Saturday, December 29, 2007

NWFF - Clockwork Reduction


A couple of weekends ago I attended the Saturday performance of A Clockwork Reduction, a re-staging of Andy Warhol's Vinyl. It was supposed to be very meta with actors taking directions from a bunch of directors who were taking directions from another director who was taking directions from the audience or something. Mostly, it was like watching a Strangercrombie modeling session. What was it about? I didn't read the program, so I don't know, but my interpetation was that it was about watching attractive young people prancing about in their underwear. As a fan of Larry Clark, I'm a big supporter of this. My only complaint is that the girls were wearing more underwear than the guys. With the guys you got to see nipples and basket, but with the girls you didn't get to see anything. As a heterosexual male I found that unfair. In any case, I took some photos, which can be seen here.

NWFF - Clockwork Reduction


A couple of weekends ago I attended the Saturday performance of A Clockwork Reduction, a re-staging of Andy Warhol's Vinyl. It was supposed to be very meta with actors taking directions from a bunch of directors who were taking directions from another director who was taking directions from the audience or something. Mostly, it was like watching a Strangercrombie modeling session. What was it about? I didn't read the program, so I don't know, but my interpetation was that it was about watching attractive young people prancing about in their underwear. As a fan of Larry Clark, I'm a big supporter of this. My only complaint is that the girls were wearing more underwear than the guys. With the guys you got to see nipples and basket, but with the girls you didn't get to see anything. As a heterosexual male I found that unfair. In any case, I took some photos, which can be seen here.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Movies For Music Lovers: Alternate Version

The one and only... Julie Christie


List making is the junk food of criticism.
-- Paul Schrader

Every year, I compile a top 30. I'm not sure how long I've been at it.
Since around 1993, I would imagine. Titles include features, documen-
taries, and reissues (my favorite release of 2006 was Jean-Pierre Mel-
ville's long-lost Army of Shadows). In other words, I count pretty much
anything film-related, except short subjects and television exclusives.

Then, I sort the remaining non-fiction and archival entries in-
to separate top 10s for a grand total of 50 films. Since 2005,
I've been posting the results (plus commentary) to my blog.
This year, I'm cross-posting an abbreviated version. For the
entire magilla, please click here. The following represents
the top 8.6% of the movies I saw this year.

Links are to my Amazon, Siffblog, and Stranger reviews.
Sam Riley in Control
TOP 10:
1. Away From Her (Sarah Polley)
2. Into the Wild (Sean Penn)
3. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)
4. Daratt (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)
5. Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett)
6. Control (Anton Corbijn)
7. Zodiac (David Fincher)
8. Tie: Once (John Carney) / Lady Chatterly (Pascal Ferran)
9. This Is England (Shane Meadows)
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Thomas Turgoose and the gang in This Is England
11. INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch)
12. I'm Not There (Todd Haynes)
13. Talk to Me (Kasi Lemmons)
14. Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood)
15. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-Liang)
16. Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck)
17. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet)
18. Le Petit Lieutenant (Xavier Beauvois)
19. Blame It on Fidel! (Julie Gavras)
20. Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin)
The "real" Bob Dylan...with D.A. Pennebaker
21. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel Von Donnersmark)
22. Black Book (Paul Verhoeven)
23. El Aura (Fabian Bielinsky)
24. Ratatouille (Brad Bird)
25. Red Road (Andrea Arnold)
26. Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa)
27. Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright)
28. Half Moon (Bahman Ghobadi)
29. Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy)
30. Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog)
Click here for Songs for Swingin' Cineastes
The year's other comeback kid: Charles Burnett
Endnote: Every actor/film/director pictured has some relation to popular
music, including Julie Christie, who once collaborated with Robert Wyatt,
and Charles Burnett, who compiled the richly evocative soundtracks for
Killer of Sheep and My Brother's Wedding (alas, the lack of rights clear-
ances delayed the former by 30 years). All images from the archives.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Starting Out in the Evening


Once when I was dating another writer, he expressed concerns for his future happiness by sharing this with me:
"Writers are essentially very selfish. They HAVE to be to write well, and I know that means that I probably won't be able to have a close relationship with anyone, really".

That's always stuck with me - and if I had to apply one main theme to Starting Out in the Evening, that one would fit perfectly.

Director Andrew Wagner handles his subject matter deftly - there's a realism in the shots that make the film feel very intimate - much more like a play than a movie. But the talent lies in the delivery of the lines. Frank Langella is giving one of the performances of his career here, and it definitely shows. Lauren Ambrose does an excellent job portraying her ambition and admiration, and Lili Taylor is near perfect in her role (as always).
Langella plays Leonard Schiller, a once-popular writer, now struggling with finishing what may be his final novel. Ambrose's character, Heather Wolfe, is a young grad student doing a thesis on Schiller. She's convinced she can revive his career by publishing a portable volume of his books -inspiring others with his writing, as she was inspired. As they meet weekly, their intimacy grows and Heather's obsession with her idealized hero starts to slowly disintegrate. Schiller is also shaken by the revelations Heather makes about his work, and the realization that it affected his family negatively, particularly his now very unhappy daughter Ariel (Taylor).
Ariel's story is about sacrifice - she's taken care of her father since her mom died, and she's given up everything for the men in her life. Both the desire to have a baby and her career have been pushed aside for a recently relationship with Casey (Adrian Lester, who also does an excellent job), something her father does not approve of.
As each person's confronts their own mistakes and desires, their motives change. The audience is then faced with the question of whether or not change is even possible. Can people really change? Is it ever too late? What can you do to affect it in your life? What can you do to affect it in others, if anything?
This film does work really well as a vehicle for making you think - the scenes are realistically awkward and uncomfortable. The interaction between characters is sometimes mundane, but that is true to life. Where it fails is in its character depth. You end up caring deeply about Schiller himself (I will not be surprised if Langella earns an Oscar nomination for this), but the other characters get lost somewhere along the way.
Overall, I'd recommend it if you want to see something interesting and very different from the typical Hollywood film - just be warned that the 111 minute running time seems even longer than that, and you may leave feeling a little unsatisfied.
Starting Out in the Evening is currently playing at the Harvard Exit (897 E. Roy St.) at 1:30pm, 4:15pm, 7pm and 9:35pm.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Post-Punk Poet of Portugal: Part Two

COLOSSAL YOUTH / Juventude Em Marcha
(Pedro Costa, Portugal/France/Switzerland, 2006, 155 mins.)


Click here for part one

"[H]is slow-moving, impressively photographed and deliberately rep-
etitious zero-tech docudramas about the degraded lives of the poor
will infuriate and alienate far more people than they please."
-- Andrew O'Hehir, Salon

"This is so out of the zeitgeist I don't know where to begin."
-- Mark Peranson, Cinema Scope


Like Robert Bresson, Pedro Costa prefers to work with non-professionals. To
a person, they have intriguing faces: young, old, male, female, Portuguese,
and Cape Verdean. Like Bela Tarr and Tsai Ming-Liang, he patiently follows
his photogenic players around. While the director eschews non-diegetic music, movement and ambient sound are constant. Clearly, he finds his subjects fas-
cinating. Consequently, he encourages them to incorporate biography into their performances. Some viewers appreciate the trust he places in his cast. Some don't.

