Citizen Kane 1

“Citizen Kane” (1941)

A new feature here at World Cinema Paradise, “Life-Changing Movies” pays tribute to those films, festivals, and other special screenings that changed the way we look at the movies. Check back here as our contributors write about their life-changing viewing experiences.

Citizen Kane 1

To begin with the obvious, inevitable, but wholly justified inaugural title.

Back in the summer of 1979, I was shipped off by my parents, needing a break from their troubled teenager, for the second time to a filmmaking seminar sponsored by the appropriately named DAFT: Detroit Area Film Teachers. Held at the exclusive, historic Cranbrook boarding school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, teachers and students were provided all the necessary tools – camera, film, overnight processing, lighting equipment, etc. – to produce a short Super-8 film over the course of one week which would then be screened as part of a mini-festival on the final day.

The year before I had made a very modest Claymation short but somebody there, probably John Prusak, aware of my rapidly ballooning interest in movies of all kinds greeted me this year with an enormous gift: my own private Nirvana, a private classroom equipped with a Bell & Howell 16mm projector, screen, and in one corner of the room, something like 200 reels of film stacked in a pile in the corner rising five feet off the floor.

Instead of concentrating my energies on the challenge of writing, shooting, and editing a short film in just seven days, I spent all my mornings, afternoons, and nights plowing through those film cans, this effectively being the era just preceding the home video revolution. (Interestingly, however, the year before someone had gotten their hands on a VHS or three-quarter-inch copy of the still relatively new The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which we all watched one evening.)

I spent hours upon hours in that little classroom, seeing for the first time or rewatching such films as Duck Soup (1933), Lord of the Flies (1963), Night of the Living Dead (1968), untold treasures from the National Film Board of Canada and short films distributed by the late, lamented distributor Pyramid Films.

And then one evening I came across a film I’d always heard, in my teenaged naiveté, was one of the very best of its kind: Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). But by this time it was already one o’clock in the morning, far too late to watch the whole thing. But, I figured, I’ll watch the first reel, then pick up where I left off the following morning.

Citizen Kane 2

Needless to say that didn’t happen. I was transfixed from the opening scenes, of Charles Foster Kane (Welles) on his deathbed in the castle-like Xanadu, by the abrupt cut to a dizzying virtuosity of filmmaking as a fake newsreel summarized his fabled life, of the next abrupt cut to the newsreel company’s screening room, where reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) is assigned to find  meaning in Kane’s last words. With short breaks to change reels I finished watching this momentous triumph of movie-making around 3:30 am. And then proceeded to watch it a second time, then and there. And I watched it twice more before the week was over.

(Built in 1922 by the famed Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, Cranbrook, cavernous and bereft of students due to the summer holiday, was especially at night an eerie place to stay, and in its own way quite reminiscent of Kane’s Xanadu.)

Alfred Hitckcock’s Vertigo (1958) last year famously bumped it from Sight & Sound’s 50-year-old poll of the Greatest Films of All-Time but, for my money, there’s still no movie finer than Citizen Kane. I won’t attempt to explain its greatness – people have been doing that for decades – but on a personal level it’s perhaps the most startlingly entertaining of Great Movies. It’s crammed to the gills with so much creativity and ingenuity that, even when one has seen it close to 50 times as I have, there are still always new things to discover. And it still dazzles. It’s as fresh in 2013 as it was 70-plus years ago.

Seeing it that first time was an overwhelming experience, one that demonstrated how far filmmaking conventions could be stretched and even shattered to good effect, and – an especially important lesson in this day and age – how it’s possible to infuse a film with a deeply personal, original vision yet also so involve the audience that they lose themselves completely in the picture they’re watching, and not consciously aware of all they are seeing.

I can’t say watching Citizen Kane that week had any positive impact at all on my own filmmaking ambitions, try as I might, but it reshaped forever the way I look at movies, and made me recognize the limitless possibilities of the medium.

Citizen Kane 3

Mitty 1

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.

Mitty 1

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.

Mitty 2

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.

Mitty 4

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.

Mitty 3

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/.

