Category Archives: Feature Articles

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Budd Boetticher: A Maverick Voice from the Past

It never occurred to me when I began working on my book Lee Marvin: Point Blank back in 1994, that it would take almost 20 years to get published. That may have proven to be a good thing as I was lucky enough to encounter many of the greats who worked with Marvin but, are no longer with us. Case in point, maverick director Budd Boetticher who passed away in 2001.

Sadly overlooked for many years by Hollywood, toward the end of his life cinephiles rediscovered his gritty brilliance. Filmmakers as diverse as Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have paid homage to him (Michael Madsen’s character in Kill Bill is named Budd). Boetticher’s films, especially the Westerns, had a special sparse quality. Not as taut as Sam Fuller, nor as grandiose as John Ford, his style fit comfortably somewhere in between. His personal life would make a fascinating film itself as it included athletics, bullfighting, brushes with the law, and a self-imposed exile to Mexico. What is most amazing is that in spite of undeniable setbacks that would weaken a lesser man, Boetticher’s indefatigable spirit and optimism remained intact to the end of his life.

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I interviewed him by phonefor my book on October 30, 1994, and as will be seen, his anecdotes go beyond his work with Lee Marvin and are compelling in their own right. World Cinema Paradise thought so as well and agreed to run the interview here. It is intact, and, it is the first time it has ever seen the light of the day in its entirety.

Dwayne Epstein: Good morning, Mr. Boetticher.

Budd Boetticher: Hello, Dwayne. You’re up bright and early.

DE: Actually, I thought I was calling a little late.

BB: Sounds like you forgot to set your clock back.

DE: (Pause) Geez, I forgot all about it! I guess I’m on time, then [both laugh]

BB: You wanted to talk about Lee Marvin, right?

DE: Absolutely. You made two films with Lee Marvin, right? Seminole (1953) and 7 Men from Now (1956)?

BB: Yes, I did. The films I made with Randy (Scott), four or five are back in theaters, and not just on video. In Europe, they’ve been re-released on the big screen where they belong.

DE: Do you recall which ones?

BB: Sure. Ride Lonesome (1959), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), The Tall T (1957), and Comanche Station (1960). I haven’t seen them in a while and the Director’s Guild held a retrospective recently. I must say they’re pretty damn good.

DE: That’s terrific! Before we go any further, I just wanted to tell you that the gangster film you made is one of my favorites…

BB: Oh yeah, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960). with Ray Danton. That also had a young Warren Oates and Dyan Cannon making their debuts.

DE: Very cool. So, the first picture you used Lee in was Seminole, right?

BB:  Right. He played Sgt. Magruder and he was very, very good. [Screenwriter] Burt Kennedy brought him in. He suggested Lee to play the second lead on my next picture with Randy [Scott]. Now Duke Wayne [as producer], and you can quote me on this, Duke was either a son-of-a-bitch or the best friend you ever had, depending on the mood he was in. Burt asked Duke, “Who should we use?” Duke said, “Let’s use Randy. He’s through.”

DE: [laughs] Well, that was nice of him.

BB: Yes, well in every Randolph Scott movie there was always a breakout star because Randy didn’t really care. But Duke…he was another story.

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DE: How was Lee Marvin to work with on 7 Men from Now?

BB: He was wonderful. He was an ex-Marine. He was one of the few actors who really knew how to handle a gun. I wanted to try something I had never seen in a Western before. I’ve never seen in a Western, while a gunfighter was urinating or whatever, I’ve never seen him practicing his draw. So, what I did was every chance I could, I had Lee draw and practice. His death was so dramatic when Randy shot him because of that. He just stood there for a minute and stared at his gun in his hand in disbelief. The audience loved it. The reaction, when we previewed it at the Pantages, was something I had never seen before. They stopped the film and reran the scene.

DE: Wow, I’ve never heard of that being done before.

BB: Yeah, the sneak preview — if you can believe it — it was a double bill with Serenade (1956) starring Mario Lanza. Nobody in the audience was under forty. The marquee outside the theater only mentioned Serenade. I turned to John Wayne and said, “Jesus Kee-rist, Duke!” People started to walk out when they saw it was a Western starring Randy. Once it started, and people started watching it, though, they stayed and really enjoyed it. Yeah, but Lee was great.

DE: Did you ever want to work with him after that?

BB: Actually, I wrote Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) with him in mind. What happened was I went and saw Lee in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and thought to myself that he was drunk. Be careful how you write this part. Anyway…

DE: Well, I spoke with Woody Strode who told me Lee was drunk.

BB: How’s Woody doing? I worked with him on City Beneath the Sea (1953).

DE: Well, he’s doing fine, considering. He’s a very sweet man and was forthcoming with a lot of information. He still lives in Glendora but he’s alone a lot now.

BB: Well, would you do me a favor and give him my number? I’d love to talk to him again.

DE:  I sure will. So you thought Lee was drunk in Liberty Valance?

BB: Well, that was the rumor. I asked around. I checked him out through others and they said he was. I thought he drank too much and couldn’t work with him.

DE: What happened to the script?

BB: Universal eventually made it and they screwed it up. I tell you, you can’t quote me, but Eastwood’s character has to be an idiot not to smell liquor and cigars on her breath. In my version she was a courtesan not a prostitute [Shirley MacLaine’s character is a prostitute disguised as a nun]. Anyway, I found out years later that Martin Scorsese was a big fan of my work and wanted some memorabilia. I found the original screenplay to Sister Sara. It was over twenty years old and falling apart. I had to Xerox it because it was falling apart. I sent the original and a copy to Scorsese and made a copy for myself. I read it again and thought it was just great. I’ll tell you a funny story about that. A few years back they were showing it on late night TV and I got a call about 1 a.m. This gruff voice asked me, “I missed all the credits. Did you direct this piece of shit Sister Sarah I just watched?” I said, “No, I only wrote screenplay…” The voice said, “Good!” and slammed down the phone. It was John Ford. [Both laugh]. Okay, what else do you want to know about Lee Marvin?

DE: You said you didn’t want to work with Marvin?

BB: Well, I heard he drank too much.

DE: [Stuntman] Tony Epper referred to him as a bottle actor. He thought he did his best work when he drank.

BB: I don’t believe that. You can work hard without drinking and then relax after five, like everyone else. Duke had a [screenwriter] friend named James Edward Grant. He wanted to direct but he believed that if he couldn’t drink, he couldn’t direct. That’s a lot of crap. No actor is better unless you catch him on the third drink. But he’s usually on the fifth drink and by then he can’t finish the picture.

DE: Did you ever consider him for anything else?

BB: No, not really. I’ve been working on this book about bullfighting called When, in Disgrace. You should read it sometime. I think it’s available at Samuel French or Larry Edmunds Bookstore. It’s all about bullfighting. See, I started in the business with a job most women would kill for. I had to show Tyrone Power how to move as a bullfighter for Blood and Sand (1941). When I started making westerns with Randy, I gave them what they wanted. If they wanted a movie to run an hour and 26 minutes, I brought it in at an hour and 27 minutes. It usually only took 18 days. The great things about those movies were the scripts. Burt Kennedy worked on most of them and we had Lucien Ballard as a cinematographer. Lucien did great work for us. They held a retrospective of my work in Dallas, recently, and they gave me some kind of pretentious award. I had not seen some of my films in years and was quite surprised they were so good. We didn’t have any dirty words. There was no open mouth kissing. The films they make today…I went to Mexico and stopped making films. I went to Mexico for seven years and worked on the book about [bullfighter Carlos] Arruza. I finally got a screenplay out of it and we’re going to filming it soon.

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DE: Well, I’m glad it paid off for you.

BB: See, the great thing about my career is that I never won an Academy Award, or an Emmy, or any of that shit. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave me the Career Achievement Award in 1992. That meant something because you can’t fool around with it. [Laughs] They can’t agree on anything but they voted unanimously on the Career Achievement Award.

DE: That’s quite an honor. Interesting how you weren’t appreciated before but now…

BB: Yeah, if you stick around long enough. It’s funny. I made 37 pictures and only ten were westerns, so they call me a western director. I made a couple of gangster pictures and they call me a gangster director.

DE: What made you stop directing?

BB: I don’t believe a lady should say “fuck” to establish a character. I didn’t want to be involved in that kind of filmmaking. But, I am working again. I just waited until the right project came along. I’m going to be directing A Horse for Mr. Barnum.

DE: What’s it about?

BB: It’s a true story about P.T. Barnum picking up several Andalusian horses and the cowboys he hires to bring them back.

DE: That sounds interesting. Is a cast lined up?

BB: Well, we got Robert Mitchum as Barnum and Jorge Rivero, who’s the biggest star in Mexico, as one of the cowboys. James Coburn is in it, too. We’ll be using Lippizans.

DE: I’ll be looking forward to it.

BB: I’m delighted you’re writing this book on Lee Marvin. He was a great actor. He gave more to a director than you could ask for.

DE: How did he get along with Randolph Scott?

BB: He got along with everybody.

DE: How did Scott get along with him? Did they establish a good rapport?

BB: Scott had very little report with anybody. He wasn’t the guy wearing white all the time type of hero.

DE: With the square jaw.

BB: Right. He just kept to himself. When Burt and I were having dinner one night, after shooting that day, he said, “What’s the kid in the red underwear?” I said, “James Coburn. He said, “He’s pretty good. Write him some more lyrics.” In six of the seven pictures I made with Randy, the second lead stole the show. If the second lead killed Randy, no one would care, not like in a John Wayne picture. The second lead often made it very big after working with Randy. We had Richard Boone, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn; a whole bunch of good actors.

DE: It sure sounds like it.

BB: I’ll tell you a funny story about Richard Boone. He was starring on the TV show Medic and I wanted to use him in the picture I was doing with Randy called The Tall T. Now, if Harry Cohn was still there, I wouldn’t have had a problem. But Sam Briskin was running Columbia, and he said to me, “You don’t want Boone. He’s got no sense of humor and he’s got all kinds of pock marks…” I had to find out for myself. I called Boone and told him I wanted him for a film. I said Briskin didn’t think he had a sense of humor. Boone said, “I guess he doesn’t think heart operations are pretty fucking funny.”

DE: [Laughing] Sounds like he had a sense humor, to me. You know, your career is a lot like Sam Fuller’s in that you both got recognition later in your career.

BB: My agent, who’s Jewish — that’s probably why he’s so good at it — he got me a three-picture deal. He told me, “You know, you’re the Gentile Sam Fuller.” I told him, “I’d rather be the Jewish John Ford.”


 

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Anyone for Dennis

Success in Hollywood came remarkably easy for Dennis Hopper — but vanished just as quickly. It began on the day the teenage actor auditioned for the role of an epileptic in a television series called Medic. After a little small talk, he suddenly fell to the floor in a seizure. The casting director was reaching for the phone to call an ambulance when the 18-year-old jumped up and smiled broadly. The 32 other actors waiting in the corridor were sent home. Hopper had the role.

His screen performance — his body becomes rigid, he falls down and he even foams at the mouth — may not be authentic, but it reminded his grandmother of the day when as a little boy he discovered the intoxicating effects of mood-altering substances.

Hopper was born in 1936 in the Kansas dust bowl. His father went off to war — Hopper was told he was dead — and until he was 10 he spent most of his time on his grandparents’ small farm. There were “wheat fields all around, as far as you could see. No neighbors, no other kids.”

His grandfather owned an old tractor with a gas tank at the front where the radiator is usually found. The boy’s curiosity led him to remove the cap and sniff. Breathing more deeply, he reeled from the petrol fumes. But he enjoyed it.

Nearly every day, he stretched out on the hood of the tractor, inhaled and lay on his back. The sky became animated; the clouds changed into clowns and goblins. One afternoon he overdid it. The tractor’s grille and lights turned into the face of a terrifying monster attacking him. His grandfather pulled him away as he smashed at it with his baseball bat. The boy was so high he wasn’t even aware of what he was doing until his grandparents explained it to him afterwards.

It set the scene for a turbulent life. Four decades later, after a chaotic acting career disrupted by too many rages and bad trips, Hopper was in a rehabilitation clinic, where a counselor wrote that “no character he had ever portrayed on screen, including the frenetic photographer in Apocalypse Now, came close to projecting the dazed, lunatic quality” of the man himself. Hopper once said he became an actor “because I hate my parents . . . I hated my home life, the rules.”

His father was “a hard, totally secret man with no words,” whose “death” had been a ruse to cover secret work with the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) in China. His reappearance after the war confounded the boy. “Now wouldn’t that make you a paranoiac?” Hopper later said.

He claimed that his mother had been a swimming champion, whose Olympic ambitions collapsed when she became pregnant with him at 17. She took out her resentments on him. “She was wild, very emotional, a screamer and a yeller,” he said. “My mother had an incredible body, and I had a sexual fascination for her.”

His gateway to Hollywood was the southern California city of San Diego, to which the family moved when he was 13. At school he was the class clown, but he took acting lessons (to his mother’s horror). He tried to escape his parents’ disapproval by running away.

“I was a crazy kid, mixed up with a wild bunch — delinquents, I guess — but I got away from that in acting. I was into the general gang stuff. Petty theft and a lot of misdemeanors.”

Stage work at the La Jolla Playhouse brought contact with Hollywood stars like Vincent Price, an art collector who introduced Hopper to the new Abstract Expressionist painters.

Hopper’s role in Medic led to a rancorous audition with “King” Harry Cohn, the infamously coarse boss of Columbia Pictures.

Hopper claimed to have told the mogul to “go fuck” himself for criticizing Shakespeare.

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But he promptly landed work in 1955 with Hollywood’s hottest new actors, James Dean and Natalie Wood, on a film that became a cultural icon, Rebel without a Cause. Both stars changed Hopper’s life. Dean dazzled him. Wood drew him into a world of debauchery (with painful consequences for her when she tried to start an orgy in a bath of champagne).

Wood’s parents, Nick and Maria Gurdin, were Russian émigrés. He was an alcoholic carpenter.

Maria yearned for wealth and fame — and found it when a film crew visited their home town in northern California. She pushed four-year-old Natalie onto director Irving Pichel’s lap. She charmed him by singing a Russian folk song and was rewarded with a brief walk-on role — prompting Maria to move the family to Hollywood, where she maneuvered her daughter into her first speaking role and a career as a child actress.

By the time Rebel Without a Cause was on the horizon, Wood was 16 — too mature to play children, yet too young to play leading roles against older male stars. Her home life was tough. Her father periodically erupted in drunken rages and chased his wife around the house with a butcher knife. Her mother banned anything that threatened her earning power as an actress — including relationships with boys her own age.

“I was a rather dutiful child,” Wood said later in life, “and when my parents read the script of Rebel, they said, ‘Oh no, not this one,’ because it showed parents in a rather unsympathetic light, and yet I read it, and for the first time in my life I said, ‘Oh, wait a minute. I have to do this!’” She identified with Judy, one of the teenagers from dysfunctional families around whom the film revolves.

Rebel’s director, Nicholas Ray, then 43, was a bisexual, misogynistic womanizer addicted to alcohol, drugs and gambling. Wood showed up at his office looking how she thought a sexy, mature woman should look. Heavily made up, wearing the slinkiest dress she could find and perched on high heels, she threw herself at him.

It did little to change his impressions of her as a child actress, but she ended up in his bed at the Chateau Marmont hotel on the Sunset Strip. Ray had a poolside bungalow where he enjoyed afternoon trysts with pliable young actresses, most notably Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, another candidate for the role of Judy.

He agreed to give Wood a screen test with Hopper. It took place on a rainy evening and “by the time we were finished, Natalie and I both felt like wet, unhappy animals,” he recalled.

Next day the phone rang in his apartment. A young girl’s voice said, “This is Natalie Wood. I tested with you the other night on Rebel. Remember? It was raining?”

Hopper barely remembered the skinny little girl “because I tested with about 10 women that day. But she was really funny. She told me I was great looking, and she really liked me, and she wanted to have sex with me . . .

“In the Fifties to be aggressive like that as a woman was really amazing. It was an amazing turn-on to me, for one thing. But it was certainly contrary to any kind of movement, or idea, at the time.”

Hopper picked Wood up at Ray’s hotel, where she had spent the afternoon with the director, and drove up to a lover’s lane to make out. He was about to go down on Natalie when she exclaimed, “Oh, you can’t do that.” Hopper said, “Why?” She said, “Because Nick just fucked me.”

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“I thought it was weird, okay?” Hopper recalled. “At the time I was 18 years old! I thought it was strange, I thought it was weird of her to be doing it . . . he was having an affair with a minor. It was illegal for me, too, but at least I was only a couple of years older.”

Wood became Hopper’s Hollywood tour guide, tooling around town in her pink Ford Thunderbird with him and Rebel cast member Nick Adams. They placed their hands and shoes in the imprints of the screen immortals at the entrance to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Hopper became her surrogate for James Dean, who hadn’t responded to her interest. The two young men looked similar and were both dedicated to the Method school of acting.

Wood and Hopper alternated between a search for seriousness and frivolity. Hopper said they watched foreign films, “trying to find another way of, like, working. We were very ambitious to change things.” But they also thought of themselves as the logical successors to the great names of show business and began emulating what Hopper called “wild, crazed Hollywood icons.”

Hopper said: “It was almost as if we were naive to the point: ‘If people did drugs and alcohol and were nymphomaniacs, then that must be the way to creativity, and creativity’s where we wanna be. We wanna be the best.’ She [Wood] always wanted to be the best.

“We were always envious of the generations before us,” he continued. “In the Fifties, when me and Natalie and Dean suddenly arrived, we all sort of felt like an earlier group of people who thumbed their noses at Hollywood tradition, people like John Barrymore and Errol Flynn, both of whom died as alcoholics.

“It seemed a romantic, a colorful way to go. I mean, we heard of the orgies that John Garfield used to have, the Hollywood roulette. It seemed wilder. So we tried to emulate that lifestyle. In a strange way we were trying to emulate some sort of past glory.”

Hopper and Nick Adams rented a house in the Hollywood Hills, where, with Wood, they tried to be wilder than their notorious predecessors. “For instance,” Hopper said, “once Natalie and I decided we’d have an orgy.”

Among the guests was Hopper’s high school friend Bob Turnbull, who recalled: “It was kind of a big event. She just wanted all kinds of guys doin’ her.”

Wood wanted a champagne bath, Hopper said, because, “I think she had heard that Jean Harlow or somebody had had a champagne bath. So Nick and I went and got all this champagne, and we filled the bathtub full of champagne, and we said, ‘Okay, Natalie, we’re ready for the orgy.’ Natalie takes off her clothes, sits down in the champagne, starts screaming.”

Why did she scream? “Well,” Hopper said, “because it burned her pussy. Set her on fucking fire, you know.” Hopper and the others raced the agonized Wood to the nearest emergency room, where she was treated for a “very expensive burn.”

“Of course, she had other times, too, when Dennis, Nick and I would be enjoying her company as well,” Turnbull said. “She was just a wild and crazy gal. She was just very friendly but oversexed. She was a very classy girl. She just had a whole different outlook on the morality of one’s life. She was a nice person, very polite, just a very free-flowing spirit.”

