Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On the Edge of an Active Volcano

After several weeks of seeing films programmed by Joe Dante, am I supposed to go back to seeing the same boring new releases? Is that really going to be good enough? In truth, I have seen a few new ones during that time but haven’t written about them because of lack of interest. I saw 88 MINUTES which is an inexcusable piece of shit but it should be pointed out that it’s a gloriously inexcusable piece of shit. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to actually have any interest in writing about it. To mention a creatively unsuccessful film screened by Dante, WRONG IS RIGHT may not exactly work, but it’s definitely interesting. At least it has that.

BABY MAMA doesn’t have that but in fairness it doesn’t really care. A throwaway comedy if there ever was one, it seems to be sold on the strength of Tina Fey and one of the more interesting things about it is that multiple times in the past few weeks I’ve had someone express surprise upon realizing that she didn’t actually write this film, unlike her years on SNL, her screenplay for MEAN GIRLS and her creative involvement in 30 ROCK. For the record, BABY MAMA was written and directed by Michael McCullers, another SNL vet who has also contributed to several movie scripts including the AUSTIN POWERS sequels. Of course, Fey may have worked on this script as well but anyone going to this because of Fey’s writing talents should probably know what they’re getting. In all honesty, I didn’t hate BABY MAMA. It’s fairly pleasant, it’s a lot shorter than FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL and it beats getting a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. But even the weaker episodes of 30 ROCK offer more laughs and, in their own skewered way, more comic intelligence.

For those who haven’t seen the trailer: Fey plays Kate Holbrook, a 37 year-old single businesswoman in Philadelphia who has suddenly decided that she wants a baby, only to learn how unlikely it is because, as her doctor tells her, “I don’t like your Uterus.” Through an extremely expensive surrogacy agency run by Chaffee Bicknell (Sigourney Weaver) Kate is set up with white trash Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler) who she hires to carry her child. But when pregnant Angie unexpectedly shows up at Kate’s door with nowhere to go, she really begins to learn what sort of person she’s gotten involved with, leading to numerous comical situations. That’s pretty much the setup which is in the ads, so I won’t get into plot complications beyond that.

Enough reviews have referred to Fey & Poehler as a female Lemmon & Matthau to make me wonder if the observation is in the press notes. Fey, always self-deprecating in interviews about her acting abilities, is very good, even if there’s little difference between Kate Holbrook and Liz Lemon. Poehler is more problematic. I like her on SNL and in a few small parts in the past like MEAN GIRLS. I get the feeling that if she were working under a director who would actually, you know, direct her there could be something but as it is she’s playing a sketch character at feature length. There’s no consistency, there’s no sense of believability even on a comic level and ultimately she's not very good at all. I’d be lying if I said I never laughed at anything she does here but she’s just let loose without any modulation to the performance. When the plot gets more serious (well, they always do, so that’s not really a spoiler) it simply doesn’t work. If the two of them are going to do another movie together and with the business this thing is doing that’ll probably happen but they need stronger material and a stronger guiding hand than Michael McCullers seems willing to provide. They needed Billy Wilder, but they got, I don’t know, Gene Saks? Herbert Ross? Arthur Hiller? Saks, of course, directed THE ODD COUPLE instead of Wilder but in that case the script was airtight. Arthur Hiller directed THE IN-LAWS from a script by Andrew Bergman that was petty much flawless. This one isn’t.

Greg Kinnear appears in a key supporting role as the owner of a local juice bar and Steve Martin is the owner of the Whole Foods-like company Fey works for feeling like a role which started as an unbilled cameo and then got expanded. But he prefaces almost every one of his thoughts with proclamations such as “I was swimming with dolphins this morning in Costa Rica,” and “I’ve toasted pine nuts on the edge of an active volcano,” which is of course a good thing. Sigourney Weaver, in full Katherine Parker mode, is sharply funny as the owner of the surrogate agency. Dax Shepherd, Romany Malco, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Maura Tierney and Holland Taylor also appear, along with a few bits by familiar SNL faces.

BABY MAMA is genial, yes, but it's not a very good movie at all but even while saying that I’ll bet most people who like it won’t care about its flaws. They’ll probably say I’m being a grouch. But I’d just like to see Tina Fey in a movie playing at a theater near you that’s better than this one. Hopefully that’ll happen. For now, watch 30 ROCK on Thursdays, because it’s a terrific show and, well, more people should be doing that.

Monday, April 28, 2008

What's Meant To Be Wild

As one last taste of Dante’s Inferno, the New Beverly ran THE HOWLING, one of the best of all werewolf movies, at midnight on Saturday. Few things could ever top the unforgettable glory of THE MOVIE ORGY, but it was a fun time anyway. Joe Dante turned up again, as did star Dee Wallace and makeup maestro Rob Bottin to help introduce the film. I spotted a number of familiar faces on line and inside, people who have been going pretty regularly the past few weeks and the movie we were seeing felt like an appropriate choice to close things out. The film was preceded by a number of Dante-related trailers including an EXPLORERS teaser I have no recollection of ever seeing and, of course, the immortal AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON. From the wave of applause that greeted Roger Corman’s cameo it was pretty easy to figure out what sort of crowd this was. That’s the way it should be.

Seen in the aftermath of THE MOVIE ORGY, it was easy to look at THE HOWLING more clearly through its obvious affection for classic monster movies, but also its other preoccupations seen through the world of 1980 it was made in such as psychoanalysis, smiley faces, porn shops and the news media. The excess of wolf in-jokes throughout could possibly be Dante’s most successful example at implementing such a concept but it also underlines how some times the answers we’re looking for in life can be right in front of us.

I’ve loved THE HOWLING for a long time, but in all honesty the film has always felt to me like it was heavily assembled in the cutting room, moreso than most films (the film was edited by both Dante and Mark Goldblatt, who also attended the screening). One of the main indications of this, at least to me, has been a feeling that there is a slight structural oddity which makes it feel like the film goes from the first act to the third, without much of a stop in the second. The deleted scenes on the DVD shed a little light on possible deletions but they actually raise more questions than they answer. There’s also the evident production limitations which has always made it seem to me that the ‘colony’ is more implied than actually seen. But in the end, little of this actually matters. In watching it again these issues don’t affect how well it all ultimately works, from the satire of the script by John Sayles to the undeniable impact of Rob Bottin’s creations which make it endlessly rewatchable.