After watching O Sangue, Casa de Lava, and now Colossal Youth, I'm thankful for
that trust. And I'm confounded by those critics who find his work so exasperating-
if not unendurable. (Variety's Justin Chang, for instance, feels that Colossal Youth
is "weighed down by its soporific structure, deliberately indolent pacing and end-
lessly attenuated conversations among a clutch of ill-defined personalities.")
Costa's films may not move quickly, but they aren't exactly endurance tests either. (Comparing Colossal Youth to Andy Warhol's Empire, for instance, would be foolhar-
dy at best.) Because they're so intimate and empathetic, however, I wonder if his detractors aren't reacting to something beyond their lack of forward momentum. To quote the NME's Stuart Maconie, "Yes, there are people in the world who do not love Scott Walker. But what must their hearts be like?" Just replace Walker with Costa.
Often cited as his best-and "slowest"-effort, Colossal Youth begins with
a woman, who is possibly insane, hounding an unidentified man from their
home. She could be his wife, his lover-Costa doesn't say. The grey-hair-
ed figure manages to dodge her knife, but in the fracas, all his belongings
are destroyed. Soon afterwards, a middle-aged fellow shows the elderly gent-
leman around an empty apartment. Both sport dark suits, but the former
flauts a flashier ensemble. Presumably, he's a government housing agent.
Afterwards, the latter chats with a methadone user about her daughter's wel-
fare. As it transpires, the locations are the lower-class Lisbon neighborhoods of
Fonta/<>nhas and Casal da Boba. Costa has visited this rapidly-changing area be-
fore, starting with 1997's Ossos ("Bones"). This time around, his main man is
the mono-monikered Ventura, and the chain-smoking mother is Vanda Duarte,
focus of 2001's In Vanda's Room (No Quarta de Vanda). Ventura appears to be
sharing her living quarters, but since she plans on leaving, he takes the apart-
ment from the earlier sequence. The three films form the Vanda Trilogy.
Visitors frequent the new place, like his friend, Paulo. As with Isaach de Bankole's Le/co in Casa de Lava, Ventura hails from Cape Verde. His callers do most of the talking. He listens. The exception is Lento, for whom he is composing a love letter. In these scenes, Ventura does most of the talking-or reciting, since memorization replaces pen and paper. It is, indeed, the same letter featured in Casa de Lava.
A retired laborer, Ventura is only a rung or two above his "children" on the socio-economic ladder. "The flat's too big for you alone," notes Paulo about the new
digs. "It's for all of us," Ventura explains. Some, like Vanda, even call him Papa.
The photogenic filmmaker
Costa continues to parcel out information about this community slowly, like the
name of the woman from the opening sequence. She is Ventura's wife, Clotilde (she will not return). The director also makes little distinction between past and present.
Ventura's encounters with the letter-recipient, for example, appear to take place
in the past as he's dressed more casually and the dark interiors are even murk-
ier. In addition, Ventura's head is bandaged in these scenes, a reference to the workplace injury that hastened his retirement-yet another link with Casa de Lava.
There's so much formal control behind Costa's painterly compositions and
poetic pacing that accusations of carelessness-or self"ndulgence-would
be misplaced. Either he wants viewers to make these distinctions themsel-
ves, he's showing the world as Ventura sees it, or he's reacting to the over-
accentuated clarity of conventional cinema (or some combination thereof).
In other words, though his films don't look surrealistic, it's difficult to distinguish internal from external reality, hence the occasional comparisons to David Lynch.
It makes little sense on the surface-Costa forgoes reptilean babies, rabbit-head-
ed families, Robert Blake, etc.-but their movies share a dream-like logic.
As James Quandt mentions in his Artforum essay (reprinted in the program), Jac-
ques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie had a profound affect on the filmmaker, and Costa often shoots Ventura, from low-practically subterranean-angles, as if he were a zombie or a statue. Ventura is tall, gaunt, still. There's nothing frightening about
his placid visage, but there's something eerie about his preternatural composure.
And so it goes with the rest of the film. It's leisurely-paced to be sure, but
there's always something going on. Much has been made about the long takes,
but they're never completely static. This is also true of Tarr and Ming-Liang's features. Their cinematographers may not move often (or quickly), but the
subjects within their viewfinders are always engaged in some kind of activity.
Nevertheless, Colossal Youth inspired "mass walk-outs" at festivals and
events in Cannes, London, New York, and Vancouver-all film-savvy cit-
ies. Will Seattle prove its mettle, and break the cycle? It remains to be
seen, but here's hoping the intrepid souls who take it on stay to the end.
My advice: Do like British film critic Neil Young and load up on "artificial stimula-
tion" beforehand. In his case: "a black coffee and a can of sugar-free Red Bull."
Or feel free to walk in and out of the screening, just as Ventura rambles about
his ramshackle environs. That was, apparently, Costa's original intention, making Colossal Youth closer to performance art than most movies are prepared to go.
Note: I apologize that I failed to explore Costa's interest in post-punk further.
Not counting the use of and/or allusions to The The (O Sangue), Wire and Gang
of Four (Ossos), and the Young Marble Giants (Colossal Youth), I would have to
spend more time with his work to determine exactly how it's influenced his film-
ography. He does, after all, also integrate music from Cats (In Vanda's Room).
Oh, and about that Gang of Four number. It only plays for a few seconds, but
I'd recognize that squealing guitar line anywhere-it's "To Hell With Poverty."
Still Lives - The Films of Pedro Costa continues this week at the Northwest
Film Forum. In Vanda's Room plays Mon., 12/10, at 6 and 9:15 pm, Where
Lies Your Hidden Smile?
plays Tues., 12/11, at 6:30 and 9:15pm, and Colossal
concludes the series on Wed., 12/12, at 6:30 and 9:15pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Avenue on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629. Images from the NWFF,
Fest21, The Vancouver International Film Centre, and Neil Young's Film Lounge.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Post-Punk Poet of Portugal

Pedro Costa


"Music is a bitch. I worship her."
-- Bassoe,
Casa de Lava

His movies feature music by The The ("This Is the Day") and Wire ("Lowdown").
His latest, Colossal Youth (2006), even takes its title from the Young Marble Giants.

Reviewing their sole record for Resonance earlier this year, I wrote, "Originally releas-
ed in 1980, Colossal Youth is the musical equivalent of Charles Laughton's expres-
sionist masterpiece Night of the Hunter. The British actor never directed another film. The Welsh trio never recorded another album. No matter. In retrospect, it was a brilliant move to quit while they were ahead-there's no way they could've topped
this post-punk classic...their spare songs play like messages from another world."

Yet Portugal's Pedro Costa (b. 1959) is better known for the otherworldly look and existential feel of his films than for the music they feature-or for the degree to which music has influenced his filmmaking. It is, however, one of the more intrigu-
ing ways Cinema Scope's Mark Peranson introduced the series Still Lives - The Films
of Pedro Costa
at the Northwest Film Forum last night, so I've decided to run with it.

Isaach de Bankole in Casino Royale

The six-part series began with a screening of Costa's first film, 1989's
O Sangue ("Blood"), a languid, monochromatic musing about a young
man's efforts to raise his brother after their father's death. It was lensed
by the late German cinematographer Martin Schäfer (Radio On). According
to Peranson, it was the first and last time Costa would work in 35mm (he
now shoots strictly on DV). The series continues tonight with Casa de Lava.

I was hoping to cover this 1995 feature first because it stars Isaach de Ban-
kole, a powerful presence in numerous films from Claire Denis (Chocolat, I Can't Sleep) and Jim Jarmusch (Night on Earth, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai).

After the screening, Peranson mentioned that the Ivory Coast-born actor stars
in Denis's upcoming White Material, which follows reports that he'll be taking the
lead in Jarmusch's untitled Spanish project. In addition, Bankole appears in Jul-
ian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, so if the name is unfamiliar, that's sure to change soon. (And speaking of music, I just discovered that he's mar-
ried to acclaimed jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson. Not sure how I missed that.)

T-shirt in the window of the NWFF

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get ahold of the DVD until last night. With plans
for the evening and most of the next day, I didn't get a chance to start watching Casa de Lava ("House of Lava") until late this afternoon, with hopes of posting a pre-
view before the screenings this evening at 7:15 and 9:15pm. Worse yet, I wasn't able to get the disc to play in either of my machines, so here's the NWFF synop-
sis: "A Portuguese nurse accompanies a comatose immigrant worker back to his hometown in Cape Verde, where she struggles to piece together the details of
his life while navigating a strange, mysterious culture steeped in superstition."
Bankole's co-stars include Ines de Medeiros (O Sangue) and Edith Scob (Eyes without a Face).

The Flickering Wall describes the movie as "elliptical" and "stylized," while Strictly Film School adds that it's "dense and ingeniously metaphoric." According to Peranson, Costa couldn't stand working with Bankole, so he enjoyed keeping his character confined to a bed for the bulk of the shoot. (Which begs the question: I wonder if Julian Schnabel felt the same about The Diving Bell's Mathieu Amalric...?)

In any case, the Young Marble Giants could almost be referring to the film when Alison Statton sings, in "N.I.T.A.," "Nature intended the abstract for you and me."

Bankole and de Medeiros in Casa de Lava

Next up: Colossal Youth

Still Lives - The Films of Pedro Costa takes place at the Northwest Film For-
um from Mon., 12/3, through Wed., 12/12. The series is rounded out by Os-
, In Vanda's Room, and Where Lies Your Hidden Smile? (The latter is accom-
panied by the shorts 6 Bagatelas and Ne Change Rien featuring Amalric's wife,
Jeanne Balibar.) The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Avenue on Capitol Hill be-
tween Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-
2629. Images from the NWFF, Cinematheque Ontario, and

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Walk Into The Sea - Esther Robinson Interview Pt. 1


Interviewing Esther Robinson was as much fun as I've had interviewing anyone. It's not often that you get into such a dialogue with someone that you wind up having a conversation with them, but that's what happened. As a result, there's a lot more of me in this interview than usual, which is wonderful for me but, quite possibly, terrible for you.

