Thursday, July 30, 2020

Nude on the Moon

Nude on the Moon
YouTube viewing

They’re not nude, just topless.

I really feel you should know that before anything else.

Does it matter? Eh, not really. A movie with a title like Nude on the Moon is made for one reason and one reason only—to see lots and lots of hot chicks—and in that sense, this delivers big time. The girls in this movie may not actually be nude, but they are all gorgeous and they’re filmed perfectly, with a steady camera and in plenty of sunlight.

Lots of dudes made nudist camp and “nudie cutie” films back in the late 50s and early 60s, such as Russ Meyer, whom we talked about earlier this month, and while those films served a market Hollywood wouldn’t touch, the vast majority of them faded into obscurity in time. So why has this one not only survived, but is remembered today, if only by a few die-hard cultists?

This one was not made by a dude.


Monday, July 27, 2020


Let the rest of the world remember her for that tawdry Civil War melodrama. As far as I’m concerned, she’ll always be the great actress from The Heiress.

I first saw it in high school; we were studying the novel Washington Square, naturally, and I had no idea who she or anyone else in the picture was, but by the end I was mesmerized. I think it’s significant that I came into the movie with as few preconceptions as possible. I have since developed a bit of a resistance to period costume dramas; I’ve seen quite a few, both classic and contemporary, and some I’ve even liked, but I think it’s possible I’ve compared them to this in my mind and they’ve all fallen short.

Nothing can match the feeling of... awe I felt upon seeing this at a young and impressionable age, having no fixed ideas about period costume dramas or classic movies in general, and seeing this remarkable actress undergo an on-screen transformation from mousy girl to independent woman. And that ending has never left me in all the years since. Never.

I’ve seen her in other stuff since, of course. I’ve learned about her life off-screen, including her rivalry with her sister Joan Fontaine, not to mention the blow she struck for the rights of all Hollywood actors. That one movie, though, defines her to me more than anything else because of where and when I saw it.

The CNN obituary

The short films of Andy Warhol

I’ve tried to understand what the big deal was about Andy Warhol. When I lived in Columbus, I went to a major Warhol exhibit and looked at his silkscreens, sat through a few of his films, read his history, but I can’t say I ever made a personal connection to any of it.

It’s easy to say, “You had to be there,” but in his case, I really feel that’s true. For all of the articles that testify to his importance to art history and pop culture history, I don’t grok any of it, and certainly not his films—I mean, who would want to sit through a static shot of the Empire State Building for eight damn hours? More to the point, who would feel such a film had value?

I get that Warhol was mostly pulling everyone’s collective leg with his work, but audiences of the 60s strike me as willing accomplices to the joke. I dunno. Still, his films have a relevancy because of who he was, if not for their content, so I will examine a few and try to appreciate the importance they may have. No promises.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Mondo Trasho

Mondo Trasho
YouTube viewing

It took fifty years or so, but the world has caught up with John Waters. Just turn on your TV and you’ll realize there can no longer be any doubt. Whether or not that’s a good thing, well, that’s up to you to decide... but I will say this:

As an artist, no matter who you are or where you come from, no matter what your intentions are—whether you wanna provoke or shock with your art or whether you wanna create beauty, however you perceive it, or whether you just wanna make a million dollars and retire to the south of France—you’re never, ever gonna please everybody, and attempting to try is an exercise in futility.

It’s something I wish I could remember more often. I struggle with the conservative mores I was brought up in, and at times I’ve wanted to push my art further, whether it’s my visual art or my writing, as I alluded to recently. To embrace “trash,” to find virtue in modes of expression that run far left of center and to be open about it, takes guts, because even in 2020, there’s gonna be somebody ready to hang you for it.

I suspect Waters realized this a long time ago.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
YouTube viewing

You have to hand it to Russ Meyer. He knew exactly what he wanted to see in his movies, and he got it, time and time again: sexy chicks with big tits—yet his films weren’t pornos, and sometimes, they weren’t even erotic. His women weren’t put on pedestals; they were active and did things; sometimes bad things, true, but they were rarely boring.

As a cartoonist, I’ve drawn sexy girls in the past for my own amusement, and occasionally for publication, sometimes clothed, other times not. I’ve wanted to make an erotic comic book; I even wrote a script for a story about a stripper, but I never had the cojones to actually draw it and publish it.