But THE HOWLING is clearly the earliest example of good Dante can be with his actors. Seeing it on the big screen, I was struck by how good John Carradine is in what has to be one his best, if not the best, parts of his final decades. Patrick Macnee provides a great deal of authority as Dr. George Waggner, even if we’re not sure how much to trust him—forget about werewolves, how much can we trust a doctor who spouts off the sort of psych jargon that he does? Of course, Dick Miller nearly steals the show as bookshop owner Walter Paisley and Dante gives us what truly feels like another Barbara Steele in the late Elizabeth Brooks as the ultra-enigmatic Marsha. But it’s interesting to seen how much the film is anchored by Dee Wallace, one of those cases where the film feels like it’s elevated by someone who doesn’t seem to be aware how much of a b-movie this is, and never thinks to play any of it as anything but totally real.

The film played great with the crowd reacting to all the expected things, such as when Robert Picardo gives Dee Wallace a piece of his mind. As a werewolf movie made right around the same time as AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (this one came out first) THE HOWLING remains truly potent and subversive, expertly maintaining that balance between scary and funny. And seen after both THE MOVIE ORGY and listening to Dante speak for several weeks, I had a greater awareness of the meat (sorry) of the movie and what he may have been saying about the people we were turning into in the modern world—and, I suppose, still are. If they ever remake it and you know they will, all of this will probably be cut out, so enjoy what we have while you can. All the way down to the film’s memorable closing sequence (is it a reach to connect the end of this film to the end of THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE? Could this have been intentional on Dante's part?), leading up to the best end crawl the director has ever had, is the darker message that lies beneath the fun. How much you want to listen to that message is, of course, entirely your choice. You could say that about a lot of Joe Dante’s films and it’s one of the many reasons why they hold up as well as they do. And why movie theaters feel like lesser places without new Joe Dante films appearing in them on a more regular basis.

“Go now. And heaven help you.”

Thursday, April 24, 2008

270 Minutes

I’ve fallen behind here, but the week has been pretty crazy. To get through it quickly, Sunday night at the New Beverly for Dante’s Inferno wasn’t all that crowded but I got to sit through BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (first viewing—a nice little discovery) and HORROR EXPRESS (second viewing and so much fun) so what do I have to complain about? The ubiquitous pairing of Edgar Wright and Diablo Cody sat behind me so at least they know a good pairing when they see it. I wish I could go see a double bill that was this much fun more often.

But the night that officially closed out Dante’s Inferno was a truly special one. I’m a little at a loss to describe THE MOVIE ORGY, but I’ll try. It began life back in the 60s with Joe Dante running a few serials but breaking them up with all sorts of stuff including clips from other movies, tv shows, commercials and other things. Eventually it turned into THE MOVIE ORGY, a seven hour event shown at colleges from the late 60s to the early 70s taking extended sequences from multiple pictures and splicing them together with all sorts of other stuff from tv shows , commercials, educational films, shorts and other things that I’m not quite sure of. It kept changing and eventually wound up as the four-and-a-half hour version which was screened (on DVD) the other night.

I got to the theater early. Ridiculously early, but I knew it would be a wise choice. By the time the doors opened the line was all the way down the block and I made a beeline for a few prime seats down near the front for me and my friends. Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright and Bill Hader sat in front of us. A few other faces could be spotted in the crowd as well, including producer Jon Davison who was also involved with the ORGY’s creation way back when.

Joe Dante introduced the film almost apologetically saying it was dated and seeming unsure how it would go over. He talked about how it was very much a product of the time it was made in and how some jokes wouldn’t get much of a response now. For that matter, he acknowledged that it plays to a form of nostalgia which most of this audience wasn’t around for, but he hoped we would enjoy it.

A few days after seeing it, much of THE MOVIE ORGY is a blur. A glorious blur, but due to its length it is impossible to adequately catalogue everything in there, yet I can remember the sheer emotion of constant pleasure and amazement which it gave me. It takes the rough narratives from a few films such as a western serial , ATTACK OF THE FIFTY FOOT WOMAN, THE GIANT CLAW, SPEED CRAZY (I never heard of that one before, but now I’ll never forget it—“Don’t crowd me!”) and others, cuts them down to their best parts, keeps cutting back and forth between them with other things spliced in too numerous too mention. There’s a long YOU BET YOUR LIFE clip, there’s s kids show called ANDY’S GANG starring Andy Devine which is a sight to see, brief clips from unidentified films which comment on what we’re seeing, there’s Nixon’s Checkers speech, there’s dirty footage spliced into a scene featuring kids, there’s commercials, there’s Abbott and Costello, there’s PSAs. We’ll get the opening credits for an old TV show, one scene, then the closing credits—this is the first time I’ve ever seen what has to be an intricate examination of how an end credits sequence counts as part of the intricate aesthetic of something. Fitting with the time it originated in, there’s a great amount of anti-war, anti-establishment feelings throughout as well—in his intro Dante pointed out that certain references to “dropping a bomb on Chicago” would bring the house down when it was shown soon after the ’68 Democratic Convention. There are also a few things throughout which I’m not even sure if they’re real—what the hell are those Bufferin commercials? Somehow, none of this ever becomes dull but in his introduction Dante explained that it was ok—hell, it was encouraged—to leave if we ever wished, go get food, whatever. There’s no real story, so there’s nothing we would miss. I took advantage of this twice, but the truth is that there are a few running things throughout which pay off on their repetition (“He said ‘Don’t crowd me!’”) so who would want to leave anyway? It’s too much fun to want to be anywhere else.

Much of the references and humor are of their time, but much of it plays great anyway. There may have been references to things I wasn’t familiar with, but it seemed like a very early version of how THE SIMPSONS, which is certainly a veritable storage facility for pop culture references form the past century, will manage to reference something you haven’t thought of for years and get a laugh out of it. Maybe the meta-commentary in THE MOVIE ORGY is very commonplace by now but in watching it I was constantly aware of how this was assembled on film, with all the technical limitations within that. That feeling became a part of it and something similar assembled on an Avid simply wouldn’t have the same emotional effect.

And there’s a lot in here which shows what sort of director Joe Dante would become. Yes, there are some elements which would turn up in his films especially MATINEE (there’s one long TV spot which is seen there, but also many scenes are recreated in MANT). But it’s fairly easy to see the sensibilities and preoccupations with films, TV, media, politics and many other elements that make his films so special. And it’s a thrill to see because the director Joe Dante became is definitely there. It’s like a look at the nascent origins of all the preoccupations that would turn up in his films going all the way to recent years. Or maybe it’s just a chance to see everything that was going on within his head back in the 60s. There’s a joy-of-film feeling that the ORGY gave me which is as difficult to put into words as it is to describe the experience of seeing the actual movie, but it’s a rare thing to discover.

