always persuade me, but I am glad I got to see all of them.
In the end, I found several of these films to be real treasures, a few I still ponder over, and at least one that originally struck me as utter trash, I cannot now get out of my head and have to admit — long after Lars has gone home to Austin — that he was right and I was wrong.
We started the first night with an easy one: Hi Diddle Diddle (1941, Andrew Stone, director). Barely an hour long, and light as the foam on a latte, it starred Adolphe Menjou as an amiable con man married to an opera star (Pola Negri, in her last role). His son, home on leave from the military, has 48 hours in which to marry his fiancee (Martha Scott), but complications ensue. Also starring Billie Burke and June Havoc, there is not much more substance than a TV sitcom, but good actors can make a meal of even an undistinguished script, and my particular epiphany watching it was just how good an actor Menjou was — especially in those moments when he is not talking and only reacting.
After that, we plunged into the deep end with Blood (1975, Andy Milligan). Milligan was an angry man, making his cheapie films on Staten Island in a home-made way, badly photographed with lots of scratches on the film. Sometimes he’d frame a shot so the top of the head was included, but the bottom half cut off. It was a kind of grand guignol horror flick, with a vampire and an lycanthrope and a mad scientist trying to save his dying wife — who, by the way, kills people. It was a complete mess. Sort of fun in its own way — a la Ed Wood — but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a badly made movie. Perhaps the oddest thing about it is that Milligan also designed and sewed all the lavish period costumes. They were gorgeous. The film was set in the 1880s and the dresses the women wore in the film would have been not out of place if they had been made by Edith Head.
Then came the first masterpiece: Election (2006, Johnnie To). In previous visits Lars had introduced me to the films of Hong Kong director To. I had always thought of Hong Kong movies like bad Kung Fu films, with garish colors, bad acting and stupid plots. But Lars first showed me To’s The Mission (1999) several visits back and I was blown away. It was incredibly beautifully photographed and intelligently plotted and acted. Who knew? Well, Lars knew. On a later visit, we watched A Hero Never Dies (1998), and it was also a revelation.
Election is about a disputed succession among Hong Kong crime bosses — one cold-blooded and strategic (like Michael in Godfather), and his rival hot-blooded and impulsive (like Sonny). But the film is not simply about plot. To develops his characters and gives them extra dimensions. It was a gem of a movie.
So much for the first night. On the second, we opened with From Beyond the Grave (1973, Kevin Connor), an anthology horror film from Amicus Productions — a rival British company to Hammer Films. It tells four separate tales with a bookend story enclosing them all — like Scheherazade or Chaucer’s pilgrims. It features a pile of popular English actors, each in for a few days work to add up to a 97-minute movie. Look for Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence, Diana Dors, David Warner, Ian Carmichael, Ian Bannen, Lesley-Anne Down, Margaret Leighton and Nyree Dawn Porter (from the 1967 BBC and PBS series The Forsyte Saga).
Then we did Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949, Burgess Meredith) from the Georges Simenon novel, with Charles Laughton as the famous detective Maigret. The film only exists in a poor-quality print on faded Ansco Color stock, which leaves the colors shifted to the reddish-orange, and somewhat bleached out. Simenon’s book, La Tête d’un homme, is not one of his most distinguished, and the plot boils along, with Franchot Tone playing a too-clever villain, teasing the detective to find the evidence for the crimes everyone knows he has committed.
The four-film night ended with the first big revelation of the visit: Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974). It is a film I had always meant to see, but hadn’t yet. It was brilliant, funny, spooky, clever and spectacularly cinematic. I’m not much into rock music, but it worked perfectly in this updated version of the Gaston Leroux classic, Phantom of the Opera.
There are many films — and many more books — that one lifetime isn’t long enough to get to. I could name a dozen off the cuff that I haven’t yet managed to see — a bunch of Ozu, the later films of Satyajit Ray, just the tip of the iceberg — and I know that at 73, I don’t have enough time to see them all. I was grateful that Lars brought me Phantom. It was worth the wait.
The fourth film from the second night was the crux, the fulcrum of the visit, and a tough go for me on first encounter. I could not, for the life of me, figure out why Switchblade Sisters (1975, Jack Hill) should figure on Lars’ list of his four favorite films of all time. It is a cheapie girl-gang film, and I have to admit that my prejudice kept me from appreciating it. To any standard criteria, it is an awful film, full of cliche fights and stilted dialog. I hated it.
I was wrong. Lars made his best case for it, saying it was amazing considering the budget. “It is a film better than it needs to be,” Lars said. Hill does great work, he argued, considering the script and the merely-adequate actors, and the schedule he had to work with. I wasn’t sure that making something out of straw and sawdust elevates the film to more than drive-in fodder, but Lars persisted.