Given my history, or perhaps I should say art history, there wasn't any way I could have been less involved. Warhol was one of the painters I studied while getting my degree at Columbia. In fact, one of my professors was Rainer Crone, who wrote one of the first scholarly texts on Warhol. In addition, I had the opportunity to meet other people who had written about the Factory or who knew Andy Warhol, who was very much still alive that point. Later on, I did an internship at the Whitney Museum with Callie Angell, the curator responsible for cataloging his films, and had a number of interesting conversations with her. Plus, as her guest, I attended a rooftop screening of Empire at the Dia Art Foundation, where I chatted with Vincent Fremont and Billy Name, the latter of whom took my photograph [I also had a very interesting discussion with Carolee Schneeman about cats, but I'll save that for another time]. Callie Angell also happens to be the person who discovered Danny Williams' films, thus making Robinson's documentary possible. So, you see, I'm up to my neck in this [or, at least, my knees].

But, enough about me. A Walk Into The Sea is Esther Robinson's film about her uncle, Danny Williams. Danny was the lighting technician responsible for a good chunk of the visuals at the Velvet Underground's Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows. He was also a filmmaker who, quite possibly, shot a number of the films projected at those concerts. He was part of the Harvard crowd [Edie Sedgwick, Henry Geldzahler, Chuck Wein] that filled the ranks of the Factory. He was also Andy Warhol's boyfriend. Whenever one encounters a film on that period, the same tales get told, the same arguments get re-enacted, most of them involving the charm and perfidy of Warhol and the social jockeying of his superstars; a mixture of 30's Hollywood, 18th century Versailles and the backstage backbiting of All About Eve. A Walk Into The Sea has some of that, with Brigid Berlin and Paul Morrissey revving up the war-machines of their grievances, but Robinson gets past those battles, to explore the overlooked intricacies of her uncle. Robinson also demonstrates the distance between the anecdotal history and the evidence revealed by the primary sources. Danny Williams is the protagonist of her work, but the real heroes are the historians and archivists who make it possible to reveal his depth.

Robinson, as a filmmaker, is extremely engaging. As a person, she's a great advocate for her uncle, her film and her uncle's films. Busy as a ball bearing, she's participated in a number of festivals and won awards at Tribeca and the Berlinale. Given her demand, I was extremely fortunate to have gotten a couple of hours of her time last Summer. More fortunately for you, Robinson will on hand at screenings of A Walk Into The Sea, as well as a selection of Williams' films on December 7th and 9th. Also present will be T. Griffin and Catherine McRae, who will be providing musical accompaniment to Danny's portrait of the painter Harold Stevenson.

A Walk Into The Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory
NWFF, December 7-12, Friday-Wednesday 7:00, 9:15pm

Danny Williams Factory Films
NWFF, December 7 & 9, Friday & Sunday, 8:00pm

ESF: At the time you began working on the film you were at the Creative Capital Foundation. Was The Creative Capital Foundation affiliated with the Warhol Foundation? What was the relationship?

ER: Arch Gilles, who was the former head of the Warhol Foundation, was the founder of Creative Capital and he did the majority of the fundraising for it. He was concerned with the loss of NEA direct artist grants and decided to create a private philanthropic support system for individual artists that came out of venture capital thinking, so it was this strange hybrid model. He hired Ruby Lerner, then Ruby hired me, Ken Chu and Leslie Singer to build it up with her. So they gave us money, they fundraised for it, but they also gave us a work space.