There was sexual jealousy between Hopper and Rebel’s director. Hopper told Steffi Sidney, another friend, that he went looking for Wood at Ray’s bungalow one evening and caught them having sex. “He told me about being in love with Natalie and what he was going to do, because Nick hated him,” Sidney said.

Hopper said he visited the Chateau Marmont with a gun to confront Ray, who, fortunately, wasn’t at home that night.

The anger extended to the film set: Ray tried to fire him and removed much of the dialogue from his part, a gang member called Goon. But it was on set that Rebel had its lasting effect on Hopper, as a result of his watching Dean at work. “I thought,” Hopper said, “I was the best actor in the world — I mean the best young actor. Until I saw James Dean. He fascinated me. Dean completely disregarded any direction in the script. He would do a scene differently every time. It came straight out of his imagination, his improvisation.”

Hopper tried to talk to him about his technique, but Dean preferred to stay in his dressing room, smoking marijuana and playing classical music. “I tried to get to know him. I started by saying, ‘Hello.’ No answer.”

Hopper said he finally got Dean’s attention by throwing him into the back seat of one of the cars used in the “chickie run” scene. Hopper enjoyed a student-teacher relationship with Dean, sharing peyote and marijuana. “He started watching my takes,” he recalled. “I wouldn’t even know he was there. He’d come up and mumble, ‘Why don’t you try it this way?’ And he was always right.”

The 24-year-old Dean was killed when he crashed his Porsche 550 Spyder on September 30, 1955, a month before Rebel was released. It is difficult to overstate the impact of his death on Hopper, who once spoke about him as if he were the love of his life: “I was with him almost every day for the last eight months of his life and then he died. I was haunted by the death of Dean, which had been the greatest emotional shock of my young life. He taught me so much. When he died, I felt cheated. I had dreams tied up in him, and suddenly that was shattered. The alcohol and drugs brought me temporary escape. That was the first major thing that really affected me . . . My life was confused and disoriented for years.”

Dean’s immediate legacy was a delusion that Hopper could wield the same power on set as his idol had done. To Hopper, it appeared that Dean dominated Nick Ray and called the creative shots on Rebel. Hopper, however, was not in Dean’s league.

In 1957, he engaged in an epic battle with veteran director Henry Hathaway while filming From Hell to Texas. Following in Dean’s footsteps, Hopper refused to do things the director’s way. Hathaway finally broke his will when they spent all day shooting 87 takes of a 10-line scene. Hopper was effectively banished from Hollywood studio films.

Hopper married Brooke Hayward and worked sporadically in episodic television and low-budget films. He channeled his creative energy into photography and collecting Pop Art. He directed second unit footage of Peter Fonda on The Trip and the two collaborated on Easy Rider, which became the surprise hit of 1969.

Hopper, regarded by the Hollywood establishment as “a maniac and an idiot and a fool and a drunkard” before Easy Rider, suddenly became their hot ticket to the youth market. He had creative carte blanche to direct his next film, The Last Movie. He later recalled that making The Last Movie, a disastrous project filmed in Peru in 1970, was one long sex-and-drugs orgy.

“Wherever you looked,” he said, “there were naked people out of their minds. There was a mountain of coke down there, and we went through it all. But I wouldn’t say it got in the way of the movie. I’d say it helped us get the movie done. We might have been drug addicts, but we were drug addicts with a point of view and a work ethic. It was all about the movie. If we were going to take coke and fuck beautiful women, we’d do it on camera. The drugs and the drink and the insane sex, they all fueled our creativity. At least, that’s my excuse. If you’re gonna be that debauched, it’s better to have a good reason.”

Hopper spent over a year partying with a hippie entourage while editing The Last Movie at his new home in Taos, New Mexico. He married singer Michelle Phillips on Halloween in 1970. She ran away from him days later, accusing him of handcuffing her, calling her a witch, and firing guns inside his house. The Last Movie, an incoherent, pretentious mess, alienated audiences and critics and bombed, taking Hopper’s career with it.

Hopper exiled himself to Taos, working occasionally outside the U. S. in films like Mad Dog Morgan, The American Friend, and Apocalypse Now.

The nadir came in 1982.

“I was doing half a gallon of rum with a fifth of rum on the side, 28 beers and three grams of cocaine a day — and that wasn’t getting high, that was just to keep going, man,” he said. “It was like a nightmare roller-coaster paranoid schizophrenic journey that was totally crazy.”

Delusional, and convinced that the mob put out a contract on his life, Hopper performed an old rodeo stunt called the Russian Suicide Death Chair at a speedway in Houston to promote a retrospective of his art at Rice University. He sat on a chair wired with dynamite sticks and lit the fuse. He emerged from the explosion miraculously unscathed.

A German producer wanted Hopper for a film about a group of models captured by a South American drug lord. The money was more than he’d ever been offered. So he headed down to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where it was going to be made. The job became Hopper’s entry to madness.

“What happened was my manager had called and said ‘don’t give him any booze,’ so I couldn’t get a drink and I started having hallucinations,” he said. The three complimentary shots of tequila left for him in his hotel room sent Hopper over the edge. He later said they were spiked with LSD.

“I became convinced that there were people in the bowels of this place who were being tortured and cremated,” he recalled. “The people had come to save me, and they were being killed and tortured, and it was my fault.”

He escaped into the warm Mexican night but the hallucinations kept coming. He masturbated to a tree and thought he was creating a galaxy. Insects and snakes broke through his skin. He tore off his clothes and walked into the countryside. He saw mysterious lights and thought they were alien spaceships.

As dawn broke, Hopper wandered naked back to town, hurling rocks at oncoming cars. “When the police tried to get me dressed, I refused,” he said. “I said, ‘No, kill me like this! I want to die naked.’”

Some of the film crew managed to get him on a flight back to Los Angeles. “On the plane I was hallucinating, and I crawled out on the wing in midair,” he recalled. “I decided that Francis Ford Coppola was on the plane, filming me. I had seen him, I had seen the cameras, so I knew that they were there. The crew started the wing on fire, so I crawled out on it, knowing that they were filming me. I was out there, and a bunch of stuntmen grabbed me and pulled me in.”

Hopper woke up in a straightjacket in a psychiatric ward, surrounded by celebrities in straightjackets who were screaming. “I better stop drinking,” he told himself. An antipsychotic drug gave him the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. It took him agonizing minutes to get food or a cigarette into his mouth.

He forswore alcohol but secretly continued using large amounts of cocaine — “half an ounce every two days, 2 days, three days at the most” — and then went totally crazy: “It’s really amazing when the telephone wires start talking to you.”

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Hopper finally questioned his behavior. “I had built in such a strong endorsement for drinking and using drugs, because, after all, I was an artist, and it was okay for artists to do that,” he said. “The reality was that I was just a drunk and a drug addict. It wasn’t helping me create. In fact, it hindered me. It stopped me getting jobs. I dealt with the rejection by taking more drink and drugs. All alcohol and drugs got me was a lot of misery.”

A year after Hopper sobered up, David Lynch, a master of the grotesque with a gift for infusing banal situations with the dread of imminent horror, cast him as gas-huffing psychotic drug dealer Frank Booth in his new film, Blue Velvet, without even meeting the actor.

Hopper called Lynch to assure him that he understood the role. “I am Frank,” he told Lynch, which gave the director some pause. Hopper viewed the film as a love story, explaining: “I understood his [Booth’s] sexual obsession. But I saw him as a man who would go to any lengths to keep his lady.”

His inimitable performance became his signature role, eclipsing everything he had done before. It would prove to be both a blessing and a curse. Though he worked constantly afterwards, he became trapped playing endless variations of Frank Booth for the rest of his life.

Before his death at 74 from prostate cancer, he summed up: “Let’s see, I guess, Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, a couple of photographs here, a couple of paintings . . . those are the things that I would be proud of, and yet they’re so minimal in this vast body of crap — most of the 150 films I’ve been in — this river of shit that I’ve tried to make gold out of. Very honestly.”

© Peter L Winkler 2014 Excerpted from Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel, published by Barricade Books. Available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle e-book, and audiobook editions from Amazon.com. Be sure to visit Peter’s website: dennishopperbook.com

 

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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “Bulldog Jack” (1935)

“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

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The 1935 Gaumont-British comedy-thriller Bulldog Jack is almost entirely forgotten nowadays, which is ironic seeing as it was subsequently copied to death by the Hollywood studios. The basic premise is simple enough: An ordinary everyman (who’s also something of a well-meaning bumbler) dreams of becoming a heroic tough guy, the type who foils the bad guys and saves the proverbial damsel-in-distress. Fate conspires to place this everyman in real-life danger and, against all odds, he overcomes his fears, exposes the criminals, and successfully rescues the aforementioned damsel-in-distress, winning both the day and the girl. If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s because several of Hollywood’s top comedians appeared in countless variations on the theme, including Bob Hope in My Favorite Brunette, Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and Jerry Lewis in It’s Only Money.

Bulldog Jack was the brainchild of its star, Jack Hulbert, who is credited for “idea and dialogue.” Hulbert was one of Britain’s top three film comedians of the 1930s, along with George Fromby and Will Hay. Writing about Bulldog Jack in his 1972 book The Detective in Film, British-born film historian William K. Everson stated, “Hulbert was a song-and-dance comic (though wisely keeping musical interludes out of this particular film) who followed the Harold Lloyd technique of combining comedy with thrill. He had a breezy, cheerful personality and good diction which made him far more acceptable to American audiences than many of the regional comics from Britain with their heavy local accents. His films were always solidly produced, with good sets, camerawork, and well-staged action scenes.” (In fact, I would never have even heard of Bulldog Jack if it hadn’t been for Everson’s  enthusiastic recommendation of it.)

Jack Hulbert (left) with Mack Sennett (center), visiting the set, and director Walter Forde

Jack Hulbert (left) with Mack Sennett (center), visiting the set, and director Walter Forde

Clocking in at a breathless 70 minutes, Bulldog Jack was directed by Walter Forde, with a screenplay by J.O.C. Orton, Gerard Fairlie, and Sidney Gilliat, “in collaboration with ‘Sapper’ [the pseudonym of author H.C. McNeile].” (Gilliat’s name is familiar to many movie buffs, not only in connection with the screenplays he co-wrote for Alfred Hitchcock, The Lady Vanishes and Jamaica Inn, but also for the films he wrote and directed himself, most notably the classic whodunit Green For Danger.) Instead of inventing a generic detective hero for the comic to emulate (as was the case in My Favorite Brunette and It’s Only Money), the writers made use of McNeile’s already widely popular fictional sleuth, Bulldog Drummond. So, in addition to being a first-rate comedy in itself, Bulldog Jack also functions as a sharp, incisive parody of the melodramatic excesses of the Bulldog Drummond novels as well. (Indeed, Bulldog Jack has stood the test of time better than any of the official Bulldog Drummond film adaptations.)

Bulldog Jack gets off to a wonderful start, with the credits accompanied by composer Louis Levy’s appropriately dramatic overture, and interrupted briefly by a gunshot and one of co-star Fay Wray’s patented ear-splitting screams. (Wray was still at the height of her loveliness, having recently played the ultimate damsel-in-distress in King Kong, and made a most fetching heroine for Hulbert to rescue.)

The real Bulldog Drummond, played by Atholl Fleming (accurately described by Everson as “rather too mature and stolid an actor for the role”), only appears in the film’s first five minutes. In an introductory sequence worthy of Hitchcock himself, we see two sinister figures out in the British countryside in the dead of night, obviously up to no good as they tap a telephone pole’s lines and listen in on a conversation between Drummond and Ann Manders (Wray) in which she entreats the celebrated amateur sleuth to come to her aid. Unfortunately, Drummond mentions that he’ll need to stop for gas before meeting Miss Manders at his flat in London. So the two villains hightail it to the only gas station in that isolated area, bind and gag the attendant, and one of them takes his place. When Drummond arrives, accompanied by his pet terrier, the bogus attendant waits on him while his accomplice lurks behind Drummond’s car and sabotages the brake line.

Blithely unaware of the danger he’s in, Drummond drives down a steep, winding stretch of road ominously known as “Devil’s Elbow.” As he futilely tries to pump the brakes, the film cross-cuts between his automobile and another car heading up the road from the opposite direction. The two cars collide, completely overturning Drummond’s auto. The driver of the other car, a professional cricket player named Jack Pennington (Hulbert), sticks his head out of the window and casually inquires whether this is “the right way to Gilford.” The only response he receives is Drummond’s terrier sticking its head out of passenger window of the overturned car. Jack politely thanks the pooch and gets out of his car.

Jack accompanies Drummond, who has suffered a broken arm, and his dog on the ambulance ride to the hospital. After exchanging introductions, Jack fawns over the famous detective and expresses his lifelong desire to become a detective himself. Since he’s obviously out of commission for the time being, Drummond asks Jack to impersonate him long enough to interview Miss Manders and determine exactly who and what is threatening her. Needless to say, despite the potential danger, Jack gladly accepts the assignment.

Upon Jack’s arrival at Drummond’s flat, we are introduced to two supporting characters well known to followers of the Drummond novels, the first being Drummond’s faithful, unflappable manservant Denny, played here by Gibb McLaughlin, best remembered for his work in David Lean’s early films. The second familiar character to appear is Drummond’s perennial sidekick, “Algy” (short for Algernon) Longworth, the very embodiment of that archetype affectionately known as “a silly-ass Englishman.” In Bulldog Jack, Algy is played by Hulbert’s brother Claude, an accomplished comedian in his own right. (Few British comics could do “silly-ass” better than Claude Hulbert.) Algy agrees to go along with Pennington’s impersonation of Drummond and the two act as a team for the remainder of the movie. (The dynamic between the Hulbert Brothers is rather reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, with Jack driven to a perpetual state of exasperation by Claude’s ineffectualness.)

The next person knocking on Drummond’s door, much to Jack’s disappointment, is not Ann, but rather an elderly foreigner (Paul Graetz) who claims that criminals are pressuring him into participating in a crime involving “the Goddess with a Hundred Hands.” (“Do you know what they want me to do?” the old man asks. “Wash them?” Algy guesses.) The man’s pleas are interrupted by the arrival of a couple of strangers who identify themselves as policemen. Convinced they’re imposters, Jack locks them in the kitchen while two other men, also identifying themselves as police, show up. Jack, however, smugly declares these two to be authentic and turns the old man over to them. Not surprisingly, the first set of men are the real cops and the second two are minions of the master criminal behind the sinister goings-on.

At last, Ann herself arrives (Jack is, of course, immediately smitten with her) and the plot finally gets underway. As Ann explains, the old man is Salvini, her grandfather, and he’s an expert jeweler whose professional services are required by the master criminal in question, one Professor Morelle. Played by a young Ralph Richardson (with bushy mustache and gray fright wig) in one of his early film appearances, Morelle is a satirical take-off on such sinister literary masterminds as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty and Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. (One of the main reasons that Bulldog Jack works so well is that Richardson, Wray, and all the other supporting actors play their roles absolutely straight, and only the Hulberts play it for laughs.)

The caper Morelle is planning is the theft of a priceless set of jewels embedded in the gigantic multi-armed statue of the Indian goddess Kali that is kept at the British Museum. Morelle needs Salvini to create replicas of the jewels that will be indistinguishable from the real thing, so that they can be substituted for the originals. When Savini refuses to give in to Morelle’s threats, Ann is also kidnapped by Morelle’s henchmen, and it’s up to Jack and Algy to track down Morelle’s secret lair and save her and her grandfather from the villain’s evil clutches.

In their quest, Jack and Algy are put through a series of perils typical of the average Bulldog Drummond story. At one point, they’re locked in a basement storeroom. (Algy suggests burning their way out. It isn’t until the fire is blazing out of control that it occurs to them that they might be incinerated as well.) They deduce that Morelle’s hideout must be located somewhere in London’s underground subway tunnels and—you can see this one coming a mile away—they’re forced to outrun a train when they start down a seemingly empty tunnel. (By the way, the film’s special effects are flawlessly done, particularly the miniatures used in the climax.)

Bulldog 3

After sending Algy to go alert the police, Jack eventually reaches Morelle’s underground hideout, but his attempt to spirit Ann and her grandfather out of there by impersonating Morelle and hoodwinking his gang is spoiled by the inevitable appearance of Morelle himself. It’s at this point that Morelle demolishes Ann’s trust in Jack (she still thinks he’s Bulldog Drummond) by exposing him as a fraud and imposter (the film’s only touch of pathos). Undeterred, Jack still hopes to prove himself to Ann and give Morelle his well-deserved comeuppance.

There are some highly amusing sight gags in Bulldog Jack, most notably a literal running gag in which the good guys and bad guys are constantly hurrying up or down the London Underground’s circular staircases (an image beautifully punctuated by Levy’s score) and a frenzied nighttime chase through the London Museum after hours when Jack interrupts Morelle and his men in mid-robbery, climaxed by Jack utilizing the museum’s collection of Aboriginal boomerangs against the villains. At first, Jack successfully knocks out several of Morelle’s henchmen (complete with comic sound effects), but, as comedy tradition demands, the last boomerang he flings backfires on him.

The dangers that Jack faces in the last fifteen minutes of the movie would not be out of place in an Indiana Jones film, with an emphasis on suspense rather than comedy. Jack pursues Morelle down to the subway tunnels and the two of them fight it out on the tracks, with the electrified third rail and an oncoming train posing serious threats. Finally, in a last-ditch act of sheer desperation, Morelle hijacks a subway train with Jack, Algy, Ann, and Salvini aboard. Intending to commit murder/suicide by crashing the train when it reaches the end of the line, Morelle locks himself in the lead train’s cab and Jack’s only hope of stopping him is to crawl out over the top of the moving train and get into the cab via the front door.

Bulldog 2

Now, alas, for the bad news. The video transfer on the Region 1 DVD release by a company called Firecake Entertainment leaves something to be desired. At first glance, the image seems to be sharp enough, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s some rather annoying fuzziness in the picture. Although, in all fairness, it should be pointed out that this fuzziness is not bad enough to make the DVD unwatchable. (Lord knows, the transfer is nowhere near as bad as those 5th or 6th generation public domain dubs that have plagued unwitting video purchasers for decades.) The soundtrack, however, is clean and the dialogue is quite audible, which isn’t always the case in British films of the period.

On the plus side, Bulldog Jack definitely qualifies as “family friendly” entertainment. As Everson explained in his program notes for a 1963 New York screening of Bulldog Jack: “There was a lot of ‘blue’ comedy in the British films of the 30s, some admittedly very funny. Hulbert’s were always scrupulously clean.” Even if you’ve seen any of the numerous Hollywood knock-offs of Bulldog Jack, I think you’ll agree that the original can’t be topped, in terms of both laughs and thrills.


Vincent Price

Home Video: The Best of 2013

Despite continued dire assertions that “DVD is dead” and that Blu-ray is a fading niche market in an era of downloadable movies, from our vantage point we’re seeing more desirable titles premiering on DVD and Blu-ray than ever before, even if some of these best new releases require a region-free player to see them, or are titles increasingly farmed out to independents charging higher prices than we’ve gotten used to. This year we give a particular round of applause to labels like Olive Films, Inception Media Group, Cohen Film Collection, and Flicker Alley, places run but dedicated, film-savvy entrepreneurs who clearly love these movies as much as we do.

