The Other Side of the Wind: The Redemption of Orson Welles

Welcome to the latest edition of Super Blog Team-Up, back from the dead after a long hiatus.  The theme this time around is “Redemption” which leads me to look at a movie that is quite far afield of comic books and sci-fi: The Other Side of the Wind, written and directed by the legendary Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil).

tosotw poster

The Other Side of the Wind was released with much fanfare late last year as the final film of Orson Wells.  Principle photography began in 1970, and continued on-and-off for the next five and a half years, with Welles finally getting 99.9% of the movie shot by early 1976.  As a creator who prided himself on striving for complete creative freedom, Welles was often plagued by difficulties in obtaining financing for his projects, and this played a major role in the length of the shoot.  It would also result in The Other Side of the Wind remaining unfinished when Welles passed away a decade later in 1985.

It has been said that Welles did as much of his work in the editing room as he did from the director’s chair.  The Other Side of the Wind certainly demonstrates this.  Welles filmed approximately 96 hours of footage for what was intended to be a two-hour running time.  By 1979 he had managed to assemble 40 minutes of the movie into a rough cut when, due to the extremely complicated financial circumstances of the project, it was taken out of his hands and literally locked up in a vault.

In the years following Welles passing, several efforts were made to untangle the legal Gordian Knot that The Other Side of the Wind had become.  After numerous false starts, it was only within the last couple of years that the project finally achieved momentum.

tosotw otterlake and hannaford

Peter Bogdanovich co-starred in The Other Side of the Wind.  He also knew Welles personally, sharing a close, but often contentious, friendship with the director.  Bogdanovich is himself an acclaimed director (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon).  Given his pedigree, his involvement in the production, and his relationship with Welles, it ultimately fell to Bogdanovich to at long last complete The Other Side of the Wind.

Collaborating with Bogdanovich on this Herculean undertaking were producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza, and film editor Bob Murawski.  This involved them taking Welles’ annotated screenplay, the footage that Welles had edited, and the nearly 100 hours of rough footage at long last rescued from the vault, somehow assembling the whole thing into a cohesive two-hour movie that was as true to Welles’ original vision as possible.  Words such as “formidable” and “daunting” immediately come to mind.

As others have noted, there really is no way to know how close Bogdanovich & Co.’s efforts come to achieving what Welles might have produced had he been able to complete the movie.  What we have is an approximation, a semblance… which is entirely appropriate, as Welles’ story is dedicated to severely blurring the line between reality and fiction.  It is simultaneous a mockumentary and a “found footage” movie.

tosotw hannaford

The Other Side of the Wind takes place during the last day of the life of Jake Hannaford, an aging movie director who is killed in a car crash on his 70th birthday. Prior to his death, Hannaford had been attempting to revive his faded career by making a flashy, sexy, cutting edge film that would appeal to the “New Hollywood” sensibilities of the early 1970s.  Hannaford’s movie, the film within a film, is also entitled “The Other Side of the Wind.”  On the last night of his life, at Hannaford’s lavish birthday party, he shows this unfinished film to his guests, hoping that someone will step up with an offer to finance the remainder of the production.

The movie The Other Side of the Wind that we, the audience is watching, is supposedly assembled from footage culled from the myriad cameras of the friends, fiends, hangers-on, sycophants, critics, journalists and voyeurs who attended Hannaford’s party, interspersed with scenes from “The Other Side of the Wind” film that Hannaford is screening for them.

There is definitely a prescient quality to this narrative device, in that it anticipates both the ravenous fixation with wealth & fame in 21st Century America, and the ubiquitous presence of cell phone cameras & social media documenting the minute-to-minute minutiae of celebrity lives.

tosotw cameras

The film within a film “The Other Side of the Wind” is parody of a late 1960s art house movie, with a jumbled narrative, explicit sex scenes, and extended sequences entirely absent of dialogue.  The plot, such as it is, involves a young man’s long, strange pursuit of a silent, erotic woman.  The man, John Dale, played by Bob Random, is the latest protégé of Hannaford.  The woman, known only as “The Actress,” is one of Hannaford’s lovers, and is played by Oja Koder, at the time Welles’ real life mistress, as well as the co-writer for the movie.

The reason why production of Hannaford’s “The Other Side of the Wind” has ground to a halt is due to John Dale abruptly waking off the set.  As the night progresses, we come to learn just why this happened.

It has been observed that Welles was very likely sending up Michelangelo Antonioni here.  Welles, ever the prankster, even shot much of the footage for Hannaford’s party at a house that was literally next door to where Antonioni made his 1970 film Zabriskie Point.

tosotw film

Among those in attendance at Hannaford’s party is Brooks Otterlake, a young, up & coming director already receiving critical acclaim.  Otterlake is a friend of Hannaford, as well as a disciple, having extensively studied the older director.  There is a clear implication that the young Otterlake has eclipsed his mentor, incurring Hannaford’s resentment, and complicating their already contentious relationship.

There has been quite a bit of debate regarding just how much of his own personality and experiences Welles drew upon when making The Other Side of the Wind.  Whether by intent or accident, or perhaps a combination of the two, there is a genuine metatextual quality to The Other Side of the Wind.  One can easily see parallels between Welles and the character Hannaford, and the relationship between Welles and Peter Bogdanovich bears similarities to that of Hannaford and Otterlake, who was played by Bogdanovich himself.