ESF: You were in the same building?
ER: We were on the same exact floor.
ESF: Was that the ConEd building Warhol bought at one point?
ER: No, it's at 65 Bleecker, which is the only Sullivan building in NYC. It's a lovely, lovely, lovely little building. It was a skyscraper at the time it was constructed, but it's 12 stories.
ESF: You were Director of Film/Video and Performing Arts?
ER: Yes, but in the early days, when there were only four of us, everyone did everything [laughs]. And so that was my title, but it's a little bit of a misnomer, because there wasn't really a program, so we not only ran the program, we built the program.
ESF: So, at the time you started this project, what were you doing at the Creative Capital Foundation?
ER: Well, that first year, just out of the madness but, basically, we were all hired in January and by July we had guidelines and applications written out and then we were taking applications a month or two later and we got about 800 proposals.
ESF: What year was this?
ER: 1999.
ESF: And when was it that your grandmother came by and had that conversation?
ER: It was then or 2000.
ESF: So, it was kind of early on.
ER: Oh yeah, all of this is happening rather simultaneously. It might have been a little bit later, it might have been late 2000. I'm actually kind of hazy on that part.
ESF: So, growing up, you would see these books your grandmother had on Warhol and there would occasionally be a note or highlighting in them on Danny and you would try to talk to her about them, but she didn't want to talk?
ER: Oh no, it's much more simple. Once you decide that it's not talked about,AeP I never talked about it with her. I would just read the books. I'd sneak over to the section and, of course, a lot of these are really interesting books, like The Velvet Underground Story and Edie: An American Girl, so I would just borrow the books and I always felt kind of illicit about it and every book had everything about Danny underlined and there were notes in the margins where she disagreed, but I never asked her about them. It would have been rude.
ESF: So, you never did ask her about them?
ER: No, at the time, no.
ESF: So, when she visited you at Creative Capital and made the comment that Danny had lived with Andy, was that the first time she said anything in your presence about that?
ER: Yes. I mean, she had said he was a filmmaker. There were always, sort of, strange non-sequiturs, but they were always uncomfortable non-sequiturs and so you wouldn't really probe or you'd sort of be like 'okay', but that was the first time I'd ever heard her directly address his life and talk at any length about him.
ESF: And was that the first time you heard your uncle had a relationship with Andy Warhol?
ER: I knew that he had been at the Factory and I knew that it hadn't gone well, but I had no idea he was Andy's boyfriend and I really didn't know he lived with Andy and his mother at Andy's house. So, no, I was completely shocked.
ESF: I assume that would have been at the duplex he had on Lexington Ave.
ER: Yes, that's exactly right.
ESF: So, in doing the preparation for the film, did you go back and re-read all the books?
ER: No. My first preparation for the film was mustering up the bravery to interview my grandmother.
ESF: [Laughs].
ER: I didn't really deal with the Factory people till much later. It took about a year-and-a-half to get the films out and the whole time I had a kind of ambivalence about digging into any of it, which needed to be resolved, but remember, I had read all the books, so a lot of that history I knew pretty well. As a side note, once I discovered that Warhol was basically taboo,AeP like when I was 14 everyone else had mohawks and I just dressed like Edie Sedgwick and that got way more of a rise and I did that for like all of high school.
ESF: So, I assume you read Popism,AeP
ER: I read them all. I read them multiple times growing up and in college. So, I knew who everyone was and I knew the basic story. You know, later I would have to go back and, before I would do an interview, I'd really re-read certain sections or really try to get my head around the specifics of the Velvet Underground tour or really important chronological research that would elucidate what was happening but, you know, all of that research doesn't even matter, because when you start interviewing people what you realize is that nobody agrees and the author's just taken whatever they think and so the concept of there being this fixed truth for the chronology is completely not real.
ESF: Although I think that Victor Bockris did a pretty good job in Uptight. I mean you get all the conflicting things in there, anyway.
ER: Yeah, of all of them Uptight is the most concise. I mean, many of the other books are really catty and really intense. Remember also, I'm not reading these in a completely neutral way. This is about my family, so there are certain books that are harder to read than others, but the Malanga, Bockris book Uptight was one of the few places where people actually give credit to Danny. Sterling Morrison, in that book, says a lot of nice things and I spent a lot of time wishing he was still alive.
ESF: I went to grad school at UT and I started there after he taught there, so I never had the opportunity to meet him, but everyone I know who did said he was the nicest guy and that, of all the people in that group, he was their favorite.
ER: And you can really tell, he was very sympathetic and I think there's a lot of him in the Uptight book. A lot of the tape recorded stuff is him and so there's a niceness to that book that I also think is truer. I think what's interesting about the majority of the written material about that time is that it has a hard time capturing how people were happy. To me the real gift of Danny's work is that insight into that really brief moment before the drugs went bad, before the relationships went bad. It's like '65-'66 is this moment before it turns and it I think that it's hard for people, after it turned, to remember that they were happy, that they were hopeful, they were making work, there was all this potential and all of this excitement. And so, part of what is hard, is that a lot of the material that's written doesn't convey that hopefulness and it's often not remembered.
ESF: I felt like you kind of got that from Popism. In that book you definitely got an arc of things being fun, then getting a little crazier, then getting out of control and then crashing as a wreck at the end of the decade. I mean, he definitely left an awful lot out and shaped things to his serve own purpose, but in giving the overall arc of the 60's, I thought he did a pretty decent job.
ER: Yeah, I have a hard time reading that because I know so much that's missing, so I don't find it particularly reliable, so I read it slightly differently, but I would agree that there's some hopefulness in it, but part of that is a kind intense revisionism as well. You know what I mean? Like, that's a much longer conversation [laughs]. Another part of that, that's interesting, and something which we really struggled with as a film, is that it's really easy for Warhol to take over. Like we'll be talking about this movie and Danny and suddenly we're talking about Popism. It's a very intense magnetic pull that Warhol exerts over everyone else's history in this context.
ESF: Well, yes, certainly at that time. I mean he was 'running the show'.
ER: Well, I mean yes and no. I mean, I think it was more chaotic than that and more collaborative than that. When you've got ten or fifteen moving parts, someone is running the show to an extent, but I also think, if you've ever been on a film set, you know that's not entirely possible and what I meant about the magnetism of Warhol is well, actually you said back then things magnetized him, but I think it's more so now then ever. Brigid tells me she'll be walking down the street and people will come up to her and ask her about Warhol. I think there's this way for everyone that's involved in that history, even their day-to-day personhood is in question in relationship to him.
ESF: I think at the time he died there had been this dip in his reputation and a question of his legacy but, since then, he's not only rebounded he's become bigger than he ever was.
ER: Yes, in terms of his value to the art market, in terms of making sure that he's valuable financially, he's incredibly important on a lot of different levels.
ESF: Yes, but, also he was massively prolific and they're still going through all of his stuff,AeP
ER: I know.
ESF: ,AePafter all these years. I mean, I don't know if it's still going on, but there was that project to catalog all of his time capsules and these are things were, literally he was throwing all his accumulated stuff, whether it was tapes or photographs or party invitations or his junk mail into a box and sending it to a storage facility. So people are obsessively pouring over every last thing he created or owned; but that's part of his value, that he was such an omnipresent source that, when people look back on that cultural moment, he's a convenient marker for the period. Because he was involved in so many things, he can be looked at as the one-stop shopping for the cultural scene in NY in the 60's.
ER: And I also think that America loves a celebrity. There are very few artists that reach the level of celebrity that he reached, so in the way that celebrity becomes iconic and iconography is the fastest way to translate history, people go back to the icons or the major figures, because it's short-hand. And I think that he became short-hand for a certain thing, a certain cultural moment and a certain cultural idea. So, that was also part of the genius of his work. His work fit into that space with him. And really good work is a witness and it translates exactly a time and a place and allows us to re-experience it and his work does that and part of his work is his persona. That he cultivated his life as an artist, he also truly cultivated his life as a celebrity.
ESF: Yes, he did both and he was also very canny in the way that he used the media, he was certainly very canny in the way he used everyone around him. He also had a unique position, because he spent years working as a commercial artist, making a huge amount of money. When you realize that, everything else falls into place, because by the time he has the Factory up and running, I wouldn't say he was independently wealthy, but he was better financially set than almost any other working-artist you can think of. So, when I said he was 'running the show', I meant that he was in the unique position of having a large work-space and having financial capital to work with, having money coming in from commissions and sales, so he could produce work in a way that, at least in this country, most artists couldn't muster.
ER: But also, going back to something Paul Morrissey says in my film that is really insightful, is that Andy was a survivor, he came from dire poverty and I think a huge portion of his psychological makeup was to be safe in that way, to never, ever, ever, slip back into that and he worked really hard. Everyone, no matter what they think of him will say he worked hard and worked every day and, in a lot of ways, had a pretty old-fashioned relationship to staying alive and in that sense,AeP you know, a lot of people at that moment in '65 and '66 were really struggling with the breakdown of the social structure and so, especially for kids that are coming out of the 50's, there's hierarchies, there's rules, there's things you wear, you don't wear white after Labor Day, you know, there's these really strict rules and those are starting to break down and break down pretty quickly and the question is, when those break down, what do you hang your personality on? What do you hang your person on if those disappear? And work is an obvious one or art or making things or you redefine your world and with Warhol there was all this potential that this old structure would be replaced with this new structure and it would be collaborative and it would be about art-making and it would be about the genesis of new things and that that was true, but it got much more complicated when the drugs came on the scene and people were very na/Ove about their effects, the longevity of those effects and the seriousness of those effects, so you hear of all these kids, their social mores are vanishing, they're experimenting, but they don't necessarily have a strong enough sense of themselves to counteract that and Warhol, in this situation, was doing less drugs than most of them and was older than most of them and had already, because of his life as a commercial artist, built a really strong sense of identity and I think across the board with anyone involved in the Factory scene, the people who are the most okay and the most fruitful and prosperous are the people who came in as fully-functioning artists with a clear sense of themselves and then left as clear functioning artists.
ESF: Well, yes, it's clear, I mean you look at somebody like John Cale,AeP
ER: Exactly.
ESF:,AePand, in a sense, he was always John Cale. You can tell he always had his shit together.
ER: Well, and that's the thing. Actually, one thing I really wanted to put in the film and we just couldn't was John Cale saying 'you know people think the Velvet Underground just happened, but we had $20 a month apartments and we practiced every single day.' And so, what people don't realize is these kids were working all the time, all of them were working, Danny was working, everyone was working hard and that was part of the draw of amphetamines, that you could work more and you could work all the time and you could feel invincible and it's just when you come down, that you start having trouble and then where do you come down and where are you living and what is your sense of self when it evaporates and how do you navigate that, that determines your survival.