Big Gundown

Savant Blu-ray Review: “The Big Gundown” (1966)

Big Gundown Blu

Collectors are well aware that the major studios have slowed releases of video discs to a crawl, and are instead licensing out more and more of their fan-coveted library titles to smaller DVD and Blu-ray labels. To give just a couple of examples, Olive Films is currently issuing movies from Paramount and Republic, and Twilight Time is offering a quality line of selected attractions from Fox, Sony, and soon, MGM. Just about the only major not outsourcing is Warner Bros., which now distributes older titles from Paramount as well, through their market-savvy Warner Archive Program. Even more confusing to the more dedicated collectors are the many American pictures now available exclusively from European labels, on region-coded discs that won’t play on normal American Blu-ray players. Collectors now scrutinize disc offerings on Amazon.uk and Amazon.it, hoping to find desired titles unavailable through normal channels in the United States.

With World Cinema Paradise offering its writers more latitude on what to write about, I hope to cover more titles available in (sometimes far more attractive) European Region “B” releases. This first review is of a new disc readily available in Region “A”, and playable in U.S. machines. I compare it to a German Region “B” released just last year.


Back in 1968, Americans talked about Spaghetti Westerns exclusively in terms of Clint Eastwood; the cult of Sergio Leone would take a few years to filter down to the kids with 8-track tapes of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) playing in their cars. More enthusiastic fans would follow the multitude of Italian westerns that flooded American screens, from scores of Django pictures to arty efforts like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence (Il grande silenzio, 1968), with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Klaus Kinski facing off in the snow.

Gundown 1

The general rule of thumb with Italo westerns is that everyone admires the impressive pictures of Sergio Leone, who leaves the rest of the sub-genre on a much lower plane. One small step below the Clint Eastwood ‘Dollars’ films is Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (La resa dei conti; original Italian release year 1966). The stylish adventure was conceived as an immediate spinoff from the Leone oevure, a chance to feature the newly recognized star Lee Van Cleef. Young producer Alberto Grimaldi made an impressive multi-picture deal with United Artists, which he also expanded to include a number of projects by noted directors like Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Gillo Pontecorvo and Bernardo Bertolucci. The Big Gundown can boast the participation of some of Leone’s top collaborators, including cinematographer Carlo Carlini and designer Carlo Simi. The music score by Ennio Morricone, with a main theme sung by Cristy, may be the composer’s most exciting work in a western.

This is the first western by director Sergio Sollima, who like Sergio Leone followed the trend from sword ‘n’ sandal pictures to violent riffs on the American genre. Although not as inspired or talented as his predecessor, Sollima generates a sense of heightened drama that eludes most Italo oaters. The Big Gundown concocts a classy entrance for the respected lawman Jonathan Corbett (Van Cleef), who blasts down a trio of outlaws in the very first scene. Corbett is then enlisted by the burly, glad-handing railroad baron Brokston (Walter Barnes) to hunt down and kill Cuchillo (Tomas Milian), a Mexican accused of raping and murdering a little girl. As an added attraction, Brokston offers the lawman support for a Senatorial campaign. Chasing Cuchillo into Mexico, Corbett finds that capturing the wily bandit is a tall order. Along the way, the lawman learns more about the real motivations behind Brokston’s urgent manhunt.

With a plot idea concidentally similar to Richard Brooks’ The Professionals (1966), The Big Gundown shapes up as one of the earlier ‘political’ westerns. Italian filmmakers often made politics a major motivation for their work, but films directly addressing contemporary politics usually did not do well. ‘Committed’ directors instead put themes of social justice into more popular genre pictures. Director Sergio Corbucci would film several movies in which the Mexican Revolution commented on present-day political struggles. The biggest villain would typically be a Yankee capitalist, a function filled in this movie by the greedy, arrogant Brokston.

Gundown 2

Lee Van Cleef’s transformation from lower-case Hollywood bad guy to international star is well known; Leone signed him for For a Few Dollars More (1965) because he recognized him from small but memorable roles in a dozen classic westerns. Producer Grimaldi could hire him at a good price as well. Van Cleef’s earlier attempts to establish himself in substantial roles had stalled out at the low-budget level. Neither his Quisling scientist in Roger Corman’s science fiction thriller It Conquered the World (1956) nor his Eurasian Communist General in Sam Fuller’s China Gate (1957) garnered much serious attention. What had made Van Cleef so well known were his hawk-like facial characteristics and sinister, intense eyes. Leone had cast Van Cleef against type as a respectable character in For a Few Dollars More, and in The Big Gundown he graduated to full-on hero status. Despite a leg injury that made riding a horse painful, the actor prospered as a western hero. Turning his image around 180°, Van Cleef eventually played the role made famous by Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972).