Hannaford is portrayed by another acclaimed aging director, John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen).  Before Huston was cast, Welles shot around him, and himself stood in for Hannaford.  As a result, in many scenes the actors were actually playing opposite the offscreen Welles, with footage of Huston as Hannaford recorded afterwards.

tosotw hannaford smoke

In particular, one scene between Hannaford and Otterlake appears to be very much about Welles and Bogdanovich.  Speaking to Coming Soon this past November, Bogdanovich explained:

“I think the scene in the car, when I say “our revels now are ended,” that’s a powerful scene. But I didn’t play it with John. John wasn’t there. I played it with Orson. Orson was off-camera, and his only direction to me was, “It’s us.” ”

I can only imagine how frustrated Welles must have been in the early 1970s, to see a new generation of young directors such as Bogdanovich achieving the creative freedom & acclaim that had so often eluded him.

The irony is that the arc of Bogdanovich’s own career would later parallel that of Welles; after his early successes Bogdanovich was often plagued by under-performing, critically lambasted films, executive interference, and severe financial difficulties.

There is also something of Huston himself in the character of Hannaford: the bravado, the quick wit & easygoing charm that masks a ruthless drive for control, the mocking, needling disdain for those he considers beneath him.  Huston, much like Welles, was reportedly a difficult, hard-driving director who often pushed his crew to the breaking point; it’s no wonder that the two men got along so well!

tosotw otterlake

Of course, it is possible to over-analyze these things. As critic Darren Mooney puts it:

“How much of The Other Side of the Wind is Welles turning the lens on himself, and how much is him smirking at us for thinking that?”

It is interesting to consider how The Other Side of the Wind might have been received if it had been completed during Welles’ lifetime. Perhaps audiences of the late 1970s would have regarded Hannaford as a flawed yet nevertheless sympathetic character. However, looking at Hannaford through the gaze of 2019, we can see that he is an example of toxic masculinity run amok.  And it is not only those in Hannaford’s orbit that suffer due to his hyper machismo, but Hannaford himself.

At more than one point it is suggested that Hannaford is a closeted gay man who is in deep denial concerning his sexual orientation.  The macho posturing, the well-publicized seductions of the various actresses who appeared in his movies, the booze-guzzling, cigar-chomping lifestyle, the fondness for firearms and fast cars; all of these may be Hannaford’s attempts to convince both himself and the outside world that he is as heterosexual, as “manly,” as can be.  If that is so, then in his desperate attempts to live up to the hyper-romanticized myth of the two-fisted American male, Hannaford suggests an incredibly tragic, damaged individual, full of a poisonous self-loathing that he projects upon those who surround him.

tosotw hannaford gun

There is a great deal more to The Other Side of the Wind.  It is a complex story that is open to analysis and interpretation.

In addition to streaming The Other Side of the Wind, Netflix has presented They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a full-length documentary about the movie’s long & tortured production.  Directed by Morgan Neville, it’s an informative companion piece, one that is as intriguing as The Other Side of the Wind itself.  I definitely recommend watching both.

Why do I consider The Other Side of the Wind to be the “redemption” of Orson Welles?  It has to do with the public perception of him as a creator.  Citizen Kane is considered one of the all-time greatest movies ever made.  This was a source of consternation to Welles, as it was his first film, and the clear implication was that people felt all his subsequent efforts fell short.

In other words, Welles hit a grand slam home run his very first time at bat, and even though he spent the rest of his career batting .300, people were disappointed that he wasn’t knocking it out of the park each & every time he stepped up to the plate.

tosotw the woman

For a long time a common perception of Welles was of a once-great director who failed to live up to the early potential of Citizen Kane in his subsequent films, and who eventually ended his career ignominiously, reduced to hawking frozen peas and cheap champagne on TV commercials.

The Other Side of the Wind lays bare this fallacy.  It reveals that in his later years, in spite of professional and personal setbacks, Welles was still a bold & ambitious filmmaker, still stretching his boundaries, still producing work that was interesting and frustrating and provocative.

If there is one good thing about The Other Side of the Wind finally being completed, however imperfectly, it is that it had led to a revived interest, and reappraisal, of Welles’ entire career.  It is certainly one that is long overdue.

Thanks for joining us.  I hope you will check out the contributions from the other Super Blog Team-Up participants.

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Between The Pages Blog:  The Secret Origin Of Spider-Man

Black, White and Bronze: The Redemption of Red Sonja

Chris Is On Infinite Earths: The Pied-Piper Reforms!

Coffee and Comics: Green Lantern #100

Comics Comics Blog : Elfquest :Cutter’s Redemption

Comic Reviews By Walt: SBTU Presents – Redemption/Coming Home: Shredder

Longbox Review: Nightwing’s Redemption

The Crapbox of Son of Cthulhu: Iron Man: Alcoholic, Part I

The Daily Rios: Thanos: Samaritan

The Retroist Via Vic Sage:The Redemption Of Magneto

The Source Material Comics Podcast: Penance – The Redemption of Speedball

The Superhero Satellite: The Walking Dead: “Redeeming Negan”

The Unspoken Decade: What If Vol 2 #46 and 47

Two Staple Gold: Just a Pilgrim

 

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Thoughts on Mantis in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

I finally had an opportunity to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 last week.  A few people who know that I’m a huge fan of the character of Mantis were curious what I thought of how she was used in the movie.

Mantis poster for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2

I might as well mention that Steve Englehart, who created Mantis in 1973, was “not happy” at how Mantis was depicted in GOTG 2.  I can understand Englehart’s perspective on this.  Mantis is a character that he wrote on various occasions over a 35 year span.  He invested a great deal of time and energy into developing Mantis.  She is obviously very important to him.