Putting one’s sexual fantasies on display is not an easy thing, not even these days, where public exhibitionism is more common than ever thanks to the internet. I know the things that turn me on are not as unusual as I once might’ve thought (and none of your beeswax), but in my prose at least, I’ve loosened up somewhat in that category thanks to a writer friend whose stories have lots of steamy sex scenes. She and I have had long conversations on the subject. Still, I’m no E.L. James by any stretch.

Being attracted to sexual imagery and afraid of it at the same time has been the American way for generations, and it’s certainly been a long-running subplot in the history of film. The underground cinema of the 50s and 60s chafed at the restrictions against nudity and depictions of sexuality in general, and Meyer was one of the filmmakers at the vanguard.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Shorts: The underground

I don’t blog about short films very often, outside of what I see at the Queens World Film Festival, anyway. This seems like a good opportunity to change that, especially since so many underground filmmakers are known for their short film material as much as their features.

There are lots of filmmakers I could talk about; for this post I’ve chosen five, all based in America. I may do a post like this again with other underground filmmakers; don’t know, but I’ll try to talk about shorts more often.

Meshes of the Afternoon. This was Vija’s suggestion: Maya Deren was a dancer and all-around creative person in addition to being an experimental filmmaker. In 1943, she and her husband Alexander Hammid got together to make this wordless, dream-like narrative—and it does resemble a narrative more than I had expected; I had thought it would be more impenetrable.

She stars in it, and given her thick, dark hair and the abstract nature of the film, it kinda resembles a Kate Bush video. The cinematography is good, and she and Hammid pull off a few clever camera tricks. For what it is, it’s not bad.

Deren is considered a major figure in the field of experimental film. She’s quoted at length in this piece about her.

Bridges-Go-Round. Shirley Clarke was also a dancer. She studied film at the City College of New York and was down with not only Deren, but other experimental filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas.

1959 was a very good year for her; in addition to her contributions to the Oscar-nominated short Skyscrapers, a collaboration with four other directors, including DA Pennebaker, she made this ode to New York’s bridges. The angles she shoots from, the double exposures, the color filters, make the bridges look like Spirograph designs (I can’t be the only one out there who remembers Spirograph, can I? Can I?). Here’s a more complete profile.

Pull My Daisy. This was Virginia‘a suggestion. Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac wrote and narrated this 1959 short directed by Robert Frank & Alfred Leslie, featuring Allen Ginsberg and a bunch of other Beats (I presume) at a small party at some couple’s apartment. The people are definitely talking to each other, but you can’t hear what they say because Kerouac talks in a voice-over the whole time, making up some narrative about their conversation—I think.

I can’t say I’ve ever had much interest in the Beats, so while the contrast of Kerouac’s running commentary and the relatively mundane imagery feels like an overly literary MST3K episode, I zoned out after the first ten minutes once I realized this was going nowhere.

Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans was adapted into a Hollywood movie the next year, with Leslie Caron and George Peppard. Kerouac has been the subject of a number of docs, and movies have been made of On the Road and Big Sur. This Atlantic article wonders why Hollywood can’t make a decent film about the Beats.

Mothlight. Stan Brakhage was known for his abstract short films that really played around with the medium. He was also friends with Mekas and Deren, as well as the composer John Cage. For this 1963 short, he worked without a camera: moth wings, flower petals and blades of grass were pressed between strips of 16mm splicing tape  and the finished product was contact printed. I like the strobe- like effect the film produces; it’s not the kind of effect you could easily reproduce with computers.

Scorpio Rising. Kenneth Anger is one of the first openly gay filmmakers in America; his films came under scrutiny in the past on suspicion of obscenity. You may have heard of the duology of books he wrote, Hollywood Babylon, about scandal within the Golden Age of the film industry. Here’s a piece on him from 2016.

In this short, images of biker gang members preparing to go out for the evening lead to a really wild party and a cross-country motorcycle race, all set to oldies music—though they probably weren’t old in 1964, when this was made.

The homoeroticism in this is evident almost from the beginning, and the party scene brings that subtext to the surface in a big way, but what struck me the most was the editing. He mixes in images of the Brando movie The Wild One with a Christ narrative and Naziism, and the Eisenstein-like cuts are sometimes no more than a split second, other times they’re longer. The effect is exhilarating and more than a little disturbing.