And so, in ascending order, here’s our list of the best of the best of 2013:

Paul Williams

10. Paul Williams – Still Alive (DVD only; Virgil Films)
The past decade has been great for documentaries about singers and songwriters: Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008), Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everyone Talkin’ About Him?), Ain’t In It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm (both 2010). Paul Williams Still Alive (2011) is yet another funny, moving and ultimately revelatory portrait of the ubiquitous if diminutive songwriting superstar, who seemed to vanish into thin air after the early 1980s. Director Stephen Kessler’s unusual approach makes the show as much about his mostly awkward personal relationship with his reluctantly willing subject, who now seems much happier living in comparative obscurity than he did at the height of his celebrity. A profoundly entertaining film about a supremely talented artist whose intimate, confessional songs about loneliness and depression always seemed negated by the clownish, cocky media star far more complex than anyone imagined.

Damned

9. The Damned (Cohen Film Collection)
Submarine movies come in all shapes and sizes, but René Clément’s The Damned (1947) is the most authentic submarine movie we’ve ever seen, more so even than Wolfgang Petersen’s celebrated Das Boot (1981). And it is by far the most immediate. Told in flashback by a French doctor, Guilbert (Henri Vidal), the film follows a German U-boat loaded to the gills with VIPs: fervent Nazis, Nazi collaborators, and their lovers, all fleeing from Oslo hoping to reach South America in the last days of the war. Considering when it was made, the film is a technical marvel, accomplishing many of the same kinds of innovative claustrophobic camerawork usually credited to the much later Das Boot. It seamlessly blends new footage shot aboard a submarine with studio sets and wartime stock footage, while the jumble of fast-changing political (and economical and sexual) loyalties aboard this underwater bunker is equally fascinating, eventually becoming a microcosm of Europe during those chaotic last days of the Third Reich. This Gaumont title distributed by Cohen Media Group looks nearly perfect in high-def. Good extras include an audio commentary and hour-long Clément documentary.

Right Stuff

8. The Right Stuff (Warner Home Video)
“They were called test pilots, and no one knew their names.” The Right Stuff (1983) is the best American movie of the 1980s. Based on Tom Wolfe’s book and adapted and directed by Philip Kaufman, the movie essentially tells two stories: Chuck Yeager’s exploits as a test pilot, in particular his attempt to break and go beyond the sound barrier; and the earliest days of NASA, as seen through the eyes of its seven Mercury Program astronauts (and their wives). The material is by itself compelling, but what makes The Right Stuff so special is in the telling. It tells its familiar story of heroic American pioneers in unusual and unexpected ways. Some see it as a modern variation of John Ford’s last masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), an apt comparison. In Ford’s film, a cowboy and gunfighter emblematic of the Old West, played by John Wayne, essentially steps aside so that an aspiring attorney, James Stewart, symbolizing a tamer, civilized West, can take his place. The lawyer becomes a celebrated political figure while the once-famous gunfighter dies in total anonymity, completely forgotten except by his closest friends. In The Right Stuff Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) is the Wayne character (even if Shepard plays him like Gary Cooper), while the seven Mercury astronauts are Stewart’s. In some ways it’s the last great movie epic with, among other things, the subsequent CGI revolution and Ron Howard’s obscenely overrated Apollo 13 making not the slightest dent in its lasting impact. It simultaneously satirizes Cold War politics and mass media hyperbole with its prefabricated American heroes yet, almost indescribably, this only serves to make each act of personal bravery all the more awe-inspiring. In a way, the Mercury astronauts are also Wayne’s character, outwardly enjoying the benefits and pitfalls of celebrity, with the public oblivious to or simply not interested in their genuine but mostly private and personal heroism. The Blu-ray has been among the most anticipated releases of the last few years, and from a technical standpoint it does not disappoint, offering a near-perfect video presentation supported by spectacularly good audio. There are numerous extra features, though nearly all are ported over from a 2003 DVD release.

 

Fighting Kentuckian

7. Olive Films
More than any other home video label in recent years, Olive Films has been a movie-lover’s dream come true. Culling mainly from Paramount’s long-neglected library holdings, they plucked from obscurity movies never before released to home video and have presented them with dazzlingly good high-def transfers. Neglected films, particularly from Republic Pictures’ B-movies, previously available on VHS and DVD with awful, ancient video transfers, have been revelations as Olive Blu-rays. From Betty Boop to ‘50s sci-fi to classic and recent French thrillers, Olive Films is the home video label of the year.

Vincent Price

6. The Vincent Price Collection (Shout! Factory)
American International Pictures releases licensed from MGM, this Halloween release containing House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Witchfinder General (1968), and The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) brought back fond memories of the NuArt Theater’s glorious AIP film festival of 20 years ago, when these movies, available then only in the murkiest of panned-and-scanned video transfers, could be experienced as they were meant to be seen: good 35mm prints on a big, wide screen. These high-def transfers, with their rich color, gorgeous cinematography and extraordinarily good art direction, reveal riches lost when they were played to death on TV throughout the seventies and eighties. Shout! also went the extra mile combining MGM’s preexisting featurettes with some wonderful new material, including introductions to most of the films by Mr. Price himself, videotaped for Iowa Public Television back in the 1980s!

Puppetoons 2

5. The Puppetoon Movie (Inception Media Group)
A contemporary and in many ways equal of Walt Disney but minus Walt’s business acumen, producer-director George Pal is best remembered today for his pioneering efforts in the sci-fi/fantasy genre: Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), tom thumb (1958), The Time Machine (1960) and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) among them. But before all that, Pal made his name with the Puppetoons, one-reel shorts mostly employing the rare form of three-dimensional replacement animation. Unlike stop-motion, in which a single model is articulated one frame at a time, Pal’s Puppetoons involved carving and painting dozens upon dozens of heads and legs for a single character, reportedly upwards of 9,000 separate carvings in all for a single short. Replacing various body parts for each frame of film, the result was uncannily smooth and expressive facial reactions and motion, something like “liquid wood.” The new 2-disc Blu-ray of The Puppetoon Movie, released independently and limited to 3,000 copies (available at www.b2mp.net), is really two feature films and bonus shorts all in high-def, plus The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal presented in standard-definition, along with myriad extra features. In addition to The Puppetoon Movie, featuring ten unabridged Puppetoons plus newer material, the set also includes the high-definition premiere of The Great Rupert (1950), Pal’s first live-action feature. Bonus Puppetoon shorts included on The Puppetoon Movie’s original DVD release are present, but the real treat are seven additional bonus shorts being released for the first time in any home video format, shorts in high-definition licensed from Paramount and restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archives and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Nashville

4. Nashville (Criterion)
For once the tag lines were accurate: “Wild. Wonderful. Sinful. Laughing. Explosive.” Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), one of the best films of the 1970s, is a divisive, inarguably indulgent film, but also one uniquely experimental and prophetic, especially so when it was new. The epic, 160-minute has no single protagonist and instead is a tapestry cutting among 24 major characters and numerous minor ones. It has no plot to speak of, despite an undercurrent of political maneuvering and a vague exploration of professional ambition and fame set against Nashville’s country music scene. Altman had been evolving toward this kind of storytelling beginning with M*A*S*H (1970) and, after crystalizing the form in Nashville would return to it again in the underrated A Wedding (1978), the somewhat overrated The Player (1992) and a few others. But in 1975 Nashville was quite daring, the work of a supremely confident, in some ways self-destructive filmmaker to whom ordinary movie-making rules did not apply. Nashville had previous been released by owner Paramount as an okay if no-frills DVD in 2000. Criterion’s Blu-ray offers vastly improved picture and wonderfully immersive sound, the latter vitally important in fully appreciating the work’s complex sound design. The new Blu-ray-plus-DVD combo also includes scads of extra features, including an original making-of documentary featuring some of the film’s key participants.

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3. Pierre Étaix (Criterion)
Though we like to think we’re well-versed in the art of film comedy, we confess we had never even heard of circus clown-turned-actor-director Pierre Étaix until Criterion’s revelatory boxed set of this delightful disciple of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. Included are three charming short films and all five of his ‘60s/early ‘70s features: The Suitor, As Long As You’ve Got Your Health, Le grand amour, and Land of Milk and Honey. The transfers of these long-unavailable films (due to legal problems) all look and sound great and, happily, the 85-year-old Étaix is on-hand to introduce each film.

Zatoichi

2. Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (Criterion)
One of Criterion’s best-ever home video releases, Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman is also an incredible value. Smart shoppers were able to purchase the set at one point for less than $100, but even at its suggested retail price of $224.95, for 25 feature films plus the many valuable extra features it’s still quite a bargain. Most readers are probably unaware that a near-simultaneous release in Japan, but covering only the first 18 movies, retails for a wallet-busting¥ 56,700, or about $550. That’s more than twice Criterion’s SRP yet minus the last seven films. The movies, all starring Shintaro Katsu as the eponymous wandering masseur and gambler, represent Japanese genre filmmaking at its finest. Though popular, the original films, released between 1962 and 1973, are a bit less highly regarded in Japan than in America, where Japanese film scholars have been quicker to acknowledge their visual and aural virtuosity, to say nothing of Katsu’s unforgettable characterization. Directed by such genre masters as Kenji Misumi, Kazuo (not Issei) Mori, Tokuzo Tanaka and, occasionally, offbeat outside talent like Satsuo Yamamoto and Kihachi Okamoto, and backed by outstanding cinematography and marrow-penetrating scores by composers as varied as Akira Ifukube and Isao Tomita, taken as a whole the Zatoichi series is one of the great epic stories of World Cinema. At the center of things, naturally, is Shintaro Katsu, a fascinating figure who gradually took full control of the film series and later continued it on Japanese network television when the domestic film market could no longer support it or much of anything else. The series began at Daiei Studios but as that company teetered toward bankruptcy Katsu began producing them himself, under the aegis of his Katsu Productions. When Daiei finally succumbed he move the series to Toho for its last handful of entries, so today ownership of the films is divided between Toho and Kadokawa Pictures, inheritors of the Daiei film library. That Criterion was able to negotiate a licensing agreement for all 25 films into a single boxed set is an achievement all by itself. That the films can now be enjoyed sequentially in consistently gorgeous transfers is yet another.

Cinerama South Seas Adventure

1. Cinerama Holiday/Cinerama South Seas Adventure (Flicker Alley)
Let me say this right up front: you’re going to want to get these. The original Cinerama travelogues were never exhibited in conventional movie theaters, never shown on television, and until now, never before released to home video. Indeed, after about 1963 they weren’t shown anywhere. Restoring these once hugely-popular but virtually lost films has been a personal crusade of many film buffs, historians, and preservationists, but it took the tenacity and ingenuity of Cinerama reconstructionist David Strohmaier to get the job done, aided by innumerable craftsmen and technicians. Via distributor Flicker Alley, the first two Cinerama Blu-ray releases, This Is Cinerama (1952) and Windjammer (1958) were issued last year to much-deserved acclaim. These discs were beautifully packaged, compromised only by the lesser elements available: 70mm film. These next two releases, Cinerama South Seas Adventure and Cinerama Holiday (1955) have gone back to the original three-strip, six-perf high original camera negatives, replacing unusable bits and pieces with three-strip material deposited with the Library of Congress. The results are, in a word, glorious, and Strohmaier’s exacting recreation of the original road show experience comes as close as possible to replicating the Cinerama experience. It’s still not quite true Cinerama: a large, deeply curved screen is essential in order to experience the “audience participation” effects of the process, but it’s darn close. Further, the Blu-ray (a DVD version of the film is also included, but you’ll definitely not want to watch the film in that format) comes with many invaluable extra features including, appropriately, a reproduction of the original theater programs.

Gabriella

Finding My Way Into Schlock

Massage Parlor Murders

Massage Parlor Murders! (1974) would be just another generic morsel of sleaze, if not for its weird six-minute pre-title sequence. In it, a masseuse attempts to negotiate the removal of her clothing with a pasty-faced, flustered client who starts forking over twenties more out of nervousness than sexual desire. The conclusion of this oral contract caps what passes for suspense in this affectless scene, which is flatly lit, staged proscenium arch-style, and accompanied by a jaunty Mickey-Mouse score. Massage Parlor Murders! is probably the only slasher film ever to open with a vaudevillian blackout sketch. The fact that only one of the two characters in it appears again in the movie (and then only for a few minutes right at the end) creates a narrative disconnect, and the scene is hilarious because it contrasts so jarringly in tone with everything that follows. It’s also endearing because it’s one of those surprising movie moments in which an especially appealing bit performer brings a bland scene to life. Olive-skinned Annie Gaybis, who plays the masseuse, has an unusual beauty and a soft Noo Yawk accent, and she really nails the stripper’s seductive hard-sell routine in a funny, authentic-sounding way. It turns out the movie isn’t about Gaybis’s character, but the fleeting possibility counts for a lot.

The other seventy-four minutes of Massage Parlor Murders! (and don’t leave off that exclamation point!) comprise an banal, semi-comprehensible serial killer procedural. But, as Chris Poggiali’s thoroughly-researched liner notes point out, it would be hard to find a more useful time capsule of its particular moment in the history of crap. Like many low-end exploiters, Massage Parlor Murders! was stitched together out of barely usable footage. Chester Fox, whose Hitchcockian cameo happened to be in the role of Gaybis’s befuddled john, was the first of two credited directors, a fringe figure whose other oddball credits included an obscure Marcel Marceau short and an aborted attempt to film the famous Fischer-Spassky chess match. The other, Alex Stevens, was a stunt man hired to add some brisk car chase scenes and a bathhouse not-quite-orgy that looks like it might have been filmed with a hidden camera. Incoherent as it is, Massage Parlor Murders! may be the grindhousiest of all 1970s grindhouse movies, just because it’s set and photographed in and around the place where more people saw them than any other: Manhattan’s Times Square at the depth of its Ford to City: Drop Dead-era decay.

Massage

Re-release prints of Massage Parlor Murders! scissored off the prologue, turning it from a mostly ordinary exploitation film into a wholly ordinary one. A complete theatrical print of the original version is now available as a crisp, colorful Blu-ray thanks to Vinegar Syndrome, a new, Connecticut-based company that specializes in the kind of fringe sinema that even connoisseurs of schlock have never heard of. Ready to explore the oeuvre of porn auteur Kemal Horulu? Vinegar Syndrome has you covered with not one but two double feature DVDs. In the midst of a scary transitional period in which many once-thriving independent labels (and major studios) have cut back or given up on catalog releases, cult and exploitation is one of the few niches still being profitably mined for home video special editions. They’ve been through hard times – Something Weird now releases on DVD-R, and Code Red produces self-distributed limited runs that go out of print almost immediately – but hardy labels including Synapse Films, Scorpion Releasing, Shout Factory, and Grindhouse Releasing are still rereleasing little-known trash classics upon an unsuspecting public at a rapid clip.

It was through another Vinegar Syndrome release, Mark Haggard’s The Love Garden (1971), that I discovered Barbara Mills. Also credited as Barbara Caron, Mills was a prolific sexploitation starlet who somehow never received the same kind of cult recognition that Pam Grier or Claudia Jennings, or even Haji or Marsha Jordan, still enjoy. In The Love Garden, Mills and Linda York (her frequent co-star, and also a wispy redhead with offbeat looks) play lesbians whose partnership is threatened when a new, male neighbor falls for York’s character. At first, this very low-budget film – which has only three characters, and entirely post-synched dialogue – comes across as a dated exercise in “curing” homosexuality. Even though the male protagonist is a Jewfro’d, un-macho Tony Roberts type, he also details (in voiceover) a plan to intrude upon a relationship that he sees as unnatural, at least compared to the lovin’ he’s trying to bring. Mills’s character is the least sympathetic of the three – not quite a stereotypical “predatory lesbian,” but older than York and possessive. So it’s a shock – a calculated, well-crafted shock – when The Love Garden reverses course entirely in its last few minutes, upending all of the hero’s comfortable sexist assumptions and taking an explicitly anti-homophobic stance. I’d also argue that The Love Garden, which devotes 28 of its 70 minutes to a pair of equally tender and unhurried sex scenes (one gay, one hetero) that stop just short of going hardcore, functions as feminist porn avant la lettre.

Not every movie made for the raincoat crowd had subversion on its mind: The Love Garden is paired on DVD with another Barbara Mills vehicle, The Suckers (1972), a clunky attempt to make a softcore Most Dangerous Game. The Suckers doesn’t get around to explaining the obvious “twist” in the plot until after the halfway mark, and its sex scenes are as crude and unappealing as The Love Garden’s are sensuous and open. Mills has a fairly minor role in Escape to Passion (1970), the second film by director James Bryan – she’s one of the participants in the long Crisco orgy at the, er, climax of the film. But Mills and Bryan shared a connection to the Venice Beach hippie scene. Mills, who died in 2010, used her nudie work to support a free-spirited lifestyle as a Venice artist. Bryan, who also lived and worked there, was an authentic regional filmmaker who captured this corner of Los Angeles with the same perceptive eye that George Romero turned upon western Pennsylvania. A film student at UCLA around the same time as Jack Hill (and Francis Ford Coppola, whose first feature was a nudie), Bryan has a fraction of Hill’s skill for self-promotion and, to judge by the three early films released on DVD together by Code Red, twice as much talent.

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Only sixty-five minutes long, Bryan’s debut feature The Dirtiest Game in the World is clearly a B-side – a lengthy sex party hung on a thread of political satire, albeit bookended by documentary footage of the 1968 Democratic convention and an epigraph by Richard Nixon (!).  But Bryan’s formal imagination dominates Escape to Passion, his magnum opus. Using the B storyline about a laid-back orgy impresario (Titus Moody, in full Roy Orbison drag and playing a version of himself) to supply the requisite nudity, Bryan pours his heart into the story of another Angeleno fringe dweller, a petty thief named Leo (the talented Leonard Shoemaker) whose higher criminal aspirations orchestrate noir-style tragedy. Clearly a New Wave enthusiast, Bryan fills Escape to Passion with naturalistic, often handheld camera work, associative editing, and a remarkably dense sound design. Cutaways to movie stills of Robinson and Cagney as Leo describes his dream of a big heist are pure Godard, and the hilarious pop-art bank heist (complete with kiddie space helmets and a naked lady) wouldn’t be out of place in Shoot the Piano Player. The honkytonk soundtrack (set partly in a topless country-western bar, Escape to Passion is almost a musical) anticipates Ashby’s and Scorsese’s pop music scoring. Bryan’s I Love You I Love You Not (1974) is one of the great Los Angeles time capsules of the 1970s; Century City, the Classic Cat and the Aware Inn on Sunset Boulevard, and Venice’s Pacific Avenue are all caught in its amber. I Love You is the story of a nymphomaniac, which in Bryan’s hands becomes a sympathetic portrait of a young woman (Lynn Harris, touchingly vulnerable as she wanders the L.A. streets in an incongruous fur coat) on the edge of mental illness, for whom sex with a series of selfish, damaged men (and women) proves an unsatisfying, temporary escape. Although more constricted by amateurish performances and gratuitous sex scenes than Escape to Passion, I Love You still feels like the bizarro-world, soft-porn version of some canonical New Hollywood film – A Woman Under the Influence or An Unmarried Woman or Coming Home.