Indeed, that is the primary reason why Mantis is one of my all time favorite characters. Englehart clearly put a great deal of thought into her, in the process creating a very interesting character with a wonderfully bizarre origin and an exciting, offbeat story arc.

So I realize that it must have been disappointing for Englehart that GOTG 2 writer / director James Gunn did not adhere closely to the original conception of the character.

Nevertheless, looking at it from my perspective as a reader and a longtime fan of the character, I felt that the translation of Mantis from page to screen was rather successful.  Visually she looked amazing.  The concept design of Mantis that artist Andy Park created for the movie was very faithful to the original character while also working as something that was both visually effective and functional in live action.  Mantis was played by Pom Klementieff, a well-regarded, talented actress who did great work with the material.

Mantis concept design Andy Park

I admit that I was somewhat disappointed that certain aspects of Mantis from the original Marvel Comics stories were neglected or altered.  She was too passive; I would have liked for her to be a more assertive individual.  I also wanted to see her utilizing martial arts.  Klementieff previously displayed a real adeptness at dynamic fight sequences in the 2013 movie Oldboy, so hopefully she will be able to bring that skill to her portrayal of Mantis in future installments.

Nevertheless, in spite of Gunn perhaps not utilizing the character Mantis as well as he might have, she made an interesting addition to GOTG 2.  I definitely enjoyed her interaction with Drax.  Gunn’s dialogue for these scenes was both funny and poignant.  Klementieff and Dave Bautista played very well off one another.

Actually, as someone who has seen many of the entries in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” I think Mantis is much closer to the source material than some other characters.  Looking at the two GOTG movies from Gunn, the characters of Drax, Gamora, Groot and Yondu are all quite different from their comic book versions, but they each worked very well.

On the other hand, if you look at the second and third Iron Man movies, the villains Justin Hammer and the Mandarin were almost nothing like the original comic book characters.  In both cases this was definitely to the detriment of the movies.

Mantis and Drax GOTG2

Sometimes fans do not realize how difficult it can be to adapt comic books into movies.  They are two different mediums, each with their own sensibilities.  What works in one might not in the other.  This requires a delicate balancing act by filmmakers, as they attempt to remain faithful to the source material while simultaneously determining how to make these characters & stories work in a two hour live action movie.  Some filmmakers are more successful at this than others; Gunn is one of the better ones.

Even though the specifics of Mantis in GOTG 2 were altered, personally speaking I did feel that she was quite true to the spirit of the character Steve Englehart created.  I enjoyed seeing her in GOTG 2, and I am look forward to seeing Pom Klementieff reprise the role in Avengers: Infinity War.

Shin Godzilla

Michele and I went to see Shin Godzilla, aka Godzilla Resurgence, last week in the theater during its limited US release. Toho has once again rebooted the movie series, with Godzilla’s inaugural attack on Japan taking place in the year 2016.  The film is co-directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, with a screenplay by Anno.  Shin Godzilla is probably the darkest, most serious Godzilla movie since the very first entry in the series, Gojira, back in 1954.

shin-godzilla-poster

Shin Godzilla is a very political movie. With the story told in an almost-documentary style, events unfold from the perspectives of the politicians and bureaucrats whose task it is to deal with Godzilla’s rampage & the aftermath.

The film’s protagonist is Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa). Young, ambitious, and definitely something of a rebel, Yaguchi continually chaffs at the innumerable regulations that have to be dealt with amidst Godzilla’s arrival, as well as the overly cautious attitudes of the senior political establishment.

There are quite a number of issues at play here as they relate to Japanese society. Yaguchi is uncomfortable with the traditional deference to seniority & rank, preferring instead to work with people possessing talent & ability, regardless of their age or social status.  His assembly of various scientists & technicians, who he affectionately describes as misfits & outsiders, into a group dedicated to stopping Godzilla is a definite attempt to cut through the red tape that he feels has entangled the rest of the government.

The push by Yaguchi for the Japanese Self Defense Forces to take a proactive role in protecting the country from Godzilla also has real-world echoes. Japan was forced to de-militarize after its defeat in World War II.  During the early years of the Cold War the country was entirely dependent upon the United States for protection.  This eventually led to the formation of the SDF, which has for much of its existence served a very limited role.  In recent years, seeing the potential threats posed by North Korea and China, certain voices in Japan have called for the full-scale rearmament of the country.

At the same time, though, we do see in Yaguchi a desire not to repeat the mistakes of the past. He wishes for Japan to shake off American influence and to be able to defend itself, but he also cautions against the overconfidence that led his country into catastrophic defeat 70 years before.

shin-godzilla-attack

The United Nations ordering a nuclear strike on Tokyo to destroy Godzilla before the creature can reproduce & spread across the globe is certainly rooted in Japanese fears. Japan is the only country to have ever been attacked by atomic weapons.  Obviously one can argue that the United States had a very strong rationale for using the atom bomb to end World War II back in 1945.  Nevertheless, within the movie we see the Japanese characters genuinely horrified at the possibility that their country will once again be devastated by atomic weapons, that in order to stop Godzilla the entire city of Tokyo will have to be reduced to a radioactive wasteland.

Yaguchi and his team race against the nuclear strike’s impending deadline to devise an alternate method of stopping Godzilla. With time of the essence, they are forced to ask for the assistance of Germany in analyzing their data.  When the team realizes it needs another day to finish their plans, Yaguchi’s allies in the government lobby France to extend the countdown by 24 hours.  Finally, when the SDF launches the attack devised by Yaguchi’s team, they receive valuable assistance from the United States.