The Big Gundown has fun with the exploits of Tomas Milian’s sandal-clad, earthy peasant Cuchillo, who lives by his wits and seems to have a girl friend in every town. Cuchillo tries to seduce a Mormon maid and is forced to fight a bull by some rough ranchers. He proves to be Corbett’s equal in the strategic doublecrosses favored by writer Sergio Donati, a vetern of the Sergio Leone pictures. As might be expected, the more Corbett learns about Cuchillo, the more he comes to respect him. The crown of villainy shifts to Brokston’s associate Baron von Schulenberg (Gérard Herter of Caltiki, il mostro immortale), a preening Prussian eager to challenge Corbett to a shooting match. Accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s soaring music score, The Big Gundown concludes in a series of duels with rifles, six-guns and a knife as weapons of choice. In the film’s most dynamic sequence, Cuchillo flees cross-country on foot, chased by a full mounted posse. The screen is electrified by Morricone’s electric guitar, which is followed by vocalist Cristy’s frantic song “Run, Man, Run”. Cuban-born Tomas Milian would return as Cuchillo in director Sollima’s follow-up feature, Corri uomo corri (1968), which for America was retitled Run, Man, Run.

Gundown 3


Grindhouse Releasing’s Blu-ray + DVD + CD of Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown is an excellent pressing mastered from prime sources apparently held by Sony Pictures: the show begins with a glorious Columbia logo. Fans of Lee Van Cleef, Ennio Morricone and Spaghetti westerns hardly need a recommendation to seek this title out, but some explanations are in order.

The Big Gundown was unavailable on Blu-ray until a year ago, when the German concern Explosive Media released an impressive Region B (Europe only) pressing, that collectors with all-region players are still buying. The big difference between that and Grindhouse Releasing’s Region A disc has to do with the versions of the film being offered. The original Italian release, entitled La resa dei conti (“A Settling of Accounts”) is a full 110 minutes long. It underwent drastic editing for foreign markets. Columbia’s American version cut out almost 25 minutes, dropping entire scenes and pieces of several others, especially in the first reels. The initial showdown between Corbett and the three outlaws seems rather rushed in the shorter cut, and speeds to a perfunctory conclusion. The impact is weakened considerably.

The difficulty in creating a definitive The Big Gundown on video is that everyone wants to see director Sollima’s superior full-length cut, but the distinctive vocal performance by Lee Van Cleef is available only on the shorter Columbia edited version. English dialogue tracks either weren’t recorded for the footage not seen in America,, or they were thrown away. The two Blu-ray releases address this problem very differently.

Last Year’s Explosive Media Blu-ray found a creative way to keep the full Italian cut for the English and German language options as well. The Italian audio track is of course intact and uncut. On the other two language options, whenever scenes come up for which English or German audio does not exist, the track reverts briefly to Italian with the appropriate subtitles. Thus the viewer can see The Big Gundown with (mostly) Van Cleef’s original voice, but also see it full-length. Initially it is rather odd to hear characters pop back and forth between languages in the middle of scenes, but it’s also an educational experience: we see exactly how Columbia sucked 25 minutes out of the film. The editors pulled isolated dialogue lines out of Brokston’s party sequence, yet still maintained full continuity. The Explosive Media package is a 3-disc set, with the feature on both Blu-ray and DVD;, a second DVD contains a generous helping of extras and an encoding of the entire Ennio Morricone feature soundtrack score.

For most American consumers, the new Grindhouse Blu-ray + DVD edition of The Big Gundown will be the way to go, simply because the purchasing of foreign Region B Blu-rays is practical only for fans willing to invest in multi-region equipment. Grindhouse’s transfer of the Techniscope feature has a bit of an edge for sharpness and color, and the framing finds a little more image on the sides. It’s also a four-disc set. Disc One contains the Columbia cutdown, extended to 95 minutes by adding three scenes from the long cut that have no dialogue, and therefore no language conflicts. The abbreviated pace is still very noticeable. Disc two in the Grindhouse set is the 110-minute original Italian cut, which has a polished audio mix that, of course, re-dubs Van Cleef in Italian. A third disc is a DVD of the 95-minute Columbia cut-down. The Grindhouse disc also has the entire The Big Gundown Ennio Morricone soundtrack album, but on a separate Compact Disc. About six years ago, I remember paying about $30 to have just this music on a GDM import CD.