Gabriella

I wish it had been Bryan who tried to turn Barbara Mills into a star instead of Mack Bing, the sitcom director at the helm of Gabriella, Gabriella (usually dated 1972 but probably ca. 1970; Code Red). Mills plays the title character, a teen who flees from the bad vibes given off by her hypocritical, repressed parents (depicted Love, American Style-style, albeit with unflattering middle-aged nudity) into a series of vignettes in which she discovers free love and (literal) sexual revolution. It’s a terrible movie, although its incoherence and obvious symbolism make Gabriella, Gabriella more reminiscent of the European New Wave’s flower-power excesses than any mainstream American film of the era. (In other words it’s closer to Chytilova’s The Apple Tree or Varda’s Lions Love than to Skidoo – but again, that’s not a recommendation). If The Love Garden shows off Mills’s acting chops in what amounts to a character part, Gabriella is an infatuated tribute to her natural beauty (which encompasses a prominent, if adorable, overbite and a crop of clearly visible hair on her upper lip and forearms) and uninhibited exuberance.

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This unreleasable (and evidently unreleased) smorgasbord of peace-love-dope clichés would be totally forgotten today had it not been scavenged for a more high-profile film, Class of ’74 (1972; Code Red). Although the finished product is ultimately no better than Gabriella, Gabriella, Class of ’74 (credited to Bing and a more experienced director, Arthur Marks) has to count as one of the most clever efforts to reconstitute a new film out of the spare parts of an old one. Marks fashions Gabriella, Gabriella into a sequel to itself, packaging the earlier footage as flashbacks to high school and reintroducing Gabriella as a college student (at the University of Southern California, this writer’s alma mater), eager for amorous adventures – or more of them, that is, this time with her new besties as sexual tour guides. If Bing’s movie tried to cash in on Woodstock ideas of sex, Marks’s is pure proto-yuppie cynicism. The sex is transactional, every orgasm a brass ring. Ostensibly the huntresses, Gabriella and her girlfriends somehow end up as trophies for the kind of smug middle-aged clods (played by Gary Clarke and Phillip Terry, among others) who were objects of ridicule in Gabriella, Gabriella. Even the transformation of Mills’s body illustrates a shift from empowerment to conformity: the hair on her arms and face has been waxed off, and the hair on her head is longer and styled with blonde highlights. To put Mills on a par with her relatively A-list co-stars (Marki Bey, Pat Woodell, and Sondra Currie), Marks gave her a glam makeover – and subdued a lot of her personality.

If James Bryan was an auteur of the scuzzy fringe, then Arthur Marks was about as corporate an exploitation director as one could be – a shrewd packager of blax- and sexploitation trends for mini-majors like General Film Corporation (his own company) and later AIP. His films are formulaic and impersonal, but not without their charms. I’m especially partial to Bonnie’s Kids (1973; Dark Sky), a violent, anarchic road/crime spree movie often (and perhaps dubiously) cited as a Pulp Fiction influence. The best thing about Bonnie’s Kids is Tiffany Bolling, a sexy blonde who could be dull in ingénue roles but came ferociously to life when cast as bad girls. She’s terrifyingly feral as a sociopath who engineers a ransom kidnapping in Guerdon Trueblood’s The Candy Snatchers (1973; Subversive Cinema), a more plausible Tarantino inspiration and one of the most unrelentingly cold-blooded movies ever made, right through to the savagely misanthropic twist ending. If there’s one Nixon-era obscurity that deserves to be recategorized as a “real” movie rather than exploitation, it’s The Candy Snatchers. Trueblood (primarily a television writer) ties with Electra Glide in Blue’s James William Guercio as the great one-and-done feature director of 1973, if not of all time, and his invisibility is probably the factor that has kept The Candy Snatchers out of the canon. If some auteurist cred would help up its profile, note that screenwriter Bryan Gindoff’s only other credit is Walter Hill’s beautiful debut film, Hard Times (1975).

These crawled-out-from-under-a-rock films of the 1970s are full of low-rent “stars” who substitute energy and sensuality for finesse, and not all of them were female. Alex Nicol’s deliciously gaudy Point of Terror (1971; Scorpion Releasing) offers a worthy introduction, and farewell, to the forgotten Peter Carpenter. Playing a lounge singer at a seaside dump called the Lobster House, the often shirtless Carpenter manages a decent approximation of Tom Jones’s sweaty charisma in this lurid neo-noir that rips off The Postman Always Rings Twice and half a dozen of its contemporaries. Crammed with unexpectedly good songs (credited to Motown producers Hal Davis, Jerry Marcellino and Mel Larson), Point of Terror seems less interested in operating as a suspense or a horror film than as a star vehicle or a pop opera. Carpenter, who apparently died young (variant accounts of how and when have surfaced across different DVD extras and the internet), also co-wrote Point of Terror, his final film, as well as the earlier Blood Mania (1970; Code Red).

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Directed by Robert Vincent O’Neil, Blood Mania is another stylish, modestly-scaled, fatalistic crime film that synthesizes familiar femme fatale / male patsy clichés. From there one might leap to O’Neil’s The Psycho Lover (1970; Something Weird), a sort of companion piece, made in the same year and with a similar plot, but with Lawrence Montaigne (best known as a Star Trek guest star) subbing for Carpenter. All three of the films have the look and feel of a reasonably good episode of a comfort-food crime series like Mannix or Barnaby Jones – a compliment, not a dig, when you consider how indifferently made most grindhouse fare was content to be. On style points alone, Point of Terror is by far the standout of the three, thanks to cinematographer Bob Maxwell’s oversaturated colors and some imaginative transitions by editor Verna Fields (Medium Cool; Jaws) – not the sort of talent you’d expect to find working on a Crown International release. But all three of the Carpenter and/or O’Neil pictures are what passes for classy (or classical) in an era when the most revelatory independent action movies – like Walter Cichy’s Cop Killers (1973) and Robert Endelson’s Fight For Your Life (1977) – were punishing, self-conscious exercises in simultaneously gratifying audiences’ lust for blood and damning them for it.

I hasten to emphasize I’m far from the first critic to discover any of these gems (or polish any of these turds, to say the same thing a different way). Film historians like Tim Lucas and Michael Weldon have devoted slavish attention to schlock since the dawn of home video, and there are several thorough DVD review sites (like DVD Drive-in, Mondo Digital, and 10,000 Bullets) that only cover cinema’s underbelly. Personally, I never really knew what to do with this scuzzy corner of movie history. I always read Psychotronic Video on the newsstand but never sought out many of the films it covered, not even as a horny teenager in search of illicit nudity. For a young movie buff discovering Hitchcock and Hawks and Nicholas Ray, and a bit later Antonioni and Rivette and Tati, what room is there for Harry Novak?

Only as I near my twentieth year of cinephilia have I gotten interested in crap, and started to find slots for it in my personal mosaic of movie-watching. I’m still skeptical of any iteration of movie fandom that focuses exclusively on junk cinema, and there seem to be many movie fans who are content to traverse only the Mystery Science Theater 3000-Tarantino-Shock Cinema axis. And I think that writers who trump up articulate defenses for talentless hacks like Jess Franco or Ray Dennis Steckler usually end up making less of an argument for the films than for the impulse to validate guilty pleasures as good taste. But over the last few years many of my favorite discoveries have been in this category of cinema, and I suspect it’s crucial that I came to them as something of a postgraduate cinephile.

Although trash might seem to be entry-level cinema, I think it may be more rewarding for the movie fan who’s seen everything. Since what’s good about these films is rarer and arguably harder to suss out than in mainstream filmmaking, it helps to have somewhat refined taste – as well as the patience of a seasoned truffle-hunter. If that sounds snobbish, understand that I’m not patting myself on the back for aptitude, only for endurance. Affinity for a medium counts, but I suspect that taste is more a factor of the 10,000 hour-rule: unless you’re a complete idiot, once you’ve seen 5,000 movies you’ll be able to tell good from bad. That’s how you can zone out through the turgid bulk of Massage Parlor Murders! and still reliably snap to attention for the six minutes in which it gets weird. Exploitation is low-yield cinema – much of it deserves scorn, until suddenly it doesn’t – and again, plumbing those highs and lows is bonus-round territory for the avid cinephile. Another benefit of being in the 10,000-hour club (a club I joined, for the record, somewhere around 2009) is that it gradually purges one of any inclination to point and laugh at art that doesn’t work – a desire that comes, of course, from uncertainty about one’s own judgment. It helps to come at fringe cinema with judiciousness but no condescension.

I remember a prominent film critic, one of my teachers at USC, telling us that she didn’t find her voice as a writer until about five years previously, and then suddenly it clicked. The same could be said of confidence in one’s own taste, and I’m glad I waited to start exploring these movies until after I passed that threshold. In the same way that an artist can’t move to abstraction until he understands technique, perhaps an aficionado can’t recognize outsider art until she knows the canon. Would I have fallen in love with Joe Sarno (probably the most gifted sex film director, even more so than Russ Meyer) had I not already seen the Bergman and Dreyer classics that his films seem to be in a conversation with? I doubt it. The films of James Bryan, who also strikes me as an authentic primitive, might only be a tenth as good as Nashville or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. But a tenth as good as those is still pretty good, and the time to unearth someone like Bryan is probably after absorbing the oeuvres of the masters whose sensibilities he echoes or gropes toward. (Or, to paraphrase Monty Python: if you liked this film, you may also enjoy La Notte.) If I have a guiding principle as a committed movie lover, it’s that curiosity and experience must always expand, never contract. I don’t know what the next frontier will be, but it might be Kemal Horulu.

Stephen Bowie is a contributor to The A.V. Club and the founder of The Classic TV History Blog.

 

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Walter Mitty and Other Daydreamers

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), a Technicolor musical comedy produced by Samuel Goldwyn, casts Danny Kaye as an imaginative editor of pulp books. It is not my favorite Kaye vehicle. I recommend that, if you are in the mood for a good double feature, you get your hands on DVD’s of Kaye’s Wonder Man (1945) and The Court Jester (1956). But, even though the various elements of Mitty never cohere, the film provides a number of entertaining scenes that make it worth a spin on your DVD player.

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Critics have never had a problem summarizing the plot of Mitty in a few words. It is the story of “a daydreaming everyman” or “a little man with big dreams.”  But, despite the great popularity of the James Thurber short story on which the film was based, the Mitty character was not the original daydreamer protagonist. It was not uncommon in early comedy films to have a drudge let their thoughts drift off and imagine themselves in a fantastic situation. This was certainly the case with a 1914 Essanay comedy called Sweedie and the Hypnotist. Sweedie (Wallace Beery in drag) is a scrub woman in a theatre. Sweedie takes a break from sweeping to watch a hypnotist (Leo White) perform on stage and soon finds herself lulled into a trance. At this point, the scrub woman imagines herself in an exciting adventure in which the hypnotist and the stage manager are battling for her hand in marriage. The premise proves to be nothing more than an excuse for a slapstick melee. At one point, the stage manager gets the hypnotist out of the way by pushing him into a trunk. The daydream almost turned out to be a nightmare for White. According to a news report, the production was halted when White became trapped inside the trunk and nearly suffocated.

Even in 1914, the plot of Sweedie and the Hypnotist was trite stuff. The janitor who leans against his broom and gets a faraway look in his eyes became a familiar image in comedy films. It was due to the influence of Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court that most daydreamers envisioned themselves in ancient times. In Hogan’s Aristocratic Dream (1915), a tramp (Charlie Murray) dreams that he is a nobleman in pre-revolutionary France. A film that distinctly combined the two daydreaming genres, the dawdling laborer and the time-traveling fantasist, was The Knight Watch (1929), in which a movie studio janitor (Arthur Lake) watches actors perform as merry knights on a medieval set and imagines himself as a brave knight.

A Mitty-type story formed the basis of Reaching for the Moon (1917). Alexis Brown (Douglas Fairbanks), a lowly clerk in a button factory, dreams that he is royal heir, but he finds at the film’s conclusion that the moon is out of his grasp. This is how the film ends according to the TCM website: “While dueling for his life. . . , Alexis falls over a cliff and awakens to discover that he has merely tumbled out of bed. Thus disabused of his fantasies, Alexis eagerly returns to his life in the button factory, proposes to Elsie Merrill, his down-to-earth sweetheart, and eventually finds happiness as a family man in a New Jersey suburb.”  The lesson is that fantasies are bad and the daydreamer is better off keeping his feet planted firmly on the ground.

Buster Keaton explored the world of daydreams in two films. In Daydreams (1922), Keaton goes to the big city to make his fortune. He writes vague letters to his girlfriend (Renée Adorée) to mislead her about his lack of success. Adorée, hopeful that her boyfriend will make money to marry her, imagines Keaton doing well as a surgeon, a stock broker, and a police captain. Keaton elaborated on the daydreaming idea in a feature-length film, Sherlock, Jr. (1924). This time, Keaton is able to discover his inner strength when he daydreams that he is a super sleuth. This more positive perspective on daydreams established a trend in films that still persists today.

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Harold Lloyd played daydreamers in his most popular films. In Girl Shy (1924), he imagines himself as a great seducer of women. The comedian used his character’s fantasies as an opportunity to spoof romantic melodramas of the day. A scene in which he seduces a vamp parodies a scene from Trifling Women (1922) and a scene in which he seduces a flapper parodies a scene from Flaming Youth (1923). The Freshman (1925) opens with Lloyd anxiously preparing to leave home for college. He wants, more than anything, to be popular on campus. So, he dresses up like a college hero pictured on a movie poster and performs college cheers while studying his image in his bedroom mirror. The Kid Brother (1927) includes a similar scene in which Lloyd daydreams in a mirror wearing his sheriff father’s badge and hat. This is a form of self-actualization. The idea is that you can be the person that you want to be if you first visualize yourself as that person. See it, be it. This continues Keaton’s idea that daydreams can mold a person and guide them onto a path of success.

Warner Brothers’ How Baxter Butted In (1925), which was based on a 1905 Broadway musical comedy by Owen Davis, was a definite forerunner to Mitty. Baxter, a young clerk in a newspaper office, always has fantasies in which he defends his sweetheart against the villainous office manager. It is the clerk’s dreams of bravery that eventually allows him to embrace true bravery. Nothing other than his daydreams facilitate his transformation from a timid failure to a brave hero.

How Baxter Butted In was remade as The Great Mr. Nobody in 1941. The story was changed a bit to suit the times. The timid Robert Smith (Eddie Albert), known to his friends as Dreamy, fantasizes about performing heroic deeds. Dreamy makes his living selling advertisements at a newspaper. The same imagination that produces Dreamy’s fantasies also aides him in producing compelling advertisements. But Dreamy has a boss who takes credit for his best ideas. The lack of credit for his ideas denies Dreamy rewards, whether a promotion or extra pay, and this disempowers him. A person cannot be disempowered unless they have power at the start. In the end, Dreamy finds his courage, takes action, and is finally recognized for his value. He is presented as the ultimate hero when, in the final scene, he joins the military.

Key plot details of The Great Mr. Nobody could be later found in the Mitty film. Like Dreamy, Mitty had gone into an appropriate profession. The same imagination that creates Mitty’s fantasies also creates popular adventure stories for his publisher. This is very different than Fairbanks working in a button factory. Unlike buttons, advertisements and adventure stories trade in fantasy and it takes a man with an affinity for fantasy to be successful in these fields. But Mitty shares another problem with Dreamy – his boss takes credit for his ideas.

James Thurber’s story, which ran a scant two and a half pages, had no need for character development, conflict resolution, or a villainous boss. Mitty is a henpecked middle-aged husband whose sole objective in the story is to stop at a grocery store to buy puppy biscuits. In a review of Ben Stiller’s new CGI-enhanced Mitty, Peter Debruge of Variety appropriately referred to Thurber’s story as “plotless source material.”  Still, many readers identified with Mitty, which made this Thurber’s most popular work. The scriptwriters, Ken Englund, Everett Freeman and Philip Rapp, had to find a way to expand the thin story for a feature film. Their basic ideas were sound. The writers established that, as the only son of an overbearing single mother, Mitty has been stunted in his development, which has made him passive in his relationships. He is unable to stand up to his mother, his boss, and his fiancé. He escapes into fantasy whenever he is humiliated or badgered. He seeks in his fantasies the respect and excitement that he is denied in his real life. In his fantasies, he imagines himself as a fighter pilot, a ship captain, a riverboat gambler, and a Western gunfighter.

So, there we have it, an ineffectual man uses daydreams as a way of escape from his dreary existence. Should we feel glad that this common man is able to uplift himself and subvert his suppressors through his imagination?  Or, should we feel sad that this man needs to retreat to a fantasy world to find triumph?  Is his escape into a daydream a form of victory or defeat?  Keaton and Lloyd already provided the answer to that question. Now, rather than the daydreams being a way of escape, they were a way to bring to the fore the innermost power and ambition that is straining to burst loose from a man. Mitty’s purpose in the enlarged story is to act on his fantasies and fulfill his potential.

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Unfortunately, Goldwyn’s Mitty goes wrong after the first act. To start, the film provides too much gloss and glamour for a comedy. Comedy is about sweaty brows, mussed hair, and torn britches. But this isn’t the only problem with the film. The story stops cold whenever Kaye performs one of his trademark patter-songs. These boldly silly numbers, including “Anatole of Paris” and “Symphony for Unstrung Tongue,” are unsuitable business for the shy Mitty and they are entirely irrelevant to the story. It might have worked better if the musical numbers were incorporated into the fantasy scenes. Thurber thought that the musical numbers, which he termed “git-gat-giddle songs,” were “deplorable.” He especially objected to the fact that, to make room for the songs, Goldwyn had to leave out fantasy scenes, including one scene in which Mitty imagines himself as a trial lawyer and another scene in which Mitty imagines himself being led before a firing squad. In the short story, Mitty’s fantasy hero comes to a dark end before a firing squad. Sylvia Fine, Kaye’s wife and manager, strongly objected to the trial and firing squad scenes and she proved to have more authority in the matter than Thurber.

Another glaring weakness of the film is its leading lady, Virginia Mayo. No matter how pretty Mayo looks in Technicolor, she contributes little to the film with her lifeless performance. She is so stilted at times that she could be a dress dummy from Goldwyn’s wardrobe department.

By far, the biggest problem with the film is that the daydream scenes simply don’t work. The film includes five daydream scenes, three of which turn up in the first twenty minutes. The film goes on for another hour and half, during which time the remaining two daydream sequences are dropped into the action at random times. It is as if the filmmakers lost interest in Mitty’s fantasies. It is immediately funny seeing Buster Keaton as a surgeon in Daydreams, but Kaye does not look out of place as a surgeon. The dream scenes lack a parodic dimension that the viewer should expect. The scenes lack humorous touches, furnishing no gags, or pratfalls, or funny lines. Kaye’s performance needed to be more campy as a way to give a wink to the audience. The one time that the scriptwriters allowed a fantasy scene to get funny was during Mitty’s efforts at surgery. Surely, they couldn’t have allowed the surgery to be serious. Surgeon Mitty is aided by a silly-looking machine that goes “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” and he completes the procedure using a sock stretcher, a sprinkling can, a cheese grater and floor wax.