I do not think the choice of these countries is accidental. Japan, Germany, France, and United States; seven decades ago the first two were mortal enemies of the later.  Now, in the present, all four of them set aside their differences and work together against a danger that threatens the entire globe.  The movie demonstrates again and again that cooperation is essential in stopping Godzilla: government and private industry must to pool their resources, military and science must work side-by-side, and nations must come together as allies.

shin-godzilla-profile

This is a very unconventional entry in the Godzilla series. That’s not surprising, given Hideaki Anno’s involvement.  He is best known for his work on the incredibly offbeat & bizarre science fiction anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, which left audiences very divided.  (Years ago, after watching the final episode of Evangelion, I literally threw my hands up in the air and uttered a loud “WTF?!?”)

The conflict between generations was a central one in Evangelion, with anxious teenager Shinji Ikari attempting to find his own way in life and assert himself again his cold, manipulative father. Aspects of this extremely dysfunctional relationship appear to have been translated into Shin Godzilla, in the disagreements between Yagushi and his superiors, as well as the larger theme of 21th Century Japan rebelling against the overbearing, paternalistic attitude of the country’s older generations and the United States.

Of course we cannot forget Godzilla himself. There is an effort by Anno, Higuchi, and their collaborators to ground the creature in reality.  Obviously there is a certain limit to how well this can be pulled off, since the concept of a giant radioactive fire-breathing dinosaur is, when you get right down to it, rather implausible.  Nevertheless the movie does succeed rather well at giving Godzilla a certain verisimilitude.

A constantly-evolving life form, when we first see Godzilla he is an aquatic creature that walks on four legs. This initial form is very much unlike the monster we are used to, which led Michele to whisper to me “Is that Godzilla?”  I must have been frowning when I whispered back “I don’t think so.”  The detail that really threw us off was the creature’s pair of comically large googly eyes.  As the creature shuffles onto land and begins toppling buildings, all efforts to appear formidable are totally undone by those ridiculous peepers.

shin-godzilla-big-googly-eyes

At a certain point the creature plops to a halt and right then & there evolves into a bipedal creature.  That’s when I realized that this really was Godzilla, even though he still had those big googly eyes of his.  Fortunately the creature quickly makes his way back into the ocean.

Later in the movie, when Godzilla returns to land, he has evolved further, and is much closer to his traditional form. Twisted & grotesque, this is a monstrous incarnation, one that lumbers unceasingly forward, smashing everything it its path.  An unstoppable engine of destruction, this Godzilla is genuinely terrifying, a quality that has been seldom present in the creature since the original Gojira.

Anno’s use of music by the late Akira Ifukube from older Godzilla movies is effective. Ifukube’s music was a vital part in establishing the tone and atmosphere in many of the past entries.  It demonstrates just how effective his scores are that they are still being utilized.

Much as his work on Evangelion was divisive among viewers, so too has Anno’s approach resulted in a polarization of opinion on this movie. Some found the detailed focus on the inner workings of government in crisis to be fascinating.  Others felt Shin Godzilla was dull, and they expressed difficulty in keep track of the innumerable bureaucrats.

My own opinion falls in-between these two extremes. The scenes of committee meetings and press conferences and scientific gatherings are well written & insightful, although at times they do get excessive and drag on.  These could certainly have been scaled back.  I think that at least 15 minutes of the movie’s two hour run time could have been trimmed without losing anything of real significance.

Flaws aside, I found Shin Godzilla to be a good movie. After the underwhelming Godzilla: Final Wars back in 2004, Toho has done a good job at reviving the series with this new entry.

Great Scott! Rocky Horror is 40 years old!

Happy Halloween!  Today I’m taking a brief look at the horror comedy musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which made its cinematic debut 40 years ago in 1975.

The movie was an adaptation of The Rocky Horror Show stage musical written by Richard O’Brien and directed by Jim Sharman which was first performed in 1973.  It was an homage to / parody of the science fiction and horror movies from the previous decades.  Although the movie initially bombed in theaters, 20th Century Fox ad executive Tim Deegan came up with the idea of moving Rocky Horror to midnight screenings.  In this new venue in various cities, via world of mouth, the movie became a tremendous cult classic.  Since then, for decades avid fans have shown up to either act out the movie and / or heckle at it.

Rocky Horror lips

I can’t recall exactly when I first saw Rocky Horror.  It was probably in the early 1990s when VH1 was airing it.  I realize now that a lot of the movie’s impact was diluted by all the commercials.  But once some friends got it on home video I had an opportunity to watch it uninterrupted.

Back then Rocky Horror struck me as a very bizarre, nonsensical movie.  Even so, I definitely enjoyed the amazing music by O’Brien.  As with other things, as I got older I gradually developed more of an appreciation for it.  A couple of weeks ago Michele bought it on DVD, and we’ve watched it a few times.  It’s a humorous mix of geeky genre elements and campy hyper-sexuality.

The standout performance of the movie is undoubtedly the amazing Tim Curry as the bi-sexual cross-dressing alien mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter.  This was one of Curry’s earliest roles, and watching it you can definitely see why he went on to have such a long & prolific career.

When Curry is on screen as Furter, he just totally owns it.  You really need to have a genuine confidence to successfully pull off such a crazy, over-the-top role like this one, and Curry absolutely possesses that quality.  His performance is so amazing that even though Furter is a dangerous nutjob, he’s nevertheless compellingly charismatic.  Michele is correct when she states “Tim Curry totally makes the movie.”