The Grindhouse extras include a full commentary by Henry C. Parke and C. Courtney Joyner, who also contributes liner notes accompanied by music authority Gergely Hubai. Their discussion includes an analysis of the differences between the long and short versions of the movie. Exclusive interviews let Sergio Sollima, Tomas Milian and writer Sergio Donati speak about their work, and galleries of promotional art and stills, trailers and TV spots finish the package.


Glenn Erickson has been reviewing film and video releases since 1997, for MGM, Turner Classic Movies and his own website DVD Savant. A member since 2001 of the Online Film Critics’ Society, Glenn has a background in special effects and film and video editorial, but is still at heart a starry-eyed UCLA Film Student. He’s done a number of audio commentaries for Warner, Fox and Criterion discs, and his latest book is Sci-Fi Savant: Classic Sci-fi Review Reader


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Big Gundown Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent 
Grindhouse Releasing
1966 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 110 min. / Street Date December 10, 2013 / 39.95 
Supplements: Interviews, audio commentary, still galleries, artwork and TV spots, booklet with essays.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Two Blu-rays, One DVD and one CD in keep case
Starring Lee Van Cleef, Tomas Milian, Walter Barnes, Gérard Herter, Pietro Geccarelli, María Granada, Nieves Navarro, Luis Barboo, Benito Stefanelli.
Cinematography
 Carlo Carlini
Set Decoration Carlo Simi
Original Music Ennio Morricone
Vocals Cristy (Audrey Nohra)
Written by Sergio Donati, Sergio Sollima, Fernando Morandi, Franco Solinas 
Produced by Alberto Grimaldi
Directed by Sergio Sollima

Reviewed: December 11, 2013

Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson

State of Siege

“Best Print Available” Days at the AFI National Film Theater

People noticed the car parts first.  Body parts from a ’73 Chevy Impala, painted a flat blue, seemed to float against the left-side wall of the American Film Institute National Film Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  The answer? – acoustics, the walls being sound-eating, unpainted cinder block.

But then the whole theater was an afterthought. The Kennedy Center had already been open for a year, and it was only after that opening that someone actually noticed no provision had been made for film in what was after all, a Center for the Performing Arts.  The nether regions of the backstage of the Eisenhower, the ‘legitimate’ stage at the KC complex, were cut off laterally and the AFI Theater opened on April 3, 1973 with D.W.Griffith’s1919 silent  Broken Blossoms – and under a cloud of controversy over censorship.

Costa-Gavras’ State of Siege (État de Siège, 1972) had been pulled from the opening week because it was about political assassination a decade after Kennedy’s own assassination – gee, why didn’t anybody think of that in the first place? – and a number of filmmakers pulled their films in protest.

State of Siege

And so nobody seemed to notice the then-cutting edge – and probably unique to this day – design of the venue in the first place. The seats and projection booth rested on a raised island within the rectangular space, with a small stage before the screen on its own island, and a powerful theater organ in between.  The 224 seats, rather sharply raked via steps from the first four rows back, were stadium seating before the term had been invented, rising from about 4-5 feet above the floor at the front to between 20 to 30 feet at the back, and conformed to the rectangle shape of the space.  Entry was via very abrupt stairs under a balcony at the back and very short ones at the corner of the front. Thus, a very short throw (only 68 feet from screen to projector), no fan shape, no bad seats, no bad sight lines (hardened buffs avoided rows 2-4 because, unraked, there could be head problems with subtitles.)

Not that I was noticing these fine points during my first viewing there when I was part of an SRO opening week crowd for Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon – one of the greatest viewing experiences of my life.  Just the film itself would be enough, of course, but with three projectors in the booth, the transition to Cinemascope was both breathtaking and perfectly smooth (not always the case subsequently) with the curtains parting from the original academy shape to the triple screen right on cue.  And throughout the finale, the organ thundered variations on ‘La Marseillaise’, with the base notes of the simulated small arms and cannon fire vibrating up through the island to the soles of your feet.