After the first twenty minutes of the film, Mitty’s daydreams can easily recede as the pulp editor’s real life has become more dynamic than his daydreams. His dangerous encounters with the spies renders the fantasy segments unnecessary. The film would function well as a spy comedy if Thurber’s daydream scenes were jettisoned altogether. Still, Kaye gets to perform some great comic business as he struggles with inanimate objects (a chair and a water cooler) and makes a desperate effort to avoid being injured by deadly spies and a burly irate husband. The husband is justifiably upset by Mitty’s interest in a corset delivered to his wife. Little does the flustered husband know that the corset is the hiding place for a notebook with information that can thwart a Nazi plot.

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Animator Chuck Jones was more successful with the daydreaming premise when he depicted an imaginative boy named Ralph Phillips in From A to ZZZ (1953) and Boyhood Daze (1957). The daydreamer protagonist has continued to be used effectively in films, including Billy Liar (1963) and Brazil (1985). Brazil was described by its director, Terry Gilliam, as “Walter Mitty Meets Franz Kafka.”  The premise was strong enough to sustain a number of television series, including The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976–1979), The Singing Detective (1986) and Dream On (1990-1996). Snoopy of the Peanuts comic strip was no doubt in Mitty territory whenever he imagined himself to be a World War I flying ace.

The latest version of Mitty is meant to be smarter and less silly than its predecessor. I haven’t seen this remake yet, but I have read a few reviews. Debruge wrote, “Rather than channeling James Thurber’s satirical tone, [Ben] Stiller plays it mostly earnest, spinning what feels like a feature-length ‘Just Do It’ ad for restless middle-aged auds [audiences], on whom its reasonably commercial prospects depend.”  In other words, it takes the idea that fantasies are motivational to an extreme.

Daydreams can provide us with a dress rehearsal for our lives and, at the same time, they can allow us to release deeply creative ideas. Films that celebrate daydreams are worthwhile. I just wish that Goldwyn’s Mitty had focused more on that idea.

Anthony Balducci has written three books on silent film comedy. He is presently at work on a book called I Won’t Grow Up!: What Comedy Films Have to Teach Us About Maturity, Responsibility and Masculinity. He has been a devoted blogger since 2000. You can visit his current blog at http://anthonybalducci.blogspot.com/.

Lee Marvin Point Blank

Lee Marvin – Point Blank: “These Horrible, Animal Men”

An abridged book excerpt of Lee Marvin: Point Blank by Dwayne Epstein

Lee Marvin Point Blank

As a civilian, mustered out from the Philadelphia Marine Barracks on July 24, 1945, Lee Marvin could not shake off the intense mixed feelings he was experiencing: anger, frustration and worst of all, survivor guilt as the war stubbornly wore on. On the bus ride back to his parents’ Manhattan apartment an old woman angrily tapped his shoulder with a cane and asked why such a healthy looking young man was not in the military fighting for God and country. Acting on reflex, Marvin turned and barked at her that he was physically unfit. Years later he told a reporter, “I won’t repeat exactly what I said to her. Hell, I wanted to drop my trousers and show her exactly what I did for a legitimate 4-F classification!”

Lee’s celebratory homecoming was short-lived, at least as far as his family was concerned. His mother, Courtenay, was extremely glad her son was home safe and sound, but his war experiences made it extremely difficult to talk to him. She wrote in a letter to Robert, “Your brother is quite a man…. I hear many strange and some horrible stories about his adventures, and at first it took a strong stomach to sit quietly and listen.” As for Monte, Lee quickly discovered his father was finding the adjustment to civilian life even more difficult than he was. If Lee was damaged by the war, he said of Monte years later, “It ruined him. He came home from that half dead, totally broken. He was never the same.” During the war, First Sergeant Monte Marvin received a military citation from the British Government. However, as a civilian, he was unable to find gainful employment.

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After another disheartening day of job hunting, Monte entered his 79th Street apartment building barely able to muster a businesslike smile for the doorman. He went in and ran hot water for a bath. The family maid found him. She immediately dressed his sloppily cut wrists and called the police. The police then contacted Bellevue, where he was transported in a siren-blaring ambulance for several days’ observation. Unable to afford a private room, he was placed in a public ward where the rest that Monte desperately sought was impeded by the screams that went on through the night. He survived the suicide attempt and the family never spoke of it while he was alive.

Through an old friend Monte secured a sales job with the Chicago Tribune and the entire family moved to the ‘Windy City.’ At his father’s urging, Lee enrolled in night school to get his high school diploma, but his heart was clearly not in it. He still had no plan for his future as the following excerpted letter to his older brother Robert illustrates:

 Boy just wait until you get out and see all the shit they hand you.

Well, as you know I am now going to school and brother, that is a task, and I don’t mean maybe. At the present I am taking English, Geometry, Physics and History. I just don’t have any interest in the stuff but I am doing it for Pop.

Funny thing, my feet are getting itching again and I want to be on the move. Where I don’t know but just some place that I haven’t been before, like the Yukon or some other desolate place.

I just want to strike out and do something constructive with myself. In fact, I have often thought about going back into the Corps but I know that is just a way of trying to get back with the real friends I had. I mean real, because as you know when death is close at hand you don’t do anything that you don’t want to and the same with your friends. Boy, that was a real crowd and their only thought was to be happy while they could. So here I am still trying while the rest of them are dead. The main thing that I regret is that there is no longer any frontier to work on which is just my speed. Therefore I must conform to convention which I have a very deep-set distaste for.

Lee struggled with his classes, but said years later, “It made no sense. After committing murder, it was hard to find sense in peace. How could a guy all mixed up in murder get an education? The two didn’t make sense…I had to do something, though. They gave me a typing test and I couldn’t spell half the words. I looked around and saw all those frivolous chicks and guys…what was I doing there? So, I quit.” Forty years later “The Sergeant,” his character in The Big Red One (1979), would tell one of his charges, “We don’t murder. We kill,” a distinction that was not yet clear in young Lee’s mind.

The day he quit class, he walked right into a Marine Recruitment Center. The officer in charge sympathetically responded, “Thank you for your offer and prior service, son, but due to your disability status…” Lee shook the officer’s hand and proceeded to laugh it off at the nearest watering hole. As to his disability, a physical later that fall spoke the final word as only the military could: His sciatic wound disabled him exactly 20%. He received a check of $27.80, and would continue to do so each month for the rest of his life. Monte’s job in Chicago was short-lived, forcing the entire family to move back to New York. When the family returned to New York, the postwar housing shortage made it impossible to find worthy accommodations in the city. The Marvins decided on the Woodstock area since they had summered there often when Lee and Robert were boys. They purchased a home, and Monte eventually found work nearby with the New York and New England Apple Institute. He periodically attempted other employment, but, like an over-the-hill athlete dreaming his time would come again, he never saw the better employment materialize and stayed with the Institute until retiring in 1965. Through it all, Monte got by on the two things he could always rely on: his undiminished Puritan ethic and large quantities of alcohol.

Nestled in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, the Woodstock community had long been a sanctuary for many of the colorful avant-garde artists and intellectuals of the day, decades before the eponymous historic rock concert that would take place in a nearby town. The small community even maintained three legitimate live theaters at the time: The Woodstock Playhouse, The Valetta Theater and the 1,000-seat Maverick Theater.

Lee took classes at Kingston High School to finally get his diploma around the time that Robert mustered out of the service. As he had done many times as a child, Lee frequently cut class to fish or hunt. Monte had hoped Lee would get his diploma and use the G.I. Bill to become an engineer. Lee had contemplated several other careers, including forest ranger and car salesman, but when requirements like geometry became insurmountable, he again disappointed his father by dropping out of school altogether.

Marvin - Seahorse

In Woodstock, Lee could often be found at a favorite hangout: The S.S. Seahorse. One longtime resident referred to it as “The greatest dive I’ve ever seen in my life. People used to line up in the summer just to get in to it.” The oddly shaped tavern resembled a landlocked ship, complete with appropriate decor and portholes for windows. The local artisans and bohemians welcomed Lee as the most popular reveler in their midst. The music and laughter offered only a fleeting refuge from the nightmares. According to Robert, “When Lee would come home, he was a little disturbed at night. He had a lot of nightmares. He wasn’t exactly yelling but the poor guy would go through all kinds of convulsions.” In rare moments of candor, Lee confessed to his brother he saw snipers in the trees just as he drifted off, or that he had relived the battle that decimated his outfit.

On occasion, he would drink at home with his family. The evening would start innocently enough, but would spiral out of control at the slightest provocation. Courtenay would sneak off to safer grounds when the dark clouds began forming. Inevitably, as the night and alcohol wore on, Monte would declare, “You Marines are a lot of bullshit!” or “My outfit in the artillery can do anything the goddamned Marines can do!” Sometimes Lee would be the provocateur, making the same pronouncements about the Army. Whoever started it, the end result was often physical. Even though Monte and Lee were both dealing with the same issues, the men were too polarized to reconcile with each other. The guilt Lee suffered the morning after a family brawl often kept him away for days at a time.

Sometimes he would inexplicably find himself in a bar somewhere in Brooklyn. Other times he’d wander down to Greenwich Village and hang out with the bums that drank through the night. They would string a rope across a building and hook their arms on to it so they could sleep standing up without getting arrested. The next morning, someone would untie the rope and send everyone sprawling. Marvin would then join the denizens in a concoction known as “smoke,” a powerful mixture of illuminating gas blown into a jar of water that resulted in a high akin to LSD. Whatever he did, Lee could never travel far enough or drink enough to escape his war-induced or domestic trauma.

When he would return, dutifully apologetic, the cycle would start up again, often at Courtenay’s subtle instigation. Her attempts at maintaining the facade of domestic bliss would result in Lee and the other Marvin men having to sit through meaningless social teas or Sunday afternoon art lectures. On one such occasion, the entire family made an appearance on local radio for a show based on “Thanksgiving in Strange Places.” The Marvin men discussed their war experiences while a Girl Scout Choir sang in the background. Unfortunately, no tape of the show exists, or of the drive home.

Monte had become fairly well known in the rural community, to the point he could get jobs for both of his sons. By early 1946, Robert was working for a printer and saving for college, while Lee became a plumber’s apprentice under the tutelage of Adolph Heckeroth.

To anyone willing to look, Bill Heckeroth–who now runs his father’s business–will gladly point out a treasured memento carved in the wood of his father’s wall-hung toolbox: “This is Adolph’s. Help yourself.” The engraver was, of course, Lee Marvin. Bill was just a child when Lee worked for his father, but he remembers with great affection the oversized young man with the booming voice who’d put his feet up on his father’s desk and tell fascinating stories to anyone within earshot.

Lee’s work consisted of digging septic tanks and hand-threading pipes for $1.25 an hour. Hard as it was, this work proved therapeutic. “A guy digging ditches or a plumber wiping joints, it solves problems, you know?” Marvin later said. “You have to dig this hole so wide, so long, so deep. You dig it and that’s it. You climb out and say, ‘Boy, I don’t know what it was, but I solved it today.’ Good therapy for my back.” Marvin found such comfort in this work that he maintained his union card even after his rise to cinematic stardom, and often worked on the plumbing in his Hollywood agent’s house.

Adolph Heckeroth genuinely liked Lee, who impressed the veteran plumber with his natural prowess for the job. Once, when Heckeroth wanted Lee to help him measure the depth of a well, Lee told him not to bother with the old knotted string and weight device. Lee boasted he would merely drop a pebble and could tell by its acceleration the exact depth of the well. Heckeroth was astonished when Lee’s measurement proved to be exactly what Heckeroth’s string registered. He never knew Lee had measured the depth the night before.

Lee’s off-hour pursuits in Woodstock were often spent in the company of another local, David Ballantine. The diminutive Ballantine may have seemed an unlikely partner in Marvin’s revelry, but the two shared many common interests. Ballantine had met Lee after his own discharge from the service in June of 1946. “I fought WWII in the Zone of the Interior, which is a euphemism for the United States. When I met Lee, I was in Woodstock on the 52/20 Club, the unemployment thing,” he jokes today. “He was quite strong, too. He would do things I think sometimes to show everybody he was Lee Marvin and they were not, like carrying Heckeroth’s big pipe-cutting tripod one-handed, or lifting up the front end of a car. When people ask me what was he like, I usually say, ‘Try to imagine a non-effeminate Clint Eastwood!’”

Studio biographies have said the Ballantines and the Marvins were good friends. “I knew Monte and Courtenay very, very slightly,” corrects David. “Children now will invite friends in for dinner and such. In those days, there was a separation. I was Lee’s friend, really. Not that they weren’t friendly to me. Courtenay was pleasant enough and Monte had a dignity to him. Lee told me, if someone went in a bar to give everyone shit, they’d walk a wide circle around Monte. Monte was pretty tough.”

David Ballantine did not often share his friend’s penchant for what he called “the gargle.” As he recalled, “A couple of times Lee was just snot-flying drunk. I remember many years later, when he came to visit, he was just causing shit in a bar. I took him aside and said, ‘You know what’s going to happen one of these days? You’re going to walk around the corner and there’s going to be a younger Lee Marvin and he’s going to pound the shit out of you. Stop pushing your luck!’ He understood. He wasn’t stupid.”

On a cool March night in 1946, Lee was sleeping off one such episode on a bench in the village green. At sunrise, children familiar with the sight of him in this condition as they passed him on the way to school, knew that even prodding the unconscious giant with a stick was a dare not worth taking. One local resident, either not aware or braver than most, disregarded the danger and proceeded to talk to the prone figure. When Lee’s vision came into focus and the buzzing in his head had sufficiently dulled, he saw a very proper young woman beside him discussing the virtues of community services.

Scanning the area and realizing she must be talking to him, Lee smirked at the irony when she asked him to appear in an amateur Red Cross Benefit at Woodstock’s Town Hall, titled “Ten Nights In a Barroom.” He had been in school productions as far back as grade school and, figuring it might be a similar kick, he shrugged his shoulders and proceeded over the next several weeks to rehearse the farce with his young fellow amateurs.

Marvin - Woodstock Red Cross

“Lee’s performance was the most hilarious I’ve ever seen,” a proud Monte recalled in 1966. “The mustache kept falling off. Everybody in the cast forgot their lines and Lee’s hands were very much in evidence pushing out scripts from the wings. Even then, he left them in the aisles.”

Like the tales of Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan, the story of Lee’s professional acting debut has become the stuff of legend that begins with a kernel of truth and grows with time into larger-than-life proportions. Marvin told several interviewers that it was while he had his head in the Maverick Theater commode that he heard his destiny beckon. As he recalled many times over the years, “The director needed a tall loudmouth to play a Texan. The actor who played the part was sick. I was standing in the wings after fixing the head, eyeing this redheaded actress. Later, the director looked at me and figured I was made for the part.”

When told of this, Monte Marvin later commented, “Nothing could be further from the truth since the theater had no toilet, only a one-holer outside.” David Ballantine also concurs on this point. However, the event that actually catapulted Lee Marvin into acting was just as good a story.

When David Ballantine turned twenty-one, his family held a celebratory birthday party in his honor. Lee always looked forward to any party but especially enjoyed the Ballantine family. David’s brother Ian was publisher of Ballantine Books and his mother Stella was a founder of Lee’s progressive school, Manumit. David’s father, E. J. ‘Teddy’ Ballantine, had an illustrious theatrical history, which included membership in Eugene O’Neill’s Provincetown Players and, most impressive to Lee, drinking bouts with the great John Barrymore. Teddy was also an integral part of the aptly named Maverick Theater. Also in attendance was Ian’s wife, Betty. A petite woman known for wearing long flowing dresses, even in the muggy summer, she eventually became a confidante to the young Lee Marvin.

Lee himself recalled the events that transpired that night when his tale-spinning talent was still in its infancy: “I got swocked. I was dancing with a girl named Joy, which is what she was: 145 pounds and all of it pink and beautiful. At the party I found out the leading man of the local theater had run out on an upcoming production.” It was just this fact E.J. Ballantine was discussing with the director when he noticed Lee jumping for Joy amid the other revelers.

“He was a very impressive character even then,” recalled Betty Ballantine. “First of all, there was his voice. His voice was absolutely amazing. Then, he had a real gift for telling stories with a great sense of humor. He used body language, since Lee had an extraordinary control of his physical presence. He was the kind of a person who comes into a room and you damn well notice him. The play they were preparing was called ‘Roadside.’ They wanted a loudmouth Texan. Teddy said, ‘We got a loudmouth right here. Hey, Lee! Come over here!’ Of course, we were all feeling no pain. Lee with that wonderful voice he had, read for the play. He got the part and Saturday afternoon and all of Sunday, I sat with him. Teddy and I both walked him through it. Well, he never really learned the script. How could he? He only had a day and half.”

Lee makes his professional acting debut as 'Texas' at the Maverick Theater's production of the Lynn Riggs' play, "Roadside."

Lee makes his professional acting debut as ‘Texas’ at the Maverick Theater’s production of the Lynn Riggs’ play, “Roadside.”

When Lee heard his cue opening night, “It grabbed me just like that!” he would say with a snap of his fingers. “Suddenly I felt…Expression!” After years of rebellion, masked fear and uncertainty, Lee stepped out on to the stage that rainy summer night and made it his own. Lee’s powerful voice rumbled through the Hudson Valley like a small earthquake to let one and all know that he had discovered his true calling.

The summer of 1947 saw Lee devoting all of his considerable energy to the Maverick Theater’s summer stock productions. He later reasoned, “It was the closet thing to the Marine Corps way of life I could find at the time–hard work and no crap.” The camaraderie was key, but acting also did something else for the combat veteran: it gave him an outlet to express his inner demons that had been frustrating him since the war. He quit his job at Heckeroth’s the very next day.

Lee no longer questioned what he was going to do with his life and decided to tell his parents. Monte’s reaction was swift and decisive. “Lee told my father he wanted to be an actor,” recalled Robert, “and my father almost went through the ceiling, naturally. My father told my brother, ‘If you become an actor, don’t expect any help from me. You’re on your own.’” Lee would have preferred his father’s blessing but the lack of it made him just as determined in his pursuit. As far as Lee was concerned, the war ruined his father, and he refused to accept the same fate. Acting was no foolhardy dream to him. “Acting is a search for communication,” he said later. “This is what I’m doing — trying to communicate and get my message across. I can play these parts, these horrible animal men. I do things on stage you shouldn’t do and I make you see you shouldn’t do them.”

Although many actors enter the profession as a means of expressing their sensitive nature, Lee Marvin chose acting to explore something infinitely more challenging: The cauldron of violence that simmered beneath the surface and was capable of erupting at the slightest provocation. When he did depict this darker side on stage and screen he did so in such a fashion as to change the face of modern American screen violence. This, above else, would make Lee Marvin one of the most consistent and fascinating actors of postwar American cinema.

Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank was published earlier this year by Shaffner Press. It’s available as a hardcover, softcover, and as a NOOK. And be sure to visit his website: http://pointblankbook.com/

Ken Russell, 2005

Ken Russell: Two Visits

Making odd or even wrong choices in life, as in art, becomes an aesthetic. – R.B. Kitaj

One makes room in Heaven for all sorts of souls … who are not confidently expected to be there by many excellent people – Stephen Crane

Ken Russell, 2005

Ken Russell, 2005

Los Angeles, May 1995 – Dinner tonight with Ken Russell at Mexico City restaurant in Los Feliz, around the corner from home. Chatted genially about his recent projects:  the unbelievably dire Yuri Geller TV biopic Mindbender (not one of Ken’s favorites, sucked into it because of an old connection from Robert Stigwood and Tommy days); plus his upcoming version of Treasure Island, to be shot with a camcorder and starring his new wife Hetty Baynes as Long Jane Silver. Wandered onto various topics:  Old Master paintings sunk on the Lusitania (apparently works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian and Monet went down with the ship) the great civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, builder of the Great Eastern and the Clifton Suspension Bridge spanning the Avon Gorge in Bristol … the explosion of tourists in the Lake District which ironically he helped to popularize in The Devils, Women In Love and Tommy. Talked about a project he’s trying to set up with The South Bank Show on the English composer Albert Ketèlbey (1875 – 1959), whose works were tremendously popular in Ken’s youth in the 1930s and 1940s, especially Oriental-themed mini-epics like “In A Persian Market” and “In A Monastery Garden” and the local favorite “ ‘Appy ‘Amstead.”

On the way back to Ken’s hotel we raced through Hollywood in my beat-up Triumph Spitfire with the top down and Ken’s white hair whipping in the night air. He suddenly burst into song, warbling the vocal chorus to “In A Persian Market” at the top of his lungs, for his own delight. God knows what people on the street thought of this mad Englishman, madly chanting “baksheesh … baksheesh!!”  Truly this is why I love Ken.

In the Desert, even more than upon the ocean, there is present death:  hardship is there, and piracies, and shipwreck, solitary, not in crowds, where, as the Persians say, ‘Death is a festival’; — and this sense of danger, never absent, invests the scene of travel with an interest not its own.

The sons of Great Britain are model barbarians – Sir Richard Francis Burton

South Downs, England, May 1995 – Climbed to the top of Chanctonbury Ring this morning; I’m in nearby Findon for the wedding of my high school friend Vincent to his English sweetheart Fiona. Chanctonbury and nearby Cissbury Rings are remains of Iron Age hilltop fortresses:  both command overpowering views of the rolling West Sussex countryside, although Cissbury is slightly more spectacular because of its sheer size, enclosing nearly 65 acres. I tore my pants unnecessarily climbing over a barbed wire fence to get inside Cissbury, without realizing there was an access gate just around the curve of the hill. The massive size of the double ramparts at the top had me confused into thinking they were natural earthenworks, not man made. I spent most of my walk searching for “Roman era ruins” that I’d heard were near the Ring. Finally bumped into a local redheaded girl having a smoke and exercising her large dogs and asked her where the ruins were. “You’re standing on them,” she replied and then trotted off with her hounds, leaving me to my Yankee stupidity. Chanctonbury is accessible only by a brutally steep climb through the wood:  the area inside the ramparts is now off-limits and overgrown, although supposedly still used by a local witches’ coven according to a waitress at the inn I’m staying at. Cissbury, on the other hand, is still open to the winds and the joggers and the dog-walkers and the local cattle which graze along the slopes. On a clear day, I’m told, you can see to the Isle of Wight.

Overheard in a second-hand bookshop in nearby Chichester:  the young owner and his mates arguing passionately about censorship in England of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and commenting about the scene in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain where Andy Garcia loses his head as “a beautiful piece of editing.” “It couldn’t happen to a better man,” someone chimed in sarcastically. English second-hand booksellers appear not to be Andy Garcia fans.

Drove out to have lunch with Ken Russell at his country house, Old Tinsley, in the New Forest – so-called “new” because it was planted only a thousand years ago by William the Conqueror, according to Ken. I found him sitting in the greenhouse wearing a straw hat and working on the script for Treasure Island; he writes everything out longhand. Old Tinsley is a 16th century thatched house:  Ken bought it in 1972 and says he’s done all of his screenwriting there since. While he was in the kitchen boiling up spaghetti, he explained to me the difficulties of having an old house in England:  when he wanted to add the greenhouse on beside the kitchen, to give the place more light and space, he contacted the local council – who sent an “unbearable woman” out to see him. After poking into too much of Ken’s business for his liking, she finally gave him clearance to build the greenhouse – but, some time later, a second, even more odious woman, came to visit him from the council. In the course of conversation, Ken mentioned the house wasn’t “listed” – i.e., historically protected under British law. “Well, it should be,” she promptly replied. By the time Ken received the notice of listing – which meant absolutely no changes could be made to the house from a historical preservation point of view – he’d already poured the foundation and paid the non-refundable balance for the greenhouse. He quickly phoned the local supervisor and explained that unless he was allowed to continue, he’d sue the council for the 17,000-pound balance. After a short pause, the supervisor noted the listing papers had been signed by “the wrong person” and so were not legally in effect. Said supervisor quietly asked how long it would take to get the greenhouse up. “About a week,” Ken replied. “Then I’ll get you the correct listing papers in a week,” the supervisor said, and hung up. The papers never actually arrived as it turned out – and now we sit in Ken’s magnificent little greenhouse with two wooden church angels in the corner, and an ultra high tech sound system that he has to cover with a cloth to keep the sun from melting.

During lunch, Ken quizzed me about the American Civil War, asking if it still meant anything to most Americans. He observed that the radicals responsible for the recent bombing in Oklahoma City seemed to share a common motive with the Confederate States – both objected to being told what to do by the Federal government – and he wondered out loud if America would have another civil war. He also mentioned that the British, in his opinion, seemed to have little sympathy for America over the Oklahoma City tragedy since they’d been experiencing IRA attacks for decades while most Americans seemed to side with the IRA.

After lunch, we took a short walk around the garden. The sundial in back was a gift when he married his most recent wife Hetty. He read the time for me, which turned out to be an hour early because sundials don’t correct for daylight savings time.

That afternoon:  climbed up to Cissbury Ring again for a late afternoon farewell to the green English hills and ran into an agitated cow and her calf, apparently separated from the small herd that grazes there. Followed after them until the cow charged up onto the embankment and confronted me. After a minute we both went our separate peaceful ways.

And they led the most pleasurable of lives and the most delectable, till there came to them the Destroyer of delights and the Sunderer of societies and they became as they had never been. – Sir Richard Francis Burton, The Arabian Nights

Los Angeles, late 2006 – It’s several months since Ken and I worked together on his “The Girl With The Golden Breasts” episode of the anthology film Trapped Ashes, which he directed and I wrote & produced. At the end of the episode, to everyone’s surprise, Ken appeared as one of the mad scientists who flash their vampiric female breasts to the camera; he kept the fact that he was playing one of the doctors a secret until we actually shot. During editing he took to calling me “Dennis Scissorhands” for cutting his segment down (the full-length cut was eventually released on the DVD, to Ken’s grudging satisfaction.)

I received word that Ken had suddenly been left homeless: a fire had gutted his beautiful thatched cottage, Old Tinsley, nearly killing his lovely fourth wife, Elize, who managed to escape at the last moment. Later I learn he decided not to rebuild.

Nay, more annoying than the fear which they inspired was the odious extravagance of their equipment, with their gilded sails, and purple awnings, and silvered oars – Plutarch describing the Cilician Pirates

Los Angeles, late November 2011 – I just received word that Ken has passed away. We’d been in touch recently when I helped attach him to direct a planned remake of the 1976 film Alice In Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy, which he was quite excited about.

Although my Triumph Spitfire is long gone, sometimes driving through Hollywood at night with the windows down, when I pass a certain point I can still hear echoes of a mad Englishman chanting “baksheesh … baksheesh!!” for his own wild pleasure.

 

Dennis Bartok is a writer-producer and former programmer at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood. 

 

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A Special Report: Streaming, Physical Media, and the Future of Home Video

A Conversation with Stephen Bowie and Stuart Galbraith IV

Last month, my old friend Stephen Bowie and I compiled an instant message conversation for simultaneous publication on both our blogs.  The subject was streaming video, but as we chattered back and forth, the topic broadened – inevitably – into the related subject of how lovers movie and television watch what they watch.

I worked with Stephen, a television historian (ClassicTVHistory.com) and a curatorial assistant at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, at USC’s Warner Bros. Archives in the late nineties.  Now we live in opposite corners of the world – he in Manhattan and I in Kyoto – but we still correspond regularly about the media we enjoy and, more wonkily, the delivery systems that put it in front of our eyeballs.

As aficionados who both cover the subject regularly in our writing, we have for the past few years shared an urge to shout “You’re doing it wrong!” at the home video industry and its consumers.  Specifically, we believe that the shift from physical media to internet streaming as a primary means of viewing film and television is playing out in some alarming ways – ways that may have a longterm negative impact on cinephiles and on a more general public as well.

One of Stephen’s Facebook friends wrote that that taking on streaming video would be “like trying to stop the rain.”  But Stephen and I feel that now – before the metamorphosis is complete, and before it’s too late to have any impact on the shape it takes – is the right time to initiate an urgent discussion of the subject.  We hope that you will come to share some of our concerns, and that you’ll join in the conversation in the comments.

 

 

Stephen Bowie: Just to frame the conversation a bit: It seems like we’re at a sea change moment in terms of both theatrical & home video exhibition, with the digital switchover from 35mm to DCP, and then the apparent movement from physical media to online streaming.  And yet, while I’ve read a lot of articles mourning the loss of celluloid, it feels like no one is talking about the latter.

Stuart Galbraith IV: Yes, why is that? And why are people who love film taking it lying down, resigned as they seem to be to its inevitability?

Stephen Bowie: I feel like there was a little bit of a fight to preserve 35mm, but it started too late and was lost quickly, except maybe in repertory houses (which is still an important ongoing battle).  But I think that while no one is really happy about striking a match to celluloid, the streaming thing has divided the cinephile community.  Or seduced it, perhaps I should say.

Stuart Galbraith IV: I think partly there’s a misconception that every new technology improves upon the one in current use. But here, both with the demise of 35mm film in movie theaters and the trend away from physical media toward streaming and downloading, what’s driving it is actually something else entirely, namely studios wanting to eliminate distribution and exhibition costs.

Stephen Bowie: And everybody gets that about DCP – there’s no clear upside for the consumer – but streaming offers users “convenience,” or the illusion thereof.  Shrewd of Netflix to brand its streaming as “Instant!”  Also, not only can you watch a movie right now, but you can watch it on your telephone or your tablet, so using these technologies practically show people the future of tv view and how they will enjoy their entertainment from now on.

Stuart Galbraith IV: Back around 2002, when I was working in the Technical Services Department at MGM, streaming and downloading was already, even then, viewed as a foregone conclusion, that even though DVD was a huge cash cow for the industry like never before, and far cheaper to manufacture than VHS and laserdisc, they were already ready to kill that golden goose. And Blu-ray was never seen as anything more than a niche or transitional technology like laserdiscs. And yet both have stubbornly hung on with Blu-ray doing extremely well worldwide. I mean, Blu-ray was never going to be “the new DVD,” but I imagine its success has exceeded expectations.

Stephen Bowie: Didn’t realize it went back that far!  Wonder what they’re planning to do to us in 2025.

Stuart Galbraith IV: What Price, Hollywood?

Stephen Bowie: I mean, to be clear, I’m not totally negative about streaming, nor am I being a kneejerk Luddite here.  But first, what are your own experiences with the technology?

Stuart Galbraith IV: I should preface this by saying while I’ve never found it difficult to hook up a VCR or DVD or Blu-ray player, for me streaming and downloading are another matter. I have very limited computer skills. I struggled mightily trying to figure out how to do firmware updates on my Blu-ray players, and heavily rely on more computer-savvy people, various friends and my wife, Yukiyo, to anything more involved. It was her, not me, who first became interested in streaming – I was happy to watch only Blu-ray and DVD content – but she ended up getting a Roku for her birthday last fall and later an Apple TV for Christmas. Though she managed to hook everything up with relative ease, the service has been extremely unreliable. Particularly whenever I wanted to watch anything.  Partly this was due to us living in Japan yet much preferring to watch Hulu Plus content originating from America. That entailed routing everything through a dummy ISP (is that terminology right?), which complicated things.

Stephen Bowie: And have you actually succeeded in watching anything? How did it look?

Stuart Galbraith IV: Hulu Plus especially almost literally never, and I mean 99% of the time, works properly. Eventually, after Yukiyo spent a great many hours trying to figure out what the problem was, aided by a friend who is literally a computer expert employed by Nintendo, we determined that at least part of the problem was Yukiyo had a laptop that somehow deactivated everything every time she took it out of the house, which was most every day. But the problem still persists and I’ve largely given up on it.  The only things I’ve managed to see on Hulu Plus are the first 20 minutes of Snow Trail, Toshiro Mifune’s starring debut (that I once owned on laserdisc, without subtitles) and an episode of Dark Shadows. Mind you, everything is hooked up to the small monitor Yukiyo, not me, primarily uses, which is only a 36” screen or so. Dark Shadows, shot presumably on 1” tape, isn’t a good title on which to judge, but the quality seemed OK. On the other hand, the signal caused the picture to jam several times, interrupting the flow of those narratives. I mean, if the selling point of streaming is convenience, the ability to instantly watch and choose from a wide selection of movies and television shows, well, then, for me so far it’s been a total failure. Between Yukiyo and I, not to mention our friend who spent maybe three hours, so far we’ve invested something like 20 hours resulting in probably less than three hours of viewing.

Hulu Plus Criterion

Stephen Bowie: I’ve sampled most of the streaming providers in the US – Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube – and I’ve gotten most of them to work, using my Blu-ray player to send the video feed to my plasma TV.  But as you suggest, troubleshooting is like standing on shifting sands.  If you have a problem, the streaming provider will blame it on your ISP, and your ISP will blame it on Netflix, and good luck figuring out what’s actually going in.  You’re generally at the mercy of how much traffic there is over shared bandwidth in terms of image quality, and Netflix’s servers are notorious for going dead on Friday and Saturday nights.  So even if I’m able to learn the technology up to an expert level, it seems like this leaves a lot outside my control.

And a lot of what appealed to me about the evolution of home video over the early 00s was control:  more movies available to cinephile than at any point in history before, and often in better condition.  That’s one thing that feels like it’s being rolled back.

Stuart Galbraith IV: Yes, there is a feeling of complete helplessness that I find intensely irritating.

Stephen Bowie: Having to learn a whole new technology may be part of the game, and fine, I’ll do it.  But I can make a Blu-ray player do what I want if I understand how it works; the same can’t be said of Time Warner Cable.

I’m still worried that we sound like a couple of grandpas, so let me bring us up to what gave us the idea of starting a conversation about this: Over the long weekend last month, Criterion (which has a large, mouth-watering library of rare, streaming-only movies that it has never released on disc) did a promotion where they gave everyone free access to its “channel” on HuluPlus.  The catch was, there would be a few commercials embedded in each movie.  And what surprised me was that I saw a lot of excitement about this offer in my “social media” world, which is mostly movie buffs.  Now, the catch is, you can subscribe to Hulu for a month for EIGHT BUCKS.  What blew my mind was, are there really cinephiles out there who will watch Bresson’s L’Argent with commercials just to save eight bucks?! I mean, the last time I watched a commercial was probably around 1995.

Stuart Galbraith IV: The same here!

Stephen Bowie: The fact that cinephile culture has not left them completely behind really floored me.  You know, if a Colbert clip or something comes up with a commercial in front of it, I just close the window, immediately – I don’t care what I’m missing.  I don’t object to paying for content – if there were a meter on my screen and I could pay, say, two cents for each Bill Maher monologue, I probably would.  But you can’t have my time.

Stuart Galbraith IV: With DVD I think what happened was that the studios exploited all their A-list titles as far as they could, re- and re-re-re-releasing them ad nauseum. Cinephiles refuse to understand that deep catalog titles just don’t make anything like that kind of money. I think it was Mike Schlesinger who said Hudson Hawk sold 500 times as many units as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But, anyway, what with Warner Archive, Sony’s Choice Collection and whatnot, even the most obscure films anyone could possibly want are available somewhere, most in video transfers vastly superior to what used to be available on VHS and in 16mm TV prints, and now maybe the only way to market them as “conveniences” available on your iPhone with the press of a button.I mean, sure, if I was stuck on a Greyhound bus for 14 hours with nothing to do, watching a movie on my iPad would be preferable to twiddling my thumbs, but …

Stephen Bowie: At the risk of sounding like a snob, I feel like DVD was a semi-luxury product that went mainstream, and that streaming is a McDonald’s kind of product.  (So far.)

Stuart Galbraith IV: I agree.  Blu-ray was released to the marketplace before it was really ready, hence the endless frustration of consumers who had players that wouldn’t play certain discs, even with firmware updates. Streaming to me is far worse, putting the onus on the consumer for absolutely everything.

Stephen Bowie: I mean, I always thought a great home theater was every movie fan’s goal, and it was just a question of whether his or her circumstances made that possible, or not.

Stuart Galbraith IV: Exactly. Few of us, certainly not me, can afford to remodel our homes as elaborately as some of the incredible home theaters I’ve seen on-line, or afford the most expensive, top-of-the-line sound systems and players. But big, widescreen TVs got much better around the turn of the century and they became affordable. (I’m amazed what you can get in 2013 for less than $5,000, or even $1,000!) That, coupled with the low-cost, high-quality of DVD made building libraries and home theaters much more attractive.

Stephen Bowie: But now it feels like streaming, and the iPod, have proven that a lot of movie fans really don’t care how a movie looks.  Is that true?  How can that be possible?

Stuart Galbraith IV: It’s like being at a movie theater where the film is out of focus but there’s no one in the booth, and booth is locked so that even you can’t fix it.

Stephen Bowie: And you’re the only one in the theater who knows it’s out of focus!  Everybody else thinks it’s supposed to be that way!  And that’s happened to me, literally.

Stuart Galbraith IV: Some years back, I was chatting with friends in the lobby of the restored Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, a beautiful 1,700-seat or so movie palace built in the late twenties. A teenager strolled in and saw all the unmarked doors leading into the auditorium, as well as the grand staircase leading to the balcony. Looking at us, totally confused, he asked, “Uh, which theater is the movie in?” I think the younger generation, my five year old included, are growing up watching everything primarily via computer screens, even iPhones. And, of course, TVs are now basically computers themselves, and becoming more and more computer-like with each model. Maybe 20 years from we’ll be nostalgically recalling putting discs into players the way older generations (gulp, myself included) recall affixing speakers to car windows at the drive-in.

Michigan Theater

Stephen Bowie: One thing we were discussing a while back is how the aspect ratio war was a sort of unexpected triumph – through a probably unreproducible series of events, the movie fans won that battle over the people who didn’t understand the “black bars” at the beginning of the DVD era.  It sort of feels like we need that kind of unity and purpose now, not to defeat streaming, but to set some baselines to make it as acceptable for high-end home theaters as well as cellular phones.  I don’t care about the medium so much as the file size.

Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, what drives any business is money. What’s so odd about what’s happening now is that Blu-ray is making a lot of money worldwide, and even DVD is hanging on. People like those technologies. They’re completely happy with them. How much money will Skyfall (2012) make this month worldwide in Blu-ray and DVD sales? Another $500 million? You’re in New York and I’m in Japan, and we’re seeing very different things. In Manhattan video rental shops are all but extinct but, seemingly, they continue to thrive here in Japan. Japan is always on the leading edge of new technologies, so why are people here still renting DVDs and buying Blu-ray discs if streaming is the wave of the future?

Stephen Bowie: And there are still some niche labels that seem to do okay with just physical media (Olive, Twilight Time, Shout! Factory); they’re just not the same ones that were in the game 10 years ago.  One factor that may be a tipping point is Warner Archive.  If their new streaming service is a success, will they phase out burn-on-demand discs?

Stuart Galbraith IV: What, for instance, would your top baselines concerns be?

Stephen Bowie: Well, again, I can’t get into this too much technically, but it feels like we’re on a collision course in terms of bandwidth: the more people use streaming, the more we’re fighting for the same resources and the more our movies will get compressed or stuttered or cut off in the middle. I also can’t think of any good examples of content libraries that have remastered titles specifically for streaming.  Everything – good (MGM’s good HD cable masters on Netflix), bad (Paramount’s atrocious old SD cable masters on Netflix), and mixed (Criterion’s leftovers on Hulu) – is basically an off-the-shelf data dump.  That’s kind of scary.

Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, again, that’s the whole point: spend the least amount of money to make the most amount of money.

Stephen Bowie: Something else that doesn’t really exist in the world of streaming: bonus content.  And the lack of an outcry, frankly, has been so deafening that it’s almost a repudiation of that aspect of the DVD era: Naaah, we never really cared about that “film school in a box” shit anyway!

Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, to be honest, unless I’m reviewing the disc I doubt that I look or listen to even one-fifth the special feature content on the DVDs and Blu-rays anymore, even when it’s obviously good stuff. If I watch, say, a really great Melville film, instead of spending four or five hours looking at supplements accompanying that disc, I’d rather spend that time watching another Melville instead.  Also, does the world really need to see deleted scenes and listen to an audio commentary to Barbershop 2?

Stephen Bowie: Which is hilarious, in a way.  I don’t disagree, entirely.  But: if I’m going to watch Barbershop 2, I want it to be a goddamn gorgeous transfer, even if it is Barbershop 2.  Right?

Stuart Galbraith IV: The transfer, yes. That’s my whole point. The movie’s the thing. Going back to some of your original points, for me watching movies at home has always been about two basic things: recreating the theatrical experience and having access to the movies I want when I want to see them. I’ve no doubt that steaming technologies will improve over time and might even be fantastic and highly desirable within just a few years. But we’re a long way from there at the moment. As you point out, the quality is variable, with a lot of it VHS quality. It’s not reliable and when something is wrong the consumer better have a computer expert on 24-hour call otherwise he’s SOL. Can you imagine inviting a bunch of friends over to watch something this way only to lose your Internet connection three-quarters of the way into the film? Who needs that?

Stephen Bowie: Right, and that will happen, the way things are now.  I’ll use Netflix streaming as a sort of supplement – for documentaries or so-so TV shows – things I won’t care too much if they don’t look great or are interrupted.  But the idea of that system, as it is now, becoming my primary supplier of cinema is terrifying.  It could be the end of me as a cinephile, I think.  That’s why I’m making a big deal now, while this tech is still in its formative stage.

The arrival of streaming has been a whole foundation-shaking process, for me, of realizing that many movie buffs – serious, intelligent, widely-published ones, in many cases – don’t agree with that, at least not passionately.  They’ll watch it in whatever form is in front of them and that’s fine with them.  There’s a great irony here, in that just as we’ve reached the point where you can have a great home video setup for a less than astonomical sum – a multi-region Blu-ray player and a 50” or 60” plasma TV for under $1500 total – it’s portability that’s become a more buzzworthy commodity.  I know not just film fans but filmmakers (let me underline that, filmmakers) who don’t even own TVs; they watch everything on a 14” laptop.  What a waste.  I don’t even think there’s a lot of awareness of how much better suited the plasma technology is to cinema than LCD or LED TVs, and I worry that they’ll stop making the plasmas (in part because they’re less “green”).  Am I wrong about this, or unfair?

Stuart Galbraith IV: No, it’s not unfair. Perhaps for them it’s a novelty that’ll wear off. I mentioned drive-ins earlier. Drive-ins were a really fun and novel way to watch movies on a cool summer night. Unless, that is, you really wanted to watch the movie. One or two visits each summer was my limit, so perhaps these misguided souls will come around in the same way. Yeah, being able to watch Citizen Kane (1941) on a tablet in the subway during one’s commute is amazing from a technological standpoint. But that doesn’t mean one ought to watch movies that way.

Stephen Bowie: It might be a novelty but for now “them” includes people like Roger Ebert, who used his TV show to explain letterboxing to a wide audience; now he seems to be shilling indiscriminately for whatever he finds streaming on Netflix.  Or here’s a quote from Tim Lucas’s blog (Tim being the founder and editor of Video Watchdog, which remains an epicenter of videophile culture): “I watched Jess Franco’s Female Vampire (1973) tonight via Netflix on my Kindle Fire HD. It turned out to be an unexpectedly wonderful way of watching it, making it a more intimate and book-like experience.”  Whaaat?

Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, Jess Franco may be the only director in the world whose movies might actually benefit from a poor bit rate and iPhone-size screen!  Have either Lucas or Ebert been challenged about their allegedly uncritical support?

Stephen Bowie: Not that I’ve observed, although honestly, I don’t know to what extent it’s come up in Video Watchdog (although I should).  And it may not be uncritical so much as uncontextualized – they’re saying “hey look, I found this” without the follow-up of “but wait, here’s a better way to see it,” which needs to be there.  Consumer reports. Consider this – you write for DVDTalk.com.  Where’s StreamingTalk.com?  I can’t think of a single website or blog devoted to reviewing individual films for A/V quality on streaming platforms (and there are/were dozens for physical media).

Stuart Galbraith IV: I see streaming as basically HBO, geared for people who come home from work or maybe they’re sitting in a hotel room looking for something to watch. From what I can tell, a lot of these services rotate programming in and out of availability, like pay cable. Who’s to say the movie you’ve been thinking about watching the last three months will still be there when you’re ready to sit down and watch it? Who’s to say it’ll stream properly even if it’s there?  Physical media is tangible. Streaming is like owning soybean futures.

Stephen Bowie: Absolutely.  In fact, when I first editorialized about Netflix on my blog, I did give them credit for having whole runs of a few shows (Wagon TrainHave Gun Will Travel) that weren’t complete on DVD at the time.  Now those are gone!  There has unquestionably been a net loss of catalog titles on Netflix streaming in the three years since I’ve been paying attention.  It’s a business model where they can take away anything at any time, which of course is exactly how the studios have wanted it all along.  That alone should make film buffs very skeptical.

Netflix

Stuart Galbraith IV: Of course, this actually discourages ownership of physical film collections. Forty years ago, people with private film collections, often composed of discarded prints found in the Dumpster, were prosecuted, and the earliest days of VHS saw a great debate over the idea of consumers actually owning a copy of a copyrighted work belonging to them.

Stephen Bowie: The idea of renting movies is also sort of a bubble market, without a direct equivalent in music.  Without it, I would never have been able to afford to become a film buff.  So I guess that’s an argument in favor of the all-you-can-eat $8 Criterion buffet.  At the same time, I just hope people who start that way are educating their eyes, and that there are still Blu-rays being published when it dawns on them (as it eventually dawned on me, the teenager who first watched 2001: A Space Odyssey on a 13” TV in my bedroom) that you need to see movies in a better state than that.  In other words, the conversation is not just about technology; it’s about how cinephiles (and everyone else) choose to watch movies.  The tech is driving the discussion, but it should be the aesthetics that come first.

Stuart Galbraith IV: The thing is I’ve never thought of myself as a “collector.” Instead, over the years I’ve built a video library, a library in the classical sense of it being a resource for me to use in my work, and to be able to lend titles to friends, especially to introduce them to great films they may have never heard of. And it’s already a library I’m sharing with my five-year-old daughter who I hope will continue to use it for the next dozen years or more. Moreover, this library of a reflection of me: my tastes and interests. It expresses who I am.

DSCF5180

Stephen Bowie: Yes, although in my case, even “library” is almost overkill.  I got over the idea of wanting to own movies pretty early.  That’s why it’s ironic that I’ve taken such an extreme stance on streaming, because I’m not married to physical media.  So I feel like I’m a potential customer for streaming (or at least downloading in some form) who is being ignored.  Because they gotta get it right, and there’s no market pressure to make that happen (yet).  I’d be more than happy to let somebody store movies in the cloud for me, as long as it comes with some guarantees that (1) they won’t all evaporate and (2) they won’t look any worse than what I’m accustomed to on discs.

Stuart Galbraith IV: Perhaps subconsciously my determination to build my video library was for exactly the reasons you describe, a fear that what’s available to me now, and in a high-quality form, may not be available tomorrow. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to find working DVD and Blu-ray players 20 years from now. I feel a bit like Harlan Ellison stocking up on Remington Rand typewriters! But what happens if you build a massive personal library on a cloud and one day it vanishes?

Stephen Bowie: You couldn’t do anything, under the current parameters.  This is interesting in terms of Netflix: One of the main complaints I see on blogs like HackingNetflix.com is that a movie someone wanted to see used to be there but “expired,” or a TV series disappeared before the watcher reached the end.  But while this is seen as a negative, it doesn’t seem to be a dealbreaker for a lot of users.

I’m thinking now about how many intangibles separate movie lovers on issues like this.  I don’t revisit movies nearly as often as I think you do, so the question of having a library is less essential.  We’re all aligned or opposed so unpredictably based on the different ways we watch and appreciate movies. Harlan’s typewriters will probably outlive him, but once I bought a few DVDs that were upgraded before I pulled off the shrinkwrap, that essentially cured me of needing to “collect” movies.  They will slip through your grasp, one way or another.

Stuart Galbraith IV: That’s true to a point, but I also have hundreds of out-of-print movies that may never come back. And, when if they do, at least I’ll have the option to upgrade or not and still have the film in some form.

Stephen Bowie: Sure, but I just got tired of playing that game, worrying about whether I should buy something now or wait or….  I mean, this week, a critic named Bilge Ebiri wrote a piece about an obscure and supposedly magnificent Gillian Armstrong film called High Tide (1987), in which he said that it’s only available via Netflix streaming or an Australian DVD in the wrong aspect ratio.  I knew – because I keep track of these things – that this was wrong and that Umbrella Entertainment had done an anamorphic special edition of the film a couple of years ago, with a commentary from Armstrong and other extras.  But I looked again and now that version, which I never got around to buying, is out of print.  There’s a newer one that looks suspiciously like a bootleg, so I’m left with taking a chance on that, spending a lot of time and/or money seeking out the good OOP version, or just caving in and slurping up the Netflix copy, which looks okay but lacks the extras.  If you’re not completely obsessive about this stuff, you’re going to go for the last option, right?

*

At this point, we took a break, experimented a bit more with streaming video in the interim, and then reconvened a few days later.We exchanged links to a few rare films (Luigi Zampa’s To Live in Peace [1947]; Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her So Well [1965]; Claude Chabrol’s Alice ou la dernière fugue [1977]) that one of us found on YouTube, which appeared to be unavailable for purchase legally – probably rips of foreign DVDs with added “fansubs.”  In the end, neither of us felt like watching them in this form – at least not yet.

Stephen Bowie: Have you “streamed” anything since we left off?  (And why am I using quotation marks?  I just refuse to confront this without holding my nose, I guess.)

Stuart Galbraith IV: I watched a couple of cartoon shows with Sadie, both of which paused in the middle with no clear indication that they would resume, though eventually both did. I also sampled some of the YouTube material you recommended. I’d really like to watch those films … on DVD at least (Blu would be better) … but not on YouTube. It’s weird, I have this innate resistance to watching anything longer than a couple of minutes on YouTube. It’s okay to watch a 55-year-old clip from I’ve Got a Secret or a goofy number from some obscure Turkish musical. But I’d never want to sit through, say, Citizen Kane on my computer. With YouTube on a larger television the picture quality on most stuff is so mediocre, even on my wife’s 36” monitor, I’d rather wait and hope it turns up on DVD or Blu.

Stephen Bowie: I won’t watch anything on a computer monitor, except for cat videos.  And if there’s an ad in front of it, I close the window; I just don’t care enough about that Jon Stewart bit, or whatever, to endure being advertised at, even for ten seconds.  It’s likely that your AppleTV can play YouTube videos, but the question becomes, will they look like anything other than a pixilated mess on a TV that’s – what size?  Probably bigger than mine.

Stuart Galbraith IV: Mine is 45-46”, I think. Exactly. Laserdisc, DVD, and now Blu-ray have spoiled me. Like you said earlier, I can’t imagine watching a movie now panned-and-scanned (although amazingly a tiny handful are still getting released). PD releases from companies like Alpha Video I pretty much can’t look at anymore, except maybe on my laptop while on a 12-hour flight somewhere, where the PQ is about par with what airlines offer. Even regular primetime sitcoms. I watch everything on DVD or Blu these days. How do people stand all those ads and banners and watermarks and 20 minutes of commercials per 40 minutes of show? I’d go nuts!

Stephen Bowie: Yeah, there’s so much to choose from, I just reject a lot of stuff for image quality outright.  Fox releases a pan & scan MOD disc?  Screw it, maybe in five years somebody will have fixed that, and I have plenty to entertain me in the meantime.  But I guess a lot of people make the opposite choice, for gratification now, even if the only option is deeply flawed?  I dunno.  Not me.  (And I want to come back to the ads and banners and watermarks a little later; I have a theory about that.)  But: That’s a learned behavior.  In the VHS / pay cable era, for the most part, you only had one home video option, and it usually sucked.  So if streaming is lowering our standards, it may represent a return to an old norm.

Stuart Galbraith IV: I recently made the decision to buy the British Blu-ray of The Devil Rides Out, the well-regarded Hammer film. As you’re aware, the release was controversial because about five seconds of special effects footage was altered, “improved” so somebody believed. Because of this many of the film’s biggest fans are “boycotting” this release. The same thing is happening now with another Hammer title, Dracula (or Horror of Dracula, its US title), for which absurdly anachronistic color timing was done in an attempt to make it look more “modern.”  Obviously, both were stupid, short-sighted decisions oblivious to the basic tenets of film preservation and restoration. But what angry fans don’t realize is that, at least in the world of home video, boycotts either have no effect at all on commercially marginal titles like this — or they have exactly the opposite effect, which is that bean counters will look only at sales figures (do you really they’ve got the time to research comments on the Home Theater Forum or Classic Horror Film Board?) and never release it again because “sales were poor.”

Stephen Bowie: Personally, I can’t think in terms of the larger picture on this; I make the decision on whether to rent or buy the disc based on whether I want to watch the film in its compromised state.  I wouldn’t have bought the British Blu-rays (or watched them if you gave ‘em to me).  There are a lot of films and TV shows lodged in this personal twilight.  I’ll never watch the first season of Kung Fu on DVD because it was cropped to 16:9 and, as a result, I’ve never gotten around to the subsequent seasons, either.  It’s just another damn thing I have to track down the hard way before I can do anything with it.  I’m still trying to figure out my relationship with streaming in this regard, too.  There’s a basic instability to the image (ironically, it reminds me of VHS or cable noise) and I still haven’t quite figured out how I rank that against other technical flaws in deciding what edition of a film counts as the best available, or whether or not this is perhaps a dealbreaker any time I notice it.

On the other hand, I’m not as inflexible as you might expect.  I’m pretty forgiving of good transfers of dodgy film elements.  I have a tin ear so bad sound mixes usually get a pass.  And I’ll never understand why you would boycott a foreign film because the subtitles are yellow instead of white – that drives some people nuts, but I’m totally neutral on it.

Stuart Galbraith IV: As both a consumer and someone once on the technical services side of things, I think polite, well-researched emails to project managers and others actually handling video transfers is probably the most effective approach. I’ve known project managers who were film buffs themselves, and who really went the extra mile to make something right. Conversely, I’ve also known project managers who have no idea what they’re doing. They don’t know squat about film history and for them it’s just a job; they might just as well be an assistant manager at The Gap for all the difference it makes to them. On the other hand, an angry email saying, “I SAW this movie in 1958 when I was five years old and it was 1.66:1, not 1.85:1!!!” isn’t going to persuade anyone. A trade ad or article in Variety from 1958 stating the film is 1.66:1 is a lot more convincing.

Stephen Bowie: They’ll either fix it when the first reviews come out because they care, or they’ll stonewall and ignore it.   I think fan boycotts and letter campaigns do zilch, sadly.  When CBS decided to fix the replaced music in The Fugitive TV series, it wasn’t because people like me moaned about it.  It was either because Variety humiliated them in its pages, or because somebody there actually wanted to get it right, or both.  As an aside, all these fights over the intermediate aspect ratios are absurd.  There’s usually ample evidence of what the original projection ratio was, and yet there’s this handful of battleground films that draw out all kinds of magical thinking as to what the director or DP might have been composing for.  I usually applaud completism but I really had a hard time caring about the Blu-ray releases of Touch of Evil and On the Waterfront in all the three ratios.

Stuart Galbraith IV: And because these are commercially marginal titles, it’s not reasonable to expect a home video label to spend $100,000 for home video rights on a ten-second music clip on a movie that’s going to generate $30,000 in revenue. I’d rather see, say, Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain with ten seconds of Beatles music removed than not at all. Conversely, in extreme cases, such as the removal/alteration of music from WKRP in Cincinnati, fans of that series are clearly better off recording uncut broadcast versions.

Stephen Bowie: There is a clear catch-22 with something like WKRP in Cincinnati, which was always doomed.  Gut it with song replacement or don’t release it at all: it’s a no-win scenario.  (When I interviewed Hugh Wilson, the show’s creator, last year, I could tell he was still pretty wrecked about it.)  And it’s really not a conversation that consumers have a voice in, although it’s encouraging that a few labels have figured out that music clearance can be a marketable commodity.  Shout! Factory put out a list of songs in each episode to promote its upcoming China Beach release.

Stuart Galbraith IV: One last comment about boycotting. I find it odd that certain people get so upset about relatively minor things while completely ignoring, or even approving, what I consider shameful alterations done in the name of political correctness. To wit: Via an agreement with the Writers Guild of America, credits on ‘50s and ‘60s movies – The Bridge on the River Kwai being one famous example – are being altered to acknowledge the authorship of various blacklisted writers who either worked without credit or wrote under a pseudonym or through a front. I’m all for placing a title card before the movie stating something like, “Pierre Boulle is credited with the screenplay of the film you are about to see but in fact it was written by uncredited Blacklist victims Carl Foreman and Michael G. Wilson.” But to physically alter the original film is like the altering of history books, the kind of thing we used to criticize the Soviet Union for all the time. It’s an injustice that should be acknowledged, not hidden away without comment. Why aren’t people complaining about that?