When the film ended followed by a swarm of THE END’s which ran again and again climaxing in Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, roughly 4.5 hours after it began, there was loud applause. I found myself rising from my seat along with a few other people as we continued to applaud. Soon enough the entire New Beverly was standing giving an extended ovation to Joe Dante, who stood there in the aisle taking it in. Just a few rows away, I was close enough to see in his face a mixture of true surprise, pleasure and humility. What he had just shown us in this project he began so long ago displayed a true love of film which so many of us feel yet find difficult to put into words. And it was impossible not to show our gratitude for that. I think we also wished it could have gone on longer. Finally, he raised his hands and shouted, “Go home!” So I did. But, as busy as the past few days have been for me, my head remembers that special feeling and wishes it were still back there. It was a rare thrill. It was one of the reasons why I moved to this town in the first place. It was unforgettable. As one particularly memorable recurring element of the night stated, it was strong relief for sensitive people.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Sometime in the Near Future

The double feature at the New Beverly on Friday night for the Dante's Inferno festival seemed to be a pair of films focusing on a subject that is very personal to Joe Dante, the director of the extremely controversial HOMECOMING episode of "Masters of Horror". What we got was a pair of satires set in a vaguely defined “near future”, both of which focus on our government, the media and what these two forces might allow to happen within the United States in the years to come. Or maybe they already are. More than any such pairing I’ve seen in a while, it was a bit tough to get them out of my head afterwards.

Set “in that elusive time between now and later” WRONG IS RIGHT, directed by Richard Brooks and released in 1982, stars Sean Connery as Patrick Hale, a hot-shot television reporter who finds himself in the middle of a world crisis consisting of a President whose approval ratings are falling, chaos in the middle east, suicide bombers, rising gas prices, a Presidential election, the cutthroat business of television news, an African-American female vice-president, the battle for oil and the very real possibility of war breaking out. I should mention that the World Trade Center plays a role as well. To say that the film is prescient about certain things is putting it mildly (Well, maybe there haven’t been any suicide bombers in Times Square, but the point still stands. Incidentally, judging by the theater marquees, it looks like SCANNERS and POPEYE was playing when these scenes were shot). WRONG IS RIGHT is a comedy where the laughs are difficult to find, mostly because they don’t really play as jokes anymore. One of the things always said about NETWORK is that everything has already happened except for the live execution. In the case of WRONG IS RIGHT, everything it portrays really has already happened so the result while watching it is that the laughs don’t really happen. It can’t be considered a cautionary satire because, well, it’s too late for that.

It would be great to say that WRONG IS RIGHT is a hidden masterpiece which shines a great satirical light on the world due to its prescience, but the honest truth is that it’s not all that good. Joe Dante’s program notes for the festival say that when it was released in 1982 it was considered a “confused jumble” and that’s pretty much what it still is, even if it has become a much more fascinating jumble. It’s too consistently interesting to be considered outright bad but I never found myself fully able to get a grip on what the film was and that may be the fault of Richard Brooks, who as the man responsible for THE PROFESSIONALS and IN COLD BLOOD may not have been the right person to direct a comedy. And while some of it may have become even more prescient than either DR. STRANGLEOVE or NETWORK, it still doesn’t come close to belonging on the same level of those great films.

At one point Sean Connery has to deliver a long monologue about the nature of his job and what it means for the world. I kept imagining it spoken by William Holden in full NETWORK mode and it became very clear to me that the words here weren’t up to that level and even Connery felt unsure delivering them. In fact, the bulk of his performance in this film is possibly one of his shakiest as if even he weren’t sure about the type of film they were making. The amount of access the character has to various world leaders makes him sometimes seem more like a troubleshooting secret agent that a television reporter and it’s one of the things about the script that makes it feel like the jumble it was said to be back in the 80s. Certainly it feels like Brooks was more interested in exploring the goings-on at the White House than in establishing any plausible satire of a television newsroom and this has to be considered a main failing of the film. At the very least, the film has a amazing cast, many of whom well-used, including John Saxon, Robert Conrad, George Grizzard, Katharine Ross, Henry Silva (again!), Dean Stockwell, Rosalind Cash, Hardy Kruger, G.D. Spradlin, Robert Webber, Leslie Nielsen and a very young-looking Jennifer Jason Leigh.

John Saxon turned up for a Q&A after the film in which he commented on how the studio essentially buried the film because it was thought that it was too far out. I might have asked a question, but I honestly felt a little flummoxed by the whole thing. Good or bad, it’s tough to get a full handle on what WRONG IS RIGHT is. The world has gone beyond the supposed comic lunacy portrayed here which means that it almost can’t be considered a comedy anymore. So, what exactly is it? I’m still not sure.

The second half of the double bill was advertised as a “Secret Movie” and it was a pleasant surprise when it turned out to be Dante’s own THE SECOND CIVIL WAR, a film he made for HBO about ten years ago but since it was released theatrically in Europe he fortunately has a 35mm print of it to screen. Set “sometime in the near future”, the plot deals with the Governor of Idaho (Beau Bridges in an Emmy-winning performance) choosing to close the borders of his state as a wave of Pakistani orphans are about to arrive after a nuclear attack has occurred. Meanwhile, the Governor is attempting to deal with the breakdown of his affair with a Hispanic television reporter (Elizabeth Pena) who is herself dealing with the head of her own network (Dan Hedaya) who has his own hands full covering the situation. The president (Phil Hartman) is also monitoring things with opinions coming at him from all sides, the most persuasive voice coming from a fat-cat lobbyist (James Coburn). Meanwhile, as the situation on the Idaho border, being covered by a hot-shot producer for the news network (Denis Leary), grows more tense, the possibility that a second Civil War could break out begins to become very real.

“When I saw it in 1982 I said, “I don’t get it. It’s just a bunch of… stuff. But now all that stuff has coalesced into our dangerous present. There’s so many elements of this picture that ring true today that I really think it’s worth rediscovering.” That’s Dante speaking about WRONG IS RIGHT in the interview on Dennis Cozzalio’s excellent site Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. I quote that here because I can vaguely recall an “It’s just a bunch of stuff” reaction to Dante’s own film about a decade ago. But now, as Fox News has taken hold and elements of the world becoming more and more insane, much of it has not only gotten funnier, it’s gotten darker as well. Technology advancements aside, THE SECOND CIVIL WAR has aged in a way that is almost frighteningly close to reality. And unlike WRONG IS RIGHT it feels crystal clear in terms of what it truly wants to say. The movie becomes shockingly serious as it goes on, but it doesn’t take an abrupt turn to do so. In retrospect, I can pick out how it gradually darkens from broad comedy to a very dark look at the future. Which maybe now is closer than we realize.