Where do you go from there?  Easy, I lived there, and so did a lot of other people, in a time before cassettes; DVDs; screenings at the National Gallery or the Freer; a Late, Late Show or a Late, Late Show Part II (DC closed down early in those days).  Such now-chestnuts as Singin’ in the Rain would attract turn away crowds, and after a while, you started to recognize people.  The beginning of ‘The Gang’ began when a tall, slender, balding man with whom I contended for Row 5, Seat 7 nearly every night (late comer got Seat 8) introduced himself, adding, to this then-unemployed film bum’s stupefaction, that he was employed … in a serious job (as legislative staffer for Senator William Proxmire he came up with the name for the ‘Golden Fleece Awards’) … happily married … and had kids!  (I’m still not sure how he did it.)  After a while a 10- to 12-member “ Fifth Row Society” emerged, and when you arrived at “the Clubhouse” you routinely asked the ticket-taker “Who’s here tonight?” A disparate group, it ranged from the Congressional staffer, to a still-in-uniform undergrad, to a construction worker, to a phone sales rep, to a nuclear site troubleshooter, to a Peruvian cultural attaché, to several just unemployed. For the first couple of years screenings were always at 6:30 and 9:00, and with a short first film there was plenty of time in between for vehement discussion — and afterwards as well. One night the recapping went on so long we were kicked out of the KC and ended up in the lobby of the Howard Johnson’s opposite the Watergate.

Not that everything was perfect. These were the bad old days of the “best print available,” and with the Kennedy Center being the most prestigious venue in town and so attracting the most senior – and thus oldest and crustiest projectionists – shouts of “Focus!” were not unusual. On one occasion, focus maintenance was so dreadful for Kozintsev and Trauberg’s The New Babylon (Novyy Vavilon, 1929) that I, as Regular Patron, stalked off to the booth and exchanged views with the projectionist, so vehemently apparent that distraught ushers thought I was going to punch out the 70-year-old (I thought I was holding back.) Later a midnight screening of Michael Reeves’ 1968 Witchfinder General with Vincent Price proceeded with the reels in this order: 1, 4, 3, 2, 5 – making for a unique, Memento-like viewing experience. The projectionist manfully apologized sheepishly as we shuffled out.

In such an intimate venue, and with everyone knowing each other, there was the occasional audience participation. As the bathos mounted in John Cromwell’s 1939 Made for Each Other, and James Stewart paused as he ran in with the child-saving serum, the cry rang out, “It’s dead!”  During a house-lights-up equipment breakdown at the two-hour mark of Ivan Perestiani’s interminable Three Lives (Sami sitsotskhle, 1924), somebody suggested “Let’s make a break for it.” And as Fred C. Brannon’s immortal 12-part 1952 serial Zombies of the Stratosphere (Leonard Nimoy billed ninth) unreeled with credits for each episode still intact, I amused myself by trying to memorize the entire cast list, making it by the finale as the sparse crowd egged me on.

And then there was the nitrate fire. It was 1979 and things were just getting a little bit more complicated in the final reel or two of Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947) when the screen suddenly went dark. I immediately looked over my shoulder and saw flames shooting up behind the windows to the booth. Presumably right after that the chords holding up the metal shutters for the windows incinerated and they closed down but I wasn’t still looking. Since the fumes are toxic, the ushers rolled back the immense, floor-to-ceiling side doors (originally used for moving in scenery) and rushed us out to the patio. As we milled about, waiting to see what would happen next, a young couple approached my pal and me, who had obviously seen the film before (we had come to see the nitrate print), and asked us to tell them how the film ended. Summarize the last act of Lady from Shanghai!? Well, we started to disagree right away and as the argument got noisy, the couple started to nervously edge away from two obvious nut jobs, although we did manage to gasp out – spoiler alert! – “they finally shoot it out in the fun house.”  A month later the AFI brought back a safety print and my buddy and I realized we both had been wrong.

Well, it’s always easier to remember the misadventures. Over the years the question wasn’t whether I had seen a thousand films in the AFI; it was whether I had see two thousand. How many memorable and unique viewing experiences; but then, when after twenty years of patronage I was asked to become the programmer of the theater (the guy who picks and schedules all the films, writes the notes for the printed calendars, hosts all the guests, and can hurtle into the booth and order the sound level for The Guns of Navarone to be maxed – yes, it’s a dream job) I learned two things about the theater for the first time.