Stephen Bowie: The revised credits issue is infuriating.  And it makes me think of another kind of Orwellian technical rewriting I think has been underreported: the replacement on Blu-ray releases of the optical opening and/or end credit sequences with new, digital credits in films where the original background plates can be located.  Usually it’s a really close match, but last year this came to light last year when Universal released Hitchcock’s Frenzy on Blu and bungled the new credits badly, even misspelling some names.  But I sometimes see Blu-rays of older films where the credits a little too crisp and I worry that this is happening more often than you’d think, and not being documented.  With Frenzy, Universal fixed the misspellings after the review copies were widely mocked – but that’s almost not the point, because if you look at the two sets of credits side-by-side, you can see that the font and the size of the type are not really that close a match.  If someone in post thinks it’s worth it to alter a movie this substantively just to scrub some optical debris or avoid some unsightly edge enhancement around the original lettering, then they’re in the wrong job.

Then you have more obvious instances where Blu-ray provides a temptation for directors or DPs (like the notorious Vittorio Storaro, with his demented crusade to reframe all his old films in a new aspect ratio) to rewrite their work and then discard, or actively suppress, the original versions.  George Lucas has been flayed by the fanboys for this, but William Friedkin and Michael Mann also like to brag about subtly tweaking every new transfer of their films.  And I really think Criterion’s indulgence of Michael Cimino, who radically altered the color palette of Heaven’s Gate for their recent Blu-ray, is a bad precedent.  Yes, we have an earlier DVD that’s more accurate, but as of now the only High Def edition is the one Cimino repainted.  You talk about compromises and when they become self-defeating – well, honestly, I would have preferred that Criterion insist on including an alternate transfer that attempted to replicate the original release prints, and walk away from the deal if Cimino vetoed that.

*

Stephen Bowie: After we talked last, to make sure I wasn’t being unfair, so I ran a few episodes of Glee via Netflix Instant.  This is a show that’s on Blu-ray, and looks great on Blu-ray, so presumably it was sourced from a competent HD master.   And when the image had no movement, like a CU of someone’s face, it looked very crisp, like a frame grab from a Blu-ray.  I think that’s what people are thinking of when they argue that streaming in HD is superior to standard-def DVD.  But at times the image seemed to break down and display a lot of prominent digital “artifacts.”  Usually when there was a lot of motion (like in a dance number), but sometimes just at random, it seemed.  Sort of like shots of ocean waves or wheat fields in an early DVD!  It was like setting the image quality clock back to 1999.  So I have summoned the rest of this season of Glee(the third) on Blu-ray, which, thankfully, Netflix still provides – for now.

Plus, just as you experienced, the transmission froze up twice during the six episodes I watched, and each time I had to shut down the device and reboot it.  That’s “only” two three or four minute interruptions, but they both came in the middle of dance numbers – really big-time breaking the spell of the show.

Stuart Galbraith IV: Exactly. Who needs that?

Stephen Bowie: But, people are going to read this and laugh.  It’s probably anachronistic to even expect, or try, to watch something without interruptions.  It takes a real effort, even for a purist like me, to shut out all the phones and the social media.  But we have to do it, and encourage young cinephiles to do it.  If you slice up La règle du jeu into ten minute bits, you’re just not going to get much out of it.  I don’t care how rigid or old-fashioned that might sound: you are doing it wrong.  And, of course, if we have technology that normalizes the interruption (like the dropped call as an accepted feature of cell phone culture) then it becomes harder to argue against conceptually.

Stuart Galbraith IV: I got into a very bad habit with my iPad. I’d watch something then want to look up an actor on the IMDb while I was watching, and then, Hey, let’s check email, and I wonder if that Blu-ray is still on sale? Pretty soon I had completely zoned out of the film. Now I keep the iPad in a different room so I’m not tempted.

Stephen Bowie: Pause the movie for a bathroom break, and hey, might as well check Facebook while I’m up.  Bad habit.  You’re degrading your own pleasure.  Although, you remind me: when I was a teenager and every movie actor was a new face, I had to make myself quit stopping tapes to look them all up in Halliwell or Katz!  So ADD is not purely technological.

Stuart Galbraith IV: How do you watch movies? I’m particular to the point where I know I drive certain people crazy. For instance, I can’t watch movies with the lights on. When I have guests over, I make ’em turn off their cellphones before we start. Admittedly, I’m extreme. I once stopped going to movies with one friend because he made a slight whistling noise breathing through his nose that drove me crazy!

Stephen Bowie: Oh, I remember, once I went to your house and we ordered dinner in the middle of the movie, and you got mad when I turned on a lamp just to eat for five minutes.  I’m like, do you really want half this pizza in your couch?  But, yes, for the most part, I’m pretty intense about stuff like that.  My biggest problem now is noise pollution from some sources around my apartment – I have to watch most things at night (as in, weekend all-nighters) and that issue by itself is enough to have me contemplating a move!  And incidentally, there’s a nose-whistler who frequents the repertory theaters in New York – could be the nicest guy in the world, but I still get up and move over to the other side of the theater whenever I see him come in.

Stuart Galbraith IV: I often quote the late Gene Siskel who made a great point about spectatorship: “You can only see a movie for the first time once.”

Stephen Bowie: Essential quote from Siskel (so much so, I thought I’d coined it myself!).  Particularly since I won’t ever go back to most movies – not out of some Kaelian contempt for the idea but just because my tastes are broad and life is, literally, too short.  I still cringe over first viewings ruined in years past.  Sweet Smell of Success: 35mm print with a horrible scratch on the audio track for four reels.  Still have never managed to “recapture” that film for myself.  Just the other day, I got a migraine, the kind where you can’t see properly for a while, right in the middle of Guillermin’s Rapture.  I’ll watch it again, of course, but it won’t be the same.

Stuart Galbraith IV: The circumstances in which one watches a film can profoundly impact the experience, much more than people realize. I’d seen House of Wax (1953) in 35mm and 3-D probably seven or eight times through the years. Then the American Cinematheque had a 3-D screening on the Paramount lot (oddly enough) with director Andre de Toth in attendance. The screening was arranged by hardcore 3-D preservationists who knew what they were doing, and it was the only time I had seen the film projected on a silver screen, as was done in the fifties. Although the movie was by this time very familiar, the experience was completely different. Similarly, I first saw Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 35mm on a medium-sized screen. It wasn’t until I saw it again in 70mm, with six-track magnetic stereo sound, on a 70-foot screen, that I finally “got it.” And of course, it’s not just the print. I’ve had “first time only once” experiences totally ruined because of chatty people sitting next to or near me. My good pal Ted Newsom does this and sees nothing wrong with commenting throughout in a normal voice, even at a repertory theater. But, for me, his yacking yanks me rightout of the experience. Regardless of whether it’s a good movie or a bad one, I want to be sucked right in. That’s where the best movie-watching experiences happen, whether it’s Seven Samurai or Lawrence of Arabia or Wild Strawberries or Night of the Living Dead or Singin’ in the Rainor Jason and the Argonauts or whatever.

Stephen Bowie: And I feel like these points are obvious, but you need to make them once in a while.  Nobody’s born a viewing-experience zealot.  Somebody has to teach you about aspect ratios and stuff.  In my case, it was a slightly older film nerd I met at the library when I was about 15, who wrote laserdisc reviews and explained widescreen and pan & scan to me.  Until then I’d never understood how badly TV and VHS butchered some movies.  So I think it’s worth it for us to be doing this, even if readers feel like they’re being lectured at (although I hope that’s not the case).

And yeah, I don’t go to first-run movie theaters any more; I finally gave up on fighting rude audiences when texting became prominent.  I really miss it.  Oddly, when DCP came along, instead of grief, I felt a backward sense of relief, because now I wasn’t missing anything any more!  That’s some kind of Stockholm syndrome or something, I realize.

Stuart Galbraith IV: My daughter’s five, and when we sit down to watch, say, Disney’s Cinderella (1950), I make it a point to buy the Blu-ray and, as closely as possible, recreate an idealized movie-watching experience for her. Now, I know a lot of parents out there are more than happy to plop their kids in front of computer to watch the film downloaded from somewhere, or (here in Japan) to buy a 500-yen public domain version of Cinderella that looks like dog meat. My daughter, of course, has no awareness of what I’m doing, yet I’m confident introducing movies to her the way I am, it’s making a subtly lasting impression different from what a lot of other kids are experiencing. Add to that, by running Max & Dave Fleischer Popeye cartoons and Our Gang shorts and Buster Keaton silent films, I’m also getting her acclimated to the concept of black and white.

Stephen Bowie: This is the point where someone will smugly remind us that in the 30s-50s, it was customary to wander into theaters in the middle of the movie, and probably audience manners were appalling, if not enhanced by disruptive technology.  Respectful audience behavior is probably another learned behavior (a boon of the film culture movement of the 50s-60s-70s) but it, too, is not something I’d like to see slide back into the muck, which seems to be happening.

Stuart Galbraith IV: Audiences in Japan are much more polite. In ten years my worst complaint was when someone knocked over a beer bottle and it comically rolled slowly down toward the screen over several minutes. Conversely, seeing movies theatrically is now obscenely expensive, yet we’re still subjected to a mountain of ads easily bypassed on home video. And, frankly, home video is rapidly approaching, even surpassing the theatrical experience. On the other hand, I miss the communal viewing experience that, though rare, made certain screenings truly special shared experiences.

Stephen Bowie: Being a child of the home video era, I never really had that.  I prefer to watch alone.  The presence of other people always distracts me at least a little bit, even if they’re behaving.  This is theoretically contrary to the original idea of how movies are “supposed” to be experienced, but I’ll make an argument for it.  Plus, TV (and I’m a TV specialist, of course) complicates that; the magazine ads always showed the whole family gathered around the set, but of course TV made private viewing possible.

Stuart Galbraith IV: It’s learned behavior. Neither of us grew up watching silent movies. We had to learn how to watch and appreciate them. These days I’m game for just about anything, but 30 years ago the idea of watching a four-hour reconstruction of Intolerance was a daunting proposition. In a way I feel part of my mission as a film critic and historian is to introduce people to giving old movies a chance. I mean, I’ve probably gotten at least two dozen co-workers and acquaintances over the years to watch Casablanca, which in most cases was probably the only black & white movie they’d ever seen, with the possible exceptions of It’s a Wonderful Life and maybe Miracle on 34th Street. Yet without exception these same people always respond, “That movie was great! Where can I find more stuff like that?!”

Stephen Bowie: I’ve found that my openness to movies has only expanded.  Stuff I never cared about at one time suddenly seems intriguing, because I have a context for it, or just a growing curiosity (starting with “furrin” films in film school).  DVD, incidentally, came along at the right time to open a lot of doors for me – the technology drove, or fed, my exploration in a really great way.  I like your DVD reviews because you’re interested in things I don’t really care about –

Three Stooges shorts, singing cowboys, British TV detectives – but you make them sound like fun; you’re laying the groundwork for me to go there someday.  I get really impatient with film/TV “fans” (and this includes some of my readers) whose boundaries are already proscribed.

Stuart Galbraith IV: It’s certainly true that it’s easier to “lose oneself” watching movies (or TV shows) alone. But, conversely, there is also something magical about experiencing a movie with a receptive, like-minded audience. I regret that audiences can never again experience Star Wars as I did, with an audience that had no idea what they were getting, who by the end was literally cheering at the end. Or evenings in Ann Arbor, Michigan at their “Top of the Park” 16mm screenings of old movies outdoors, in the cool summer air, movies like Double Indemnity and The Band Wagon. I really miss that.

Stephen Bowie: I’ve had that from time to time, but not enough to make me crave it.  Conversely, I’ve gone perhaps in the opposite direction….  I’ve gotten interested in the idea of curation – “programming” a weekend, or an evening, or a year of movies or TV shows.  Picking up specific ideas (a director, an actor, a national cinema, a widescreen process, an era or movement) and exploring them in depth, or from start to finish.  Combining or cross-matching those things: Jean Harlow at MGM or Richard Fleischer in the ‘70s or French ’Scope crime films from the 60s.Or creating ideal double or triple features.Figuring out which movies complement each other; creating flow from one to another.Sort of like ikebana, or fengshui, but with movies.  I’m not really interested in having a physical collection, but this might be a sort of equivalent to it.

And of course, to do that is a form of asserting control – of being active rather than passive in what you choose to watch – and one of my instinctive reactions against streaming platforms is that they seem to encourage the opposite.  Watch what we throw in front of you, not what you seek out.  (Netflix’s famous $1 million recommendation algorithm is based on that principle; conveniently, it’s designed to conceal the big gaps of what movies they don’t stream, and it appears to accomplish that goal very well.)

Stuart Galbraith IV: You have to be open to, if not everything, at least a willingness and curiosity to want to experience the best-regarded examples, if only to further your education about movies. For instance, a lot of hardcore Western fans would never sit through a B-Western, i.e. Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy. Yet the Bs probably outnumber the A-Westerns ten to one. I often take you to task for sitting through eight seasons of Harry O without ever having experienced I, Claudius or The Singing Detective or even Cracker. If I were to ship you a box of DVDs of that stuff would you commit to spending three hours a week with it?

Stephen Bowie: Honestly, no, but I promise I will get to those one day.  Part of my “zen” curation idea is waiting until you’re ready to be open to something to watch it.  No “eating your vegetables” viewing.

Stuart Galbraith IV: That’s what good movies do. When, nearly 30 years ago now, I stumbled up Preston Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours, I immediately tracked down VHS copies or scanned TV Guide of every other Sturges film out there. (I’m still looking for The French They Are a Funny Race.)

Stephen Bowie: Yeah, I feel like I have a road map (and lots of unwatched acorns tucked away for harsh winters), but I hope there are more surprises I don’t know about yet.  And I’m lucky enough to live in a city where you can still see prints of a lot of obscurities that you can get on home video (or stream!).  Plus, I haven’t turned my back on the new, unlike a lot of movie & TV buffs, so there’s the knowledge that more stuff I’m going to dig is still being made.

Stuart Galbraith IV: But you have to push yourself a little, or you’ll never get around to it. I avoided Last Year at Marienbad for years but when a cheap Blu-ray turned up, I made sure I watched it that night, to ensure it wouldn’t end up in the great unwatched.

Stephen Bowie: It’s a marathon, not a race.  I program for maximum “variety,” so that I don’t use up, say, all the French New Wave movies now – or all of those Harry O episodes, since there are, alas, only TWO seasons – or get burned out by watching too much of the same thing.

Stuart Galbraith IV: I do the same thing these days, and take a certain pride watching, say, Pierrot le Fou and Hoppy Serves a Writ on the same evening. Indeed, last night I watched William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters which, coincidentally, also turned out to be a Richard Johnson double feature.

Stephen Bowie: Yeah, exactly.  Or go in the opposite direction of being a completist.  You can take some obscure ‘40s studio director and assemble a dozen of his movies all in a row now, thanks to Warner Archive and the other MOD lines.  Or, just to pay the devil its due, watch 35 films (!) by Kinoshita on Hulu that Criterion will probably never get around to releasing on disc.  Although that’s very much the exception rather than the rule for deep catalog via streaming.

Stuart Galbraith IV: Again, I’m old enough to remember that if you wanted to watch, say, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, your options were limited to scanning TV Guide each week and hope one of the six or seven channels available back then might run it. Then you had to sit through commercial interruptions, awkward edits made to fit the film into a particular timeslot, all kinds of crap. My cup ain’t half-empty, it’s a dam burst! Who’d have guessed 30 years ago that one day you could watch This Is Cinerama in Smilebox format, in multi-track stereo sound, on a 50-inch TV in high-definition? Or a restored Metropolis? Or Lawrence of Arabia? Or Snow Trail, an obscure Japanese film I had wanted to see for three decades?

Stephen Bowie: Huge generational shift.  I feel like we’re making an “It gets better” video for our teenaged selves.  And yet, Dave Kehr always complains that we’re losing films with each technological shift, that lots of stuff that could be rented on 16mm in the 60s-70s never made the transition to VHS or DVD.  I think that’s myopic (it emphasizes American studio films over everything else) but it’s a point worth keeping in mind.  And it may also apply to US TV –

certainly for classic TV buffs there were shows that aired in syndication just before the VHS era, and thus still remain tantalizingly out of reach. You could see them in 1975, but not now.

Stuart Galbraith IV: Kehr has a point. I mean, it’s weird if not criminal that, say, practically every Jess Franco movie is out on DVD while, say, there’s not one by Tadashi Imai with English subtitles. On the other hand, Kehr’s list can’t be very long now, not in 2013. I sometimes refer to DVD Savant’s “wish list,” published on his site, and I’m always amazed how, every year, a big chunk of it disappears.

Stephen Bowie: Bringing this back to streaming: I haven’t found this on my own Netflix platform yet, but last August some users reported that Netflix was minimizing the end credits of TV shows and some movies, to prompt viewers toward the next episode.  There was a lot of negative reaction to this, as intruding upon the experience.  And you know what it reminds me of?  TV.  My prediction is that streaming, which is replacing cable (i.e., cord-cutting), will just become cable once it moves everyone over.  As soon as everyone’s hooked, you’ll get watermarks, crawls on the screen, shrunken or talked-over credits and, finally, ads (only now you won’t be able to fast-forward through them).

Stuart Galbraith IV: Oh I think you’re absolutely right. I guess there are some people out there who still turn on HBO and say to themselves, “Hey look at that, Kindergarten Cop! I think I’ll watch the last 40 minutes of that.” But I can’t see that lasting much longer. The idea of a primetime network schedule of comedies and dramas seems to be dissipating into other media, and pay and even free cable don’t seem too far behind.

Stephen Bowie: Which may offer more choice in the short term (the much-vaunted House of Cards marathon option) but not necessarily in the long-term (if ads are embedded and recording for a personal library is blocked).  It’s easy to go too doom-and-gloom when a paradigm shift looms (dig my rhyming!), but I do feel like we could be brontosauri, happily chowing down on our physical media while the giant asteroid is hurtling toward us.  Ever watch Cinemania?  That documentary about obsessive movie fans who will only watch films on 35mm?  Well, they were the dinosaurs that got wiped out by the DCP meteor.  Are we next?

Stuart Galbraith IV: Yes and no. Physical media may not be an option for, say, my daughter by the time she’s an adult. But the reality is no matter how hard they try to kill it, people around the world are still buying DVDs and Blu-rays, and especially in second- and third-world countries, I don’t see streaming replacing DVD in places like Cambodia or Panama anytime in the near future. There are millions of us over 35 that, while hardly the ideal demographic, still represent billions of dollars of revenue to the home video industry, who aren’t confident about our computer skills, and I just don’t think it’s inevitable like the transition from records to CDs or VHS to DVD because the benefits are countered by an equal or greater number of deal-killer problems even average consumers aren’t going to accept.

Stephen Bowie: I would like it not to be so generational – I’d like for younger people to insist on Blu-ray (and then 4K!) as a niche, sort of like has happened with vinyl, and for some mainstream insistence on better image quality and selection via streaming to get some traction.  But still, that’s a more optimistic note to end on than I was expecting.