In his introduction, Dante called it “the best cast I ever worked with” and a remarkable cast it is. In addition to Bridges, Hedaya, Hartman, Pena and Coburn, there is also excellent work from Joanna Cassidy, James Earl Jones, Denis Leary, Ron Perlman, Kevin Dunn, William Schallert, Kevin McCarthy, Brian Keith, Roger Corman (as a network exec complaining about the budget, of course), Jerry Hardin, the expected appearances of Dick Miller and Robert Picardo, along with many others. All of the names are well-used and it’s great to see such people involved in a comedy with such serious issues on its mind.

WRONG IS RIGHT was made when studios would still occasionally attempt a serious comedy for adults. By the time THE SECOND CIVIL WAR was made, that concept was beginning to be relegated to cable, where by now this sort of thing is becoming a rarity as well. It’s a shame and I really wish that Dante could make more films like this one. WRONG IS RIGHT may be more interesting than good, but THE SECOND CIVIL WAR is terrific and by the end of the evening I felt charged from watching two movies about media and the world which at least seemed interested in the exchange of ideas. On Saturday I stopped in at Amoeba records and found myself right next to an array of protesters picketing CNN over things Jack Cafferty had recently said about China. Right then I felt like I was back in the middle of that double feature. That’s what the near future looks like in the year 2008.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Boundaries Which Divide

The Dante’s Inferno double bill on Thursday night at the New Beverly was a pair of Roger Corman films, both of which have nothing to do with each other aside from that fact except for being shot in color and Scope, dating from the early sixties. One is considered possibly one of his very best films, the other doesn't seem to have much of any reputaation at all. I’d never heard of the WWII tale THE SECRET INVASION before and even Joe Dante claimed not to have seen it since it was first released. I was expecting that whatever print we saw would be blurry and dupey-looking, so it was a genuine surprise when it turned out to be the crispest, most colorful print imaginable, considering it's a film you'd almost expect would have vanished. Why is it that certain classic studio titles aren’t available to be screened at all, yet Warner Bros. not only has a print of THE SECRET INVASION, it looks absolutely fantastic? Who knows.

Stewart Granger is a British Army officer who assembles a group of criminals to go on a mission behind enemy lines to retrieve an Italian General being held captive by the Russians. It sounds like a knockoff of THE DIRTY DOZEN except it was three years before that film, so if anything it could be looked at as a smaller-scale attempt of the sort of big war movies being made around that time. Photographed on location on Dubrovnik, it’s one of Corman’s better-looking movies and certainly makes the most of where it was shot—it looks like it would be a wonderful place to spend some time. A fair amount of the story moves fast enough that we don’t notice that much of it takes place over hushed meetings in rooms and what looks like about ten enemy soldiers. But these thoughts go away during the last third which is presented on a surprisingly large scale, with several battle scenes using a surprising amount of extras—the locals must have been extremely cooperative with Corman. In addition to Granger, the team is made up of a rogue’s gallery consisting of William Campbell, Henry Silva, Mickey Rooney, Edd Byrnes and Raf Vallone. Much like the layout of THE GRAT ESCAPE, each team member has their own area of expertise (demolition expert, forger, etc) and all of them are well-used within the plot. Rooney, bizarrely, is playing an Irishman. Or an Englishman, I’m not sure with that attempt at an accent. Maybe he was cast because of his resemblance to Richard Attenborough, but it’s still strange. Particularly good are Henry Silva, who takes part in the most shocking scene in the film and Raf Vallone (Pope John Paul 1 in THE GODFATHER PART III) who becomes the most likable, most charismatic member of the bunch. Maybe the middle section could use some more action, but the climax more than makes up for it and it’s surprising how ‘big’ some of it is. It’s not THE GREAT ESCAPE—hey, what is—but it’s still a nice little surprise.

Before the second film TOMB OF LIGEIA started Joe Dante brought out the one and only Roger Corman for a Q&A. As it turns out, the idea for THE SECRET INVASION came when he was reading a National Geographic article about Dubrovnik and then, when he got into the dentists’ chair, he began formulating the story in his head to get his mind off the drilling. I’ll try to keep this in mind next time I go to the dentist. Corman also took the opportunity to praise Dante’s HOMECOMING episode of “Masters of Horror”, adding that Dante’s name is now on some sort of special watch list whenever he flies anywhere.

The second film on the double bill was an absolutely gorgeous print (that makes two--sometimes you have good fortune with these things) of TOMB OF LIGEIA. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this one and my tired state of mind (hey, I have to get up really early) made me want to see it again real soon. Corman spoke in the Q&A about making this last Edgar Allan Poe tale that he would make on real locations, unlike the deliberately stagebound entries in the series that he had previously directed. But the castle ruins it is filmed on, truly striking to look at, manage to lend an air of unreality to it anyway and it strikes me how healthy that must be for an artist. Pledge to take a specific approach with a film and then see how you can veer from it. It can sometimes make for a stronger film and in the case of TOMB OF LIGEIA, one that feels truly unique when compared with the films it was meant to emulate. And as much as you think of Vincent Price with this movie, I was also struck throughout by the rather amazing performance by Elizabeth Shepherd, who is never at the top of the list of favorite female horror icons, but whose inquisitive appearance throughout sets her apart from all the other heroines and an impression of more going on underneath the surface than the script (a very good one by Robert Towne, incidentally) possibly indicates (It also reminds me how in my first viewing long ago I didn’t realize at first she was playing a dual role—those who’ve seen it will understand). For the very first time, I also noticed the presence of Richard Vernon, who the very same year played Colonel Smithers in GOLDFINGER, which possibly means that I’ve seen GOLDFINGER way too many times.

The New Beverly also showed a surprise third feature that night, SKI TROOP ATTACK, which Dante announced was “Quentin’s print”. It’s only 63 minutes but really, I had to go home and get some sleep. I wasn’t happy about doing so. I heard good things about it, so maybe someday.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Twisted Pleasures

A long, long time ago a friend of mine who worked at a video store tossed a tape at me one night when I was visiting. “You should see this, it’s a lot of fun,” he said. So, I took home THE SADIST and I watched it. Instead of having fun I was treated to a film that I found genuinely disturbing and upsetting. The weird thing is, all these years later whole chunks of THE SADIST had stayed with me. It’s safe to say that there are films I saw within the past year which hadn’t stuck me as well as this grimy little exploitation film from 1963 that I saw over fifteen years ago. So naturally I was excited at the chance to see it again when Joe Dante scheduled the film as part of the Dante’s Inferno festival at the New Beverly. In his introduction Dante talked about first seeing it back in 1963 in a genuinely dangerous theater and how he’s still surprised at how unknown the film remains. It was his 35mm print that was being screened and considering how rare such an item must be, this was certainly a unique opportunity.