Many of these filmmakers were part of the film distribution collective co-founded by Jonas Mekas called the Film-Makers Cooperative, also known as the New American Cinema Group. Their archive of over 5000 titles are in a variety of formats, from 35mm to video and DVD.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Titanic (1953)

Blogathon. Stany. Pale Writer.

Titanic (1953)
YouTube viewing

Nine decks. 882 feet, nine inches long, 175 feet tall. Maximum speed, 23 knots—equal to 44 kilometers on land. Total passenger capacity, 2453, with luxuries including a seven-foot deep swimming pool, a gym, a library, a squash court, a Turkish bath and an a la carte restaurant.

They didn’t call that ship Titanic for nothing.

Even today, over a century later, the sinking of the massive British passenger liner still makes news. Back in January, an international agreement declared the wreckage would be left undisturbed, but in May, a federal judge gave the okay for a salvage mission to retrieve the ship’s Marconi wireless telegraphThe US is challenging this decision.

There are at least eighteen films about the Titanic in one form or another. You know about James Cameron’s version. You might know about the 1958 British film A Night to Remember. Do you know about Saved From the Titanic, the silent short film made a mere 29 days after the sinking in 1912, starring one of the actual survivors? Or, for that matter, the 1929 silent feature Atlantic, starring a young Madeleine Carroll?

Titanic movies have been around almost as long as the movies themselves.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
YouTube viewing

Sure, a movie about a black guy who kills cops and gets away with it looks really good right now... and I can’t help but feel churlish for wanting to criticize a movie like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which even in its day hit like a bolt of lightning and set the stage for the blaxploitation films of the 70s. Still, it’s worth discussing as a film, independent of its wider cultural impact. I’ll do my best.

Chicago native Melvin van Peebles was working as a cable car grip man in San Francisco in the 50s when, in conversation with a passenger, he got the idea to make movies. A few fledgling attempts at some short films led to an unsuccessful attempt at breaking into Hollywood which led to an extended stay in Europe for awhile, meeting avant-garde filmmakers, making some connections, gaining experience.

In 1968 he made his first feature, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, in English and French, which led to a gig at Columbia Pictures, where he made the comedy Watermelon Man in 1970. MVP, however, craved greater creative control over his work.

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Wild Angels

The Wild Angels
YouTube viewing

Roger Corman is still alive and making movies! This Variety piece from last December discusses his latest projects and how he’s adapted to the technological changes to the industry—and even during the quarantine, he’s encouraged others to keep making movies.

To go into his career as an independent producer-writer-director, including discussing the many film superstars who started out with him when they were nobodies, would take way too long, so let’s focus on one aspect of it: his association with indie production company American International Pictures.

Founded by Samuel Arkoff & James Nicholson in 1954, their mandate was finding low-budget films that could be released as double features for the burgeoning teen market. Their first release was a Corman production, The Fast and the Furious. (Fun fact: Corman licensed that title to Universal in 2001, and when the long-running sports car franchise became a hit, Corman got a tiny piece of the profits.)

Corman had spent the 60s making adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories with Vincent Price and even spent a little time at Columbia Pictures. Then one day he became aware of motorcycles.

Saturday, July 11, 2020


YouTube viewing

“Independent film” has become a loaded phrase these days, and it  may mean one thing to you but something else to me. Is it simply a matter of working outside the Hollywood studio system? Maybe, but then why are so many smaller boutique studios owned by the majors still considered indies? Is it measured in budgets? If so, what’s the upper limit for a budget before a film no longer becomes “independent”? Is it an aesthetic, an attitude, a frame of mind? If so, who determines it? Is it a matter of distribution? Maybe, but these days it’s possible to see an indie at the local multiplex, at least in big cities.

I remember wrestling with similar issues during my years in the comics industry and I never found the answers there. With the movies, it’s probably even more knotty and tangled.

Ultimately, I can’t say I care one way or another beyond a certain point, but I think some filmmakers and some films are and will forever be associated with alternative cinema in America because of either their approach to filmmaking or their themes or their budget or any combination of the three—and it’s these films I’m gonna look at this month and possibly next month too.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m gonna focus on the 50s to the 70s; maybe the 80s if I feel like it. We have to begin somewhere, and for me, if we’re talking independent film, we have to begin with John Cassavetes.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Books: The Real Tinsel

The 2020 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

I have my friend Bibi to thank for the books in this year’s blogathon. She works in a library, and over a year ago, she sent me a huge package of film books her library had planned to discard. Some of them pertained to modern cinema but most were about Old Hollywood and were written in the 50s, 60s and 70s...