ESF: It was also a kind of unique moment in the sense that, even adjusted for inflation, New York was a much cheaper place to live then, than it is now. I mean, I don't know where the hell anyone like that would live now in the city.
ER: They don't. There's nothing remotely comparable. I mean, I guess, in a sense, there's cities that have sections where,AeP but again the portion of your salary, the $20 a month that even in the 60's represented a lot, that percentage has just gone way up. So the way you can work, the way you could do drugs, all these things are different now.
ESF: You could do all those things. You could be a waiter and be in a band and live in the East Village and now, forget it.
ER: And do, mostly, band.
ESF: Yes!
ER: You know, like, whatever you did, you did mostly art and that is ,AeP I think the thing I tried to show in the film as well, was people are working, this isn't just about playing and it isn't just about,AeP these are people making things and they're serious in that endeavor and I believe that part of how that era will be read will be Warhol, but I think what we'll start to see over the next 50 years is a recalibrating to see all the other tributaries of work and artistic process and artistic realization that formed the good work around his work and I think what we'll see is this incredibly vital place and I think that's exciting and I think that story is actually richer and more important and informs what we know about Warhol instead of detracting from what we know about him.
ESF: Yes, I think that's true. One can see that, just by looking through Callie's Screen Test book. It's a fantastic book, like a compendium of all these people.
ER: Right.
ESF: You read all those bios and you realize all these people were doing their own fascinating thing and they were all artists in their own right and a lot of them aren't very well remembered.
ER: I know and there's an incredible volume of them. And I guess too a part of what to me Danny always represented was the hundreds and hundreds of people from 1965, '66 whose stories are as rich and as complex and the talent is probably equal, but we can't find them or we can't find their work. To me there are a lot of Danny's and there are always Danny's in every history and part of it is that there's a couple of different kinds of artists, there's the charismatic vocal, leader artists, but some of the most important artists are the watchers, they're the people on the sidelines, whose best talent is to quietly capture and that's Danny's talent and that was also the thing that meant that Danny was vulnerable to being kicked out and vulnerable, in a larger sense, in the world.
ESF: Getting back to the process. You said that your grandmother was the first one that you interviewed?
ER: Yes, I spent a year interviewing my grandmother. See, it took a long time to get Danny's films out, so I didn't want to commit to making the movie if the films were going to be crappy. My grandmother's in her 90's, at this point, and I knew I needed to interview her no matter what. Well, it's funny, everyone told me she might die, so I had to interview her, but she's such a force of nature that I was like 'yeah, whatever,' but I didn't ever believe she could die, although it ended up happening much more quickly than we thought, so I spent about a year, year and a half, just going up to Rockport where she lived and interviewing her about Danny and his childhood and doing and all the things you do to get your grandmother to talk about something she doesn't really want to talk about.
ESF: So, after you interviewed your grandmother did you then move onto other family members?
ER: I interviewed my grandmother and then my grandmother died right after we got the films. Like about eight hours. So, then there was this crazy period where we get the films, we transfer them, we drive them up to my grandmother, my grandmother is too sick to see them and then the next day she sort of watches them, but then she dies. So there was this period after that when I'm interviewing my mother and that's when second movie starts, the actual movie starts. I think there was this weight that was lifted, once my grandmother died, and I knew what the films were like, and the films moved me so much and they were so clearly a person, I just felt like I knew I understood a part of him. I really felt, when I saw his movies, that the singular nature of his aesthetic expression made me feel him in a way that I hadn't previously, he wasn't real to a certain extent, but when I saw the movies, I really felt a connection, a strong connection, but my grandmother died at basically the same time, so the next step was to interview my mom and my uncle, but then there was a good five more years after that of interviewing people, but the first year was just my grandmother, which is not reflected in the film at all. We thought about it, but it just didn't work, so we pulled that out.
ESF: I think it's interesting, in a way, that the most difficult interview you did was the very first one. I would have thought, it would have been the opposite, that you would have spoken to some other family members and then built up to your grandmother.
ER: You know, it's funny, I loved my grandmother and I was really close with her and, in a way, it was a way for me to be close with her, to spend time with her and get her to talk about stuff and I had this notion, and it was slightly misguided, but maybe not necessarily, that if I could show her Danny as an adult making decisions, that this guilt, I could sense from her, would dissipate, because she wouldn't feel like she didn't do her job as a parent, because at that point he was beyond parenting and I wanted to free her of that, so I thought if we talked about who he was and put air in the room, just circulate the air a bit, then move into the sphere of pulling in other people,AeP but to be honest there were people I was trying to contact that first year, like I tried to get in touch with Chuck and those people. I called, but they weren't particularly receptive and I found that really scary and so I needed to build up to it. I had to fortify myself in order to reach into that world, because that world is pretty complicated, but I always knew I could talk to my mother, so I never felt an urgency around that and then it's sort of the same with my uncle and again, like he was on his own at a certain point, so I didn't feel so much that my mom and my uncle had anything to do with who Danny was those last few years. I did sense that my grandmother felt like she had something to do with it, so there was an urgency around that.
ESF: At the end of the process do you have a sense of how she felt about having done the interviews? Did you get a sense of how she felt about having talked about things? Do you feel she got something out of it?
ER: I think my grandmother really, really, really wanted me to find the films and she really wanted me to make this film. I think my grandmother really wanted to die before we made the film, before the film came out, and I say this only in that she was really frightened. Imagine your grandmother losing her son and going six months later to see Chelsea Girls. Chelsea Girls is shocking. It's shocking now. But I just think that there's this way she was scared by what his life represented in a really basic way, like you know it was transgressive and in 1965 transgressive meant something. It meant that you would potentially not survive, literally, and that was true in Danny's case, most likely, so I think she was thrilled that he had made something, but I don't think she could get past her fear of what that thing might be. You know, like she wanted to know, she stayed alive against all odds, she had ALS, she was dying, her nerves were shot and I was going up every other week, I was commuting to Massachusetts at this point, she's dying, but she stays alive till we get the films, but she dies between six and eight hours after she sort of sees them through one eye, she can barely see them, but she knows they're there, but she's not,AeP you know and I think, to a certain extent, the amount we go intimately into and the direction, that's all stuff she would have found horrifying, but I also think she would be thrilled if she could be on the other side of that, like go to Berlin and see how people responded to his work. We had 90 minutes of experimental silent b&w movies in Berlin. It was sold out, only 5% of the people left, I mean 90 minutes of no sound and a standing ovation. I think if she had seen that, she would have been thrilled.
ESF: Is all of his stuff put together 90 minutes?
ER: There's more, a little over three hours.
ESF: Wow. One thing I felt while watching the film was, I've seen these documentaries over the years on Warhol and you always see the same people over and over again, but seeing them over the years, every time one of these films comes out, everyone is a little bit older, so your film, to me, was as much about aging as anything else.
ER: Um-hm.
ESF: Seeing these familiar faces, like Paul Morrisey or Gerard Malanga, but seeing that they're like, in their 60's now, I felt it was as much about the impact of time as anything else and I was wondering if you felt that at all about the film.
ER: Oh, absolutely. I mean, formally, every single person is introduced by their younger self on purpose so that you see that difference right out of the gate, so we were really interested in that and I think too that there's a tension, not only between their young self and their old self, but between the physical iconography of that era and the truth, the truth both of the person and what happens. We have a tendency to think of that era as fixed and of those people as fixed in time in books and photographs, as their most beautiful luminous selves. When you look at Nat Finkelstein's photographs and everyone is beautiful and young, you project onto that a level of simplicity. When someone is beautiful and young in a photo your first thought is 'they must be happy'. Honestly, I think subconsciously we all do that, that's why models look great, that's the power of an image.
ESF: It's funny, I was just reading a piece on Slate about Ryan McGinley and that's intentionally what he does in his photographs. He says his photographs are not his real life, but a reflection of his idealized life in which he's surrounded by young, pretty people.
EF: And I think that was Warhol's life! His clearest antecedent is Warhol. But again, part of the way my film is constructed is, it's shot really close and I wanted that, because I wanted it to be about the landscape of the face and what the face tells you about time, about truth and about care. All those things that I think are misunderstood and misinterpreted about that moment, you can read in the present on an interview subject's face.
ESF: Yes, it's interesting, seeing them over the years, to see which parts of their story they stick with or what they change. Also, seeing the same arguments being played out again and again, amongst the same cast of characters, over a period of time and how that dynamic develops and alters, how time affects their memories and how nobody can really remember exactly how anything was or they remember just their version of it.
ER: But I would argue every history is like that. To me this movie is about every public history and every private history, meaning you remember what you need to remember to go on and, in a lot of the ways, the film is about that process of trying to untangle a family history. So, in a very basic sense, the way it was shot, things going in and out of focus, and the way the photographs are shot, was a reflection of how it feels to go through a photo album of your family. Like, you pull a photo album off your grandmother's shelf and you flip through it and you're trying to make sense of this disparate information and all these people you know and don't know and you look at one photograph and you look at four photographs and then you turn the page and you fill in the gaps and sometimes,AeP Honestly, in real life you fill in the gaps in completely contradictory ways and you make the narrative and you move on and that's what everyone does and sometimes something happens that elevates that narrative into the public sphere and that becomes a public history. So the Warhol history in a lot of ways is bad. I mean it's people really grappling with who they are and what they've done and, by happenstance, the 'who they are' and 'what they've done' is under a different kind of lens and I would say that it's an incredibly painful and distorting legacy to be a Warhol Factory person, because these are all bright, interesting, artistic, people and the peak moment of their life and their output, all this stuff, all this excitement is attributed to somebody else and it's attributed then and it's attributed for the rest of their lives. Imagine everything you did in your 20's being given to someone else and, like John Cale says in the film, you had to make a place for yourself. So your first order of self-defense in relationship to that is to say 'I did this,' but as time goes on that necessity only intensifies and you see this distortion of what would normally be graciousness or gratitude and it becomes a struggle to really keep asserting yourself and your own history.