Three high school teachers, each looking like squares right out of the fifties, are driving through the desert on their way to the Dodgers game on a hot Sunday. When they develop engine trouble, they pull into a junkyard hoping to secure a part. After determining it to be deserted, they are suddenly confronted by a sadistic young man with a gun (Arch Hall, Jr.) and his girlfriend. Though they first expect the young couple will simply take their car and money, the three teachers quickly discover just how dangerous their predicament is.

Set in real time, shot for next to no money (so little, we’re told, that the production used live ammo for the gunshots), THE SADIST by all logic should be as terrible as most no-budget exploitation films from the time are, yet it somehow works just about all the way through, bringing a genuine sense of danger to the story it tells. When it begins there’s a slight feeling that it will be another piece of schlock, but these thoughts are quickly wiped away when the main character, based on Charles Starkweather, shows up. It’s impossible to say for sure if Arch Hall, Jr. gives what would normally considered a good performance, but it is undoubtedly effective. It might not be real, but it doesn’t have to be and he brings a level of terror which is so truly unexpected that you believe it when the upstanding school teachers genuinely don’t seem to know how to respond to him and his actions. It helps keep everything on edge. The other actors, all unknowns to this day, may seem square and stilted, but they’re believably square and stilted. The way they come off seems surprisingly naturalistic and human when compared to what usually passes as performances in films of this type. It’s shocking how much in this film works. And it can’t be considered a case of a movie being good by accident…it’s too skillfully made for that. Whatever happened during this production, the stars seem to have truly aligned and it would make for an interesting comparison with the controversial “That’s My Dog” episode of SIX FEET UNDER from a few years ago.

The film is also notable for being the first 35mm film shot by the great Vilmos Zsigmond and much of the credit for the film’s success should go to him. And it’s a pleasure to see that the great cinematographer hasn’t turned his back on this early work, showing up at the New Beverly for the screening and a Q&A afterwards. It led off with him marveling at the crowd’s response, “They seem to have liked it. I don’t know why.” He spoke in surprising detail about the limitations of the production such as the lack of funds and the difficulties of making the light always look like it was between noon and 1:30. He also seemed bemused that Dante was asking him about such names as Ray Dennis Steckler and Al Adamson instead of some that he is probably usually asked about (Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, Michael Cimino…) and it was a thrill to hear him talk about films that he worked on such a long time ago.

One of my strongest memories of the film has always been its ending, a callback to a dialogue exchange at the beginning which seeing it the other night after all this time struck me as strangely, movingly transcendent and honestly brought an emotional chill over me. That’s not what you ever expect to say about something called THE SADIST, a movie so much better than it would seemingly have any right to be, it makes you think that sometimes the Gods of Cinema really do smile down on these things. Even when it involves the creation of a film as disturbing as this one is.

After the break we had Larry Cohen in to introduce THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER. Telling some fascinating stories about the making of the film which included him talking at length about how they managed to shoot at FBI headquarters and in Washington DC without actual permission, I was reminded how much fun it is to listen to Larry Cohen talk about the films he makes. Unfortunately, you’re then faced with the reality of some of these movies which are often not as interesting as you think they will be. A docudrama of J.Edgar Hoover’s life as FBI director, covering over forty years in 112 minutes, it feels like it should be more focused, more consistent than it is and ultimately feels a little muddled. Cohen’s films often feel like they have this weird, half-awake nightmare kind of feel to them, in both good and bad ways, and this one is no different. There are plenty of odd, interesting moments throughout but too often these parts feel either too isolated from the rest of the movie or simply fizzle away, losing their effectiveness. As a result, the whole thing winds up coming off as a jumble more than anything else. It’s an interesting jumble, sure, but a frustrating one. It is, however, interesting enough that I feel like I should give it another try at some point but deep down I suspect my response will be the same. At the least, it gets plenty of points for intent. The film has an immensely impressive cast, including Broderick Crawford as Hoover, Dan Dailey, Michael Parks, Jose Ferrer, Rip Torn, Celeste Holm, John Marley, Lloyd Nolan, Andrew Duggan and many others. Considering the movie obviously didn’t cost a lot, I wonder how Cohen was able to cast so many of them, but maybe in 1977 aging actors of that sort were glad to get the chance to play an actual serious role, not some crummy part in a disaster movie. At the least the cast adds to the interest and there’s something to the overall biopic-crossed-with-tabloid-sensationalism tone that makes me believe it was a small inspiration to Oliver Stone, especially in the case of NIXON (which featured Bob Hoskins as Hoover) and, for all I know, his upcoming Bush biopic. It’s not as strong as I’d like it to be but like just about every Larry Cohen movie, the stories behind making it are priceless.

I don’t know exactly why these movies were paired together, unless it’s simply varying examples of filmmakers trying to craft something serious out of next to nothing. For me one works and one is problematic yet I would still want to return to both of them to attempt to figure out why. Those are the sort of mysteries that Joe Dante offers up to us at the New Beverly. They're the twisted pleasures of finding things in films which you never expect.

Monday, April 14, 2008

In No Sense Civilized

As an excited New Beverly audience waited for the midnight show of GREMLINS 2 THE NEW BATCH to begin on Saturday night—well, by this point it was about 12:30 Sunday morning, but never mind—Joe Dante was introduced and walked to the front of the theater to rapturous applause. He looked out at the packed house and exclaimed, “Where were you in 1990?”

GREMLINS 2 gets no respect. Admittedly, it came out a few years too late, but it was still unfairly released against the juggernaut that was DICK TRACY to indifferent reviews and so-so business. The original film, which has become a perennial by now, is the one that turns up on the revival circuit so for any fan of the sequel this was the chance. When Dante asked his question, I could have shouted out how many times I saw the thing in 1990, but that would have been no help. All I know is that I was there in the front row, Edgar Wright and Diablo Cody were a few seats over with Quentin Tarantino seated two rows behind me. There it is: a couple of Academy Award winners, the director of one of the best films of the past few years and a packed house all there excited to see GREMLINS 2 late on a Saturday night. On this occasion there was simply nowhere else to be.