Rocky Horror Picture Show

It’s understandable that for many years Curry was reluctant to discuss Rocky Horror.  Furter is such a larger-than-life character, and the movie has such a fanatical following, that it is just the sort of role that could easily threaten to overshadow subsequent work.  Perhaps to a degree that did occur, as throughout his career Curry has often played creepy oddballs.  Nevertheless there’s certainly enough diversity on display in his resume that it is apparent he was able to at least partially dodge the typecasting bullet.

As I mentioned, I love the music.  O’Brien’s lyrics are clever and funny.  I’ve had the soundtrack on CD for years now.  “The Time Warp” is the one everyone knows.  Myself, I’ve always had a real fondness for “Science Fiction Double Feature,” “There’s A Light” and “Don’t Dream It, Be It.”  But they’re all good.

O’Brien also plays the creepy handyman Riff Raff.  He’s another actor who grabs your attention when he’s on the screen, albeit in a much more understated, sinister manner.  It’s not at all surprising that based on his performance here director Alex Proyas later cast O’Brien in the brilliant, criminally underrated science fiction noir movie Dark City.

O’Brien has good chemistry with actress Patricia Quinn, who plays his sister Magenta.  The two of them have such a weird vibe going on between them.  You’re really left wondering if they’ve been getting up to stuff that they shouldn’t!

Rocky Horror Riff Raff Frank and Magenta

Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon play the young couple Brad and Janet.  O’Brien’s script is an interesting subversion of the tropes of mid-20th Century sci-fi and horror movies.  Brad is the clean-cut type and Janet a virginal innocent.  If this were played straight (so to speak) Brad would be the hero who saves Janet from the freaky, demented aliens.

Instead Brad is kind of an asshole (at screenings of the movie the audience frequently shouts that out at him) who is overprotective of and condescending to Janet.  As for Janet, instead of playing a chaste, passive role, she discovers that she is attracted to both Furter and his artificial man, the muscular blonde Rocky.  Furter ends up seducing first Janet and then Brad, and afterwards Janet has sex with Rocky.  At the end the couple is reduced to mere spectators of Furter’s bizarre machinations.  It is Riff Raff & Magenta who step in to wrap things up.

The costume designs for Rocky Horror were by Sue Blane.  Her work is very striking.  It’s not surprising that it would influence fashion and the punk aesthetic of the late 1970s.

Rocky Horror throne scene

If you have never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, well, all this must sound really freaky and twisted.  I will be the first to acknowledge that the movie is an acquired taste.  Heck, I really like it, but I doubt that I’ll be going to the theater anytime soon in costume to toss toilet paper at the screen.

Having said that, it is always wonderful when people can find something to be passionate about, that speaks to them on a genuinely personal level.  Interviewed on The Today Show about the movie’s 40th anniversary, Sarandon stated…

“I’ve had so many people come up to me and say that film helped them through a dark time.”

Also interviewed, Curry offered his thoughts on the movie…

“The thing that resonated for me more than anything was, ‘Don’t dream it, be it,’ which was a really good idea. Really good slogan.”

Here’s to the little movie that could.  If you have the opportunity, go see it at the late night double feature picture show.

John Waters gets Carsick

I did not become a fan of the work of writer & director John Waters until about seven years ago.  Shortly after I began dating Michele in 2008, I finally watched some of Waters’ movies from the 1970s.  Michele is a long-time fan of the so-called “Pope of Trash” and she showed me his cult classics at the first opportunity.  I found his work both shocking and hysterical.

Last month Waters was doing a talk and signing at The Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn to promote the paperback release of his latest book Carsick.  I immediately jumped at the opportunity to meet the famed (or should that be infamous?) filmmaker.  Michele had already met him several years before at a previous book signing but she was happy to come along.

Carsick is subtitled John Waters Hitchhikes Across America, and that is exactly what it is about.  In 2012 the then 66 year old Waters came up with the oddball idea of thumbing rides from Baltimore to San Francisco, to see what sorts of people he’d meet & experiences he’d have, and then to write a book about it.

John Waters Carsick cover

In addition to recounting his actual experiences, Waters indulges in quite a bit of fiction.  Prior to starting his journey west, Waters wrote the first two parts of Carsick, entitled “The Best That Could Happen” and “The Worst That Could Happen.”  He hypothesizes about what would be the ideal cross-country journey, as well as pondering the most horrible things that could possibly take place.

In that first part Waters effortlessly finds one ride after another and each driver is the epitome of awesome: a millionaire pot dealer, a contestant in a demolition derby, the world’s coolest bank robber, a traveling carnival, and so on.  Conversely, in the second installment the absolute most awful events occur as Waters get picked up by a succession of freaks, among them an alcoholic, a demented fan of his movies, a serial killer groupie, a militant vegetarian, and a fanatical animal rights activist.

It amazes me that a few people asked Waters if any of what occurred in these parts actually took place.  He explained in his foreword that the first two thirds of the book are fiction, but I suppose some readers could have skipped that part.  However, you’d think that they would have realized that this was made-up right around the point where Waters gets abducted by a spaceship full of horny homosexual aliens!

These two segments of Carsick feel very much they could be from an unproduced screenplay.  Waters is still a brilliantly twisted writer, with a real ear for memorably offensive dialogue.  I think that perhaps the tone of his screenplays meant that they were very effective in his underground films of the 1970s and early 80s.  In contrast, Waters’ more recent movie, the over-the-top, sexually explicit A Dirty Shame (2004), did not come together as well because the larger budget, well-known actors and slick production values seemed decidedly at odds with his subversive, irreverent sensibilities.