ESF: Yes, you can see that complex relationship with people, like Cale or Lou Reed, who are very thankful that Warhol gave them a break, but are also very aware that, at a certain point, they had to break away.
ER: Well, exactly, and at a certain point no one ever confuses what they did with what he did.
ESF: Yes.
ER: So, they have the weight of their own public history to counterbalance it, but you know Gerard doesn't, Brigid doesn't and Paul doesn't. They constantly, when people interact with them, have to assert what they did. Now I would argue, in certain cases, they overemphasize what they did, but I do feel like the process that got them to that place is understandable and to be compassionate in relationship to that is essential and Danny, were he alive, would have the same struggle.
ESF: I think what makes it particularly confusing is film is a collaborative effort and because, at a certain point at the Factory, Warhol was producing so many films that, to be able to figure out who exactly did what, is very difficult. In a way you're very lucky with Danny, because his films are so distinct and so obviously something that he did from start-to-finish that they're undeniably his.
ER: Well, and just to reemphasize, I am incredibly lucky. Dan doesn't have to fight for his place, because he was an artist and his place is demarcated by his own vision and I would say that would be true of Paul and that's true of Brigid. I mean, her trip books are fantastic and Gerard,AeP each one of them has their work and, over time, that work will solidify in the public's imagination. Again, as Warhol comes out of the stratosphere and his image lives more on earth and everyone else's role and contributions are fleshed out and studied in a scholarly sense, you'll see a much richer, complex, interesting, vibrant situation than people currently understand and, again, that's the value of Callie Angell, that's the value of the scholars. I mean, in a lot of ways, my film is a love note to the archivists. It's like 'thank you for saving this' and 'thank you for helping me understand what it is' and, over time it's the access and the scholarly consideration that's divorced from the hype, divorced from the cattiness, in fact, divorced from the actual real time replay of that moment, that we'll actually start to see some of that, but, you know, we're twenty, thirty years away.
ESF: What's funny, in a way, is that Warhol kind of undercut his own hand, because he always tried to project an aura that everything was so offhanded, that everything just kind of happened, that he tended to minimize his involvement, even on films he had a lot of input on. I had a conversation with Billy Name about this and I said the b&w films had a very consistent, high contrast look and he said, 'yeah that was intentional, we were going for that' and I remember at one point Callie showing me Warhol's handwritten editing notes to Sleep and saying, 'you know, he was a bit more involved in this stuff then he let on'. He was a more hands on artist then he allowed. He tried to make it all look like it just happened, but he was more involved than he wanted people to know.
ER: And, I think, that seeming passivity is a great way to get stuff done. It was a strategy that was quite fruitful, but no, I agree. Again, we laugh about the time capsules, but the time capsules are essential. The work that Matt is doing, Matt Wrbican at the Warhol Museum or Geralyn or Greg or Callie or Ann or Steve at MoMA, this work is really, really important and it's important because it's in the aggregate that we will understand and the sad truth is that there is nothing less reliable than a first-person witness. Truly unreliable, and a lot of what my film is about is that, when in doubt, you just drop to what you can see and what's tangible and, in a lot of ways, the art will tell you that story and they were quite prescient to say that Warhol's art shows you that Warhol made the films, you can see it, you can tell and the same is true with Danny's work, when you see a Danny Williams film, you know who made it, and you know something about that person and, in a lot of ways, that's what my film is about. The recounting of history is a giant mishmash, but art is a witness and it's a witness in a way that is crucial and essential and very, very real.
ESF: On the other hand, it's interesting how people had their distinct style, but at the same time there was kind of a house style. There was a certain style of that period, a certain look, a certain feel, they were all doing different things, but in some way they were all doing the same thing.
ER: But again, it's a film set, so there's direction and agency and whether or not it's clear to the person moving the lights or to the three people writing the same script, only one of which gets chosen, at the end of the day you do go back to Warhol. I guess for me the question of who's the author of the films is not so much in question, to me it's much more about the creative process surrounding that thinking. Those are Warhol's films, his name is on those films, but nobody makes a movie in a vacuum, creatively or physically, it's just impossible. If you look at my film, Shannon Kennedy, my co-writer and editor, is an artist in her own right. Adam Cohen, my director of Photography, is an artist in his own right. T. Griffin, my composer, is an artist in his own right. Doug Block, my producer, is an artist in his own right, like Tamra Raven, like all the people I worked with, contributed a piece of themselves to what I do. It's my film, but it's not divorceable from those moving parts and I think that's what happened, was that people confused Warhol's celebrity with Warhol's art-making and those are two different things. Warhol is alone in his celebrity, but impacted and peopled and collaborative in his art-making. And in his moneymaking, he's singular [laughs].
ESF: Well, yes. Not many artists die with an estate worth $87 million. But there was also outside influence in the sense that,AeP have you seen the Jack Smith documentary that Mary Jordan did?
ER: Yes, of course.
ESF: There's a whole other story. There's a guy who intersected with that scene and worked on some of those films, but clearly had his own aesthetic, his stuff is completely different.
ER: Oh my god, you have Gregory Markopolous. There's tons of people. Marie Menken. I mean, this is kids all over the city with newly portable materials, running around like crazy people, really making work and there's performance art, there's painting, all of these things. This is a much more porous, artistic community than exists currently. Like now the painters maybe know the filmmakers, but not really, not in New York. But then, everyone knew each other, everyone would go to Jack Smith's loft, they would see the people from the Living Theater. So, again, when I came to making my film Shannon and I spent a lot of time talking about just letting it be told, do you know what I mean, like I think there's a tendency, when people make a film about someone's who's been lost from history to say this is the greatest genius that ever lived and here's all these people saying it and I wanted to take a different path, in part, because I found that problematic from my interaction with the Warhol story, but also because I felt like there's a more nuanced conversation to be had around that and hopefully the film reflects that, really looking at it as much as possible, just letting the work speak and letting the inconsistency of the facts speak and then you know how it falls.
ESF: Another one I wanted to mention was Kenneth Anger. I recently read a biography on him and during the time he was working on Scorpio Rising, he was living with Willard Maas and Marie Menken in Brooklyn Heights and who else happened to be living in that house? Gerard Malanga! So, there was another interesting intersection.
ER: Well, I would say that intersection is called Marie Menken. Part of the whole history of this too is that that nobody talks about Marie Menken, but Marie Menken is responsible for all these different people meeting and she's incredibly influential. She's incredibly influential on Warhol. I mean, again, that's just going to be time. We just had the Jack Smith film. All of these people along the edges, especially if you go to that time,AeP like Marie Menken was way more important than Andy Warhol at that time, to a certain extent, in the downtown, underground scene. You know, Jonas Mekas would privilege her over him. So again, give us thirty years and all these different people, who's actually important, who's influential, is going to balance itself out in a surprising way and I think that's what I'm looking forward to, just the way that what we think we know right now will shift probably 180-)()(.
ESF: Just getting back a little to Anger, one of the things that was signature about his style was the way he would shoot figures with a very marbleized skin tone, like in Fireworks or Scorpio Rising there's an almost creamy texture to the skin and that's something you see a little bit of in Danny's work, that kind of glow the people in his films have, but that was something that was also picked up later on by Robert Mapplethorpe. I mean, he was directly inspired by Anger, but it's another little strand of how an aesthetic idea passes around and down from generation to generation.
ER: I would also argue that it's important to recognize that people work within a medium so, obviously one of the most exciting things you can do with Tri-X reversal film is to really explore the contrast. It has an incredible ability to take very bright whites and very dark blacks at the same time. In the early to mid 60's you don't have anti-halation backing, so the ability to make that film glow is something you would actually lose in the 70's, because they changed the film stock so it doesn't do that, because they considered that a mistake, but I do have Danny's printing notes and I do have some of the shooting notes, so I know that the contrast was 100% deliberate, but I would say that the cool thing about Kenneth Anger, about Kenneth getting creamy skin tones is that an artist will push their medium to achieve something sublime and whether it's Anger or Williams or Mapplethorpe, they're going to take the raw material that people work with all the time and reshow it to us and that's the joy. For me nothing matters as much as the ability to watch Danny's films, that's when I have a transcendent feeling, my heart lifts every time. So, it's because when an artist makes a choice that makes you re-see the world, it makes you feel them and they are alive to you and that for me that was the greatest gift. That, no matter what happened to him and no matter what people said happened to him, I could feel a part of him, with absolute clarity, because of the work he made.
ESF: Yes, it's very distinct. He had a lot of camera movement. He did a lot of things that other people in the Factory weren't doing. He had a very distinct style.
ER: Yes, and it was a curious style. Remember this is a kid who made movies for six months.
ESF: Was he principally responsible for the footage that wound up being used as projections in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable?
ER: There's enormous confusion over this. We think that he,AeP well he did the light show, so most of the colored sections of Chelsea Girls, Callie thinks, are possibly his, but we don't know for sure, so that stuff is really hard to tease out, especially because the first person witness stuff isn't helpful, because nobody remembers anyone but themselves shooting.
ESF: In Screen Tests Callie thinks that, because many of the films that were used for the EPI have a lot of zooms, that might indicate Danny's presence.
ER: Oh yeah, absolutely. That's again where I would just defer to her. That's the realm of experts. Like, there's enough lay people speculating on who did what and nothing makes my skin crawl more than to add to that, because I think that's just noise, even though it probably behooves me to back something up, but if Callie says it, I'm all for it.
ESF: Just to be clear, she's very careful in everything she states, she says it 'may' indicate his influence.
ER: Right, exactly, and I would say if Callie thinks it may, than it may. But it's funny to me, because I feel like, in the aggregate, you'll just kind of know, without knowing, do you know what I mean? Like when we've seen everyone's work, when people understand that Paul made Trash and people understand that these are Gerard's films and Brigid's trip books, when people really understand what everyone made, again, 30 years from now, when we're divorced from people saying 'I did this' or 'I did that' and we just look at their work and we look at their style and we look at who was there physically on that day and who's in-camera and we look at all of the evidence from the scholars, who are meticulous and without bias, a whole other story will come out.
ESF: Yes, a much richer and more complex story.
ER: And an exciting story and that's that thing and that's why it's hard that there are certain materials that aren't accessible because, after all, those materials are part of that, but you know, just give it fifty years, and we'll have them all.
ESF [Laughs]. Hopefully we'll all still be around to enjoy that.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Leave It to Elia Kazan's Baby Doll