For years I had realized it was the best venue in town for viewing widescreen. Now I could try and figure out why. Now I could stand on the stage and tell the projectionist to pull the masking to ‘scope’ and as I looked back at the house I realized I was looking at … the side aisles.  The screen was wider than the seats! All the seats, since the AFI was strictly rectangular. I realized I couldn’t think of another theater like that – since 99% of all theaters are fan-shaped, no matter how big the screen is, it’s never wider than the audience.  And what’s important is not the absolute size of the screen; it’s the size in relation to the audience. Of course, sitting at the back of the house – which because of the steep rake was still not that far from the screen – instead of my fifth row, the screen would appear smaller, but it would still have that subtle psychological effect. Subtle, because I had never realized it in twenty years of viewing. I have no clue as to whose idea it was but I’ve never seen it done anywhere else.

And now, as the on-stage host, the one who has to get on stage as the credits are ending and before the lights go up and keep the audience from leaving so he can say, “And now here’s the director/star/writer/etc. of tonight’s film,” I realized that the theater was perfectly designed for that as well. In other venues the host and guest may have to enter: down the aisles in full view of the audience; from the back of the stage where you can’t see the film ending on the screen; or from wings which should never be in a film theater anyway. But at the AFI, where, since the island was not flush with the walls there was a wood-topped wall on the outside of the side aisles that was about head-high at the lower end, guest and host could lurk two steps from the stage completely out of the audience’s sight lines and be on stage in time to catch viewers before they could reach for their coats. Well that’s getting in to host anecdotes and not about the theater itself.

That the Kennedy Center, with its high arts tone, always regarded the film theater as a stepchild/orphan and clearly implied that they’d love it to be anywhere else is probably not surprising. (In 2001, the then-incoming head of the KC Michael Kaiser stated in print, “I simply do not enjoy movies.”)  But the American Film Institute generally regarded it that way too, certainly after its headquarters moved from Washington to Los Angeles. But then there had always been an anomaly: as a visiting Uruguayan director said to me, “You mean this is the only AFI theater? I thought there were lots of little ones all across the country.” Sounds like that would have been a good idea.

Of course, as we learned, there are things worse than being ignored and neglected. In March 1998, the director of the AFI, Jean Firstenberg, while still in negotiations with Montgomery County, Maryland to restore/reopen the Silver Theater in suburban Silver Spring, announced the closing of the theater, stating, “With video, pay per view, and satellite technologies, there’s just not a need to show repertory on a regular basis.”  In the wake of the resulting furor, the theater stayed open, but on a part-time basis, sharing with the Kennedy Center, and, with the stage extended, with a local theater group, sometimes out for a month, other times sneaking in three weeks of screening out of four.

And yet, despite the irregular programming, the last few years showed good-to-great box office, always with the yearly Latin American and European Union festivals; and in the last year a gigantic smash hit with a Kurosawa/Mifune festival, and an almost completely sold-out extended run of Russian Ark, probably the all-time house record.

Russian Ark

But with the long-delayed opening of the triplex Silver Theater in 2003, the handwriting was on the wall; all the emphasis, all the publicity, etc., shifted to the new kid. And when the Kennedy Center made its move the next year the AFI said, Oh, Ok, it’s their building – they just didn’t care.

The end came without announcement and without publicity on Halloween night in 2004. The last show was just a regular screening in that year’s European Union Film Showcase, Pupi Avati’s 2004 Christmas Rematch (La rivincita di Natale), and the audience only found out it was the finale when I announced it at the start of the show. I brought bottles of champagne myself – well, it was on sale – and our usher, Jackie, and two distinguished local film programming colleagues helped me pass it out.

I still think it was the best viewing venue for film I’ve seen – and I thought that before I was employed there.

And now it’s a children’s theater but this movie seat cover absolutely does the difference when taking about comfort.

 

Michael Jeck is adjunct professor of film history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and writer of the text for the quarterly programs of Film Forum 2, New York since 1988. And he has been: an independent film distributor; programmer of the American Film Institute Theater; on-air host of international movies at Mhz-TV; and audio commentator on the DVDs and Blu-rays of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood.

Back to top

 

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.

Marvin - Parade

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. 

 

Go to top

hulu-plus-criterion

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.

Quo Vadis 2

Movie-Watching Memories: The Quo Vadis

A new, semi-regular column here at World Cinema Paradise, “Movie-Watching Memories” will feature short articles by our columnists sharing memories of their hard-top movie theaters, drive-ins, home video experiences, special screenings and other movie-viewing experiences.