Keeping that in mind, Carsick actually works better than some of Waters’ latter forays into motion pictures.  His wit is still sharp, his imagination as warped as ever.  Reading the book I easily pictured in my mind’s eye his vignettes as being filmed fast & loose on a shoestring budget, just like in the old days.

Anyone who has ever seen Waters’ movies is undoubtedly aware that he delights in putting his characters through all manner of weird, obscene, and just plain awful experiences.  It’s interesting to discover that he’s willing to put his fictional self through exactly the same sorts of misadventures and humiliations.  For all his namedropping and self-promotion, Waters also undoubtedly possesses a very self-deprecating wit.

John Waters Carsick photo

The third and final part of Carsick is titled “The Real Thing” and, yes, it recounts what actually took place when Waters was hitchhiking.  Real life is never all-good or all-bad, so Waters’ journey is somewhere in-between the exciting adventures he envisioned in “The Best” and the terrors he conjured up in “The Worst.”  He ends up waiting long hours at a time for rides, often while stuck in torrential downpours or stifling heat.  The drivers who do eventually pick him up are not the awesome oddballs of his fantasies, but neither are they the criminally insane motorists of his nightmares.  They were for the most part nice, friendly and normal.

So in the end Waters met some interesting people from across the country and had a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  He definitely does an entertaining job recounting his journey.

If you are a fan of Waters’ movies then I expect that you will find Carsick to be an enjoyable read.  It is funny and offensive and at times surprisingly sentimental.  It has some of the feel of Waters’ early classics such as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living and Polyester.  One of my favorite lines from Carsick is “My asshole is doing a duet with Connie Francis!”  That should give you a pretty good idea of the tone of the book!

By the way, the cover artwork for Carsick is by Kagan McLeod, whose work I’ve previously seen in comic books and a number of magazines & newspapers.  It’s a nice piece.  McLeod captures Waters’ likeness as well as his larger-than-life personality.

Christopher Lee: 1922 to 2015

Veteran actor Christopher Lee passed away on June 7th at the age of 93.  Judging by the numerous comments and posts that have appeared online in the week since then, Lee had a legion of fans, many of whom grew up watching the movies in which he appeared.  And, yes, I am definitely one of them.

Christopher Lee

Lee led such a long, interesting, full life that entire books could be written about him; I am sure that at least a few already have.  There is no way that I could do his life & career justice by attempting to cover them in a single blog post.  So I am merely going to share my thoughts on him, and on the performances I found most memorable.

One of Lee’s famous early roles was in Dracula, released in the UK in 1958 by Hammer Studios (titled Horror of Dracula in the States).  Lee portrayed what some would argue is the most iconic depiction of the vampire lord.  In the role of Count Dracula, Lee was suave, cultured, and sensual, yet also savage and frightening.

Playing opposite Lee in Dracula was Peter Cushing as Professor Van Helsing.  Lee and Cushing co-starred in a number of films, and they were also very close friends.

The next Dracula movie, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, was not released by Hammer until 1965, with several more sequels following in rapid succession.  Lee reprised his role of the vampire in most of these, albeit very reluctantly.  In later years he commented that he found the dialogue written for him to be atrocious and begged Hammer to utilize some of the lines from the original Bram Stoker novel.  When they refused to acquiesce Lee instead played Dracula mostly dialogue-free.

Christopher Lee Dracula

Lee’s final two performances as Dracula were in movies that I consider quite odd even by Hammer standards.  Dracula A.D. 1972 opens in the late 19th Century, with the vampire and Van Helsing, reprised by Cushing for the first time since 1958, in what appears to be their final battle.  Van Helsing once again manages to slay his undead adversary, only to succumb to his own wounds.  The movie then jumps ahead a century to present day London, where Dracula’s disciples revive him.  Opposing him is Lorrimer Van Helsing, a descendant of Dracula’s adversary portrayed, naturally enough, by Cushing.

The modern day storyline wrapped up a year later in The Satanic Rites of Dracula.  The movie cast Dracula in the role of an apocalyptic super-villain who plotted to wipe out humanity with a mutated strain of the bubonic plague.

By now Lee’s dissatisfaction with having to play Dracula was palpable.  In what appears to be an interesting piece of method acting, Lee as Dracula, contemplating the total eradication of humanity, displays a tangible ennui, and it can simultaneously be read as the vampire’s weariness at his endless cycle of destruction & resurrection and Lee’s frustration at feeling imprisoned in the role.

In any case, this was his final outing as Dracula.  The next year Lee went on record, stating…

“I will not play that character anymore. I no longer wish to do it, I no longer have to do it and I no longer intend to do it. It is now a part of my professional past, just one of the roles I have played in a total of 124 films.”

Despite his despondency as having to repeatedly reprise Dracula for Hammer, Lee nevertheless acted in numerous other movies made by the studio.  A part of that was obviously due to his desire for steady work, but he also appeared to have a real fondness, if not for the studio’s management, then for his fellow actors, and for the people working behind the cameras.

In his 1997 foreword to The Hammer Story, a look at the history of Hammer Studios by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, Lee wrote…

“Hammer inspired some superb work from a talented group of technicians and actors. Even our canteen, run by Mrs Thompson, was the best in the country. I know this has become a cliché, but, for a while, we really were a family.”