(Elia Kazan, US, 1956, 114 mins.)

Today is the fifth day of November. Tomor-
row is the sixth day of November, and the
day after that is November seventh. And
you know what day that is, don't you? No-
vember seventh is your 20th birthday.
-- Archie Lee Meighan to Baby Doll

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

If Elia Kazan had created a sitcom,
it probably would've looked like
Baby Doll
. Well, "looked" might not be the best choice of words.
Jean Vigo and Sidney Lumet favorite Boris Kaufman (L'Atalante,
The Pawnbroker
, On the Waterfront) did, after all, score an Os-
car nomination for his flavorful black-and-white cinematogra-
phy (Dick Sylbert aids immeasurably with his high baroque-
gone-to-seed art design). But the richly comic premise
could've fueled at least a season's worth of hilarity.

First, there are all those domestic comedies from the
1950s, like Ozzie and Harriet and The Honeymoon-
, in which married couples slept in separate beds.

Then there are all those
slick dramedies from the
1980s, like Moonlighting
and Remington Steele.

In their early days, the
latter crime-solving duos
acted as if they were wed
(unlike Hart to Hart, where
the central twosome really
were married). They work-
ed together, fought toge-
ther, and spent their free
time together. But they
didn't sleep together.

Instead, they generat-
ed sexual tension via wit-
ty repartee. And once they
actually kissed, the tension
began to evaporate. At least Remington Steele waited until the finale to suggest that the Big Day had arrived--Irish castle included. Moonlighting, unfortunately, couldn't keep its pants on. And with that premature coupling went the will-they-or-won't-they suspense that made the show such a hit.

In Kazan's tragicomedy, Carroll Baker, another Academy Award
nominee, and Karl Malden's Archie also sleep in separate beds--sep-
arate rooms even. In fact, they haven't consummated the marriage.

They wed when she was almost 19, and she promised he could have
his way with her when she turned 20. Now Baby Doll is two days from
that milestone, and Archie can barely contain himself. Within the first
few minutes, he spies on her as she sleeps. In a crib, thumb in mouth.

Later, Archie enters her room while she's getting dressed. Baby Doll tries
to kick him out, but he won't budge, so she turns her closet into a dressing
room. Then, while she's taking a bath, he attempts a soggy grope. Kazan
suggests the move while Baby Doll is in the water, a shower curtain artful-
ly concealing her chest. Then she screams and Archie flees, but Kaufman's
camera waits respectfully outside. Instead of "Archie," Tennessee Williams
could've just dubbed his hubbie "Blue Boy." Rarely have the movies pro-
duced a man more desperate--to get with his own wife. Then again,
Kazan did cast Malden as the pious priest in On the Waterfont.

Yet the future Streets of San
gumshoe doesn't play
Archie with sadness or self-pity,
but rather antic energy. He zips
about his cavernous Southern
home, running up and down rick-
ety steps, and yelling at Baby
Doll's dotty Aunt Rose (Mildred
Dunnock, alternately hilarious
and heartbreaking) to do this, that, and the other thing. Baby Doll is just a big, dumb kid, and managing a household is beyond her
limited skill set, but Rose is hard-of-hearing and possibly senile (poor
Dunnock; as if having a psychopathic maniac kick her down the stairs
and enduring marriage to a suicidal salesman weren't bad enough).

Worse yet, the former plantation serves as a 24-hour stage show for its
African American audience. Some, like "Boll Weevil," are servants. With
others, it's hard to tell as they don't seem to do anything--other than
laugh at bigoted ol' Archie's ridiculous antics, that is. And these aren't
boisterous guffaws, but silent chuckles (deadpan derision at its finest).

Archie ends up doing most things himself, but he rarely gets what he
wants. That doesn't bring him down either. It's par for the course. Like
Ricky Ricardo by way of Wile E. Coyote: he'll never capture the object
of his desire. (Ricky, on the other hand, may have enjoyed off-screen
relations with Lucy, but who's to say he ever really "got" his wife.)

Then Baby Doll makes fun of him because he's losing his hair. There isn't
anything desirable within Archie's reach: wealth, affection, respect--a full
head of hair. He can't even be pathetic in private. Rose knows he's got it
bad, as does the "audience," and as it turns out, the whole damned town.

Archie, Baby Doll, and Rose could almost serve as prototypes for the
Beverly Hillbillies before they struck it rich and moved to the city. Into
this Li'l Abner atmosphere enters smooth-talking Silva Vacarro (Eli Wal-
lach in his first film appearance). Silva is everything Archie is not. Archie
blames the outsider for stealing his business, so he sets fire to Silva's gin.

For some reason, the townsfolk find the resulting blaze funny, too (osten-
sibly because he also stole their jobs). Yep, these "people of Benoit, Mis-
sissippi" as the credits would have it, operate exactly like a studio audi-
ence. Instead of chortling at things clearly intended to be funny, they
direct their mirth at those which normally would seem tragic.

Chortling aside, Silva is the
designated straight man.
While Wallach is too char-
ismatic to suck the air from
the scenario, he's closer to
a fully-realized human than
a stylized cartoon, and Ba-
by Doll
's comedy shifts
towards melodrama when
he hits the scene. Granted,
with his pencil-thin mous-
tache, black togs, flat-top-
ped hat, and riding crop (?!),
he looks like a low-rent Zor-
ro, but that serves to em-
phasize his "ethnic" other-
ness (and Archie looks as-
kance at all non-whites).

Kazan brings the men
together when Silva borrows Archie's worn-out machinery to con-
vert his cotton into gin. Silva suspects Archie set the fire, so his offer
has nothing to do with generosity. In fact, he's cooking up a plan. And
it involves, as he seethes, "Biblical justice." While Archie processes Sil-
va's cotton, the Texan-born Sicilian processes--er, charms--his virgin-
al wife. It's mostly talk, of course, but Baby Doll is clearly...intrigued.
Silva acts like he is, too, though that may simply be part of his plan.
In either case, Baby Doll becomes less of a caricature in his presen-
ce as she accelerates from flirtatiousness to fear to acquiescence.

When Archie realizes something's going on between his rival and his wife,
he also changes, in his case from an amusing loser to a potential killer. He
grabs a gun and starts wailing Baby Doll's name (yes, Malden almost out-
does Brando's iconic "Stellaaa!"). Along the way, the ultimate question
comes to light: Did the two get it on in Archie's absence? I say no, but
you'll have to decide for yourself (and I don't consider that a spoiler,
since her deflowering wouldn't have appeared on screen anyway).

Nonetheless, Time magazine condemned the film, the Legion of
Decency censored it, thousands of Catholics boycotted it, and a
reported 77% of the scheduled theaters cancelled screenings.

That's the old
news. I'm more
interested in
the way the
film plays to-
day. When I
wrote that it
resembled a
sitcom, I had-
n't yet watch-
ed the whole
thing. Once
Archie turns
arsonist, the tone changes. Since situation comedies now top out at 22 minutes, I still feel that the
first act plays as such, but then drama dominates the proceedings.

With its sexual suggestiveness, Baby Doll never really would've made
it as a 1950s sitcom--not when it barely got a chance to make it as a mo-
vie--but in light of the small-screen, fornication-free sex comedies of the
1960s, like I Dream of Jeannie, or even the '90s, like Married with Chil-
, it's hard not to imagine that Baby Doll paved the way for all
those scantily-clad women, ineffectual men, and double entendres.

Then there's Baby Doll's crib. Though she's past the age of consent,
her infantile predilections suggest that, like Nabokov's Lolita (as op-
posed to Kubrick's or Adrian Lyne's), she hasn't entered adolescence.
And when Kazan introduces Silva's riding crop, the kink factor goes
through the roof, even if he never uses it (he does, however, flick
Baby Doll a few times, claiming he's "swatting flies"--yeah, right).

Of course, television writers have played around with the concept of
strange sleeping quarters before. Note that Adrian Pasdar's offbeat at-
torney in the too-quickly-cancelled Profit slept in a cardboard box. But
that took place in the '90s. There was nothing suggestive or controver-
sial about that; it was just creepy in a post-Twin Peaks kind of way.
Well, it was masochistic, but not in the sexual sense of the word.

Nowadays, some consider Baby Doll a classic, others a disappointment or
even an embarrassment. To me, it's none of those things. Rather, it plays
more like self-parody (specifically of Kazan's previous Williams adaptation,
A Streetcar Named Desire
), Tennessee Williams in general (his first script
combines two one-act plays), the Actors Studio (from which the core trio
originated), and the Deep South (though the cast denies it). The irony is
that it was made by all these insiders on location, rather than a bunch of
outsiders on a studio back lot. The good news is that it's just as entertain-
ing now as it must have been in 1956. It's also much funnier (intentional-
ly or otherwise). Not as funny as 30 Rock, perhaps, but close enough.