 

The Quo Vadis                                                                     by Stuart Galbraith IV

Westland, Michigan, USA

(1966-2002)

There were surely better places to see a movie, but none was as bizarrely fascinating as the Quo Vadis Theater, located at 7420 Wayne Road near Warren Road in the suburban Detroit working class City of Westland.

The theater was built by the Wayne Amusement Co. theater chain and designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the famous architect best known for the ill-fated World Trade Center. The over-emphatically glitzy, modern, and vaguely Romanistic Quo, at its peak, was a labyrinthine wonder. Decked out in aqua blue and gold title, the 1,200-seat ground-floor auditorium, twinned in 1970, opened with the Doris Day comedy The Glass-Bottom Boat. The lobby was decorated with framed, all-star color portraits from various MGM anniversary events, as well as numerous seven-feet-tall Oscar statuettes. I always wondered if perhaps they were salvaged from some Hollywood junkyard following an Academy Awards show broadcast.

Quo Vadis 1

Quo Vadis 2

But that was just a taste of things to come. An upper floor, opened in 1968, was planned as a spacious, fancy restaurant, but instead two small theaters, the Penthouse I & II, debuted there in its place. These theaters were highly unusual because instead of the usual house lights during the daytime an automated curtain would slide open to the left or right of the theater-goer, letting harsh sunlight pour in and revealing a floor-to-ceiling glass window providing them a view of busy Wayne Road and the then-new Westland Mall beyond.

The restaurant concept wasn’t entirely abandoned, ether. A small but fully-stocked and perpetually bustling bar greeted patrons at the top of the stairs, and around the corner was the smaller but still-impressive “Over 21 Club,” a Playboy Mansion-styled hangout, where nighttime patrons could don headphones and watch movies playing at the adjacent Algiers Drive-In, also operated by Wayne Amusements. Sadly, a proposed third-floor rooftop beer garden theater, seating 1,000 people, was never realized.

I have both fond and sad memories of the Quo Vadis. They were pretty lax about enforcing the Under 17 Not Admitted without a Parent or Guardian rule applying to R-rated films, nor were they very diligent about making sure these same teenagers didn’t buy one ticket and freely move from one screen to another. I did this numerous times myself only to get pinched once, I think it was during the middle of Caddyshack. Fortunately I had the foresight to grab off the sticky floor a batch of ticket stubs left by paying customers. The angry usher went back to the box-office for a few minutes after I randomly produced one of these, and when he returned instead of giving me and my pal the old heave-ho instead apologized profusely for disturbing us. I still feel a bit guilty about that.

I more than made up for that bit of larceny buying actual tickets to many movies there. I recall a particularly memorable afternoon watching Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, a film that so impressed me that I went back to see it again that evening.

Sadly, the Quo Vadis holds one other memory I feel duty-bound to report. When I was a 9th grade junior high school student, I had a teacher that, quite unlike my parents, nurtured my growing interest in film. A movie fan himself, Fred Ochs opened the minds of his students by frequently showing short films on the 16mm Bell & Howell projectors used in those days. It was in his class that I first experienced the short films of animator-filmmaker Norman McLaren and other movies from the National Film Board of Canada. It’s where I first saw title designer Saul Bass’s Academy Award-winning short Why Man Creates and the early efforts of Claymation pioneer Will Vinton. Ochs encouraged my own, furtive attempts at filmmaking, then in Super-8 format, one of which became an end-of-semester project. I finished editing movie later than expected, but he graciously allowed me to bring it in a week or so after the semester had ended and gave me full credit for my labors.

Then, over the summer he and his wife decided to take in a movie at the Quo Vadis, only to be struck and killed by a car on busy Wayne Road as they attempted to cross the street. They left behind, I think, three children.

Over time, the Quo’s screens were sub-divided and sub-divided again. Eventually the smallest one, built in place of the by-this-point-closed Over 21 Club, wasn’t much bigger than my home theater is now. The last movie I saw there was Mel Brooks’s Life Stinks (on assignment from The Ann Arbor News), two years before I moved to Los Angeles, and that pretty much describes how I felt when the Quo Vadis shuttered for good in January 2002. It sat empty for years before finally being torn down in 2002, and when I Google Mapped it for this article, I was depressed to find a vacuous, vacant lot in its place. Quo Vadis?

 

Go to top

An Oasis of Cinema Scholarship and Reviewing.