Certainly some of the Hammer movies that Lee appeared in were quite good.  One of my all-time favorites is The Devil Rides Out (1968).  In one of his all too rare turns as a hero, Lee portrayed the Duc de Richleau, an expert in the occult who uses his knowledge & abilities to fight against the forces of darkness.  The movie was adapted from Dennis Wheatley’s novel of the same name by another talented writer, Richard Matheson.  Lee knew Wheatley personally, and one gets the impression that the actor was keen to ensure the adaptation of his friend’s work turned out as well as possible.  Without a doubt The Devil Rides Out is an amazing movie, and it was one of the few that, decades later, Lee would look back upon with genuine satisfaction.

Christopher Lee The Devil Rides Out

Lee worked on numerous other movies outside of Hammer’s output.  That aforementioned desire for steady work meant that Lee would accept nearly any job offer.  And he certainly was offered a great many, as he was a very talented actor.  As noted by the website TV Tropes, “Christopher Lee made a career out of doing any role at a reasonable price without excessive prima-donnaism. In other words, if you could fork up the cash, you’d get a classy talent who’d play any role.”

Of course, this inevitably resulted in Lee appearing in some really bad movies.  Sturgeon’s Law states that “ninety percent of everything is crap.”  Well, Lee undoubtedly appeared in a lot of crap.  It definitely speaks to his talent and professionalism, though, that he was almost inevitably the best thing in most of those awful movies.  Often his presence in an otherwise-execrable production would be the one thing preventing it from being a total disaster.

Regarding some of the less-than-noteworthy movies that he appeared in, Lee philosophically observed…

“Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.”

All of this comes to mind with Lee’s performance in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).  Lee was related to author Ian Fleming, who unsuccessfully attempted to have him cast as Dr. No in the very first Bond film.  It’s regrettable that did not come to pass, although twelve years later Lee finally had an opportunity to play a Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun.  Unfortunately it is one of the campiest entries ever in the Bond film series.  The highlight of the movie is undoubtedly Lee’s portrayal of Scaramanga, the world’s most dangerous assassin.

Actually, the cinematic version of Scaramanga is a definite improvement over the literary one.  In the novel, Scaramanga was a crude, sadistic thug whose only distinguishing quality was his incredible prowess with a gun.  In contrast, Lee’s Scaramanga was cultured, sophisticated and chilling in his casually ruthless actions.  It was a memorable performance in a somewhat mediocre movie.

Christopher Lee Peter Cushing Horror Express

Fortunately, amidst all the rubbish Lee appeared in were a number of quality films.  In 1972 Lee was reunited with Cushing when they co-starred in Horror Express, a Spanish / British co-production about a monster stalking the passengers of the Trans-Siberian Express.  Horror Express contains another of Lee’s infrequent turns as the protagonist.  Despite its low budget, the movie’s intelligent script coupled with Lee and Cushing’s performances make it enjoyable.  I just re-watched it about a week ago and it’s still entertaining.

Of course, when it comes to listing Lee’s greatest movies, mention must be made of The Wicker Man (1973).  Written by Anthony Shaffer and directed by Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man featured Lee in the role of Lord Summerisle.  On numerous occasions Lee cited it as one of his favorite performances.

I saw The Wicker Man in the mid-1990s when I was in college at Pace University. Rebecca Martin, who taught two of the literature classes that I took while I was a student there, screened the movie one evening as part of an informal series of films that members of the Lit/Com Department were presenting.

The Wicker Man is not a horror movie per se, but it is definitely horrifying.  It is a film about religious fanaticism.  Perhaps that is why I found Lee’s performance so riveting and creepy.  Unlike so many of the other antagonists he portrayed over the decades, there actually are many individuals such as Summerisle in the real world, a charismatic man who regards himself as “good” but who exhorts others to commit terrible acts in the name of religion.

Christopher Lee The Wicker Man

Lee’s career was on the wane in the 1980s and 90s, although he did pop up here and there.  However, with the dawning of the 21st Century, Lee suddenly became very much in-demand, and was once again being offered numerous roles.

Lee was a longtime fan of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.  He stated on several occasions that he re-read the trilogy once a year.  One of his longtime ambitions was to appear as Gandalf in a cinematic adaptation of Tolkien’s works.  The stars finally aligned in 2001 as Peter Jackson began filming his adaptation of the trilogy.  By this time Lee was unfortunately too old to play Gandalf, but he was cast in the role of Saruman, the once-noble wizard who was corrupted by power and ambition.

I haven’t actually seen the three Lord of the Rings movies all the way through.  Like Tolkien’s novels, they are loooooong!  Actually, I never finished the original books either.  One of these days I really need to, at the very least, obtain the DVDs and take the time to watch the trilogy.  I’ve heard so many good things about them.

Lee’s old friend Peter Cushing had appeared in the original Star Wars, playing Governor Tarkin.  It was therefore quite appropriate that George Lucas cast Lee himself in the second and third prequel films, Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005).  Lee portrayed Count Dooku, a former Jedi who had turned to the Dark Side.  He also voiced Dooku in the animated movie The Clone Wars (2008) which was set between those two films.

It was somewhat frustrating that Lucas’ scripts offered very little to explain Dooku’s fall from grace.  Nevertheless, despite the limited development of the character, Lee memorably brought the Sith Lord to life, imbuing him with gravitas and menace.

(Thinking about it, I am left wondering if Lucas was influenced by Saruman when casting Lee as Dooku. There are definite similarities to the characters.)

Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings introduced Lee to an entirely new generation of viewers, and gained him many new fans.  He was subsequently cast in various high-profile projects. After decades of toiling in low-budget movies, at long last he finally gained real prominence, as well as a decent paycheck.