Here’s what Lars wrote about it in Warped & Faded: “It’s hard to imagine a more perfect girl-gang movie. All the elements — tone, pacing, performances — are dead-on. The revenge and betrayal-filled plot brings to mind the nastier Elizabethan dramas that were so popular with working-class audiences of 400 years ago, who crammed into disreputable theaters to watch the blood-drenched intrigues of kings and thieves. Some things never change. Hill combines the complicated plot effortlessly with the crisp, classical gangster movie tone of the old Warner Brothers James Cagney films and the directness and intensity of ’70s drive-in cinema. The result is a perfect storm of red-hot teenage bad girls, flashing knives, and social commentary.”
So, the film, for all its gore and vengeance, is really just a modern version of Elizabethan revenge plays. I could see that, but, beyond Shakespeare, most Elizabethan theater is dreadful. And even Shakespeare has a hard time salvaging Titus Andronicus. (It took Julie Taymor to do that). And it was clear, the bare bones of Othello run under the movie. But my reaction was extreme. I hated, hated, hated Switchblade Sisters. The problem was, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. One of my old definitions of great art is “what you might not understand but can’t get out of your mind.” And here I was faced with something very close to that.
There are any number of things — books, music, theater — that on first encounter, I found difficult to appreciate, like Bruckner symphonies, which took me years to understand, but later, after time to digest, I came around to seeing their very estimable value. There is something in Switchblade Sisters that sticks to the ribs, and I cannot gainsay its effect. I’m not putting it on my four-favorites-of-all-times list, but I have to admit, a week or so after seeing it, that Lars was right and I was wrong.
The third night’s viewing was a coda and conclusion. We opened with one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen: Nothing Lasts Forever (1984, Tom Schiller) — A surrealist comedy with tons of names in the cast, including Bill Murray, Imogene Coca, Sam Jaffe, Eddie Fisher, Mort Sahl, Zach Gilligan and Dan Aykroyd. Shot in mock-studio style, like an old Joan Crawford film, it features a plot to get retirees to travel by bus to the moon to shop at an out-of-this-world mall. A film no studio or distribution company admits owning the rights to, and therefore never released commercially. Warner has the film, but won’t admit it. (Really.) Lars had to lobby two corporations and a half dozen lawyers to get his hands on a print to show in Austin.
Then, we watched Housekeeping (1987, Bill Forsyth), a small, quiet coming-of-age film about two sisters living in the Northwest mountains. When their mother commits suicide, eventually their aunt (Christine Lahti) comes to take over. She is either a free spirit or not quite right in the head. The movie never makes up its mind about that. One sister rejects the aunt, the other embraces her, and her idiosyncratic ways.
Forsyth made the earlier Local Hero (1983), which is also as deeply felt as Housekeeping. The visit with Lars underlined the different esthetics we have. He is much more interested in the filmmaking itself — as so many of his generation are. It is a meta world they inhabit. He likes genre films, with lesbian vampires, girl prisons, ninja warriors and car chases. (Again, I remind you that he also loves the great art films, he is not one-note).
But, for me, art — including cinema — is a humanistic concern, and I am more focused on content than style (I have a healthy appreciation of style, also; it’s a matter of priorities). I most enjoy films that address human concerns, the inner feelings of people, the choices, moral and otherwise, that they make, the tragedy that the universe thrusts on us.
I understand the other argument, too. When I listen to a Haydn symphony or quartet, there is emotion and melody, yes, but most of his power is in establishing a formal expectation and then subverting it, giving the listener a pleasant surprise and pleasure in the recognition of it. It is the 18th century definition of “wit.” And Lars’ knowledge of film and filmmaking instills in him the norms that his favorite films play with and the best ones transcend.
Still, I want my art to be more than clever. The final film we watched on his visit was Over the Edge (1979, Jonathan Kaplan), another teen gang movie, but one more sociological and realistic, with a nihilistic group of teens in the sterile Denver suburbs with nothing to fill their lives but boredom and mischief. Petty vandalism and low-grade burglary occupy their time, until one of them steals a gun. The emptiness of their lives is soul destroying. One thinks of the anomie of Larry Clark’s Tulsa.
The fact that the parents of these kids have lives no more fulfilling only makes the movie more depressing. The apocalypse at the end feels like the only worthwhile thing in the lives of both parents and kids.
And so, 10 movies in three days. My parameters have been stretched, which is only a good thing. When my head is buried too deeply in Ovid or Tolstoy, I need once in a while to look up, out of the page, and into the rest of the world, and Lars’ films at least briefly give me a glimpse into another way of aiming my sensibility. Whether it takes or not is up in the air. Ovid is awfully good.
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