...such as this first one. The Real Tinsel is an oral history of the early days of Hollywood, with terrific photographs, compiled by Bernard Rosenberg & Harry Silverstein in 1970. Many of the industry types they spoke to dated their film careers back to the 1910s and 20s—so you can imagine how valuable are the stories they tell.

Some interviewees should be recognizable to the average cinephile with a working knowledge of Hollywood history: Adolph Zukor, Dore Schary, Edward Everett Horton, Fritz Lang, Max Steiner. Others are less so, but equally important: producer Walter Wanger, actresses Mae Marsh and Blanche Sweet, stuntman Gil Perkins, cameraman Hal Mohr, writer Anita Loos.

They’re all given free reign to discuss not only their careers, but their lives, many of which began in the 19th century. Some common denominators include: working-class jobs in their youth, roots in the theater, wartime reminiscences, witnessing the evolution of the medium and learning how it works, the shift from New York to Hollywood, salaries, labor disputes, the coming of sound to motion pictures, industry anecdotes, etc.

A photo from Tinsel: Mae Marsh
In The Cinderella Man
At the time of publication, some were happily retired; others were still active in the industry. All spoke candidly about their ups and downs in Hollywood at a languid, rambling pace, and because they’re from a time period just barely within living memory even in 2020, their language reflects that. It’s a tad more formal, more erudite, and a far cry from modern diction, influenced by the internet and greater contact with other countries.

That said, I wonder how accessible this book was to the cinephiles of the late 60s/early 70s. Today I can (and often did) go to IMDB and look up completely unfamiliar names like Joe Rock, Dagmar Godowsky, or Billy Bletcher. Rosenberg & Silverstein don’t really provide much in the way of context as to who these people are or the people and places they describe. 

In Tinsel, Rod LaRocque talks
about his marriage to
Vilma Banky.
Tinsel would have benefited greatly with some annotation. The interviewees were in their sixties, seventies and up—way up. Memories were bound to have been faulty in places, not to mention selective. The book comes across as being for the cinephile, the insider who subscribes to THR and Variety, or teaches at film school, but I get the feeling it was meant more for the casual movie fan, and if so, a little help as to who these people were wouldn’t have hurt. It’s not like Crawford and Fonda and Bacall are in this book.

Still, Tinsel is a valuable treasure trove of Hollywood stories in the words of the people who helped build the industry.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The first movies out the theatrical gate: what to expect?

...Exhibitors’ intentions will still need to clear the authorities in key places like New York City, Los Angeles County, and the city of San Francisco. Theater sources claim they expect to be allowed to operate by July 10, but the really meaningful date is July 24 — and in any event, those major-city locations typically represent less than 10 percent of the total national business.
So this was expected to be the month movie theaters would reopen nationwide after the quarantine forced a temporary shutdown—and it may still happen. No matter when it does, the fact is it has to happen; too much money is at stake for the studios, the filmmakers, the distributors and the theaters themselves to remain out of business for much longer, and while professional sports like the NBA and the NHL tentatively plan to restart without audiences, Hollywood still needs the theaters and the patrons that come with them.

Last month, AMC announced its reopening plan, which includes social distancing protocols and an aggressive cleaning strategy called Safe & Clean:
...Seat capacity restrictions, social distancing efforts, commitments to health, new intensified cleaning protocols, contactless ticketing and expanded mobile ordering of food & beverages are all vital elements of AMC Safe & Clean. Importantly, too, we also have invested millions and millions of dollars in high tech solutions to sanitation, disinfection and cleanliness, such as the ordering of electrostatic sprayers, HEPA filter vacuum cleaners and MERV 13 air ventilation filters wherever we can. 
After some controversy on whether or not masks would be mandatory for patrons, AMC decided to insist on requiring masks. Other chains are following suit.

Here in NYC, the second phase of our reopening plan is in effect, although movie theaters are not officially included in this phase, and won’t be for awhile. I don’t need to explain to you how vital the New York market is. This is all uncharted territory, so things could change even more than they already have... but for now, let’s look at some of what we’ll see when we do come back to the theaters. Links to the trailers are in the titles.