Christopher Lee Count Dooku

Lee appeared in 206 films made over a 67 year period.  However there were definitely many other aspects to his life.  Lee was also an accomplished singer, recording a number of albums, including heavy metal.  He spoke several languages fluently, and he was an expert fencer.

Lee was also a World War II veteran.  This was an aspect of his life that he mostly kept to himself, offering sparse details.  He was assigned to the Special Operations Executive, which was also known as the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare… and what a very British name that is!  Apparently Lee participated in a number of covert operations behind enemy lines.  At the end of the war he was reportedly involved in hunting down Nazi war criminals.  In regards to the specifics of his military service, Lee would only comment

“I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read into that what they like.”

Lee also had this to say about his experiences during the war…

“I’ve seen many men die right in front of me – so many in fact that I’ve become almost hardened to it. Having seen the worst that human beings can do to each other, the results of torture, mutilation and seeing someone blown to pieces by a bomb, you develop a kind of shell. But you had to. You had to. Otherwise we would never have won.”

It seems likely that during the war Lee not only witnessed but was also required to commit many deeply unpleasant acts.  I imagine that his reluctance to discuss this was motivated by the fact that he did not regard himself as a hero, but merely as someone who did his duty to help keep his country safe.

I regret that I never had the opportunity to meet Christopher Lee.  I’ve sometimes commented that he was the real life version of “the world’s most interesting man.”

Christopher Lee narrator

A number of years ago one of his Hammer Studios movies, Scars of Dracula, was released on DVD.  It is a rather unremarkable entry in the Dracula series.  Nevertheless, I purchased it because it included a second bonus disk containing a documentary, The Many Faces of Christopher Lee.  Indeed this nearly hour-long piece was infinitely more entertaining than the Dracula movie.

In the documentary,  Lee speaks at length about his career and on of a variety of subjects, including his knowledge of fencing, his spirituality, and his great-grandmother, the English-born Marie Carandini who was an acclaimed opera singer in 19th Century Australia.  Lee discussed his thoughts on roles in specific movies, and there were brief clips of these, among them The Devil Rides Out, Rasputin, Hannie Caulder, The Three Musketeers, The Wicker Man and his 1978 appearance on Saturday Night Live.

If you can find The Many Faces of Christopher Lee on DVD then I highly recommend getting it.  It offers a fascinating glimpse of a multi-talented man who led an extraordinary life.

Christine Cavanaugh: 1963 – 2014

Actress Christine Cavanaugh passed away on December 22, 2014 at the much too young age of 51.  Cavanaugh’s career as an actress spanned from 1988 to 2001.  She appeared in a handful of live television shows & movies during this time.  The majority of her work, however, was as a voice actress.  In this capacity, Cavanaugh gave a number of wonderful performances over the years, portraying several famous characters.

Christine Cavanaugh

Her most prominent performance was probably in the 1995 movie Babe.  She voiced the title character, the sweet and innocent Australian piglet Babe who becomes a sheep-herder.

Cavanaugh worked on a number of animated series throughout the 1990s, among the Darkwing Duck, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Powerpuff Girls and The Wild Thornberries.  Her two most significant roles were on Rugrats and Dexter’s Laboratory.

I always found Rugrats to be a bizarre but funny show.  It is one of those series that was very much for all ages.  Young kids enjoyed it for the cute & goofy humor, while adults appreciated it for the comically skewed perceptions of the world as seen through the toddler characters’ eyes.

Cavanaugh was the voice of Chuckie Finster, the nervous orange-haired two-year-old with glasses.  Her delivery of Chuckie’s dialogue was both poignant and humorous.  Chuckie always reminded me a bit of myself, so he was something of a favorite character.  Cavanaugh portrayed Chuckie on the Rugrats television series from 1991 to 2001, as well as in the two animated films The Rugrats Movie (1998) and Rugrats in Paris (2000), the latter of which featured a central role for the character.

Rugrats Chuckie Finster

The other animated voice role for which Cavanaugh was known was Dexter, the main character from Genndy Tartakovsky’s series Dexter’s Laboratory.  Cavanaugh voiced the diminutive boy genius from 1995 to 2001, bringing to life the character with an iconic performance. She gifted Dexter with humorous self-involvement, as well as an almost tangible frustration at having to co-exist with his annoying older sister Dee Dee, who kept invading his secret lab, mucking about with his ambitious experiments.  I’ve always enjoyed Dexter’s Laboratory.  It was another offbeat but humorous series that appealed to viewers of all ages.

Cauvanaugh’s vocals as Dexter were also featured on the 1998 soundtrack album Dexter’s Laboratory: The Musical Time Machine which compiled several songs from the series.  Among these was “Breathe in the Good Sunshine” from the episode “Just an Old-Fashioned Lab Song,” with Cavanaugh performing alongside singer-songwriter Paul Williams.

Dexter's Laboratory The Musical Time Machine

Cavanaugh retired from acting in 2001.  She moved back to her native Utah in order to spend more time with her family.

Until I read about Cavanaugh passing away late last month, I had not actually realized who she was, and the same actress had voiced Babe, Chuckie and Dexter.  Voice acting is often low-profile work, and is really not appreciated anywhere near as much as acting in front of the camera.  But it definitely requires real talent.  Bereft of the use of facial expressions and body language, the actor must rely solely on their voice to bring a character to life, to convey emotion, to deliver performances that must be humorous and dramatic, broad and subtle.

Christine Cavanaugh was certainly capable of all that.  She brought to life a trio of iconic fictional characters with her wonderful abilities, delighting millions of fans, young and old.