After an introduction by Dante in which he told of how this sequel came to be, in how he had felt burnt out after the first film (I think the phrase ‘nervous breakdown’ was used), then in trying to get a sequel without him going Warner Bros. experienced no luck with various scripts, then finally they came to him and said if he would agree to do it, he could do whatever he wanted. He took that ball and ran with it, saying they had a great time making it (in contrast, I’m inferring, to the nightmare of the first one) and this was the movie which came out of that. It really was what he wanted and that was just fine with the studio. Until they saw it, of course. But before that happened, he managed to pull off one of the most truly anarchic studio films which has been seen in modern times.

Before the movie, shown as a tie-in to the Dante’s Inferno festival, we got a run of trailers consisting of what seemed to be about half of the Part 2s that came out in the eighties and into the nineties. Even if I probably didn’t need to be reminded of OH GOD! BOOK II and HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY, it was a petty ideal way to be led into the film we were seeing, which truly is a Part 2 unlike any other ever made. It wasn’t until a night later that the friend I was sitting next to told me that somebody else had leaned over to her, commenting on how much I seemed to be enjoying myself with my immense laughter. She added that the only person laughing as loud as me was Edgar Wright. Hey, I’ll take that. But in praising it, she also said that the film plays like “a gift for anyone who loves movies.” (Thank you for that, Rebecca.) I can’t think of a better way to put it. It’s a film which can only work when it’s a sequel and it’s all the better when it’s coming after a film which proved to be so iconic, notorious and at the same time so patently absurd. It’s “the Mad magazine version of the first film,” as Dante called it, but within all that is some pretty sharp social commentary looking at the road the coming decade was about to go down. “The nineties were looking like they were going to be pretty scary…of course they were nothing compared to how scary it is now,” he said that night.

Like any film released eighteen summers ago, some of GREMLINS 2 looks a little quaint now. That’s unavoidable. But its jabs at conglomeration, cable TV and the loss of the individual in the modern corporate world still have a sting to them (along with such random elements like the Canadian restaurant), maybe because the movie was actually way ahead of the curve. Within all of its big business satire, it still delivers the goods as a monster movie—never as nasty as the first film gets, but that seems to be more of an adjustment for the more overtly comical tone they’re going for this time around. It’s also a great film to see with the right crowd and anyone who’s seen it could certainly guess which scenes play especially well in that context. It’s HELLZAPOPPIN-approach to pop culture in 1990 is what remains hysterical about much of the movie and even if I can think of a few minor caveats—I wish it had a better closing gag, for one thing—it’s a testament to Dante’s talent and unique comic viewpoint in saying just how well this holds up. If its fanbase doesn’t go too far beyond the audience that was at the New Beverly, then so be it. At least a few people have latched on to the hysteria that lies within. So yeah, I probably was laughing that much. The movie earns that response.

I’ve mentioned Dante, but I also have to point out that a lot of the success of that comedy comes directly from screenwriter Charlie Haas as well. Some of its dialogue, in its own way like something out of the glory days of Preston Sturges but maintaining its own unique cadence, is the best that Dante has ever had to work with. I’m still not sure what my favorite run of dialogue in the film is, but the voice announcing the fire alarm has to come close. The film also seems to have more of a fondness for its characters than the first film did and even seems reluctant to turn some of its characters into outright villains like you would expect. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates, though both are very good, seem fully aware that the film isn’t really about them and the spotlight is taken by the supporting players like John Glover as real estate mogul/media tycoon Daniel Clamp, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lee, the returning Dick Miller (the fact that it allows Miller to be heroic on multiple occasions is reason enough for praise) and plenty of other familiar faces, as well as the near-brilliance of Tony Randall’s voice work as the Brain Gremlin. Even Gizmo, as designed by Rick Baker this time around, comes off as a more interesting character in how he’s portrayed in this film. Particularly good is Haviland Morris who creates such a fiercely funny comic portrayal in her role as Marla Blodstone that I’m genuinely surprised that she never did much after this beyond a handful of LAW & ORDER guest shots over the years.

After the film, Dante took part in a Q&A moderated by Edgar Wright. Of course, all of the best post-film discussions take place at 2:30 in the morning. The best parts of the talk had the director talking about the second thoughts Warner Bros. clearly had after telling him that he could do “whatever he wanted” which led to, as he tells it, the studio opening it directly opposite DICK TRACY in an attempt to keep the record set by BATMAN from being broken. Of course, GREMLINS 2 got killed in the process. While Dante indicated that there was a little bit of trimming done when the studio balked at his cut, he says that everything he truly cared about wound up in the movie. And, as he had no hesitation in saying, he’d never get away with making such a film today.

Even if Warners had liked it, I can’t imagine how else they could have sold it other than how they did, which pretty much as a “normal” GREMLINS sequel. That’s what the poster, which hangs on my wall to this day, seems to indicate. So it was up to those who would respond to its subversion to discover what it was really trying to do on their own. And I suppose many of them were at the New Beverly on Saturday night. It’s a truly personal response, I know, but there aren’t many movies that give me as much pleasure as this one. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen GREMLINS 2 THE NEW BATCH, but this particular viewing was one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve had in any movie theater in a long time.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Better Class of People

Friday night at the New Beverly for the Dante’s Inferno festival began with standing in line chatting with Clu Gulager. I told him that I had met his grandson back in October but did not mention that just earlier that day I had quoted one of his lines of dialogue from INTO THE NIGHT. (“I’d say you’d fall into the ‘or what’ category.” Try it sometime, it’s a fun thing to say.) Once inside, I found myself sitting in the aisle directly behind the one which contained Joe Dante and Dick Miller. I was also several rows behind Edgar Wright and Diablo Cody. What I’m saying is, it was a fun crowd to be in.

The double bill on hand was a night of 70s exploitation. HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, directed by Dante and Allan Arkush for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and Jonathan Kaplan’s TRUCK TURNER in which Isaac Hayes stars as a bounty hunter who basically kicks a lot of ass. What I’m saying is, it was a pretty cool double bill.