And lest it seem as if I pulled that name out of a hat, the film also feat-
ures the debut of TV star (and 30 Rock guest) Rip Torn. An unrecog-
nizably scrawny fellow in the '50s, Torn plays a freshly-minted dentist
from whom Baby Doll attempts to finagle a receptionist gig. I'm not
about to suggest that Baby Doll led directly to Torn's small-screen
triumphs--most notably The Larry Sanders Show--but it can't
have hurt. For that achievement alone, viewers should be grateful.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Of course, I knew who Tennessee Williams was. He was a bad man because the
nuns in Catholic Sunday School had told us we'd go to hell if we saw that movie
he wrote, Baby Doll-the one with the great ad campaign, with Carroll Baker in
the crib sucking her thumb, that made Cardinal Spellman have a nation-wide
hissy fit. The same ad I clipped out of
The Baltimore Sun countless times
and pasted in my secret scrapbook. The movie I planned to show over and
over in the fantasy dirty-movie theater in my mind that I was going to
open later in life, causing a scandal in my parents' neighborhood.

-- From John Waters' introduction to Williams'

Baby Doll is available from Warner Bros. (extras include a bit about
the infamous billboard and a featurette with Baker, Malden, and Wal-
lach). It's also part of the Tennessee Williams Collection. Images from
AFI, DVD Town, Film Freak Central, & Honeymooners Resource Page.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Watch the Landlord Get His

(Hal Ashby, US, 19-
70, 35mm, 114 mins.)

There's no worse career move
in Hollywood than dying. Hal
is now largely forgot-
ten because he had the misfor-
tune to die at the end of the
'80s, but he had the most remar-
kable run of any '70s director.

-- Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Few things are sadder than the director who makes one good film be-
fore passing away (see Bill Sherwood, Parting Glances) or disappear-
ing from view (see Neal Jimenez, The Waterdance). That's to say noth-
ing of one-shot director Charles Laughton (The Night of the Hunter).

More commonly, there's the director who makes one good film--and
a bunch of bad ones (too many to name). Fortunately, Hal Ashby
(1929-1988) avoided every one of those depressing categories.

Yet his biography is ultimately a bummer. At least that's how Peter
spins it in the irresistibly dishy Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
(David Thomson goes so far as to dismiss him as a "sad casualty").

Not having read much about the man elsewhere, I found Biskind per-
suasive regarding the filmmaker's passive-aggressive battles with
producers, problems with women and drugs, and agonizing death from
cancer. But along the way he worked with the biggest stars (Jack Nich-
olson, Warren Beatty, and Jane Fonda), directed several hits (Sham-
, Coming Home, and Being There)--and one certifiable cult classic
(Harold and Maude)--and even garnered a few awards (including an
Oscar for editing mentor Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night).

The Landlord, which is finally receiving a theatrical re-release, was
his first feature film. Being There (1978) was his last really good one.
Then he lost his way. The IMDb notes four more movies, one concert
film, one straight-to-video effort, a tele-film, and an episode of Dennis
Franz's Hill Street Blues spin-off, Beverly Hill Buntz--his final credit.

If Ashby's debut got overlooked upon release, it offered contributions
from some of the brightest talents around. The film was produced by
Jewison, shot by Gordon Willis (The Godfather) and Michael Chapman
(Taxi Driver), and scored by Bob Dylan associate Al Kooper with the
Staple Singers. The cast includes Beau Bridges, Susan Anspach, Pearl
Bailey, and Academy Award winners Lee Grant (Shampoo) and Louis
Gossett, Jr.
(An Officer and a Gentleman). As Bridges demurred to The
New York Times
earlier this year, "I was just doing my best. I was in
there with some giants." (His brother, Jeff, presided at Hal's memorial.)

Though Harold and Maude would secure his reputation the following
year--once it caught on, that is--Ashby's first film proves he was a natur-
al. Without such storied collaborators, his ability might not be so readily
apparent, though most of them weren't as well known as they are now.

Like Harold and Maude, The Landlord manages to be simultane-
ously dated and timely--and I don't mean that in the pejorative sense.

It isn't just a product of the counterculture, but it takes that very cul-
ture to task, which means that Ashby revels in the signs and signifiers
of the time--marijuana, miniskirts, etc.--but it isn't an exploitation pic-
ture like Easy Rider or a morality lesson on race relations like Guess
Who's Coming to Dinner
, the product of a little playful ribbing.

The film draws from the two forms, possibly why it didn't make more
of an impact; it was harder to classify, its audience harder to identify.

Of course, the director and the star were virtual unknowns, which didn't
help, although Bridges couldn't be better as Elgar Enders, a wealthy New
Yorker who fancies himself hip and open-minded--with a name uptight
and righteous at the same time: a blue-blooded spin on Medgar Evers.

His white-gloved mother, Joyce (Oscar nominee Lee Grant), also thinks
she's got it together, and her uncomfortably close relationship with her
son anticipates the male-female dynamic in Harold and Maude. Not
that that film depicted an incestuous union, but the age gap suggested
a mother-son/grandmother-grandson relationship. There isn't--thank
God--any hanky-panky between Elgar and the still-beautiful Mrs. En-
ders, but it's clear that her clueless coddling has stunted his growth.

At 29, Elgar still lives at home, the lazy recipient of his croquet-
playing family's largess. As the movie begins, he's just acquired a
Brooklyn tenement with plans to restore it, and live like a king. The
thing is--it's still occupied. And located in an all-black neighborhood.
Elgar doesn't let that stop him. He isn't a racist. He's just never
been around (non-deferential) African Americans before.

So, he's scared...and fascinated. His neighbors, on the other hand, are
wary and disdainful. If this was a big-budget production, Elgar and his
tenants would learn from each other and live happily ever after (cue
"Ebony and Ivory"). The Landlord isn't quite as naive as its central
character, but nor is it completely cynical. (The script, an adaptation of
Kristin Hunter's novel, was written by black actor-director Bill Gunn of
Ganja & Hess
fame.) Instead, mistakes are made, feelings get hurt, and
some of the lessons learned are just as quickly un-learned (Elgar's rel-
atives seem to change, but their prejudices are too deeply ingrained).

Did I also mention that it's painfully, almost surrealistically funny?
If you're familiar with Ashby's early work--particularly the profan-
ity-laced The Last Detail--this should come as little surprise.

By the end, Elgar has knocked up one tenant and fallen for a mixed-race lovely. Nowadays, that wouldn't seem so strange. Even in 1970, "shocking" might've been a bit much, but it probably did seem subversive, since Elgar sleeps with Diana Sands' married hairdresser (Gossett Jr. plays her militant husband), while seeing Marki Bey's dancer/art student. These encounters are complicated by class and gender as both women lack El-
gar's range of options. I'm not sure I buy the ending--which means to please all three--but I like the cautious optimism it represents.

According to Biskind, Ashby and Jewison fell out over that ending (Jewi-
son was set to direct until Fiddler on the Roof came along). This is fitting.
Elgar finally breaks from his bourgeois background, while Ashby frees
himself from his spiritual paterfamilias (Ashby's father, an uncompromis-
ing farmer, committed suicide when he was 12; he discovered the body).

It's tempting to describe The Landlord as great since it hasn't hit the
big screen in years, and Ashby is one of those rare helmers who oc-
cupies the sweet spot between cult figure and award-winning auteur.

In truth, it's closer to really good--Elgar's asides to the camera are lar-
gely extraneous and the cutting can be distractingly busy (Ashby did, af-
ter all, edit Jewison's split-screen caper The Thomas Crown Affair)--but
"really good" is no small feat for a first film. Plus, Judith Crist and Gene
Shalit denounced it as one of 1970's worst! How's that for incentive?

Ignore those cranks. The Land-
belongs on the list with 20-
07's other long-lost debuts, like
Killer of Sheep
and Permanent Vacation, which also capture a time when anyone could afford to
live in the now-hot neighborhoods
of Park Slope and SoHo. And
don't wait for the DVD--enjoy the
artistry of Ashby, Willis, Chap-
man, Kooper, and cast (including
Robert Klein, Mel Stewart, and
Hector Elizondo)--on the silver
screen. And weep for the ongo-
ing gentrification of the great-
est city in the world.

It's kind of an imperfect film because it was Hal's first, and he kind of
honed his craft as he went along, but I'd like people to know about it.

--Beau Bridges to The New York Times

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

The Landlord plays the Northwest Film Forum from 11/23 - 29,
Fri. - Thurs. at 7 and 9:15pm (plus Sat. and Sun. at 4:30pm). The
NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill between Pike and
Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629.
Images from the The Passionate Moviegoer and Senses of Cinema.