The infamous HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD began as an attempt by Corman to mollify trailer editors Dante & Arkush by letting them direct their own film, on the condition that it be cheaper than any other New World picture that had been made by that point. Since the two men were very familiar with all of the New World footage, they fashioned an idea centered around a New World-type studio called Miracle Pictures (“If it’s a good picture, it’s a Miracle”), which would give them plenty of excuses to use lots of stock footage. It’s fairly enjoyable and holds up better than plenty of other New World films that I’ve seen, but really on an in-joke kind of level more than anything. It almost goes without saying that it obviously works best if you’re acquainted with that style of filmmaking or even the Corman-method of doing things back in the wild and wooly 70s. Having spent some time in what was the version of this world that existed in the 90s, I can say that there is a kernel of truth to the humor here. And it goes without saying that it’s also extremely sleazy and exploitive. Having seen it multiple times by now, I can safely say that it’s actually a more enjoyable movie to watch it with the DVD audio commentary. Featuring Dante, Arkush and producer Jon Davison, it’s one of the very funniest audio commentaries that I’ve ever heard and is highly recommended. Without it, the 83 minutes the film runs for can feel a little long. But with some of the attitude Dante and Arkush would develop in their subsequent films already in place, the amount of laughs that are in their make it an improvement over some of the other New World films of the period and is probably much of the reason for the film’s cult following today. Ultimately, even within all that 70s sleaze it’s too likable and funny a movie to not get a lot of enjoyment out of. And getting to see the film on the big screen provides a reminder just how talented the late, great Candice Rialson, the film’s lead, really was. Having the likes of Dick Miller, Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel in there certainly help a great deal as well. There’s also a ROBOT MONSTER joke which got one of the biggest pieces of applause of the night. It’s that kind of movie. It’s not anything I would show to someone who isn’t already into these movies but for a film that was pulled from 42nd Street after two days, as Dante claims, it isn’t that bad. Much of what was discussed in the post-film discussion with Dante, Arkush, Miller and Jonathan Kaplan (who appears in the movie) can be heard on the commentary, but it was fun listening to them talk about it nonetheless. One new bit of info revealed was that Stanley Donen, of all people, attended a preview of the film and walked out. Exactly what Stanley Donen was doing there seems to be a mystery that none of them have the answer to.

Kaplan was also there for the screening of TRUCK TURNER (made fourteen years before he directed Jodie Foster to her first Oscar in THE ACCUSED) which screened second. I’m not enough of an expert on blaxploitation films to say exactly where it ranks in the genre, but it has to be somewhere in the top half. Continually exciting, it feels like it adheres to the old Howard Hawks rule of three good scenes and no bad scenes. In addition to Hayes in the lead there’s a terrific supporting cast which includes Yaphet Kotto, Nichelle Nichols, Scatman Crothers and (again) Dick Miller, along with a dynamite score provided by Hayes. The nature of the plotting allows a few minor characters to build in importance in the second half and it’s particularly fun to hear Nichols say the type of things that would never come out of Lt. Uhura’s mouth. And there's one death scene near the end which is given a huge amount of weight to it, extremely surprising considering the type of film it is. There’s also some location work that provides an interesting look at the Los Angeles of the time, even if one car chase seems to go from Long Beach to downtown L.A. to a sewage plant down near LAX in a surprisingly brief amount of time. I did not ask about those issues in the post-film Q&A. There’s a minor hitman character named “Joe Dante” as well.

Not much analysis needed for either film but it was an enjoyable night at the New Beverly as it was a thrill to be in the presence of some of those who showed up. I also get the chance to tell Allan Arkush that I’ve long been a huge fan of his sadly underappreciated film GET CRAZY. A long time ago the people who made that movie seemed a world away and now I get to go up to them in the lobby of the New Beverly. It's hard not to appreciate the thrill which that brings. And, in looking forward to the rest of the festival, there's still more to come.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Keep Your Eyes Open

As the Joe Dante-programmed festival at the New Beverly gets uderway, titled Dante’s Inferno of course, I thought it was an ideal time to revisit his vastly underappreciated 1993 film MATINEE, which I hadn’t seen for a number of years. MATINEE has been unfortunately made difficult to see in recent years, with the DVD out of print and even that was a bare-bones job which came without the complete MANT, a feature that had already been included on the old laserdisc release. So to see it again I had to make due with an old VHS dub that I fortunately still have of that laserdisc. It’s better than nothing. What I found is a movie that feels truly heartfelt and personal. Viewing it fifteen years after its release in theaters is about as wistful as I would have expected. I may not have been around during the time the film is set but I can certainly relate to its idea of just how special movies seemed when I was a child. More importantly, I can also remember when the thrill of going to movie theaters really did have a sense of mystery and magic to the experience.

Set in Key West just as the Cuban Missile Crisis occurs in 1962, John Goodman plays Lawrence Woolsey, monster movie maker who has arrived in town to preview his latest opus MANT (“Half man, half ant, all terror!”) which, we are told, will be presented in ATOMO-VISION. Much of how Woolsey is presented brings memories of William Castle to mind but the character really is an amalgam of various people and genres. The film MANT feels more like a 50s monster saga than anything Castle ever made (I know I’ve heard some of that dialogue in actual films) and since Goodman’s character has no affiliation to any major studios, this makes him similar to some of the regional filmmakers of the time—the name certainly recalls that of the Woolner Brothers. But the movie is told from the point of view of Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), a military brat who has recently moved to the local base with his family and is still getting to know the new town. Into his world comes new friend Stan (Omri Katz, who had just worked for Dante on EERIE, INDIANA) who is dealing with a hoped-for relationship with Sherry (Kellie Martin) but is faced with the reappearance of her old boyfriend Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire—I’m guessing the name is a combination of Charles Starkweather and Harvey Lembeck from the beach party movies). As Gene begins to take an interest in cute peacenik Sandra (Lisa Jakub) he also gets excited by the arrival of Lawrence Woolsey and discovers an in so he can get to know Woolsey himself.

As charming as the period setting is, what makes the movie sing and the reason it remains such a heartfelt piece of work lies in what it says about not just the joy of seeing movies—especially horror movies--but in the primal ritual of going to the movies, something I think we can all remember from when we were small children. Lawrence Woolsey’s soliloquy about the process of entering a theater, the thrill, the trepidation, all the expectations that go with the walk through the lobby, brought a small chill to me viewing it this time. This seems especially true considering how the concept of going to a single-screen theater like the one in this film is something sadly retreating into the past far too quickly. In addition, the glories of MANT itself reveal it as just about the only kind of recreation in one of these movies which has ever worked. It contains just the right amount of silliness of those movies to tweak it in the right way but it also reveals the affection Dante truly has for those movies he grew up with. They may not necessarily be “good” but that doesn’t mean that they’re actually “bad”. You can tell that he truly loves them. And the way it deifies horror movies, or maybe more to the point, monster movies, it seems like he loves them, how completely thrilling they can be, most of all. “Keep your eyes open,” Woolsey reminds the young lead. It’s applying both the terror and joy in watching these movies to real life and I can think of few other examples which have ever bothered to treat the genre with such reverence. Watching the film this time, I noticed various movie posters in the theater’s lobby which includes not just classics like THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, but CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER (announced for the Dante’s Inferno fest, then sadly replaced) and a few titles which seem to tie in to the film being viewed, especially the amazing British film THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE which could actually be considered a bit of a thematic cousin to MATINEE.

With a wonderful screenplay by Charlie Haas, the first half of the film is gentle, leisurely—almost surprisingly leisurely when watched in 2008. The child actors who play the leads—several of whom seem to have left the business, with the obvious exception of Kellie Martin—are each likable and not too affected. But even better are the adult actors including not just Goodman but Cathy Moriarty as Ruth Corday (she nails her MANT scenes big time), Dante regular Robert Picardo as the theater manager and the Mutt and Jeff pairing of John Sayles and Dick Miller as a pair of mysterious individuals who show up to protest the showing of Woolsey’s film—how great would a movie which focused on these two characters be? Jesse White, who actually worked with William Castle, turns up as a theater chain owner in his final film—from the look of him, it’s too bad he never got to play Sam Arkoff. A few other familiar Dante faces turn up as well (especially in some terrific roles in MANT), but most surprising is the early Naomi Watts appearance as the star of THE SHOOK-UP SHPPING CART, a particularly dead-on skewering of Disney movies of the period.

The idea of the past, of childhood being a simpler time, is something that I think we can all relate to. We can enjoy ourselves while watching MATINEE, but we know there’s more coming in the future which is out of reach of its characters. It’s one of the many affecting things about the movie, even though it wisely doesn’t make too big a thing of it. But it’s there in every scene.

The unique comic tone in Dante’s films going all the way back to the seventies is something that I’ve long been a huge admirer of and it’s a true shame that he’s fallen out of favor with the studios in recent years. There are few other directors whose films display such a true love for both the craft of making them and the movies themselves. I truly wish that at some point this year I could be lucky enough to go to the theater and see a new Joe Dante film. But I’ll be there at the New Beverly looking forward to the films that he’ll be showing along with whatever he might have to say about them in his introductions. Maybe I’ll even go to the midnight shows of GREMLINS 2 and THE HOWLING since I’ve only seen those about fifty times each and what the hell, once more won’t hurt. And it won’t hurt if I see MATINEE again very soon. On the list of movies that display the greatest, purest love for the movies and everything they mean to us in life, MATINEE belongs right up near the top.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Martini with Two Olives

Vermont and Franklin, the northwest corner to be precise. That’s where Walter Neff drops off Lola Dietrichson for her secret rendezvous with Nino Zachetti in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. It’s pretty obviously not the corner of Vermont and Franklin, as anyone who knows Los Feliz would tell you—I think it’s actually Hollywood and Western. The real northwest corner is residential and actually pretty quiet. The southwest corner is the House of Pies, where more than a few real life secret rendezvous have probably taken place. Just a few minutes later Walter Neff mentions in narration that he secretly meets Phyllis Dietrichson at Jerry’s, “that market up on Los Feliz” but whenever I think of the area that would be referred to as up on Los Feliz (Boulevard, to be precise) it’s a residential stretch, so I’m not sure where Jerry’s is really supposed to be. And it’s clear from dialogue that the Dietrichson home is supposed to be somewhere close by as well and even though the actual location of the housed used for exteriors is more in the Beachwood area it’s nice to think that it’s supposed to be nearby.

Way back when I first moved to this area I happened to rent DOUBLE INDEMNITY on tape and was a little floored by the viewing not just because of how great the movie is, but by the realization that almost the entire thing was set in my neighborhood. I found myself thinking at one point, “Walter Neff’s probably driving by my house right now.” It’s one of those things that got me started on an interest in old L.A. and the history of the area. You live around here long enough you start to feel like you’re in a bit of a Walter Neff frame of mind, with that Miklos Rosza driving-around-music going through your head like a loop as you traverse the streets of this city. It’s very easy to watch this movie yet again and get sucked in within seconds and it has truly become more potent to me as the years go on. There’s always been debate over the garish blonde wig that Barbara Stanwyck wears with both harsh criticism of it and excuses like Billy Wilder’s after-the-fact claim that it serves to emphasize the cheapness of the character. But while I watch the film thinking it looks more bizarre than anything else, somehow it kind of works. For one thing, it doesn’t mess with my dreams of Barbara Stanwyck in THE LADY EVE and BALL OF FIRE, movies where she truly is sexy and vivacious. If she looked here like she does in those films maybe the strength of her performance here would override my perception of them. That’s how strong her portrayal is. But the fact that the wig makes her look weirdly, strangely off makes Fred MacMurray’s instant lusting after her have that much more of an effect. Certainly I can relate since I know I’ve had my own weird attractions in the past that I couldn’t really explain. I’d say ‘haven’t we all’, but of course I don’t know that for sure. Anyway, she lives in Silverlake, it’s a long, sad story so I really don’t want to go there and besides, weren’t we talking about the character of Phyllis Dietrichson in DOUBLE INDEMNITY? My point in talking about the wig is that I get it. I understand the notion of being attracted to women in this town who maybe you shouldn’t have that kind of response to. Maybe it explains why happy go lucky Walter Neff is suddenly driven to murder. It’s as good a reason as any.

Of course, none of that is real. The fantasy of wanting to live in a movie like DOUBLE INDEMNITY isn’t about getting mixed up in a murderous noir storyline that leads to meeting your doom. It’s about living in that world of old, black and white L.A. where your co-worker offers to buy you a martini “with two olives”, where you can go for a walk up in the woods over Hollywood and encounter a magical view of the Hollywood Bowl. And in that skewered world your apartment door opens out for some reason, which it of course never does in real life, and it’s extremely useful to keep Edward G. Robinson from learning who’s behind it. (Has anyone ever noticed that The Dude’s door in THE BIG LEBOWSKI opens out as well? Is this some kind of INDEMNITY reference?) The film has one of my favorite senses-of-place of just about any movie I can think of from Hollywood’s golden age. Maybe that’s because of how much I recognize the place it depicts. I love living around here partly because it reminds me of a movie like DOUBLE INDEMNITY which will forever be a favorite of mine and that kind of fantasy can be tough to shake as you begin to realize just how many years you really have been in this town.